by April Bohnert
February 9, 2018
DigitalGlobe founding story Colorado
Photography by Nick Cote.

Founding a startup is hard, but launching one that actually sends things into space? Let’s just say gravity isn’t the only force working against you.

After 25 years, DigitalGlobe is still standing strong. Its satellites circle the globe, delivering data to help earthlings solve a range of problems — from food scarcity and natural disasters to infrastructure building and navigation.

Founded in 1992, after the end of the Cold War, DigitalGlobe aimed to bring Earth imaging technology to the masses. It was an ambitious goal — and one that paid off.

To the company’s earliest investors, however, it sounded like a disaster waiting to happen — literally.

“One problem we ran into was what venture guys refer to as ‘push button risk,’” said Walter Scott, founder, CTO and executive vice president at DigitalGlobe. “You push a button and either it goes up or it blows up.”

Investors had a hard time wrapping their heads around that.  

“With any other company, if you do a product launch and it flops, you fix it. In the satellite world, if you do a product launch and it flops, it's literally flaming wreckage scattered across the Atlantic Ocean.”

In the satellite world, if you do a product launch and it flops, it’s literally flaming wreckage scattered across the Atlantic Ocean.”

And flop they did — twice. Its first satellite, Early Bird, launched in December 1997. Four days later, the satellite died and came crashing back to Earth.

After a period of great uncertainty, DigitalGlobe found its footing and launched QuickBird. This time, the second-stage rocket failed to reignite. Instead of going into orbit, the rocket went up, then down, scattering debris over the coast of Latin America and South America.

Most companies will never know failure at this scale, but DigitalGlobe pushed on. The company’s third satellite, launched in October 2001, was successful — and they haven’t looked back since.

Over the years, DigitalGlobe has worked with more than 40 governments worldwide and collaborated with organizations like NASA, Google and the Amazon Conservation Team. In the process, it has compiled a 16-year time-lapse image library of our planet.

We sat down with Walter Scott to discuss his approach to leading a business and how the company’s successes and failures have shaped what it is today.

 

DigitalGlobe founding story Colorado

DigitalGlobe founding story Colorado

DigitalGlobe founding story Colorado

FOUNDED: 1992

WHAT THEY DO: Collect geospatial satellite imagery and turn it into information that helps people solve problems around the world.

WHO THEY DO IT FOR: Businesses, governments and nonprofits — including NASA, Google and the U.S. Department of Defense’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

LEADERSHIP STYLE: “The more you're willing to let go, the faster you can move.” — Walter Scott

FOUNDER'S BACKGROUND: A technologist and entrepreneur who led federal defense projects at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and studied applied mathematics and computer science before starting this venture.

IDEAL CANDIDATES: People who like to jump straight into the deep end.

 

DigitalGlobe founding story Colorado

Talk about the lightbulb moment that inspired you to launch DigitalGlobe.

The official light bulb moment — when the idea for DigitalGlobe itself came about — happened while driving back from a paintball game with a buddy of mine. It was a long ride, and the Cold War had just ended.

Prior to starting DigitalGlobe, I was at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, working on a Star Wars program (a government initiative that aimed to prevent and detect missile attacks from other countries using satellites and anti-ballistic missile technology).

During that work, it became clear that one thing that kept the Cold War “cold” was that satellites gave us the ability to act on the basis of facts instead of on the basis of fears.

One thing that kept the Cold War ‘cold’ was that satellites gave us the ability to act on the basis of facts instead of on the basis of fears.”

When that project ended, I was looking for something else to do. My friend, a serial entrepreneur, had launched a number of startups. He told me, “If you can’t figure out what you want to do, then make something up and do it.”

On this drive back from a paintball game, we zeroed in on the idea that maybe Earth imaging was my next project.

 

Once you founded the company, you were CEO only briefly before you moved to the CTO role and hired Jeff Tarr as CEO. How did you make that decision?

I knew we needed a strong technology leader who understood the business. We also needed a strong business leader who understood the technology. One person could do both jobs, but they wouldn’t be great at either.

I did some soul searching and asked: “Which job will be easier to fill? Which job is better suited to my long-term desires and my skill sets? And which job will be more fun to do?” I made the decision to be CTO and bring in someone else as CEO.

 

Its unusual for a founder to relinquish the CEO role. How did you check your ego like that?

The key was being very logical and objective, as opposed to being super emotional about the decision. We would never have been able to bring somebody like [CEO] Jeff Tarr into the company if I had said, “I gotta have everything.”

You don’t bring in great people unless you’re willing to give them great responsibility and great opportunity — and in many respects, the more you’re willing to let go, the faster you can move.

 

DigitalGlobe founding story Colorado

DigitalGlobe founding story Colorado

DigitalGlobe founding story Colorado

 

Describe your leadership style.

I tend to allow people a large degree of autonomy. I’ll ask a lot of questions, but when things are going well, I’m very hands off. If things start to not go well, I become more hands on. I want to understand the problem so that we can work together to figure out how to solve it.

The amount of effort that I put into hiring and building the team pays off because I don’t have to to be hands on very much at all. If you don’t put the time into hiring good people, you tend to spend a lot more time on the back end.

The amount of effort that I put into hiring and building the team pays off, because I don’t have to to be hands on very much at all.”

DigitalGlobe has had its share of ups and down. What has been the most difficult thing for you as a leader?

It’s difficult to deal with the aftermath of a failure. There’s the emotional aftermath and then there’s the direct people aftermath. In the case of the Early Bird failure, we had to let go of 75 percent of the workforce. We just did not have enough money.

Some of the most difficult conversations I had were with people who had done a great job — but their jobs were complete. What’s wonderful is that, as we roll the clock forward, so many of those people came back.

 

How would you describe your ideal teammate?

I look for intellectual curiosity. I look for people who always want to improve their abilities. People who seek new challenges and don’t like staying in the shallow end of the pool but want to venture out. And I look for people who drive themselves to deliver results faster.

 

DigitalGlobe founding story Colorado

 

I was interested to learn about Plus Vivid, which you introduced a few years ago. Tell me about it.

With that product, we do very beautiful, country-scale mosaics. They look the way people imagine satellite imagery should look — with no clouds. But of course, in reality, sometimes there are clouds.

To create these big, beautiful images, we had to deal with things like weather, color balancing and the fact that winter and summer look different. We figured out how to take images from clear days and stitch them together to create the appearance of clear skies across large spaces. It enabled a more consistent look.

That product was created because GeoEye (a satellite imaging company DigitalGlobe acquired in 2013) had developed one piece of technology and DigitalGlobe had developed another. And when we put them together, we created a stronger product.

 

How do you encourage that kind of innovation?

Part of the answer is that I don’t have to do anything about that because, by nature, this is an innovative organization. Our mission and purpose create ample opportunity for being innovative.

I came across a theory that there are three main motivating factors for employees in any creative role — whether it’s engineering or the arts. The three factors are purpose, autonomy and mastery. (Daniel H. Pink writes about that in his book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates People.”)

We’ve got purpose in spades, we try to provide a high degree of autonomy and the challenges don’t stop, so the opportunity for mastery is there. With those three ingredients, you have the formula for innovation.

 

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