Musk is one of the most prolific entrepreneurs of our generation has started, led, inspired or invested in not just one business that grew to over a billion dollars in value but at least four (Paypal, SpaceX, Tesla, SolarCity). In addition, he’s also currently incubating ideas with, Hyperloop, Boring co, Starlink, and Neuralink (each having similar scale potential).
There are four key aspects that make him very different from a typical leader:
- Clarity in vision
- How he solves problems
- How he leads
- How he engages both with customers
Elon’s not perfect and there are certainly lessons to be learned from some of his missteps but I’m going to focus on four key areas that every entrepreneur should study:
Clarity in vision
Many companies lack a basic vision and mission statement and many that do have a vision statement don’t use it to run the company. Let’s look at the clarity of the mission for Tesla and SpaceX’s:
Accelerate the world toward sustainable energyTesla Mission Statement
Note that it says nothing about electric vehicles, batteries, solar, cars or trucks. Its clarity in purpose gives the company long-term direction on the purpose of their products and services.
This is true not only of Tesla but also of Space X…
Make life multiplanetary.SpaceX Mission Statement
It doesn’t talk about rockets, mars, astronauts or satellites. It’s focused on the long-term goal of where the company is going, in this case to Mars.
The clarity in vision helps as an internal north star but it can also help the business grow, attract talent and position itself among a crowded field of competitors.
Elon went further than just the mission statement and also publicly outlined what he described as the “Master Plan,” explaining in public how he would go step-by-step to move closer to his vision.
Build sports car
Use that money to build an affordable car
Use that money to build an even more affordable car
While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options
Don’t tell anyone.Elon Musk – 2006 in Tesla blog post
I can’t find a single other public company that has so clearly outlined its vision and how it’ll get there. The clarity in vision and mission give Tesla and SpaceX an edge because it both attracts the right talent and it gives all employees more clear direction in terms of “what’s right,” for the business. This allows the business to move faster at scale in the right direction.
Solving problems on first principals
The notion of first principals is breaking down a problem to it’s most basic elements. Musk’s background in physics helps him in this respect but it’s applied to multiple aspects of his businesses.
Musk explains that assumptions about the costs of batteries could be broken down into the chemicals that compose a battery and the raw costs of those chemicals.
Rather than asking what is possible from a business standpoint, he asks what is possible from a physics, chemistry, mechanical perspective. This gives him theoretical maximums and minimums and allows him to challenge his respective teams with the bounds rather than the market competition. This has allowed him to push the state-of-the-art on solar, battery production, rocketry and other technologies.
He sets aggressive deadlines for his teams ensuring that his companies are always working on the tasks that most directly lead to results associated with those deadlines. Tight deadlines take advantage of Parkinson’s Law. The idea behind the law is that: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for completion.” Even though these deadlines are often missed the deadline itself forces focus and prioritization and critical decisions that are often lacking in companies that set far out deadlines.
Musk welcomes competitors and competition. He’s expressed the willingness to go head-to-head with Ford, VW, Porsche, and Boeing. While some leaders shy away from competition Musk leans into these scenarios as it challenges him to produce the best products and technologies.
Working with Customers
Musk interacts directly with customers on twitter often engaging and inviting critics to complain directly. While he’s been criticized for this, it does give him a direct view into how customers view his products and where the business needs more attention.
Many CEO’s and leaders don’t provide visibility or direct engagement leaving such tasks to customer support or marketing departments. Direct engagement requires vulnerability on the part of the CEO (you need a thick skin) but the positive aspect of this engagement is that he’s able to keep multiple divisions and departments accountable for the quality that he’s looking for.
Lastly, Elon Musk likes to have fun. He injects fun and fun features, jokes, easter eggs and space balls references into his daily interactions, he doesn’t take himself too seriously even though he works incredibly hard. This sets a tone for both employees and customers in terms of what to expect from the products and the company in terms of fun.