Please enjoy this transcript of my conversation with Mo Islam, Payload’s Co-Founder. We cover lessons we can learn from the Apollo space era, why killing them with kindness is the best option, and why founders should stay focused on what they love. Transcripts for other episodes can be found here.
“Hubris kills startups and humility saves them. No matter what your success level is or may not be, it's really important to always be humble about what you're building and what you're doing because it can change at the drop of a hat.” – Mo Islam
Mo Islam is co-founder of Payload, which is building a media empire dedicated to covering the business and policy of space, as in outer space. We discovered Payload and immediately subscribed to their daily newsletter after it was recommended by Delian Asparouhov, co-founder of Varda Space Industries, in Episode 71. We asked Delian what newsletters and websites he used to stay on top of everything going on in space, and he had only one answer: Payload Space.
Mo Islam has a fascinating background in finance, having worked at J.P. Morgan and Deutsche Bank before co-founding Payload. In this episode, Mo shares why hubris kills startups and humility saves them, what he's learned from incredible investors like Philippe Laffont at Coatue, and why he loves the book Engines That Move Markets, which we had never heard of but immediately ordered after recording this episode with him.
Transcript – Mo Islam: On Learning from the Apollo Era, Killing Them with Kindness, and How Humility Saves Startups | Co-Founder of Payload
Daniel Scrivner (00:05):
Hello, and welcome to another episode of our 20 Minute Playbook series, where each week I sit down with an elite performer from iconic founders to world-renowned investors and bestselling authors to dive into the ideas, frameworks, and strategies that got them to the top of their field and keep them there, all in less than 20 minutes.
Daniel Scrivner (00:23):
I'm Daniel Scrivner. On the show today, I'm joined by Mo Islam, co-founder of Payload Space which is building a media empire dedicated to covering the business and policy of space, as in outer space. I discovered Payload and immediately subscribed to their daily newsletter after it was recommended by Delian Asparouhov, co-founder of Varda Space Industries, in Episode 71. I asked Delian what newsletters and websites he used to stay on top of everything going on in space, and he had only one answer: Payload Space.
Daniel Scrivner (00:53):
Mo has a fascinating background in finance having worked at J.P. Morgan and Deutsche Bank before co-founding Payload Space. In this episode, Mo shares why hubris kills startups and humility saves them, what he's learned from incredible investors like Philippe Laffont at Coatue, and why he loves the book Engines That Move Markets, which I had never heard of and I immediately ordered after recording this episode with him. You can find the show notes and transcript for this episode at outlieracademy.com/113. It's 113. You can follow Mo Islam on Twitter @itsmoislam. With that, let's dive in and hear Mo Islam's 20 minute playbook. Mo Islam, welcome back. Thank you so much for joining me again on 20 Minute Playbook.
Mo Islam (01:37):
Thank you, Daniel. Appreciate it. Thanks for having me.
Daniel Scrivner (01:40):
This should be a lot of fun. I'll ask you about 10 questions. I will try to do this all within 20 minutes. The goal of this is to learn a little bit more about you and what makes you tick. Obviously, we just spent quite a bit of time diving into everything space, everything that you're building at Payload Space in a longer-form interview, which was amazing, but I'm excited for this. So let's go ahead and get started. The first question that we always ask is just, if you can share a recent fascination, what has been intriguing you recently space related or not?
Mo Islam (02:13):
One thing that's been really intriguing me is, how do we help the world understand why space is so important? It's one of the things that really makes me tick. The gig economy, tracking climate change, credit card purchases, it's all enabled by space. If you ask most people, they will have no idea, or they won't know why. I think there's a common conception that space is a complete waste of money, and it's really just for the rich. It's just for the billionaires. So how do we change this perspective? That's probably one thing that I... It's a fascination for me because it's something that's so important to our everyday life, but the perception of it is not that. I always wonder, how did we get to this point where it drives so much of what we do on an everyday life, but people still ask the question, "Why would we spend any money on that industry or in that realm?"
Daniel Scrivner (03:06):
Well, totally. Super selfishly, I will say that this is why I love what you're building up Payload Space. Because I think for most people, all they see is billionaires launching themselves and other very wealthy people into space. They're not seeing all the amazing stuff that's happening. So I think that needs to become more mainstream. Second, when you think about business and leadership, what do you think of as your superpowers? You have a fascinating background in finance. You're now building this space media company. What are your superpowers, and how do you use those daily at Payload?
