Elon Musk's Essential Tips for Aspiring Entrepreneurs
See what you can learn from one of the most iconic businessmen.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk is a serial entrepreneur who keeps on winning. The real-life inspiration for Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Iron Man, the South Africa native enjoyed his first big hit as a Zip2 co-founder.
The forward-thinking mogul launched X.com, which merged with Confinity to become PayPal, but he’s better known for co-founding electric automaker Tesla and launching SpaceX -- a rocket company he hopes will one day allow people to live on other planets. Musk is also the chairman of solar panel design company SolarCity and a co-founder of nonprofit research company OpenAI.
Innovative ideas combined with hard work have helped Musk build a colossal net worth of $18.9 billion, according to Forbes as of May 23. If you’re looking to succeed in business, it would be smart to borrow a few moves from Musk’s playbook. Here’s what he’s learned over the course of the last decade.
(By Laura Woods)
Starting a business is a process of trial and error. During an August 2013 Google Hangout hosted by Google for Entrepreneurs, Musk emphasized the importance of asking for advice.
“Take as much feedback from as many people as you can about whatever idea you have,” Musk said. “Seek critical feedback. Ask them what’s wrong. You often have to draw it out in a nuanced way to figure out what’s wrong.”
Accept constructive criticism
As Musk mentioned in the 2013 Google Hangout, the constructive criticism others give you is invaluable. Sometimes critiques are hard to hear, but it’s all part of the learning process. If you want to succeed in business, learn not to take feedback personally.
This advice is useful even if you’re not trying to helm a startup. When you’re too close to a project, it’s often difficult to spot missteps, so input from others can prove invaluable.
Get your hands dirty
Musk didn’t build Tesla by sitting in a corner office watching employees work. During the Google Hangout, he explained that as company leaders, co-founders and CEOs have to pitch in where necessary to keep the company afloat.
“You’ve got to do all sorts of jobs and tasks that you might not wish to do, that are not intrinsically interesting to you,” he said. “You’ve got to be prepared to do whatever it takes, work whatever hours. No task is too menial. I think that’s the right attitude for the CEO of a startup.”
Anything but glamorous, the job of the CEO can include anything from answering phones to cleaning the office kitchen when your company is just starting out. Be prepared to roll up your sleeves and get to work.
Talk through differences
Although it’s important that new employees share your vision, team members can sometimes become misaligned. This is not ideal, but it’s not necessarily a deal-breaker or a reason to cut the person from your team.
If a staffer starts behaving in a manner that doesn’t align with your company culture, Musk recommended talking to the person and explaining the problem. In most cases, he said the person will change their behavior, but if they don’t, you need to be prepared to let them go.
Hire for cultural fit
When hiring new employees, you have to make sure they mesh well with your team. In the Google Hangout, Musk emphasized the importance of teamwork and aligning expectations from the beginning.
“I think it’s important that everyone understands exactly what the mission is, what the goal is and that when they join the company, they’re bought into that overall goal,” Musk said. “As long as that goal is clearly defined and understood and people are saying ‘yes,’ they agree with that goal when they join the company -- so, they are not just joining for a salary or something like that, but they believe in what the company is doing…”
Ask meaty interview questions
Job seekers looking for work at Tesla, SpaceX or any of Musk’s companies are put through the wringer. Not likely to be fooled by an expert interviewee, Musk believes tough interview questions show a candidate’s true fit for the position.
At the February 2017 World Government Summit in Dubai, Musk talked about the one interview question he believes reveals the most about a candidate’s aptitude -- though it’s quite the multifaceted request.
“Tell me the story of your life and the decisions that you made along the way and why you made them. And also tell me about some of the most difficult problems you worked on and how you solved them,” Musk said. “People that really solved the problem, they know exactly how they solved it -- they know the little details.”
Musk emphasized the importance of the question, noting that candidates trying to fake their way into the job can only elaborate to an extent until they’re caught in the lie. Therefore, if you want to hire the best person for the job, you have to dig deep.
Don’t let naysayers get you down
When Musk was named to the Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world in 2013, Richard Branson wrote a profile on him for the magazine, praising his ability to prove critics wrong.
