#65. Lessons from the Elon Musk world

Spent the holidays reading two books: one on SpaceX1 and the other on Tesla2. Both of them were really about Elon Musk (not surprising given his outsized influence in both these firms). While I don’t count myself as a Musk fan, it is difficult not to be impressed by what he and his teams have accomplished at SpaceX and Tesla. And one thing that is obvious in both the stories, the journeys were not pretty, odds were ridiculously low most of the time (as anyone who has ever worked in a startup knows) – which is what makes the double success even more admirable.

Four key takeaways:

  1. Focus on the big, hard problems – both SpaceX and Tesla were about upending two entrenched, quasi-oligopolistic industries that had gotten comfortable. That in itself made them ripe for disruption – but actually going after these industries and successfully building industry leaders in both of them, at the same time is something else. The point is this: don’t shy away from the really hard problems. The impact and payoff can be disproportionate. The biggest disservice would be not to tackle a problem just because it is hard.  
  2. Play the long game – Space and automobiles are both industries that created formidable entry barriers given the huge capital commitments required. To be able to upend such an industry, need to play the long game. But that doesn’t mean you play the game patiently – if anything, both SpaceX and Tesla set (and achieved) seemingly impossibly aggressive goals. While access to capital helps (Musk had a pile of that to begin with), but stubborn self-belief is even more important to stay the course. The point is this: know that solving most difficult problems take time and effort. And here’s the critical one – don’t assume that a long game is necessarily a patient one as well.
  3. Execution is in the details – one common theme in both these firms was (and apparently still is) Musk’s ability to get into deep engineering details. Which gave him the credence to push the teams to push their boundaries, which was critical – given that most of the experienced engineering leaders came in steeped in the traditional mindset of the incumbent players. Musk saw that – and hence, spent disproportionate time and effort with Product and Engineering, and not so much with say, Sales or Finance. What I found striking was Musk’s ability to grasp the critical problems and then inform himself of the nitty-gritty technical details. The point is this: while we all know that a detail-oriented execution mindset is important, equally important to spend disproportionate energy and focus on the things that really matter.
  4. Thinking from first principles – there is this constant debate about expertise: conventional wisdom says that experience is critical, especially when it comes to designing and building big, complex systems (cars and spaceships are as complex it can get). However, it is fascinating to note that both Tesla and SpaceX were largely built with engineers with little or no prior experience – there is something to be said about approaching problems from first principles and working very, very hard to iteratively solving problems. The point is this: while you certainly need expertise in your team, expertise often gets mixed up with experts. Expertise can be built very, very rapidly with the right mindset of thinking from first principles and working hard, iteratively.

If nothing else, great guidelines to building high-impact teams.

The books (both highly recommended)

  1. The story of SpaceX: https://www.amazon.com/Liftoff-Desperate-Early-Launched-SpaceX/dp/0062979973
  2. The story of Tesla: https://www.amazon.com/Power-Play-Tesla-Elon-Century-ebook/dp/B08MQ4KWWR

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