May 8, 2023
Umbra co-founder and president Gabe Dominocielo recently sat down for an interview with Elisa Munoz of Builder Nation, the community of hardware leaders developing world-changing products, and sponsored by ControlHub, the procurement software for hardware companies.
Below is a transcript of the interview.
Elisa Munoz: This company is building the next generation of space systems that observe the Earth in unprecedented fidelity. The reason is to advance global insight through high quality. Welcome to Umbra, and welcome to one more episode of Builder Nation.
For today’s interview we have Gabe Dominocielo, the co-founder at the leading company is space technology.
Gabe Dominocielo: It’s great to be on, thank you so much for having me.
My name is Gabe Dominocielo. I’m not a space guy. My co-founder [David Langan] is definitely the space guy, he invented the technology. He worked on advanced space systems for a decade before starting the company with me.
My background has been in business, largely. I’ve been doing Umbra for eight years, but before that, I was focused on advertising and essentially converting customers into dollars. Which is a lot of what I do now at Umbra but it’s just a different customer set.
Elisa: After seven years or so you have definitely been immersed in the industry somehow, right?
Gabe: Yes, I’m very open to learning. You can’t do anything unless you learn, but I think that being naive was a huge advantage for us because I got to always kind of say, “Well, why don’t you just do this?”
And, you know, part of our core principles are learning from first principles. So, it’s not just, “Well, the book says to do it this way.” It’s, “Well, why does the book say that? Why can’t we do it differently, and what are the risks involved in that?”
So, going down to the very fundamental elements of things by kind of throwing out the book and doing it ourselves has been a really great way to operate the company. It’s allowed us to build new technology which has not existed before.
Elisa: Totally. This is totally new in the industry. So, what would you say were and are the main challenges there?
Gabe: Space is not easy. I would not wish having to build and launch a satellite on my worst enemy. It was very difficult. But I think now that we’re through all the technical elements, our data is extremely good, our customers are very happy.
I think the biggest challenges are always people. It’s making sure that you build a company that is enjoyable to work at. You work with your company, your customers, you make sure that they’re pleased with your product. So, if you’re not totally customer-focused I don’t think you can make your investors happy, or your employees happy. So, a happy customer is a good business. If your top line works well, you have great people, you have a great product, you have happy customers; your bottom line is always going to look good.
Elisa: What about building the team? When you started the company, was it only you and David, or it was a team of five or something like that?
Gabe: No, it was just two of us. We spent a really long time, just the two of us. I think it was almost two years where we were bootstrapping, and I would not recommend bootstrapping. A space company is not inexpensive. So, we spent a lot of time making mistakes with our own time, or own money, where we were able to learn and iterate.
And at the end of the day, in those early days, it was like, “How do we invent something that can produce the most value for our customers?” And we saw a lot of designs. We went through a ton of designs before we actually built something. Raised money and built a satellite and launched it, which is very expensive. But I think, had we been two guys in a garage and then immediately got venture funding, we would have had a completely different satellite. But if we had not taken those two years to learn and make mistakes, I think that we would not be in the same position we are today.
Elisa: Do you remember how it was, the first prototype?
Gabe: None of it was easy. I’m glad that we took the time to learn. It’s much better to make mistakes with your own money than make them with somebody else’s. Not to say that we haven’t made mistakes, which we have, we make mistakes all the time. But it’s good to do it because you learn so much.
Elisa: That’s true, and I’m pretty sure that you must have had less pressure than if it were the investors’ money, right?
Gabe: Yeah, you’re always going to be hard on yourself, but yeah, much less pressure. Well, a different kind of pressure.
Elisa: What about now, I know that you guys recently announced your sixth satellite, that it’s called Umbra 06, so could you talk a little bit about it? Congratulations.
Gabe: The sixth satellite, we built it and launched it fairly quickly. And, like, within two days of launch we had collected an image from space, which has got to be a record. I’ve never seen anything like it. I think everyone is really, really surprised. I was very surprised.
I talked to the team and they were like, “We weren’t trying to do it fast. We just kind of ran out of things to do.” So, the team has, after the first launch, second, third, fourth and fifth, they’re just such pros. Our team is so incredible.
We have a very, very unique hiring process. We’re definitely over 100 people, but I still do the final call with all the new employees … and I don’t hire anyone. We have a very interesting process. What I wanted to do was pay people to not take the job. And then everyone’s like, “Nah that’s crazy.” Then I used to try and convince them to not take the job. And now I just kind of talk to them as almost like a reverse interview, where it’s like your job is to interview me. I haven’t read your resume. Your job is to interview me about Umbra and you have to make sure this is the right decision for you and your family. Because there’s a lot of risks.