Mo Islam (03:38):
I would maybe say two things that I would highlight, and hopefully it could be helpful to others listening to this. I think the first is when we first started Payload and the news came out, there were actually a lot of folks that hated what we were doing, and publicly were saying things about us and who we were and our capabilities of pulling this off. We always took the approach, and it's a genuine approach, of we're going to kill people with kindness. For us, there's just no need to engage in that type of dialogue. I think you let your products speak for itself as you build it, and you just add value that way.
Mo Islam (04:17):
I think that it's very easy in this modern era to get into these Twitter battles. It happens all the time. It's really silly. Oftentimes, it reflects very poorly of those involved. So for us, it's just like, "Just don't stoop to that level." If you're going to publicly hate on someone, it's just like, "Hey, if you have feedback, let us know." It's okay, by the way, if you want to publicly... I welcome folks giving us feedback publicly. There's no problem with it, but we're not going to ever engage and be mean to people. That's never going to be something that we do.
Mo Islam (04:46):
I think the other thing is, and we did talk about this very briefly on the original episode, is just this idea of focusing on... sorry, not focusing on, but staying focused, but embracing the boredom. It's something that I really experience and I really want to highlight because I think a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs think running a business is exciting, and there's always something new. To an extent it is, but the other side of the coin is really executing on the playbook. Once you build the playbook, every day you just focus on executing and not deviating. You can't be distracted by shiny objects, like the new trend and make that distract you from the core business. Just focus on execution and ultimately building a profitable business.
Daniel Scrivner (05:30):
Operational excellence is not a glamorous thing. But if you want to be great at it, you just have to keep working. I want to ask about mentors or figures that have shaped your approach to business and leadership. In the last episode, we talked about Musk. I don't know if he is a mentor for you. When you think about just yourself, who inspires you? Who did you maybe learn from, and what marks have they left on you?
Mo Islam (05:56):
I will say, I come from the world of investing, so I think my early inspiration in helping understand trends and technologies has been really Philippe Laffont. He's a hedge fund manager, and he's the founder of Coatue. He's a storied technology investor. He's always had really amazing insights really into trends and how they develop. He also turned me onto one of my now favorite books, which is called Engines That Move Markets. It's turned into a bit of a manifesto for me. It's not very well known, at least as far as I know. I've never, ever heard anyone else talk about it.
Mo Islam (06:33):
It just goes back to... I think it's the British Industrial Revolution or like the Canal Era. It just talks about every single technology that really helped shape and disrupt society from really the 1700s, 1800s all the way today. What you actually just notice is society just follows this trend. Technology just follows very clear trend. Once you understand how those trends develop, take place both from a capital flow perspective and also consumer interest, you actually start to realize that this happens over and over again.
Mo Islam (07:04):
As an investor, you just need to make sure that you're in the right part of that cycle. Depending where you are in that cycle, you know how to pivot your business or you know how to re-shift your focus. It's a book that I think actually where lessons can be applied to both investors and to founders. So it's a great book especially if you're building a technology business. I think it really encompasses the ethos that Philippe Laffont uses when he's investing. It's not a surprise that he's turned into such a storied investor.
Daniel Scrivner (07:33):
I love that answer. I think I've maybe heard that book referenced once, but I've never read it, so this is a great nudge to go and read it. We'll link to this on the show notes as well, too, for anyone that wants to find it. Do you have a favorite quote or anecdote about being a founder? This can be serious. It can be hilarious. There's no right or wrong answer. Are there any words or wisdom that make you laugh or that ring in your head?
Mo Islam (07:55):
I was actually reading about this recently as it relates to a company or project rather, I'd say, but hubris kills startups and humility saves them. It really speaks to something that I try to live by every day, which is no matter what your success level is or may not be, it's really important to always be humble about what you're building and what you're doing because it can change at the drop of a hat.
Mo Islam (08:23):
It's very, very easy to think that you're on this path of great success and you become overconfident. Quite honestly, there are a lot of founders out there who are just straight up assholes. I never understood that. I hope I'm never in a position where that's the type of personality I develop, but it's something that I'm very, very keenly aware of. It drives away good people. It creates bad culture. Ultimately, history is littered with examples of founders who just were... I mean, it's not a bad thing to be overly confident, but when it turns into more of hubris and it turns into, "Well, nothing can stop me," I think sometimes you lose track of some of the risks. It's easy to get complacent in those situations. So that, I would say, is probably my favorite in terms of being a founder.
