Posted on February 25, 2016 by Matt Pressman
Editor’s Note: In a remarkable piece published this week in Funders and Founders*, Anna Vital provides a revealing look at Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk. After reading it, I was struck by how Musk’s life directly influenced the history (and ethos) of Tesla. So, I’ve distilled a few key insights that may provide keys to help unlock Tesla’s past, present, and future.
In a hundred years, when most people reading this and the person writing this are long gone, Musk’s cars and rockets will still be circling the Earth and the skies. How can such a person get started against all odds is the question I ask here. And, more importantly, what can we learn from him?
Source: Bloomberg Businessweek (R. Kikuo Johnson)
The media often write this way. Articles about Musk call him a “genius”, which he is. But labels like this make his accomplishments sound like a foregone conclusion. They aren’t. For example, he still has to deal with big oil companies that want to see Tesla go down. We might assume he knows what to do with this because he is a “genius.” But genius is not a strategy. And his victory is far from certain.
Compared to what Musk is doing now – electric cars, rockets, and solar panels his first businesses were ridiculously straightforward – selling computer parts from his dorm room, running a glorified speakeasy from his house in college. Would he do this if he saw a straight path to making electric cars back in college? I think not. It looks like he took incremental steps towards a goal he had no idea how to reach at the beginning.
Source: Bloomberg Businessweek; Note: Specs are shown for Model S launch in 2012
With both SpaceX and Tesla there is a pattern: make a wildly ambitious promise, delay the reveal several times, finally unveil the product, promise to deliver it soon, delay the delivery date, deliver a product that surpasses expectations. In design I’ve learned that you can have only 2 out of the three things: amazing, fast, or cheap. Musk doesn’t seem to compromise on amazing. He is definitely striving for cheap (100 times cheaper rockets than now, Model 3 at $25,000 after tax incentives). So you don’t get fast. The Model X, for example, came 3 years late.
Source: Charged EVs
Here in a nutshell you can see the story of Tesla [NASDAQ: TSLA] through the eyes of the stock market. The stock was flat for a couple years because Tesla had yet to show profit. People weren’t yet buying into Musk’s optimism. When in April of 2013 Musk announced profit for the first time, the stock shot up. You can also see the incremental steps Musk took and how the stock grew accordingly.
Source: Funders and Founders* [Enlarge image]
"I’d rather commit seppuku than fail,” Musk tells an investor to explain why he should get the investment. This is a theme with Musk in negotiations, physical activities, and relationships. He might move on but he doesn’t fail. He might be late on his promises, he might come across as too pushy, or get kicked out of the company he started, but he doesn’t let things fail.
Most of the facts in the timeline [infographic] are based on Ashlee Vance’s Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. Written with participation but not the final approval from Musk, this biography by Musk’s compatriot Ashlee Vance details the events of Musk’s life starting with his grandparents and all the way into 2015 when the book was released. Vance lets us see the world the way Musk sees it: employees grow complacent too soon, aerospace industry is incompetent and conniving, VC’s are short-sighted, co-founders run out of gas, engineers are too pessimistic about their own abilities.
Throughout all this Musk doesn’t spare himself working 100-hour weeks. By the end of the book I feel the comparisons between Musk, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg miss the point. Musk is the only one so far to build a future instead of just building products.
Click red button below to enlarge infographic...