I build organizations around people, not processes, so culture is critically important–something I learned from my exposure to Facebook, Google, and other tech leaders.

 

As a rebel and disruptor, Maximus Yaney has made a career of defying the odds. He experiments, fails, learns, and repeats, often circumventing preconceived notions and conventional wisdom. After all, Maximus believes that progress doesn’t come from following yesterday’s rulebook.

Maximus has stuck to this philosophy his entire career. Shortly after being accepted to MIT, he decided to plunge headfirst into a new country: he put his studies on hold and traveled to Russia to broaden his horizons. After his two-month detour turned into two years, Maximus decided to try out a new field: he taught himself the basics of IT and wrangled a job as a network administrator at the US consulate in St. Petersburg. Later, when his first SaaS company failed, he picked up the pieces, dusted himself off, and started building his next company.

In 2010, faced with a yearning to do more, Maximus Yaney decided to pursue his childhood dreams of flight. He founded Titan Aerospace to build a low-cost, high-altitude, solar-powered drone that could fly continuously for years and provide internet to underserved communities internationally. Few believed it could be done, yet Maximus and his team scaled up into a hangar in New Mexico and produced a working prototype within two years.

In 2014, Google bought Titan and Maximus Yaney came onto its Special Projects Division to work on several ambitious initiatives, one of which would later become Sidewalk Labs, a leader in urban tech (and developer of New York’s free, citywide wifi).

Today, Maximus Yaney’s latest venture is Kangaroo, which will make the world a safer place by bringing cutting-edge home security to all. For a fraction of the price of existing systems, people from all walks of life can finally enjoy privacy and peace of mind. After all, the right to property is a universal human right–not one limited exclusively to the wealthy.

Where did the idea for Titan Aerospace come from?

I have always been fascinated by space, especially how we use space to improve our lives on Earth. One pressing problem was providing internet to the 3 billion people who don’t have it. One way to do this is to provide communications services through geostationary satellites, which orbit 35,000 kilometers above the Earth.

At this height, however, signals are weak and their latency (network lag) is so significant that you’ll end up with an unusable connection. Instead, I wanted to provide fast, global internet with low latency, so satellites wouldn’t cut it unless you deployed hundreds or thousands of them in a low orbit–a very costly proposition.

For a solution, I turned to two of my childhood interests: aircraft and solar power. The confluence of these passions led to the creation of Titan: perhaps I could create a solar-electric, high-altitude aircraft that could fly for long periods of time at an altitude of 20 kilometers. This approach had several advantages: first, it would be significantly faster than a satellite internet system. Additionally, it could be deployed regionally and incrementally–and at a fraction of the cost of a space-based satellite network. I called these aircraft atmosats or atmospheric satellites.

From this, Titan Aerospace was born.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

For a long time, I had a very…unique schedule. I was on a polyphasic sleep cycle, where I would sleep 25 minutes every four hours, for a total of 2.5 hours daily. This system was perfect for me, as I had plenty of free time to work, study, and learn. Instead of seeing days as distinct, separate units, everything just became a single, unending day, broken up by periodic naps. It was awesome because I could get so much done and still have free time left over to study whatever I wanted, like CAD or aerodynamics.

Unfortunately, real life eventually got in the way. I soon found that a polyphasic sleep cycle was impractical to maintain, especially with social commitments. If I wanted to have dinner or go out, I would miss my 25 minute nap, crash for hours when I got home, and then have to start the cycle all over again.

Today, whenever possible, I try to get a full eight hours of sleep. I want to be well-rested so I can think as clearly as possible. I get up after eight hours, walk to work for 15 minutes, and I try to keep a very open calendar. I barely have any appointments, and I try to avoid booking anything on the calendar, especially weeks out. I don’t like the feeling of obligation in my life, and I intentionally try to minimize any planned structures. That way, I can spend as much time as possible pursuing new ideas, concepts, and strategies, staying agile, and responding to what’s going on.

