Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future is a comprehensive biography about one of the true visionaries of our time. The book was written by business columnist for Bloomberg and fellow South African, Ashlee Vance in 2015.
Recently, Musk’s company SpaceX just completed a mission in taking the Inspiration4 (4 civilian astronauts) into space orbit for 3 days. It was a phenomenal feat that also raised $160 million for St. Jude’s Children’s research. Musk has been driven by even a bigger vision of leading the efforts to someday bring about multi-planetary human societies. How does someone dream so big and then actually start executing on the vision? The book gives some clues on what makes Musk tick. Here are some of my takeaways, from the perspective of someone who has built smaller companies.
Maniacal Drive: In business, the creme does rise to the top. Most, if not all, successful executives and entrepreneurs are highly driven to succeed. However, there are a few that stand above everyone else. Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, all had this maniacal drive to succeed and to CHANGE THE WORLD. Whether it was Microsoft’s motto to put a computer on every desk in every home, or Apple’s slogan Think Different, the vision and drive was about much more than making money.
I’ve worked or interacted with many gifted entrepreneurs who had gripping singular focus. I can recognize them fairly quickly, just like you would a very talented basketball player on the same court with you. When I was younger, I tried to imitate them, but there was something inside them that pushed them harder than everyone else around. I eventually recognized that the gap between us could not be bridged by just desire. Visionaries like Elon Musk, however, are even at a much more elite level of focus than the successful entrepreneurs that I’ve worked with. Musk, according to the book, believes that it is his destiny to change the world. That’s a powerful thing.
Big Vision: The startup communities today advocate that failing fast is good. The philosophy is that you fail, learn, pivot, and recycle until you make it. However, Elon Musk and Steve Jobs never wavered from their Big Vision. In fact, this type of unwavering belief in their grandiose visions got both of them into trouble at times with their boards. Steve Jobs was fired from Apple before his heroic comeback. Elon Musk lost his CEO position at Zip2 and PayPal because his vision were in conflict with the more pragmatic opinions of his boards. Those experiences paved the way for Musk take huge personal risks to go on his own with Telsa and SpaceX. In both cases he would not compromise on his greater vision for revolutionizing the auto industry with cool, green electric cars and setting up a private space exploration company that will someday lead the way to multi-planetary human societies.
I, myself, have pivoted my companies for short-term liquidity events over any esoteric desire to change the world. Many of my entrepreneur friends also have done the same with much greater success than me, whether pressured by their boards or just because of their own desire to minimize risks. The personal risks that Musk took to maintain his unwavering commitment to his visions are one of the main reasons that he stands apart from other entrepreneurs.
Control Freaks: While the rest of the tech world is challenging companies to understand their core competency and then outsource other parts of their business, both Musk and Jobs built success insourcing their production. They wanted complete control over their environment to find unique productivity gains and to control the customer experience. They were both very good at understanding what the customers would want, even if the customers themselves didn’t even know it at the time. Musk was relentless in every detail to build an electric car that auto industry experts at the time thought not possible. He squeezed down production costs for SpaceX by insourcing and hiring non industry experts who could think out of the box. Musk bucked the system and disrupted two of the biggest industries in the world, all the while building production in the US.
My respect for Elon Musk grew as a result of reading this book. For me, what I got out of the book is a better understanding of the qualities of the very special visionaries. The recent success of the Inspiration4 shows that you shouldn’t bet against Elon Musk.
Let me know if you have your own thoughts on the unique traits of someone like Musk. What drives these generational entrepreneurs?!