8 Lessons from NASA to Help You Meet the Challenges of Entrepreneurship
On the Apollo 11 mission, it took several years, billions of dollars, and over 500,000 gallons of liquid oxygen and kerosene to launch the Saturn V rocket.
It takes effort to start something big. As a small business owner, you know that better than anyone. You also know how much more effort it takes to keep going, especially when it feels like it’s you against the world.
We’re here to explore some of the challenges of entrepreneurship, help you tackle them head-on, and give you the rocket fuel you need to find your motivation.
And we’re sharing a few lessons from NASA (and small business owners like you) to drive those points home.
Sometimes it feels like all the quality employees have vanished off the face of the earth. You can’t find the right workers to grow the business. Or if you do, it’s hard to train and keep them.
You aren’t the only one who wants the best of the best. NASA chose three for the Apollo 11 mission: Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins. They also needed over 400,000 engineers, scientists, and technicians.
Everyone involved in the mission had to be dedicated to its success and at the top of their game. If they didn’t do their best work, they could be putting the astronauts’ lives at risk.
“Every guy that’s setting up the tests, cranking the torque wrench, and so on, is saying, ‘If anything goes wrong here, it’s not going to be my fault.'”
The stakes might not be quite so high for your business. But an employee could still get hurt if someone isn’t doing their job properly. At the very least, you’ll be facing an unhappy client and a damaged company reputation.
On the flip side, with the right people, you can create something incredible together—a legacy for yourself and a business that supports your community.
Here’s how to deal with team-related small business struggles:
- Take the time to build a solid hiring process, including a list of interview questions and an employee referral program.
- Start recruiting before you actually need to. If you know your busy season starts in the summer, start looking for employees in the spring.
- Attract employees by creating a business where they would want to work.
- Engage your employees and motivate them to get them personally invested in the business’s success.
- Delegate to other people who are better at certain tasks. Andrea Minor DuBois (Maid for You) says, “In the beginning, I did the training. I suck at it. Now I have an amazing quality control manager. Don’t be afraid to admit your downfalls!”
Don’t have a good head for numbers or the time to deal with them? Or maybe you’re just getting started and don’t have any money to manage yet.
Whatever financial headaches you’re dealing with, NASA had a few of their own. It took about $25 billion to make the moon landing a reality—which would be over $186 billion today.
Not only that, but they had an entire country (and people around the world) looking over their shoulders to make sure that money was spent wisely.
But they had that budget for a reason. Yes, the United States wanted to win the space race, but they also believed humanity’s development lay beyond Earth. They were willing to take that financial risk.
Finances might not be fun, but facing them will get you far. You’ll be able to take care of your employees, explore new ways to offer more services, and keep your business in the black.
“There is no limit to the amount of success I create for myself. My goal is 600k in revenue next year. Here’s to accomplishing all our goals!”
—Brittney De la Rosa, de la Rosa Landscaping
How to tackle the financial problems of small business:
- Spend as little as you can when you’re just starting a service business, like Jennifer Gomez (Monte Maid): “I started with $98 of cleaning supplies. [Now] I have worked hard, purchased equipment, and hired employees.”
- Keep your business profitable by pricing your services accurately.
- Create sales processes, like creating quotes with our free estimate templates.
- Send professional-looking invoices when the work is done.
- Improve cash flow by offering customer financing and chasing down outstanding invoices.
- Explore ways to upsell your services.
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You’re doing so much field work that you don’t have time to stay on top of paperwork. That’s also taking away from the time you need to rest, recharge, and focus on what matters to you.
And as if that wasn’t bad enough, it also feels like it’s taking too long to grow your business and see results.
But did you know that while the lunar landing took almost seven years of planning and effort, the actual touchdown lasted less than 22 hours?
The lead-up to success always takes much longer than the actual moment of success. But once you get there, all the time and effort you put in will feel worth it.
“It is hard to have enough time between work, family, and friends to do everything you want to do. I prioritize the most important things first and take care of the rest as free time comes up.”
