AUSTIN, TX – MARCH 11: Elon Musk speaks onstage at Elon Musk Answers Your Questions! during SXSW at ACL Live on March 11, 2018 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Saucedo/Getty Images for SXSW)
By Bryan Collins
Elon Musk is one of the most productive and successful business people of the twenty-first century.
Born in South Africa, he’s the CEO of SpaceX, Tesla, Neuralink and The Boring Co. What’s more, Musk helped build or co-found companies like PayPal, SolarCity and Hyperloop.
So how does Musk accomplish so much and enable his teams to succeed? He applies these five strategies.
Many business executives and engineers use jargon, acronyms and terms that make little sense to anyone but those directly involved in projects.
So how does SpaceX, a company that deals with complicated technologies that defy layman’s language, get by?
Musk purged acronyms from his company like weeds. He insists his teams communicate with each other using everyday language.
Musk sent an email to SpaceX saying acronyms unapproved by him should be eliminated. He doesn’t want a huge glossary of terms to manage or engineers to sit in meetings unsure of what others are talking about.
According to his biographer Ashlee Vance, Musk told SpaceX, “The key test for an acronym is to ask whether it helps or hurts communication.”
Learn From Failure
In September 2017, Musk released a blooper reel set to Monty Python music of How Not to Land an Orbital Rocket Booster.
The video provided many reasons for orbital rocket landing failures since 2013. These included an engine sensor failure, running out of hydraulic fluid and a sticky throttle valve.
That’s not to say Musk seeks out failure for its own sake. Tellingly, the video montage concludes with two successful orbiter landings. In February, the company vertically landed dual Falcon 9 rockets at Cape Canaveral.
He once said, “Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”
Plan For A Meltdown
Although Musk pushes his teams to achieve vastly ambitious goals under tight time lines, he plans for the worst.
Since it was founded in 2003, the electric car manufacturer has almost run out of cash several times and has been written off by analysts.
Musk had to prop up the company with his personal capital, and Tesla found financial security in more recent years only after it began shipping and selling its cars.
In 2014, the company left its financial woes behind after raising $2 billion by selling bonds to finance building the world’s largest battery factory. Musk said,
We don’t necessarily need all of the money for the Gigafactory right now, but I decided to raise it in advance, because you never know when there will be some bloody meltdown.
Combine Multiple Skill Sets
To an outsider, coming up with a solution for accepting payments online, manufacturing electric cars and launching reusable rockets don’t appear to have much in common.
However, Musk is a master of combining multiple skill sets from disciplines like engineering, marketing, organizational management and more.
In 2016 the Wall Street Journal reported that SpaceX is SolarCity’s biggest investor. Similarly, Tesla and SolarCity work closely together to improve their battery technologies.
After the Falcon 9 (Dragon) launch in December, SpaceX put the Roadster in the payload compartment with Rocket Man as part of the Falcon Heavy (using three Falcon 9 rockets) launch Feb. 6. The Falcon Heavy is the most powerful rocket ever launched into space.
CEO of Google’s parent company, Alphabet Larry Page holds Musk up as a model of getting things done because of his ability to combine lessons from his companies. He told Vance,
You should have a pretty broad engineering and scientific background. You should have some leadership training and a bit of MBA training or knowledge of how to run things, organize stuff and raise money.
Set Internal And External Deadlines
After founding SpaceX, Musk set a date to fly Falcon 1 in 2003, but the launch was delayed until 2006. Tesla, too, was notorious for missing key dates. Its first car, the Tesla Roadster shipped in 2008, some two years after its debut.
For a time, analysts and writers mocked Musk’s propensity to miss key deadliness and placed Tesla on a “Death Watch.”
Now Musk has learned the value of setting public and private deadlines. He said,
You want to try to promise people something that includes schedule margin. But in order to achieve the external promised schedule, you’ve got to have an internal schedule that’s more aggressive than that. Sometimes you still miss the external schedule.
More recently, Musk won a public bet on Twitter that his teams at Tesla could build the world’s largest lithium battery in less than 100 days.
Elon Musk is an extreme example of a hyper-productive CEO and business-person. That said, instead of procrastinating, you can radically increase your chances of success by studying the way he operates.