Daniel Scrivner (09:18):
It's great. It's great. It seems like part of that as well, too, at least my interpretation of it here as you say that, is hubris is almost like you're getting detached from the reality. Something that's very, very, very true, especially if you've invested in, been a part of enough startups, is reality's brutal. It's not always fun to be engaged in it every single day as a startup founder, but it's essential that you face it. You can treat it as data. You want to try to make it not emotional, but being connected to reality is really, really, really important. If you could go back to the start of your career and whisper some advice, a reminder, maybe even some words of wisdom in your ear, is there anything you would say to your younger self at the start of your career?
Mo Islam (10:00):
Well, this would be my realistic advice to myself. I would say it's really an iteration of focus on what you love but within reason. If you're like, "Oh, well, I'm going to go after this industry, but I also want to make a lot of money," you just kind of have to... Let's be real. I guess more founders are motivated by this than they care to admit, which is money. That's fine. If you want to build a business because you want to make a lot of money, that's great. There's nothing wrong with that. Go and do that.
Mo Islam (10:29):
But if you're preaching to the world that, "Oh, do what you love, and you'll never have to work a day in your life," yeah, that's true but to an extent. For me, I think when I look back at my career, I wanted to be an aerospace engineer. To be quite honest, had I done that, and I stayed on course and not been too enamored by the thought of coming to New York and going into banking, I think I would have ended up exactly where I wanted to be, probably sooner. So I would say it's an iteration of focus on what you love. It's yes, but also just ask yourself the question ultimately, "Why are you doing it? Are you doing it for money, or are you doing it really for something different?" So that's what I would say.
Daniel Scrivner (11:16):
Yeah, interesting. If you had to distill down your philosophy of building a company, and this is specifically with Payload, you talk about how you think about it culturally, how you think about it strategically, if you had to distill down your philosophy of building Payload into just a few words, what would those be?
Mo Islam (11:34):
I would say build a playbook. It can be boring. It could be nothing. There could be not much unique about it. But just if you can relentlessly execute on it, then you can build a really big business. Don't be distracted by the fancy stuff. Just execute and the money will come. Our business model is really boring. Our industry's exciting, but our business model is really, really boring. We're not recreating the wheel, or not at least yet. We're just trying to be relentless executors.
Daniel Scrivner (12:02):
That's great advice. What's a book, article, or paper you love that you think more people should read? I know you've already talked about Engines That Move Markets, so you can promote that again. If there's another one, though, feel free to share.
Mo Islam (12:17):
I would say more broadly what I would love if more people actually read about in general, I won't maybe point to a specific book, but just read about the Apollo era. It's a remarkable story of how, as a society, we really came together for the pursuit of this amazing feat, and we accomplished it. We were politically coordinated. We were organized as a society. There was a huge focus on STEM, the sciences: science, technology, engineering, math. It was just a beautiful, coordinated effort and really a testament to what we can achieve as a society when we're all looking after the same goal. I think just reading about the story of the scientists and the engineers and all the people that worked on this project, it's a really amazing story. So I would say that's one thing that I wish people read more about or knew more about.
Daniel Scrivner (13:15):
I definitely have a couple of books on my bookshelf, so I'll try to do a little bit of research and add that to the show notes as well, too. What tiny habit or practice has had the biggest positive impact on your life?
Mo Islam (13:25):
To-do lists. I would say the Notes app has been my lifesaver. I've tried so many different things. I was getting to a point where I was just missing... When you're doing something like this, there are so many things you just end up missing: emails, just things that you have to do. All of a sudden you're dropping what you're doing because something else is more important. So this phone that I'm holding up here, the Notes app, it's probably my most used app. I'm always on it because I'm just adding to it, or I'm just taking things off. It's become almost a habit of mine, but it's been a lifesaver. It's been a huge lifesaver, and it's allowed me really not to miss some of the more important things that happen. In the early days, I'd be mortified knowing the things that I missed, or thinking about the things I missed. Anyway, that would be my answer to that.
Daniel Scrivner (14:18):
You're not the only person that said that. I know even Jack Dorsey basically runs his entire life and his to-do list off Notes. It's amazing. It's a super simple, general utility, but it's amazing how useful it's been for so many people. Two last questions. The first is, what is your favorite way to waste an hour? If you have an hour free, what guilty pleasure do you wish you had more time for?
Mo Islam (14:39):
I'm going to have to preface this a little bit so it doesn't sound completely random. I am a huge music person. I played the saxophone as a kid, but it was never really my thing. Music has always been a big part of my life, or could have been. I got into producing dance music in college. When I worked in banking right out of college, I actually was a DJ in the city as a hobby. So I was DJing in sort of the nightclub world in New York. I ended up playing outside the city. So it was something that I did totally for fun. It's always been a huge hobby of mine. Now anytime I have an hour to waste, I'm usually opening up Ableton or Logic and just messing around with it like I used to do in the old days. It's always fun, and it's just a great creative outlet.
