How to Build and Motivate Startup Teams: the Elon Musk Way

How to Build and Motivate Startup Teams: the Elon Musk Way

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

During my January interview with Elon Musk, we got a glimpse inside the mind of this revolutionary entrepreneur. We explored his inspiration for disruptive startups like SpaceX, Tesla Motors and SolarCity; and he gave some advice on how to build, motivate and retain excellent teams; as well as some warnings about the hazards of over-committing and sleep deprivation.

He told me, “I really didn’t want to be CEO of two startups at the same time. It was not appealing. And shouldn’t be appealing by the way, if anyone is thinking that’s a good idea. It’s a terrible idea.”

On how to build, motivate and retain an excellent team (@1.05.00 on video)

“A company is a group of people that are organized to create a product or service. That’s what a company is. So in order to create such a thing, you have to convince others to join you in your effort and so they have to be convinced that it’s a sensible thing, that basically there’s a some reasonable chance of success and if there is success, the reward will be commensurate with the effort involved. And so I think that’s it…getting people to believe in what you’re doing – and in you – is important.”

“In the beginning there will be few people who believe in you or in what you’re doing but then over time, as you make progress, the evidence will build and more and more people will believe in what you’re doing. So, I think it’s a good idea when creating a company to create…to have a demonstration or if it’s a product to have a good mark up or even if it’s software to have good demoware, or to be able to sketch something so people can really envision what’s it’s about. Try to get to that point as soon as possible. And then iterate to make it as real as possible, as fast as possible.  I think that makes sense.”

On time management and sleep

“Sleep is really great. I find if I don’t get enough sleep then I’m quite grumpy. Obviously, I think most people are that way. And also I try to figure out what’s the right amount of sleep, because I find I can drop below a certain threshold in sleep and although I’d be awake more hours and I could sustain it, I would get less done…my mental acuity would be affected. So I found generally, the right number for me is around six to six and a half hours on average per night.”

“Having a smart phone is incredibly helpful because that means you can do email during interstitial periods, like if you’re in a car (he has a driver), you’re walking, in the bathroom, everywhere. You can do email practically when you’re awake and so that’s really helpful: to have email for SpaceX, and Tesla integrated on my phone. And then you have to apply a lot of hours to actual working.”

On where his inspiration strikes (hint: not just Burning Man)

“It’s kind of a cliche, but it happens a lot in the shower…I don’t know what it is about showers (laughter)…I kind of stand there in the (long) shower and…not to mention the burning man epiphanies. Those are huge…There are some times. like late at night if I think about something and I can’t sleep and I’ll be up for several hours, sort of pacing around the house, thinking about things and occasionally I’ll sketch something or send myself an email or something like that.”

On keeping it in the family (Musk has five sons, all under 9)

“I do drag them along on a lot of things…they’re remarkably unimpressed. I wish they were more interested…maybe they’ll get more interested later. If they’re really interested in working at Tesla or SpaceX then I’d help them do that. I’m not sure I’d necessarily want to insert them into the CEO role at some point. If the rest of the team and the board felt that they were the right person then that would be fine but I wouldn’t want people to feel that I’d installed my kid there. I don’t think that would be good for the company or the kid really.”

“I was of the school of thought that it’s best to give away 99% or more of one’s assets, the Buffet School of thought. I’m mostly inclined in that direction, but after seeing what happened with Ford, GM and Chrysler, where GM and Chrysler went bankrupt and Ford did not, and Ford seemed to make better long term choices…in part because of the influence of the Ford family, I thought, well OK, there may be some merit in having some longer term family ownership. At least a portion of it. It acts as a positive influence…in the long term interest of the company…so the company does proper long term things. Look at what happened also in Silicon Valley with Hewlett Packard. It’s quite sad. That to some degree is because there was much diminished influence by the Hewlett and Packard families. I think they should have prevailed…when they were opposed to the merger that took place at one point. I think they were right, actually.”

On the likelihood of a SpaceX IPO this year

“No, there’s no IPO planned. I must say, running a public company does have its drawbacks. In the case of Tesla and Solarcity …we had to raise capital and we had a kind of complex equity structure that needed to be resolved by going public. So I thought we kind of needed to do that in those two cases. We don’t have to do that at SpaceX. I think there’s a good chance we will at some point in the future, but SpaceX’s objectives are super longterm and the market is not. So I’m a bit worried that if we did go public, certainly if we went public too soon, that the market pressure would force us to do short term things and abandon longterm projects…(like) going to Mars is very longterm.”

On the Hyperloop

“I did promise that I’d do some paper on the Hyperloop idea and things got a little hectic toward the end of last year because I’d committed to make these milestones at Tesla to the public market and I had to stay true to that obligation, which required an insane level of work and attention.” Check back soon at Fresh Dialogues for updates on the Hyperloop.

On how the SolarCity IPO got done, “by the skin of its teeth”

Elon Musk: “(It) was a very difficult IPO to get done. That IPO occurred just by the skin of its teeth. It was such a tough one…If it wasn’t in December, it would mean pushing it out quite a bit and the problem is, we’d already pushed it out quite a bit. So if we didn’t go public, we’d have to do a private round and then…the whole thing wouldn’t feel right. It’s like you’re sitting at the altar, and you don’t do the wedding. It’s a bit awkward. So we really needed to do it and I think if we hadn’t done it, people would have looked at it as a failure. It wouldn’t have been good. There have just been too many failures…not enough success, let’s say, in the solar arena. We need to chalk up success…”

Alison van Diggelen: “It was a rare piece of sunshine for the solar industry last year…”

Elon Musk: “Right. Exactly. Ironically for the solar industry doesn’t have a lot of that.”

On why Musk wants to go to Mars before he’s ‘too old’

“I guess I’d like to be able to go to Mars while I’m still able to manage the journey reasonably well. I don’t want to be like 75 and go to Mars…It could be mildly arduous…I’d like to get there ideally in my 50’s. That would be kind of cool. I aspire to make that happen, and I can see the potential for that happening. I’m not saying it will happen, but I think it can happen…I’ll try to make it happen.”