3 Key Lessons from the Elon Musk Bio

Elon-MuskThroughout history we have learned about revolutionary entrepreneurs such as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford & Steve Jobs.  But usually we are reading about them several years after their extraordinary accomplishments.  Very rarely do we get a glimpse of entrepreneurs of this caliber during their meteoric rise.  In Ashlee Vance’s biography “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future” – we get an in depth look into the life of arguably this generation’s most important entrepreneur.

I’m not one to normally choose a biography over another non-fiction book, but in this case, I was anticipating the release of this book for several years.  Elon Musk has routinely refused access to other journalists, but with persistence and a “won’t take no for an answer” attitude,  Ashlee Vance convinced Musk to give him access and deliver a great story about the man behind 4 of the most disruptive innovations in modern business.

Over the last few decades there has been a trend where many very smart individuals have pursued innovation in Internet based ventures (Facebook, Twitter, Apps, SaaS Businesses), whereas fewer people have been seeking innovation in the industrial sectors.  During this same period of time, Elon Musk has begun to revolutionize 3 industries with companies that many haven’t even heard of (Tesla, SpaceX, Solar City), and a 4th that everyone knows (Paypal).

Here is a quick rundown of each of these companies:

PayPal: operates a worldwide online payment system.  Revolutionized e-commerce starting back in the late ’90s.  Musk started the company X.com, an online financial services and email payment company, which eventually merged with another company to become Paypal.  Ebay purchased PayPal in 2002 for $1.5 billion. Musk walked away with about $180 million after tax…of which he put all of it into the three companies below.

Telsa: an American automotive and energy storage company, that designs, manufactures, and sells electric cars, electric vehicle powertrain components, and battery products. [wiki] Musk is the CEO and has invested millions into the company to make 100% electric cars a reality across the world.

SpaceXdesigns, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. The company was founded in 2002 to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets. SpaceX is the first private company to deliver supplies to the International Space Station.

SolarCityan American provider of energy services, headquartered in San Mateo, California. Among its primary services, the company designs, finances, and installs solar power systems. [wiki] SolarCity was founded to accelerate mass adoption of sustainable energy.

Key Lessons from the Book:

Elon Musk is one of two people to have created 3 separate billion dollar companies.  Let that sink in… Not only did he create 3 separate billion dollar companies, but he did it in 3 separate industries (payments, cars, and going to space). What he has done to this point is astonishing.  He is operating on a higher level than 99% of entrepreneurs.  For goodness sake, the guy wants everyone to have electric cars and solar powered homes, and on top of that he wants to colonize Mars.  This is someone who is a great entrepreneur to study and learn from.

Be Willing to Take Huge Risks

Due to the economic climate in 2008, especially with GM and Chrysler going bankrup, Telsa (a startup car company) was having a hard time raising money. On top of that, SolarCity had a deal with Morgan Stanley, who had to back out. And to make matters worse, SpaceX failed their third attempt in a row to launch their Falcon 1 rocket. Many thought all 3 companies were done.  Musk was also going through a divorce and the press was hammering him.  It seemed everything that could go wrong, was going wrong. So at this point he had all his money in these 3 companies and was faced with making a decision. He could pick 1 and put all the effort, focus and money toward it, hoping to come out of the recession with 1 successful company, or he could try and save all 3 companies – which would be a huge risk.  He went with the latter and defied the odds by bringing all 3 companies through their darkest periods and come out on top.  

Surround Yourself With Great People

Musk always surrounds himself with the brightest and best.  While he was in charge at PayPal, he and Peter Thiel put together a team of engineers that would go on to start many other successful companies. 

“PayPal also came to represent one of the greatest assemblages of business and engineering talent in Silicon Valley history. Both Musk and [Peter] Thiel had a keen eye for young, brilliant engineers. The founders of start-ups as varied as YouTube, Palantir Technologies, and Yelp all worked at PayPal. Another set of people — including Reid Hoffman, Thiel, and [Roelof] Botha — emerged as some of the technology industry’s top investors. PayPal staff pioneered techniques in fighting online fraud that have formed the basis of software used by the CIA and FBI to track terrorists and of software used by the world’s largest banks to combat crime.”

But it wasn’t just about hiring the smartest engineers.  Musk also seeks after people who will give him honest unfiltered feedback.  He wants to know what you don’t like about something more than what you like about it.  He relies on people to give him feedback that allows him to constantly improve his companies’ products and services.

Set Big Goals

The way Musk decides what ventures he pursues isn’t based on money but rather on what will have the biggest impact on humanity.  He has set out to achieve some pretty crazy things. Entering the car industry and competing with the major manufacturers seemed like a death wish, but yet Telsa has sustained itself and is poised to continue to make a dent in the industry and ultimately change the status quo from gas powered to electric powered vehicles.  Similarly, he has taken on the space industry in a way that no other private company has ever come close. NASA says man will be on Mars in 40 years, Musk says he’ll beat them there and do it in 12-15 years.  You can go down the list and see time after time that Elon has set goals that seem borderline insane, yet he still has the focus and drive to achieve them.  He isn’t wasting time on creating the next photo-sharing app, he is trying to colonize Mars….

A favorite quote from the book: 

“We’re all hanging out in this cabana at the Hard Rock Cafe, and Elon is there reading some obscure Soviet rocket manual that was all moldy and looked like it had been bought on eBay.” — Kevin Hartz, an early PayPal investor, describing an outing in Las Vegas that was intended as a time to celebrate the company’s success.

This book was a fascinating look into the life of a modern visionary entrepreneur with wild ambitions, that are unfolding before our eyes. Buy, read, listen and enjoy.