—Stephen Richardson, Pure Professional Window Cleaning
Try these time management tips:
- Schedule your time in blocks so you’re focusing on similar tasks all at once, like David Moerman (Revive Washing) does. “This avoids switch tasking and allows you to be more focused. Start with the big priority each day. Email, Slack messages, and phone calls can be taken care of later.”
- Decide if your time is better spent doing work or getting more work, then create a list of short- and long-term goals. If immediate tasks don’t lead to future gains, delegate them. Mike Coffey (Coffey Custom Builds) says, “There never seems to be enough time in the day. I have to space out my to-do lists and prioritize my goals lists often.”
- Dispatch better and optimize your routes more effectively to get more work done in the same amount of time.
- Create a standard operating procedure for everything your business does, like Adam Chapman (Pad Pal) did. “I began using detailed job forms on every job. It gave me back 5 hours per week. It also increased our sales because with a detailed arrival checklist, my team was able to provide repeatable 5-star service along with job notes.”
There’s a good chance your industry is already full of competitors. To keep up, you have to set yourself apart while still offering the right services at a fair price point.
For a lesson about competition, look no further than the space race. The United States and the Soviet Union fought to be the first to achieve space flight, and the USSR led that race for a long time.
Then President Kennedy set a goal: land on the moon by the end of the decade. With this defined timeframe, the U.S. was able to reach that goal and win a decisive victory in the space race.
What could a similar goal look like for your business? Maybe you need to bring in 20 qualified leads every month, or sign up three new clients for recurring services every week.
Whatever that goal is, put it down in writing—and follow the tips below to reach it.
“If you have low overhead, you can offer lower prices and undercut competitors. If you have higher overhead, compete by differentiating yourself with the services you offer. Neither strategy is good or bad; just support which way you want to compete.”
—Edward Ramsden, Enviro Masters Lawn Care
Here’s how to handle the competition:
- Instead of looking at other businesses as competitors, see them as your community. Cory Byron (Vancity Electric) says, “A bunch of us exchange ideas and give each other referrals. There is lots of work to go around so we might as well work together.”
- Competitors won’t play nice? No worries. Focus on a niche market and tell the world what your business does better than anyone else. For Judith Virag (Clean Club Calgary), that difference is simple: “We show up to the job and show up on time.”
- Build a website and use Google’s Local Services Ads to bring in prospects while you sleep.
- Make your marketing stand out with a little extra creativity.
- Turn loyal customers into your biggest advocates by asking for reviews and setting up a customer referral program.
There are far too many logistics to keep up with as a business owner—creating workflows, keeping the office organized, picking the right home service software…
Like you might expect, landing on the moon took plenty of logistical work, too. The teams at NASA planned the mission using pen, paper, and some of the earliest forms of computers.
We’re luckier today. There are tools out there designed to help you run your small business. Current technology and best practices are changing every day, too, giving you even more to work with.
“Having something like Jobber is crucial. When somebody sees these automated texts and client reminders, it looks like you’re running a serious operation. The more professional you appear, people will be more inclined to use your service.”
—Kiya, Valor Plumbing
Try using tools like Jobber to simplify your day-to-day logistics. Your employees will be happier, your business will run more smoothly, and you’ll have more time to plan your business’s future.
Here’s how to solve the logistical struggles of small business:
- Use job forms to capture site details and help your crew do their work perfectly, every time.
- Schedule your team with just a few clicks and automatically send push notifications when you reschedule a job.
- Say goodbye to daily spreadsheet updates and get better insights into how your business is performing with field service reporting.
- To lift yourself out of the business, delegate more tasks to your team. Fred Hodge (Clearview Washing) says, “I put the right people in place: employees, operations manager, and office staff. That was a win. I work on my business instead of in my business.”
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Maybe your business is running like clockwork, but your biggest headache is the people you work for. Some clients negotiate pricing, leave negative feedback for no reason, or are just plain difficult to manage.
While many people supported the Apollo 11 mission, there were also protestors who were angry about factors like costs. There was no way to please everyone and still finish the mission safely.
