The new Elon Musk biography by Ashlee Vance will “likely serve as the definitive account” of the most successful entrepreneur in the world, writes Jon Gertner in the New York Times. But it can also be read as a manual of how to succeed in business. Here are six big lessons for entrepreneurs, young and old:
1. Think Big
While Musk was at college, he decided the three things that would have the biggest positive impact on the human race were: sustainable energy, the Internet, and making life multi-planetary.
Here’s how Vance describes Musk’s big thinking:
“What Musk has developed that so many of the entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley lack is a meaningful worldview. He’s the possessed genius on the grandest quest anyone has ever concocted. He’s less a CEO chasing riches than a general marshaling troops to secure victory. Where Mark Zuckerberg wants to help you share baby photos, Musk wants to…well…save the human race from self-imposed or accidental annihilation.”
This passage comes early in the book, and feels as though Vance has been drinking Musk’s Kool Aid. By the last page, however, he’s painted a vivid and balanced picture of a driven man, focused intently on changing the world in a big way, no matter the cost to himself or his family (see No.6 below). So, if you want to succeed like Elon Musk, don’t waste time building a widget that’ll be 10% better than the competition:
Think big, really big, and go for it.
2. Learn to be a Better Boss
Elon Musk was ousted as CEO from two early startups Zip2 and X.com (the precursor to PayPal) because he was a bad boss. In his early days, Musk was a controlling, micro-manager whose “one upmanship” tactics were brutal.
“Musk’s traits as a confrontational know-it-all and his abundant ego created deep, lasting fractures within his companies.”
According to a colleague at Zip2, he’d rip into junior and senior executives alike, especially when employees told him that his demands were impossible.
“You would see people come out of the meetings with this disgusted look on their face…You don’t get to where Elon is now by always being a nice guy, and he was just so driven and sure of himself.”
These days, he’s still very demanding but has got better at being a decent boss at Tesla and SpaceX and his longtime employees are fiercely loyal.
Of course, part of being a good boss is inspiring your team with an awesome mission (see No.1 above) and articulating that clearly. Early employees of SpaceX were told that “the mission would be to emerge as the South-west Airlines* of Space.” More recently of course, the Mars mission dominates the company’s focus. Who wouldn’t be on board with the mind-blowing goal of making humans a multi-planetary species?
So don’t fret if you’re not getting “Boss of the Year” awards in your early days, but learn from your mistakes, and motivate your team with a grand vision.
3. Hire with Care, Fire fast
Musk is renowned for hiring top talent and for several years, he even insisted on personally interviewing employees fairly low on the totem pole. For key technical hires, once he decides he wants someone, he’ll go above and beyond to hire them. He even cold-calls them himself. A SpaceX employee recalls receiving a call from Musk in his college dorm room and thinking it was a prank call.
But on the flip side, if you’re not a fit for the team, then you’ll soon know about it, according to Steve Jurvetson, a Tesla, SpaceX board member and close ally to Musk.
“Like (Steve) Jobs, Elon does not tolerate C or D players. He’s like Jobs in that neither of them suffer fools. But I’d say he’s nicer than Jobs and a bit more refined than Bill Gates.”
The lesson: hire strategically with great care, and if an employee doesn’t fit, don’t wait.
4. Deal with critics, carefully
Musk has a reputation for slamming critics, like the British car show, Top Gear and the damning Model S review in the New York Times. Even the book’s author Ashlee Vance was berated for using what Musk insists are inaccurate quotes. Musk fired back on Twitter: “That’s total BS and hurtful.”
Some of his “bombastic counteroffensives” worked, others were arguably counter productive and alienated potential allies and supporters.
Yet Vance also offers a more sympathetic interpretation of his tirades as “a quest for truth” as opposed to pure vindictiveness. As Vance writes,
“Musk is wired like a scientist and suffers mental anguish at the sight of a factual error. A mistake on a printed page would gnaw at his soul – forever.”
Although taking things personally and seeking war has generally worked for Musk, it’s a highly risky strategy. Setting the record straight is one thing, but how many bridges can you burn? One key consideration is this: going to war demands a lot of time and energy which might be better spent on getting your mission accomplished.
Choose your battles carefully.
5. Have a trusted assistant
Ashley Vance describes Musk’s long-time assistant Mary Beth Brown as:
“A now-legendary character in the lore of both SpaceX and Tesla….establishing a real-life version of the relationship between Iron Man’s Tony Stark and Pepper Potts. If Musk worked a twenty hour day, so too did Mary Beth…She would emerge as the only bridge between Musk and all of his interests and was an invaluable asset to the companies’ employees.”
Sadly for Musk, she’s now moved on, but having worked with her briefly in 2012/13 (to arrange an in-depth interview with Musk), I can attest that she was very charming and an excellent surrogate for Musk. She represented him well in a professional and personal capacity.
Read more about her in the biography and try find someone as loyal, talented and hard-working to be your right-hand man or woman. Good luck!
6. Work hard, very hard
Not only does Musk lead two hard-driving companies (which are 300 miles apart) – SpaceX (L.A.) and Tesla (Silicon Valley) – he’s chairman of SolarCity, and has five boys, two ex-wives and a tight circle of friends, that includes Google’s Larry Page. He claims to sleep an average of six hours a night, but almost every waking hour is devoted to his businesses. His ex-wife Justine Musk, describes his work ethic like this:
“I had friends who complained that their husbands came home at seven or eight. Elon would come home at eleven and work some more. People didn’t always get the sacrifice he made in order to be where he was. He does what he wants, and he is relentless about it. It’s Elon’s world, and the rest of us live in it.”
The only regular downtime he allows is to indulge in long showers, but even then, it’s really work. He says that’s when he has most of his innovative ideas.
So, the lesson for you is the same as that espoused by pioneering giants like Thomas Edison and Andrew Carnegie: there’s nothing like good old fashioned hard work.
Note: Although Musk comes over as a hard-driving maniac in this biography, he does have a more sensitive side. You can see this for yourself in this candid interview. He comes close to tears several times.
*For non US readers, South-west Airlines is a low cost airline, like Easy Jet