The Falcon Heavy’s boosters burned for 154 seconds before they jettisoned into space. The main rocket pushed on. Four minutes later, the nose cone opened to reveal its payload: a cherry-red electric Tesla Roadster with the top down. The sports car stereo’s playlist included Bowie’s Space Oddity, Life on Mars and Starman.
The image is startling, incongruous, barmy. A car in space. At the wheel is a spacesuit, seatbelt on. Earth hangs behind it. The image jars like bad Photoshop. But it is real. A PR stunt for the ages.
It was all brought to you by Elon Musk, the South African-born entrepreneur and founder of Paypal, electric car company Tesla, and SpaceX, manufacturer of the Falcon Heavy, the most powerful rocket on earth. The event is a stepping-stone to Mars.
The scene is spawned from Musk’s entrepreneurial bravado, endeavour and ego. It is human folly and genius rolled into one. Life on Earth feels precarious, so we took to the stars. The heavens navigated by a dummy astronaut in an electric car, with a handy note for aliens – Made on Earth by humans – imprinted on the circuit board.
Musk sold online payments firm Paypal for $1.5bn ten years ago and has evolved into the most iconic of entrepreneurs since Steve Jobs, capturing the public imagination as a crazy-mad-genius figure – part industrialist, part scientist, part philanthropist, part superhero.
Musk is known for his ability to come up with otherworldly ideas and then pursue them with vigour, emotion, intelligence and self-discipline. He has grabbed the private space flight and electric car industries, ventured into solar energy and artificial intelligence, and promised super-high speed magnetic train travel, in a tube, underground. Oh, and he plans to colonise Mars.
Most take Musk’s more wild ambitions and boasts about the future he will create with a pinch of salt. His companies have missed deadline after deadline and recorded massive financial losses. But popularity of Tesla’s electric cars, and the launch of the Falcon Heavy capped a string of successes that say, you know what, this bloke is making impossible stuff happen.
As a young boy, he was obsessed with science fiction novels and anything you could run an electric current through – hence the nod to Nikola Tesla. Ditching his education, he founded Zip2, an online newspaper platform, selling it in 1999 to Compaq for $300m. Musk ploughed his share into an online bank, X.com. which became Paypal. In 2002, Paypal sold to eBay for $1.5bn. At 31, Musk netted $165m and ploughed it all into three startups: Tesla, SpaceX, and a solar energy company called Solar City.
In 2004, Musk invested heavily in Tesla, founded a year earlier by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning. Tesla is a quixotic venture, a niche electric car company in a nation addicted to petrol. Musk set out a top-down plan for a low-cost, mass-market electric car. Having received hefty Government bailouts, in 2010 it became the first American car company to float on the stock market since Ford in 1956.
But serious production delays on its low-cost Model 3 have compounded years of losses – $675.4m loss in the last quarter of 2017, more than five times worse than the previous year, although revenue climbed 44% to $3.3 billion.
But to those who admire him, Musk is a visionary, an irrepressible Howard Hughes-like figure revolutionising entrepreneur. His two latest ventures, Neuralink and OpenAI, take him into the world of artificial intelligence – which he regards as the biggest threat to humanity.
With an estimated net worth of $12.7Bn and a clutch of projects we’d all give our give our right arm to be involved with, what makes him tick? Job search firm Paysa gathered speeches and transcripts of interviews from Musk. It put over 2,500 words through the IBM Watson Personality Insights API to perform an analysis. So, what are Musk’s top five traits? According to the study, they are intellect, immoderation, cautiousness, emotionality and altruism. Other traits Musk possesses include orderliness, self-discipline, self-efficacy and being cooperative.
An interesting analysis, but how do they manifest into his everyday habits and behaviours? From my own research, here is what is in Musk’s entrepreneurial dna, and the takeaways we can learn from.
Never give up attitude One eminent trait of Musk is that no matter what the obstacle is, he never gives up. Musk is exceptionally motivated and self-driven. Unlike other ordinary men, he displays outright determination to continue and keep moving forward through all disparities. Musk has a clear idea of what he wants and is wholeheartedly driven to do the right thing in achieving what he desires. Persistence is very important. You should not give up unless you are forced to give up.
Insane work ethic Musk is a hardcore workaholic person. He believes that there is no shortcut to success. He works for 100 hours a week and has been doing so for over many years. He once said, If other people are putting in 40 hours in a week, and you’re putting in 100, you will achieve in four months what it takes others a year to achieve.
Aim for the big picture Musk has targeted exceedingly challenging obstacles, ready to take big risks and has no short-term gains in sight. There was a time when no one believed in his ideas, but this did not get his spirits down. He believed in himself. He is targeting to place a man on Mars and wants to retire on Mars with 80,000 other colonists. He says, I’d like to die on Mars, just not on impact!