As you can tell, I really hate meetings–especially when it comes to what I call “status meetings,” where managers check in on their subordinates for status reports. If too many meetings are happening, something is wrong with the team’s organic communication.

How do you bring ideas to life?

In the early stages, I try to avoid industry events and insiders. Those people will only tell me how I can’t solve it–or how I should focus on very incrementally improving the status quo. During Titan’s infancy, I consulted aerospace engineers–and no one thought it was possible to build a lightweight, solar-powered drone that could fly for years.

If anything, this demonstrated just how strong the inertia of the establishment (and how limited their imagination) can be. It also reinforced the importance of ignoring how everyone else is currently solving the problem, and then come up with the best way to reframe the problem and solution from first-principles.

Early on, I won’t usually hire someone from the industry I want to disrupt. Instead, I surround myself with polymaths and first-principles thinkers who look at the problem without experience, attacking it from a fresh point of view while leveraging the collective tools and thoughts that our species has at our disposal, from self-learning courses to open-source software. Then we’ll develop out the solution from there.

Later on, when we’ve framed the solution, we’ll seek out insiders to help us overcome certain tech or regulatory hurdles. So first we tackle a big problem; then we build and prototype solutions; and finally, we take them to experienced industry people to help us grow. That’s how Titan, Spinlaunch, Google’s Sidewalk Labs, Mohawk, and Kangaroo were conceived.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

I’m super excited about the democratization of space. Since companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin have arrived on-scene, the cost of accessing space has decreased by orders of magnitude–which will only continue. Today, it costs only around $90 million to launch a payload on a SpaceX Falcon 9 Heavy rocket, an unprecedented decrease from only a few years earlier.

In every industry, once costs decrease so significantly, big, disruptive things happen. Just look at clean energy like solar panels–which only really exploded once their prices became low enough to compete with fossil fuels.

For space, lower prices will open up access and drive innovation. Someday soon, we’ll be able to put a payload in orbit for less than $500 per kilo; that’s only 100x more than shipping a kilo of goods by air from China to the United States. At that point, we’ll be able to build up real infrastructure in space, even mining facilities which can extract minerals from asteroids. These raw materials can either be fed back into a self-sustaining space ecosystem–or transported to Earth very cheaply.

The future of space, and of humanity, is abundance.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I always aim for large problems, because it takes the same amount of energy to solve a relatively small problem as it does to solve a large one. Sure, the scale and complexity of the problem might be different. But if you’re using the same amount of energy, why not aim for the biggest issue you can find?

Another advantage of these massive problems is excitement. Just think: if you can build a sustainable, cheap, and practical solution, you’ll be affecting the lives of a billion people for the better. It’s hard to describe just how exhilarating this is.

Bottom line: find a huge problem that affects a large population. Then build your team and run on passion.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Find awesome mentors and investors, and always be the dumbest person in the room.

Starting out, I didn’t understand the value of stock options for employees, didn’t seek out investors, and tried to do it all on my own. If I had mentors and strong investors behind me, I would have avoided some tough failures. Granted, these were the catalysts for my own change, yet I really should have surrounded myself with the best investors and mentors that I could find.

Had I sought out venture capital and mentorship from the beginning, building Titan would have been far smoother–and far less nerve-wracking. Raising the required venture capital would still have been difficult, but if I had based the company in Silicon Valley and pitched aggressively, I think that I could have grown Titan much faster.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on?

I believe our planet can easily support billions more people than exist currently, probably a trillion people or so. We’re the only ones holding back our own sustainable development.

Say our goal was to get to a stable population of a trillion people, where we’re not degrading the environment. We’d immediately want to change our consumption patterns and behavior to minimize tough environmental problems in the future. We would continue developing technology in material science and energy to get there, especially around clean energy like fusion and solar.