But today, long after the mission is over, we don’t think about how much time or money it took to put people on the moon—we only remember the result.
Negative feedback is normal. Not every job will go perfectly, and you can’t please everyone. Just do your best and focus on the clients who appreciate you and your work.
“I’m very patient and give the client the opportunity to be a better client. Sometimes a client is just going through a rough patch.”
—Bobi Beverly, Your Helping Hands Cleaners
Try these tips for keeping your clients happy:
- Start using a CRM to manage your client relationships. Allan Jerman (A-Max Hardwood) says, “Start with a CRM right away. It helps you track customers and see your progress at a glance. It really does change the way you do business.”
- To create satisfied repeat customers, communicate with them after a job. Try writing thank-you notes or sending follow-up emails when the work is finished.
- Make sure you’re providing the best customer service you possibly can. If you don’t know where to start, try sending client feedback surveys to learn what you’re doing well and where you can improve. Then use the results to make your business better!
- Don’t be afraid to say no to clients, or even fire a client if they aren’t the right fit for your business.
Work-life balance is tricky to get right, especially when you’re facing new problems every day. You could feel overwhelmed by all the time you’re spending on your business, but guilty when you’re away from it.
It might even feel like the biggest roadblock to your own success is yourself—and that you’re doing all of this on your own.
Astronauts have always had Mission Control here on Earth to back them up and help guide them through every challenge. And just like them, you aren’t alone.
Take care of yourself before you take care of your business. You’re the only owner it has, and it needs you to be at your best. Don’t worry about maintaining a perfect balance—just the balance that’s right for you.
READ MORE: The 8 qualities of a successful entrepreneur
“You get one shot at life and can’t create more time. My business is a tool that enables me to pursue the things that make me happy. If the business interferes with my other endeavors then I’m doing something wrong.”
—Jonathan Randall, Blue Oasis Landscaping LLC
How to tackle small business struggles like work-life balance:
- Set aside regular time in your calendar for the things that matter to you, like family, hobbies, or exercise. David Lundquist (Gutter Helmet of the North Bay) says, “Your family doesn’t want your money. The best thing you can give a child or a significant other is sincere, focused time.”
- Give yourself set times to start and end your workday, and track your time to make sure you keep those hours. Employees have those boundaries—the boss should, too. And don’t forget to book those vacation days you keep putting off!
- Turn off your phone when work hours are over, or get a dedicated work phone that you can leave in the office.
- Regularly remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing—and what you hope to get out of it at the end.
- Build your own network of support people and mentors. Draw on them when you need a little extra guidance and help getting through the day.
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The biggest challenges of entrepreneurship are the problems you can’t fix yourself. They can be small, like supply shortages and bad weather, or they can be disasters like a global pandemic.
With 650 million people watching, the moon landing could have been a similarly huge disaster. The U.S. president even had a speech prepared in case the astronauts didn’t make it.
NASA took steps to plan ahead as much as they could, but the crew still ran into trouble 500 feet above the moon’s surface—their landing site was in a rocky crater, so they had to pilot manually and reposition.
“The unknowns were rampant. There were just a thousand things to worry about.”
Even NASA knew that all you can do is plan as much as you can, as far in advance as you can. You won’t catch everything, but it’ll be easier to adapt when you’re faced with uncertainty.
Take these steps to plan for the unplannable:
- Create a plan for where you want your business to go within a set period of time—for example, in the next five years.
- Break out each individual action you’ll need to take to reach that goal.
- For each action, identify things that could go wrong and come up with three possible ways to address each one.
You might still face an unknown entrepreneur challenge that’s outside of your control, like a changing industry, government regulations, or even world events.
But if you keep going, dig deep, and find the passion that got you started in the first place, nothing can stop you from reaching the stars.
“Owning multiple home service businesses comes with its challenges over the years. Those years got easier or harder depending on what I decided to apply myself to. Remember why you started and never, ever quit!”
—Ryaan Tuttle, Best Handyman Boston
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Originally published May 2019. Last updated October 27, 2021.