How SpaceX got its start


October 16, 2020

PLUS: The “Stripe of Africa” is acquired by Stripe.
October 16, 2020
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The Big Idea
Jim Cantrell

The Cold War rocket expert Elon Musk called when he wanted to go to Mars

Earlier this week, HBO turned heads with news that it’s working with Channing Tatum to produce a limited TV series on the founding of SpaceX.

I’ve actually been circling this exact SpaceX story since I tweeted out the transcript of a cold call Elon Musk made to a rocket expert in 2001.

Space veteran Jim Cantrell was on the other side of the call

Musk was coming off an internet payday and exploring the idea of going to Mars.

Cantrell recalls the pitch Musk made over the phone:

“I’m Elon Musk. I’m an internet billionaire, I founded PayPal and Zip2. I could spend the rest of my life on a beach drinking Mai Tais, but I decided that humanity needs to become a multi-planetary species to survive and I want to do something with my money to show that humanity can do that and I need Russian rockets and that’s why I’m calling you.”

I dubbed it the “greatest cold outreach ever.”

Over the next 18 months, the two worked together

With Cantrell helping Musk:

  • Meet rocket experts and a network of leading space minds
  • Travel to Russia 3 times, in an (ultimately failed) attempt to procure 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles for $7m each 
  • Launch SpaceX as one of its first 4 employees

Why did Musk make the phone call in the first place? After connecting on Twitter, I had an extensive conversation with Cantrell to find out.

My story traces Cantrell’s incredible journey through some of America’s most storied space institutions, the fall of the Soviet Empire, and the early days of today’s private space industry.

Read Cantrell’s Story Here →
Snippets
  • The Senate will vote on whether to subpoena Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey after the social service blocked sharing of a New York Post story on Hunter Biden.
  • Kardashian Klan 2.0?: Greg Goodfried, a top agent, is leaving talent powerhouse UTA to head up business for the D’Amelios, TikTok’s first family with ~150m followers.
  • Shark Tank’s new season is on despite COVID. There will be no handshakes but we’re cool as long as Mr. Wonderful tells at least one person they’re a “cockroach.”
  • Ca-ching! Third-party sellers made $3.5B on Prime Day, up 60% YoY.
  • Double ca-ching! Proterra — a battery maker for EV buses — raised $200m, while 98point6 — on-demand digital care — took in $118m.
Fintech
World Map

The ‘Stripe of Africa’ just got acquired by Stripe for $200m+

Stripe — the $36B private payments firm — has the most ambitious mission statement of any startup: it wants to increase the GDP of the internet.

However you want to parse that statement, the result will clearly be massive.

In light of this mission, yesterday’s announcement that Stripe will acquire Nigerian payments firm Paystack for $200m+ makes a world of sense.

The Stripe x Paystack marriage has been years in the making

Founded by Shola Akinlade (CEO) and Ezra Olubi (CTO), Paystack joined Y Combinator in 2016, becoming the first Nigerian startup to do so, according to TechCrunch.

Stripe participated in Y Combinator in 2009 and is one of the “top companies” to graduate from the famous incubator program.

In 2018, Stripe led the $8m Series A funding round in Paystack and — once this deal closes — will be Stripe’s largest acquisition to date.

Stripe has expanded to 17 countries in the last 1.5 years

The Africa opportunity is particularly attractive, with the continent’s internet economy growing 21% YoY, 75% faster than the global average per Stripe.

This is the second major African fintech deal in as many months: WorldRemit acquired Africa-focused remittance firm Sendwave for $500m in August.

Expect more deals for African fintech startups

While Nigeria is the continent’s biggest economy, it is also the most corrupt per Transparency International.

In general, doing business in Africa requires significant on-the-ground expertise. For Stripe, Paystack brings 60k users and gives it a toehold on the continent, which is projected to have half the world’s population by 2050.

Absolutely massive.

(Trends member Packy McCormick has an insightful deep dive on Stripe)

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Oops

Made a spreadsheet typo? Call an Excel fixer

Imagine Olivia Pope from Scandal — but instead of covering up political sex scandals, she swoops in to rescue you from your Excel bungles.

That’s the daily job of a cottage industry of spreadsheet fixers, whom big corporations hire to clean up their pivot table typos.

Did you mix up your new hire’s start date with their bonus amount? Copy/paste the wrong column? Spreadsheet fixers have you covered.

Excel slip-ups are everywhere

You might have heard about them last week, when the UK discovered it had failed to record ~16k COVID positive cases because of an Excel formatting error.

That isn’t even unusual. 90+% of Excel spreadsheets have at least one minor error, and some are costly:

  • Last year, marijuana giant Canopy Growth overestimated its quarterly earnings by ~$47m
  • Boeing accidentally published employee personal info by failing to notice it in a hidden spreadsheet column
  • Investment bank Lazard Ltd undervalued its client, SolarCity, by $400m while advising it on a Tesla buyout. 

Okay, so who are these fixers?

They work for organizations with boring names like the European Spreadsheet Risks Interest Group or the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales.

Big companies hire them all the time to vet their books — and they’re sometimes the only people standing between you and a multimillion-dollar typo.

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Shower Thoughts

  1. People who don’t indicate in traffic are people who are literally not willing to lift a finger to help co-operate.
  2. Probably the greatest feeling of relief in history was when the first people to witness a total solar eclipse saw the sun returning to normal.
  3. Overall, chickens have probably flown further as an airline meal than they have as a species.
  4. You know a person in a movie is important when they step out of a car and you see their shoe first.
  5. If you eat something with a cheese filling, you become the thing with a cheese filling.
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Editing by: Zachary “Mars-phile” Crockett, Martina Neverturnover (Director of Cold Weather Starting).

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