3 Takeaways From Elon Musk's Botched Intervention in the Thai Cave Rescue
I am a huge fan of Elon Musk and his business tactics. Unless you’ve tuned out of the news completely (which is totally understandable these days), you’ve probably heard something about the missing Thai youth soccer team and the effort to rescue them and their coach from a cave.
To recap the debacle, the soccer team went missing on June 23rd and the story picked up a huge amount of steam in the subsequent weeks. In early July, Elon Musk was getting messages on Twitter to help in the search to find the missing boys and their coach. Musk, who has certainly earned a reputation as a “knight in shining armor” problem solver over the years, agreed to send his engineers from SpaceX and Boring Co. to Thailand to see if there were any ways they could assist the Thai government.
After assessing the situation, Musk announced that his team was working on a mini “Escape Pod Submarine” to help the divers. However, the submarine turned out to be ineffective in navigating the caves, which led to a slew of criticism across the web. Many accused Musk of using this highly public situation as a cheap way to gain (more) exposure. People were branding him an egomaniac who had to insert himself into every big story.
So, what can entrepreneurs learn from this fiasco?
1. Stick to your tried-and-true specialties.
There exists a classic saying: “A jack of all trades is a master of none."
In an attempt to help the situation, Musk sent his SpaceX and Boring Co. engineers, who are experts in rocket science and infrastructure, respectively. They are highly qualified engineers, but they are not experts in cave exploration, which explains the failure of the project and the criticism.
Successful entrepreneurs naturally want to conquer new areas of business. Unfortunately, this mindset has led to countless business failures. As tempting as it is to expand your operations, never dive too deep into uncharted waters (no pun intended).
As an example from my own experience, E2M used to offer a number of services, but at the beginning of this year we decided to take a step back and focus on what we are best at. I have found that it’s much better to have a reputation for being exceptional in a few areas, rather than mediocre at many.
Now, Elon Musk’s case in this story is crystal-clear evidence that no matter how renowned you are in a certain field, stepping too far out of your comfort zone can lead to a number of unfortunate repercussions. While experimenting is important for business growth, never lose sight or focus on the specialties that made you successful. In some cases, your failures of today can cast a shadow over your triumphs of yesterday.
2. Pick your battles.
We are all constantly connected, and everyone has an opinion that can be heard around the world. News can spread like wildfire within seconds. If you are a household name like Elon Musk, every single word in your tweets and public statements is examined by the masses under a microscope.
In what was perhaps the major fault of Musk’s approach to this whole situation, he released a tweet that ended with some not-so-nice words for a key figure in the rescue effort. British caver Vern Unsworth, who co-led the operation and was instrumental in saving the soccer team, gave an interview bashing Musk’s efforts (with some choice words of his own). Essentially, he called the whole thing a publicity stunt and said Musk had no business getting involved. Musk, who was not exactly thrilled with the backlash he was receiving, sent a tweet that ended with calling Unsworth a “pedo.”
Now, in this case, I do believe the backlash Musk received is unwarranted. After all, he did not step in until he was publically asked. His intentions were clearly to help the situation in any way he could. However, regardless of your position, status or name recognition, getting involved in a name-calling Twitter battle is never a good look for a business owner, ever.
As an entrepreneur, criticism comes with the territory. However, you are the face of a brand (or in Musk’s case, multiple brands). Entrepreneurs need to hold themselves to a certain standard of integrity. No matter how fired up you might be about the words of a critic, you need to choose your battles (and words) carefully. Don’t let your emotions get the best of you. A single word in a public arena can lead to all kinds of trouble.
3. Never value publicity over results.
To rehash what was perhaps the biggest point of Musk’s criticism, many assumed he was pitching in purely to attach his name to a worldwide story.
Now, given the age of social media and current influx of 'talentless celebrities,' you might think that all press is good press. This is true to a degree, if your goal is to simply get your name out there and gain some recognition. However, as an entrepreneur, your goal isn’t just to get your name out there.
Regardless of whether this was the case with Musk, the biggest lesson to take away from this debacle is that results always trump publicity in the business world. Results often dictate the bulk of your publicity. For example, let’s compare two of Musk’s biggest news stories over the past year. For one, he gained worldwide praise for his work with Tesla engineers to restore power to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. This was due to the fact that there were positive results tied to his efforts. He is now the subject of all sorts of backlash for his failure to help rescue the Thai soccer team. Results are what determined the publicity.
In business, you need to be promoting the proven value you bring to your industry and why you are qualified to solve problems. Publicity fades over time. Your results are what make your legacy.
Being an entrepreneur, especially of Musk’s status, is a very, very layered job. Even for owners of the smallest startups, there are plenty of lessons that can be learned from Musk’s approach. Unfortunately, in this story, most of these are hindsight lessons.
Most importantly, in the business world, it’s better to prove why you are superior at one thing, rather than versatile in many things. The latter comes with a lot more risk. Next, and this should be obvious, don’t get into petty social media fights; no one wins. Lastly, your presence in the industry needs to be results-driven. Otherwise, the online world will be quick to give you negative labels.