Payam Banazadeh

Founder of Capella Space

Payam Banazadeh is CEO & Founder of Capella Space, a Silicon Valley company building the largest constellation of commercial Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellites in order to provide hourly monitoring services of anywhere in the globe. Payam holds a business/management degree from Stanford University and graduated Magna Cum Laude with a BS in Aerospace Engineering from The University of Texas. Prior to starting Capella Space Payam was a project manager and flight systems engineer at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and has been awarded NASA Mariner Award, NASA Discovery Award, and NASA Formulation Award. Most recently Payam was selected to be on the prestigious “Forbes 30 under 30” list in 2017 and Capella has been recognized by New York Times, Bloomberg, and recently Inc magazine as one of the top 25 disruptive companies in the world. Outside of Capella, Payam spends his time thinking about the impact of technology on society, economy, politics, and human behavior. He is an advocate of raising awareness around the volatility of life on earth and the responsibilities of technologists to think pro-actively about their work and its intended and unintended consequences.

Where did the idea for Capella Space come from?

In March 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which was carrying 239 passengers, disappeared. It was really strange to me that we could not find this missing plane and the next few months were spent on a global search and rescue effort with no outcome. The question I kept asking myself was how could this 777 plane with 239 of our fellow human beings disappear on this one finite planet we call home. It appeared to me that we do not have the capability to monitor our planet at a high frequency. Given my background in space, I started digging deeper into what is currently being done to image our planet from space. Capella Space was a result of that digging and will be filling a significant gap that exists in monitoring our planet. Capella will be able to monitor anywhere on the planet at any hours of day or night, and in all weather conditions. This is something we need as species, to understand our planet, and to be aware of all changes around us.

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

I believe a CEO has 5 core jobs: 1) define a winning strategy 2) deliver capital to pursue that strategy 3) build the team that can execute on that strategy 4) Communicate that strategy internally and externally 5) hold people accountable. These responsibilities might sound easy in the short term but the key is to do it over an extended period of time and do it consistently. Outside of these 5 roles, I spend a lot of my time on culture building.

On any typical day, I am syncing up with my leadership team across the company (satellite, product, sales, operations) and playing the cross-disciplinary coordinator role to make sure everyone is marching in the right direction. I also like to spend time with individual contributors to understand what they are working on and where they might need help. This allows me to have a good sense of progress not only from what I hear from my direct reports but also from the bottoms ups and those who are getting the job done. It’s critical for the CEO to get realistic non-padded pulses of the company and no matter how well the leadership team is run, one of the best ways of doing this is to check-in with those who are doing the work. I also love talking to customers be it directly or indirectly. This allows me to stay connected with our ultimate stakeholders and be able to think through our product strategy.

How do you bring ideas to life?

First and foremost not all ideas are worth bringing to life. The process of understanding which ideas are worth maturing into products is what differentiates a good business and a bad business. Once an idea is validated to be worth pursuing it’s then all about having the right team with the right skill set and mentality coupled with a well-thought-out strategy. At Capella, we are lucky to have some of the best engineers, strategists, and business leaders who can be creative as well as execute well.

What’s one trend that excites you?

Trends are typically not that interesting in my opinion. If there is a trend you are trying to follow you are already late in the game. What excites me the most is what could become a trend right before it has become a trend. It’s extremely difficult to catch trends before they become trends but that’s where there is a lot of potential. If you study trends you will find out that a lot of trends are created from the intersection of many unrelated non-trendy things. Best way to catch a trend is to be really good at many things that are unrelated and find how to relate them. For the extent we could identify “space investments” as a trend I am excited to see that space is becoming trendy.

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

Perfect is the enemy of creativity. Balancing between scrappiness and perfectionism is a critical personal management skill that any entrepreneur needs to master early on in their journey. I have to constantly check myself to ensure I am not being too perfect or too scrappy or any project. It’s the difference between getting it done really quick or setting yourself up for disappointment.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Trust yourself more often, listen to your guts, be more confident, and realize that no one around you knows more than you do. Everyone is pretending to be knowledgeable and in some cases they actually are.

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

The most confident people are the most insecure of all. There are exceptions but in general, I have come to realize that those around us that act confidently are most likely manifesting and projecting insecurities from other places in their lives through their overconfidence. In a really weird and twisted way knowing this helps you be more confident in yourself.

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

Change. I believe embracing the idea of changing often and changing quickly can help foster growth, both on a personal and professional level.

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

We value our people over anything else. Team members who feel empowered to speak up and share their ideas, who feel like a cohesive unit working towards the same goal, will result in a team that pushes boundaries, challenges assumptions, takes risks, and learns crucial lessons. In space, a newfound answer creates even more questions; you need a curious, resilient workforce. When your employees feel invested in your mission and clearly understand how their work helps to achieve the company goals, they’re able to problem solve and innovate much faster.

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

There are too many. You have to fail and most importantly you have to recognize that you failed. Failures could be as simple as how you responded to that one email or how you acted in that one scenario. Early on in my career, I was full of ego. I failed to recognize that ego gets in the way of building meaningful relationships. It took me a while to realize that relationships are the foundation of every business. Relationship building is the long term investment with long term returns that differentiates good business leaders from bad ones.

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

I will keep the space-related ones to myself but I think a super easy idea which is a huge pain point for all of us these days is a good face mask. A face mask that is comfortable, beautiful, N95 rated, and super adjustable and flexible for all sorts of conditions and environments just doesn’t exist. There are a lot of different kinds out there these days but none of them are like the Tesla of face masks. All the masks out there seem to be imperfect. If we are gonna wear masks to protect ourselves and others because of COVID19 we might as well wear something that is safe, nice, and comfortable. I have yet to see a mask that does all of that at the same time. Make the best mask in the world and sell it at a high price. There is a market for it. I will buy one.

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

I recently bought a kindle e-reader and I am incredibly happy with that purchase. I have been resisting e-readers just because I like to take notes as I read but the comfort of having so many books at my fingertips is totally worth it.

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

I am not really big on this and don’t have much of an opinion on it.

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

I recommend Skin in The Game by Nassim Taleb. This is not a business book but it is one of the best business books I have ever read. Nasim has written other great books such as The Black Swan but I particularly enjoyed this one and highly recommend his other books too.

What is your favorite quote?

I really appreciate Naval Ravikant. I don’t agree with everything he says or thinks but in general, I have found his thought process to be intriguing and his work to be thought-provoking. He is pretty active on Twitter (@naval).

I also really like Sam Harris and enjoy his thought process. Again, don’t agree with everything he says or believes but enjoy his discussions. Sam is also pretty active on Twitter (@samharrisog).

Key Learnings:

  • Building strong relationships is important.
  • Value people over everything else. Empower the team around you.
  • You have to fail to learn.