A few tips from Elon Musk: forget the money, think big, ignore the critics
Lists of business tips from Elon Musk have long been a favorite topic of the entrepreneur-oriented media, and the genre has become even more of a mainstay since Elon’s assets swelled to over $185 billion, making him the world’s richest human.
If you follow Elon’s advice, can you duplicate his success? Well, we’ll see—but even if you don’t end up revolutionizing the auto industry, or establishing a colony on another planet, you might just learn some ways to improve your productivity and, more importantly, to achieve some of the things you really think are important.
The latest addition to the Elon Musk’s Secrets for Success canon highlights the Iron Man’s emphasis on meaningful projects that aim to create a better world, not just to generate piles of money. Justin Rowlatt, writing for the BBC, revisits an interview he did with Musk a few years ago, and finds that the insights Elon imparted are just as pertinent today as they were then.
The key to understanding Elon Musk’s agenda, and what sets him apart from the everyday billionaire you might meet on the street, is that making money has never been his ultimate goal. As a young man, Elon identified three fields that he felt represented “important problems that would most affect the future of humanity,” as Michael Belfiore reported in his 2007 book, Rocketeers. “One was the internet, one was clean energy, and one was space.” The young Musk understood that making his mark in these fields would take decades, and he has remained laser-focused on these fields ever since.
As Musk told Rowlatt, he has nothing against the pursuit of wealth “if it’s done in sort of an ethical and good manner,” but he doesn’t count his achievements in dollars and cents. In fact, he doesn’t expect to die rich—he foresees investing most of his fortune in establishing the first Mars colony.
“You want things in the future to be better,” Musk told Rowlatt. “You want these new exciting things that make life better.”
Elon founded SpaceX out of frustration at the timid and unambitious goals of the US space program. “I kept expecting us to advance beyond Earth, and to put a person on Mars, and have a base on the moon, and have very frequent flights to orbit.”
Musk may not crave money per se, but he has a keen understanding of how finance interacts with technology to determine what gets done and what doesn’t. He quickly grasped that the slow pace of Terran space exploration wasn’t due to a lack of interest, but rather to the prohibitive cost of space travel. From the beginning, SpaceX (and Tesla) have been all about squeezing out costs—finding more economical ways to use the technology that we have in order to reach a larger goal.
And his goals are large indeed—so large that more timid souls have often described them as the stuff of science fiction. But, as many others besides Musk have observed, modern institutions, both corporate and governmental, seem to be structured in a way that rewards incremental progress and unadventurous, small-canvas goals.
Above: Elon Musk discusses inspiration (YouTube: The not so Boring man)
“If you’re the CEO of a big company and you aim for something that’s a modest improvement, and it takes longer than expected, and doesn’t work out quite as well, then nobody’s gonna blame you,” he tells Rowlatt. “If you are bold, and go for a really breakthrough improvement, and it doesn’t work, you’re definitely going to get fired.” This explains why (to give one example) legacy automakers think it’s sufficient to introduce small improvements to their vehicles once a year.
Musk obviously has nothing against incremental improvements (both Tesla and SpaceX continuously make small tweaks to improve efficiency or reduce costs), but he’s not afraid to imagine—and create— completely new products and new business models.
Of course, big thinking means big risks. In 2008, he made a dramatic decision that went down in the business history books. The launch of the Roadster was foundering, one of SpaceX’s rockets had failed to reach orbit, the stock market was in the tank, and Tesla had “about a week’s worth of cash in the bank.” As Musk recounted in Chris Paine’s documentary film Revenge of the Electric Car, “I had to make a choice then. Either I took all of the capital that I had left from the sale of PayPal...and invested that in Tesla, or Tesla would die.”
Musk put up another $40 million, which represented most of his personal fortune at the time. It was a ballsy move that impressed the other investors with his all-out commitment. “That incredible braggadocio, confidence, catalyzed a change in people’s opinion, and we and everyone else around the table were like, ‘Oh my gosh, we want to be part of this, we want to get as much of this investment as we can,’” said VC investor and board member Steve Jurvetson. “He saved the company in its darkest hour with an act of heroism that is hard to describe. There’s nothing like spending your last dollar on a company that you believe in.”
This wasn’t the last near-death experience for Tesla. The company had to traverse the dreaded Valley of Death again when it launched Model S, and a third time when it delivered Model 3. Did Musk keep his cool? Not really—as he readily admits (and as we could all tell from his eccentric Twitter feed), he was stressed to the max. He risked everything, but the payoff was enormous—not just for Musk himself, but for anyone who drives a car, dreams of space travel, or enjoys breathing clean air.
The final pillar of Muskian wisdom: ignore the critics. Musk made it clear in his interview with Rowlatt that he was personally very upset by the level of skepticism, naysaying and downright abuse that he faced around 2018, as Model 3 was going through Production Hell, and anti-Tesla headlines became a surefire click-generator for media on both sides of the cultural divide.
“The liberal schadenfreude was really quite astonishing,” said Musk. “There were multiple blog sites maintaining a Tesla death watch.” As Musk sees it, he and all the workers at his companies were aspiring to do great things, and it was hurtful to see how many people were rooting for them to fail.
Musk did not come through the flood of FUD emotionally unscathed, but come through it he did. He and his team have been utterly vindicated, and the croakers have lost every shred of credibility (and in some cases, billions of dollars).
You could call it a happy ending, except that it’s not an ending. Tesla has set another round, and another, of improbably ambitious goals, and SpaceX’s quest to establish a colony on Mars has yet to be achieved. And Musk isn’t through taking big risks. In December, a test of SpaceX’s Starship launch vehicle ended in a “rapid unplanned disassembly” (RUD) six minutes after lift-off.
Was the Iron Man discouraged? On the contrary, he focused on the valuable data that the test generated. He tweeted: “Fuel header tank pressure was low during landing burn, causing touchdown velocity to be high & RUD, but we got all the data we needed! Congrats SpaceX team hell yeah!!”
Later he joked about the event, saying, “Putting the crater in the right spot was epic.” His last word on the subject: “Mars, here we come!”