Daniel Scrivner (15:39):
Well, one day if Payload Space has a space-themed dance music playlist on Spotify, I'll know where that came from.
Mo Islam (15:46):
It's funny you say that. We actually have a playlist. We have yet to release it, but we have a playlist coming. So stayed tuned.
Daniel Scrivner (15:53):
That's amazing. Last question. What do you feel like is the most important lesson you've learned in life or business? I think what I'm trying to get here, we've talked about a lot of stuff. We've talked about stuff specific to Payload, stuff specific to being a founder. I think here it's really if you could pass on one lesson from your life, what would that lesson be? You could imagine it's a son or a daughter, somebody else.
Mo Islam (16:20):
One lesson that I would pass on to... I guess the way I would think about it is a lesson that I would pass on to my children. I'm going to allude to a question I asked on a panel recently that provided an answer that really resonated with me, which was do something in life that really matters, that helps change other people's lives, not something that's just an incremental improvement on some ad buying algorithm. Try to do something that... because there's just not enough people doing things like that.
Mo Islam (16:55):
We have spent so much of the last 10, 15 years, arguably one of the greatest bull markets ever, building businesses that, as Chris would say, Chris Power from Hadrian would say, that if they went away would have no real impact on our everyday life. I think there are so many problems, so many huge problems that are yet to be solved from within space, of course, but in energy, in food, that if we solved them, we would just have... I know this sounds very idealistic, but there's just not enough people...
Mo Islam (17:29):
I think, Daniel, we talked about this once in the past. There's this very famous survey by some newspaper company. I think it was Daily Mail or something. They surveyed 2,000 kids: What do you want to be when you grow up? The number one most popular answer was influencer. There's nothing wrong with being an influencer. But when you have a vast majority of the population or the younger population saying, "Oh, yeah, influencer," I'm not surprised by that at all, that's a real problem. That's just not good for our society going forward.
Mo Islam (18:02):
It's part of the reason why I think it's so important that we continue investing in industries like space, and we go to Mars. Because one of the biggest things that will come from a Mars mission, which people don't often talk about, is the fact that it's going to inspire people. The number of kids that a Mars mission will inspire and the STEM graduates and the folks that are going to go into those industries and are going to build and do amazing things will exponentially pay for the cost of that mission to Mars. So for me, just do something that really matters and helps change people's lives for the better.
Daniel Scrivner (18:37):
I love it. It's a perfect note to end on. It feels like in many ways it's just swing bigger or dream bigger. Well, this has been so much fun. Thank you so much for the time and for coming on, Mo.
Mo Islam (18:50):
Daniel, thanks so much for having me. It was a pleasure.
Daniel Scrivner (18:52):
For everyone listening and watching, you can sign up for Payload Space, where Mo is one of the founders and the CEO. They have an amazing space-focused daily newsletter, which I highly recommend, at payloadspace.com. You can also follow them on Twitter @payloadspace. Again, I'm going to plug your Twitter account just because I really like following you. You can also follow Mo @itsmoislam on Twitter. Thank you so much, Mo.
Mo Islam (19:19):
Thank you. You're too kind. Thank you.
Daniel Scrivner (19:19):
Thank you so much for listening. You can find the show notes and transcript for this episode at outlieracademy.com/113. That's 113. For more from Mo Islam, listen to Episode 110 where he joins me on our Outlier Founder series to go deep on Payload Space, which is building a media empire dedicated to covering the business and policy of space, as in outer space.
Daniel Scrivner (19:42):
In this episode, we cover why we're at an inflection point when it comes to space and how that was unlocked in the US largely by SpaceX, which has brought down the price to get a unit of mass up to low Earth orbit by more than an order of magnitude; the out-sized role the military and defense departments currently play as customers for space companies ranging from Earth imaging to satellite manufacturing startups; and the space companies that Mo thinks are most underrated as well as how Payload is building a media empire, starting with what Mo calls the Modern Homepage, which is their daily newsletter; plus how they crafted a compelling voice and editorial style in an old-school and relatively stodgy industry, making space cool to read and learn about.
Daniel Scrivner (20:24):
You can also find videos of all of our interviews on YouTube at youtube.com/outlieracademy. On our channel, you'll find all of our full length interviews as well as our favorite short clips from every episode, including this one. So make sure to subscribe. We post new videos and clips every single week. If you haven't already, follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn under the handle Outlier Academy. Thank you so much for listening. We'll see you right here with a brand new episode next Friday.
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