“Whatever skeptics have said can’t be done, Elon has gone out and made real,” Branson wrote. Powered by innovation, the Tesla CEO continues to create -- even when skeptics believe his ideas won’t make it off the ground.
Have a vision
For many entrepreneurs, such as the late Steve Jobs, the mark of success is their ability not only to inspire but also to have a clear vision.
Whether he’s defending the price of Tesla stock or the need to colonize Mars, Musk doesn’t flinch. “It’s a paradox that Elon is working to improve our planet at the same time he’s building spacecraft to help us leave it,” Branson wrote. “But true vision is binocular —--and Elon Musk is clearly a man who can see many things at once.”
Get rid of process
“I don’t believe in process,” Musk said in a 2012 Wired interview. “In fact, when I interview a potential employee and he or she says that ‘it’s all about the process,’ I see that as a bad sign.”
Though shocking if said by most other CEOs, it’s probably not too surprising that a man focused on innovation likes to switch things up. In fact, his reasoning will probably make you want to throw process out the window.
“The problem is that at a lot of big companies, process becomes a substitute for thinking,” he said. “You’re encouraged to behave like a little gear in a complex machine. Frankly, it allows you to keep people who aren’t that smart, who aren’t that creative.”
Don’t focus on money
Already a successful entrepreneur in 2008, Musk explained to PBS at the time that he didn’t co-found Tesla to earn money. Instead, he recognized the environmental need to change the way vehicles are powered, so he created an electric automobile company.
“So this is not about wealth accumulation for me personally,” he said. “It’s just that I think this is a very important problem and it’s got to get solved, and if we don’t solve it we’re in trouble.”
Be passionate about what you do
Whether starting a company or accepting a certain job, if you’re not passionate about it, you won’t succeed. Musk was already a wealthy man at the time of the PBS interview, which perhaps allowed him to become an electric automaker for all the right reasons.
“If I got a bunch of money tomorrow, it wouldn’t change my life,” he said. “There’s nothing -- I’ve bought everything I want.”
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Get started while you're young
Although it might take a while for your business to achieve success, it’s better to start building your business as early as you can, according to Musk. During your youth, you’re empowered to take risks and focus your energy on growing your business without the yoke of so many life responsibilities. But that all changes the further along in life you are.
“As you get older, your obligations increase,” Musk said in an interview with Forbes. “So I would encourage you to take risks now, to do something bold, you won’t regret it.”
Only do it if it's right for you
It’s no secret that starting a business is difficult, but not everyone truly understands the amount of hard work and self-perseverance it takes to get a business off the ground. In reality, the life of an entrepreneur is not for everyone, Musk said as part of his business advice.
“I think it’s very difficult to start companies, it’s quite painful,” Musk told students from Draper University who came to visit his Tesla factory. “A friend of mine has a good phrase for doing a startup: It’s like eating glass and staring into the abyss. If you are wired to do it, then only do it, not otherwise. So think of it this way -- if you need inspiring words, don’t do it.”
Although it might seem glamorous to run your own business, Musk says you must be careful not to get caught up in the romanticized version of the life of an entrepreneur. Thanks to shows like Silicon Valley, which follows the journey of a man building a startup, and media displays of successful entrepreneurs, the hard life of the “working” entrepreneur is often downplayed. In reality, half of all businesses don’t exist after their first five years, according to a 2015-16 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report.
“Firstly, being an entrepreneur has been overly glorified in movies and TV shows, but for the most part, running a company is difficult,” Musk told the Draper University students. “Most of us are not ready for it or are more interested in the idea of being an entrepreneur rather than actually be willing to put in the work to become one.”
Distinguish your brand
The consumer space is already flooded with so many businesses that consumers, most likely, already have their go-to brands that they rely on for services. So, in order to encroach on that space and get people to venture out to your fledgling business, your business needs to stand out, Musk says.
“If you’re entering anything where there’s an existing marketplace, against large, entrenched competitors, then your product or service needs to be much better than theirs,” Musk said, according to Inc. “It can’t be a little bit better, because then you put yourself in the shoes of the consumer… you’re always going to buy the trusted brand unless there’s a big difference.”