In the words of Muhammad Ali, Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Musk’s enormous ambition to do what everyone says can’t be done far exceeds everyone around him. Doing the impossible starts with having a grand, albeit crazy, vision. He aims for breakthroughs instead of incremental improvements. He’s always targeted disrupting systems instead of innovating incrementally.
Work on the ground level Musk possesses the ability to think at the system level of design. He knows exactly what he wants and sits with his team, he is the connection between the market demands and engineers’ interest. Musk seems to be a taskmaster but his attitude sets the culture of the team. He believes he will know about the working of the product better if he gets his hands dirty by working with the engineers on the ground. He himself test-drives many of the changes to Tesla cars.
Believes in self-analysis Musk believes in self-analysis and critical thinking about oneself. He believes that people do not think critically enough. It is one of the reasons for their failure. They take too many things for granted and be true without enough basis in that belief. Don’t delude yourself into thinking something’s working when it’s not, or you’ll get fixated on a bad solution.
Deep-rooted passion I didn’t go into the rocket business, the car business, or the solar business thinking, ‘This is a great opportunity.’ I just thought, in order to make a difference, something needed to be done. I wanted to create something substantially better than what came before. Musk only tackles those problems where he has deep rooted passion and conviction.
A ‘crystal clear’ massively transformative purpose Part of Musk’s ability to motivate his team to do great things is his crystal-clear ‘Massively Transformative Purpose’, which drives each of his companies. Musk’s MTP for Tesla is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy. To this end, every product Tesla brings to market is focused on this vision and backed by a Master Plan Musk wrote over ten years ago. Have a vision, make it happen.
Be audacious What he has done is something that very few living people can claim: Painstakingly bulldozed, with no experience whatsoever, into two fields with ridiculously high barriers to entry – car manufacturing (Tesla) and rocketry (SpaceX) – and created the best products in those industries. In the process, he’s managed to sell the world on his capability to achieve objectives so lofty that from the mouth of anyone else, they’d be called fantasies.
Focus on signals, not on noise Musk never invests in advertising, preferring to spend on research, design, development and production. He stresses that many businesses get confused and deviate their focus from things that make their products and services better. Musk believes that all the efforts that are not resulting in better products or services should be stopped. Many of Musk’s most entrepreneurial characteristics are behaviour choices within your own control.
Be a constant learner Musk reads the way most people watch TV. Musk is the definition of a bookworm. An avid reader from a young age, when he was in grade school he was reading ten hours a day. His childhood reading included Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series from which he drew the lesson that you should try to take the set of actions that are likely to prolong civilization, minimize the probability of a dark age and reduce the length of a dark age if there is one. The books are centered around the work of a fictional visionary named Hari Seldon. This has been his guiding principle for life.
He is tirelessly, unflaggingly optimistic Musk also has an ace up his sleeve – he has a strong glass-half-full mentality, ignoring the doubters and naysayers. The secret to his innovation lies in his enthusiasm. If you wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be better, it is a bright day. Otherwise, it’s not.
Be clear about your purpose I try to do useful things. That’s a nice aspiration. And useful means it is of value to the rest of society. Are they useful things that work and make people’s lives better, make the future seem better, and actually are better, too? I think we should try to make the future better.
This is the ideology of Musk, and though basic, it’s actually very rare. Think of the other names we associate with entrepreneurship and innovation this century, they’re people who’ve built operating systems, devices, websites or social-media platforms. Amazing innovations yes, but not with the impact Musk seeks to achieve.
Falcon Heavy was an extraordinary technical achievement with flamboyance and a touch of playfulness that is typical of Musk, but it should not be mistaken for a lack of seriousness. Musk is not simply having fun building rockets and fast car, nor is he running businesses just to become wealthy or bear rivals. He wants to open up fundamental opportunities for humanity. Creating either of these companies would be a signal achievement, that the same person should have built and run them in parallel is remarkable.
But by no means should Musk count his high-torque photovoltaic astro-turbo chickens yet, like all entrepreneurial ventures there is room for failure. I suspect he needs what I call James Bond luck. He needs to dodge the avalanche, avoid the gunfire, ski off the cliff, pull the ripcord and glide to safety into deep, blue, warm water below, so that he can save the world.
But maybe he can. He has the entrepreneurial spark that emphasises experimentation, rapid learning and constant improvement. He’s more than just ideas and allure. Elon is a rare business leader who is interested in mankind as a whole and wants to explore how tech can change the world we live in.
Pacesetters guide the field. It may not matter in the end of you don’t win, but it brings people along. And if Musk personally doesn’t deal the death blow to the internal combustion engine, he will always have a lovely red car in space to console himself.