Energy is key and can solve just about anything. Globally, our annual electricity consumption is about 25 petawatt hours, which is about the amount of energy released if you converted 264 gallons of water into pure energy. To support a population of 1 trillion, you’d need a little over 3 exawatts–or about a typical swimming pool. An Olympic size pool converted to pure energy would give that population incredible abundance.

Anyone who has ever traveled will realize just how vast and empty the planet is. All that unused space could be used for solar, wind, biodomes and hydroponic farms. Also, we have yet to colonize or leverage the oceans–aside from primitive, destructive seafood harvesting. Imagine what we could do if we could leverage even a portion of that untapped potential in a sustainable, productive way.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I try not to recommend very specific techniques for people, simply because what’s right for me isn’t necessarily what’s right for someone else. I believe that people should do what feels right for them.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Building the right foundational culture so that it can grow itself. Doing everything I can do to make myself redundant and superfluous. When I bring people onboard, I tell people that their first goal is to fire themselves (replace themselves) from current position, take another one, and keep growing.

I build organizations around people, not processes, so culture is critically important–something I learned from my exposure to Facebook, Google, and other tech leaders.

For each company I’ve founded, I create a manifesto of values, a collection of quotes and mindsets from notable thinkers from Tony Hsieh to Eric Schmidt. We constantly talk about this code, and it drives every decision. For instance, a programmer debating whether they should push a new piece of code onto our production website can look at the manifesto, see that they should “go fast and break things,” and thus insert their code. Even if it turns out poorly, they performed according to the spirit of our values. The rapid iterative approach will ultimately result in a much more evolved product than one held back by unending meetings and approval paralysis. Individuals step up, grow, and take tremendous responsibility in that environment.

Many people have a very superficial understanding of startup culture associated with quirky perks like foosball tables or atypical outings. That’s not true. Team culture comes from two ingredients: the people you hire and how you treat those people. This includes the freedoms you give them, how you empower them, and whether they can be their best selves at your organization. It’s the difference between mandating that your employees work unpaid overtime versus the team test-flying prototypes at 5am on Sunday morning because they’re excited to see the fruits of their labors. It’s the difference between having a culture dictated from the top down, as opposed to having a culture develop organically from the people you bring in.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I founded a SaaS company in 2000, and I made every mistake in the book. I had no advisors, no mentors, no investors, and no network. I hired my friends, moved to the wrong city, chased early revenue, and even went so far as to buy an oak conference table and wore a tie. When everything came crashing down, I sobbed on the floor with fistfuls of carpet for a few hours, then got up and started the next company.

It was the best education I could have asked for–better than college and honestly, not much more expensive. After that day, I never wore a tie again.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

An antimatter factory. Antimatter currently costs $25 billion per gram. Someone please build this (and find a cheaper way to do so); I need a few hundred kilos of the stuff for my next venture.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

$100 worth of books and online education. I never feel guilt for these shopping sprees, because every dollar you invest into your knowledge and your wisdom (by tapping into the public knowledge of others) is always the best return on investment.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?

Google Apps is the single best free suite of collaborative tools that just changes the speed at which you do everything. It has simultaneous, real time collaboration, moving form a synchronous, latent process to a real-time asynchronous process. These programs didn’t just change the game, they smashed the goalposts and rewrote the rules. I haven’t had MIcrosoft Excel installed on my computer for over a decade.

In fact, it’s so effective that the only drawback to Google Apps is when you have to work with someone who doesn’t use it. People still send me Excel spreadsheets that I sometimes can’t open in Sheets. Please don’t send me spreadsheets, just share them.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Aside from Wikipedia (does that count as a book?), I’d have to say Peter Thiel’s “Zero to One”. It’s a short, informative, and incredibly engaging read. There are a lot of concrete examples and techniques in there, and it’s a must-have for anyone who wants to create something. Equally important, Thiel outlines the process of creation and explains just why creating is so much more valuable than slow, incremental change.

What is your favorite quote?

“An expert is someone who tells you exactly how it can’t be done”.

Connect:

Maximus Yaney on Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/maximusyaney/