So, what you have is a group of people who really, really want to build what we’re building. It is not a small amount of time I spend with everyone, minimum 30 minutes to an hour. And I’ll go over constantly and make sure that everyone is well informed.
I kind of have a rule, which is no surprises, because what you don’t want to do is surprise your team. Because, so, there’s kind of no excuse on anyone who is at the company to not understand why we are doing something we’re doing. Because we do things that are very seemingly irrational. We reduce the cost of satellite data by 90 percent, which was seemingly very irrational, but if you understand the technology, you understand why we did it because of the unit economics.
Elisa: Wow,thank you so much for sharing. I have to tell you, I was looking through the website and I saw the introduction video, it’s so inspirational. Gabe, you have no idea. I was like, “Oh my God, people are super happy working at Umbra!” And they were, like, sharing about their jobs and it was really interesting because it was not only the technical team, it was also the marketing team, your co-founder David, I believe he was talking as well. So, it was like this company, it’s not only that they’re motivated to work, it’s the fact that they’re actually enjoying what they’re doing and they believe in the project. So yeah, congratulations on that.
Gabe: Your work is so much of your identity, and what you do, and it’s so important to me that the people are happy doing it. We have a document that says, “How to quit.” What we want is for people to be happy. We want our customers to be happy. So, if you’re at the company and you’re unhappy, we’re not going to create a toxic environment for you. What we’ll do is we’ll help you find a job that will make you happy.
Elisa: Okay, we talked about challenges, we have talked about entrepreneurship, we talked about the team and the importance of building a great environment, which you have. I would like to ask you, you survived the pandemic, what would you say were the main challenges with supply chain and procurement, especially in a hardware company?
Gabe: Well, at that time we had already had the systems, so there was not an issue with supply chain in terms of waiting on a part to launch. Our CEO, David Langan, was in every single day. The entire spacecraft team was in every single day. Nothing was delayed. They worked really hard. Our team is total warriors.
Elisa: I’m glad to hear that everything worked out. A lot of hardware companies have struggled with supply chain and all that, but I’m glad to hear that it wasn’t the same case for you.
One of the last questions that I would like to ask you is where do you think the future of the space industry is going?
Gabe: Generally speaking, as time goes on, we are probably not going to rely on, like, wires being dug into the ground for, like, the internet or telecommunications, which is a massive industry. Connecting humans is so important, and understanding the truth is so important. We really cannot do that from anywhere except for space. So, the future of the economy is going to be in space.
But, from my observations from a business perspective is, it is really difficult to find a new technology that has appropriate unit economics. So, in a situation where the time to market and capital intensity is reasonable, where an investor can get an outsized return, there’s very, very few companies that can do that. And I think that higher interest rates are going to force everyone to be extremely rational about how to make money, when they’re going to make money, how quickly they can make money. And not, like, “make revenue.” Like, profitable free cash flow.
Elisa: I think it’s great also to have the business side as well, because most of the time we only talk about tech and I think it’s great to have the business perspective.
And, last but not least, do you have any advice for future entrepreneurs or people starting on this path?
Gabe: The best piece of advice I’ve ever received or ever heard was, “What was your biggest regret?” That’s what they asked Jane Fonda, and she said, “I wish I could have made my mistakes shorter.” And I think that it’s so important to make mistakes and try, and take big bets. It’s really important. If you are learning that your product is not successful, you need to change. So, make mistakes, learn quickly, but make them short.
Elisa: Great piece of advice. Make mistakes and learn from that. I think that’s one of the best pieces of advice you could ever give. So, thank you for sharing. Thank you so much Gabe for being here with us. Do you have any social media handles? Where can people find you or Umbra?
Gabe: Oh, so I just started tweeting. I’m tweeting basically only about unit economics, which people make fun of me for, and my handle is my last name on Twitter, and I don’t really use any other social media. I don’t really even use Twitter, but if you want some great memes on unit economics, making money, I’m probably your guy. Someone’s gotta do it in the industry.
Elisa: Okay, so we’ll make sure to follow you. So, thank you so much Gabe, for being here, for sharing your experiences.
Remember guys, that you can also for more information, interesting articles, interesting interviews, just like this one with Gabe, go directly on our new website ControlHub.com/Builder-Nation. We would love to hear from you.
And once again, Gabe, thank you so much for taking the time. We really appreciated having you on today.
Gabe: Thank you so much, I appreciate it.