Kool-Aid lessons from South Park

A truly classic South Park episode, aired a few years back, still offers valuable lessons for investors, not just in space, but really any industry.

In this episode, the boy’s teacher assigns a report on current events. Being totally unschooled in such, they instead decide to write about mysterious “underpants gnomes” that have been spied stealing underwear from their dressers.

The boys followed the gnomes to a huge cavern, which was filled to the top with purloined undergarments and gnomes busily processing them. When questioned about their activity, the gnomes produced a business plan:

Gnome 1: Collecting underpants is just phase one. Phase one: collect underpants.

Kyle: So what’s phase two?


Gnome 1: Hey, what’s phase two?!

Gnome 2: Phase one: we collect underpants.

Gnome 1: Ya, ya, ya. But what about phase two?


Gnome 2: Well, phase three is profit. Get it?

Stan: I don’t get it.

Gnome 2: (Goes over to a chart on the wall) You see, Phase one: collect underpants, phase two-

Gnome 2: Phase three: profit.

Cartman: Oh I get it.

Stan: No you don’t.

Kyle: Do you guys know anything about corporations?

Gnome 2: You bet we do.

Gnome 1: Us gnomes are geniuses at corporations.

Does this sound familiar to readers of this column? It could be argued that the gnomes’ underpants business is a lot like the way many alt.space firm’s business concepts are expressed:

Phase 1: Develop cool new launch system for passengers or freight in Year 20xx

Phase 2: [intentionally left blank]

Phase 3: Make oodles of money (in Year 20xx + 2) flying 50-100 flights a year in a fully mature industry with lots of market demand.

This is where I see the greatest disconnect in the alt.space community. They skip Phase 2 – which is actually the hardest part – developing and following a realistic roadmap from engineering prototype to 50 flights a year. That market demand cannot be demonstrated to exist at present – one has to create it. Large serious investors are going to want to know precisely how that is going to be accomplished – and within that 2-3 year time frame that always seems to be part and parcel of the business plan.

For a decade or more I’ve seen a lot folks who say they’ll be up and running in a couple of years – and they’re still out there, and it’s still only a couple more years down the road. One company, for example, made a big splash in 2004, coinciding with the Aldridge hearings, claiming they’d be flying by 2006. 2006 is almost half over, and I haven’t seen any more press releases of late. Not that I was expecting any.

Point is, when you’re doing due diligence on a company – and that could be any company, not just alt.space – make sure they’ve got all three phases nailed down. You don’t want to lose your shorts.


6 thoughts on “Kool-Aid lessons from South Park

  1. Tom, we have both heard and read the claims of many companies that they will be orbital, with AST approval, by 07. To the best of my knowlege, not one of these companies has even started a process with AST or bent even a spoon or fork or other piece of metal. Too bad we did not keep a time line everytime we read or heard these claims. We could then have posted a track record graph for what was claimed and promised verus a reality check. I guess its never too late to start keeping track of bold claims and promises. We can then issue awards at the annual Walking Eagle Award Program that will possibly take place at some future date.

  2. I guess its never too late to start keeping track of bold claims and promises.

    I made a chart like that once, for Satellite 99, when i was asked to speak on the emerging space markets (to give a forecast with my KPMG hat on). I opted, instead, to go back through a decade of market research studies, from different firms (one from each year) and simply graph their forecasts.

    Each year the hockey stick slid to the right, but remained virtually unchanged.

    The actual market turned out to be that line i drew through the bottom of all the hockey sticks, connecting the “actual” revenue from each year. It was essentially parallel to the X-axis.

    The audience wasn’t too happy with that. Big surprise.

  3. Its not just the space biz groups. Most of the space advocacy groups (and some upper NASA folks to to be fair) have embraced their vision with such as religious and unquestioning furver, asking hard (though obvious) questions, is taken as a sign of madness. The questions are treated as so rediculas that thers no reason to take them seriously

    Mars Direct – colonize now – folks:
    – ignore health issues of low grav and high rad.
    – ignore psycological impacts of extream crowding, and lax safty.
    – can’t conceave that huge numbers of folks don’t want to go, or government has no incentive to support it.

    SSPS advocates seldom consider that their are many more conventional power sources, or that investors consider SSPS far to exotic to invest hundreds of billions on, or base their power grids future on.

    He3 Lunar mining folks, never ask why if you were going to build a fusion reac tor – you wouldn’t base it on a fuel easier to get on earth, or synthasize the He3 on earth.

    Alt.space folks found bizness plans talking extensivly of cool new technologies they are going to tinker together (ignoring that technology isn’t the big roadblock) but make little efort to identify the sizable markets their goals require.


  4. eh, i like SpaceDev, i really do, they’ve done some good work and all, but just like alot of those companies, SpaceDev is haveing some rough going on account that most of its revenues is made up of Air Force contracts… though i like there ion engine design. however back to what Shubber was saying and expounding on my own thoughts, and experiances. “if we can’t do anything with any of it, why would we bother going?” which is the outlook of several key players in business and politics ive talked to lately trying to grab up some cash for SGC… better to play the education angle anyways.

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