How do you build the future? You begin imagining it today. In this month’s Feature Doc we talk about one of the greatest business leaders and visionaries of our time, Elon Musk. Founder of Paypal, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX, Elon Musk is probably the most difficult entrepreneur to pinpoint into a nice story arc, but this doc from Bloomberg does a cracking job at it.
To delve into Musk’s core philosophy, Bloomberg rewinds to Elon’s childhood. Musk says, “When I was a little kid I was really afraid of the dark, but then I eventually came to understand that darkness is really just the absence of photons…well that’s really silly to be afraid of a lack of photons.”
This simple, seemingly redundant anecdote explains the entire thought process behind Musk’s greatest accomplishments. Elon Musk has achieved greatness not simply because he’s smart, but because he has an ability to translate huge concepts into simple meaningful results. The idea that darkness is a lack of light is understandable to most children, but Elon takes it that one step further and applies this complex molecular idea to an everyday problem.
With PayPal, Elon saw that the world’s financial institutions were still doing business with paper and pencil. He saw the internet expanding and realized, “money is really just entry in a database.” Some of the most brilliant ideas come from making connections. Most times these connections seem insanely simple, but the fact is it takes a very creative open mind to see them. The real trick is to be the first one to see them.
Elon got his next idea to build the solar company SolarCity while at the Burning Man festival. Like a lot of other people, he realized solar energy had a future, the question was how do we make that future affordable. Musk realized that if they could do 100 things just 10% better they would have a huge edge on the competition. To do this, he offered homeowners zero down-payment and free installation, making it easy and affordable to have SolarCity panels. By concentrating on small details, Musk didn’t revolutionize the solar industry, but he did become one of the largest solar providers in the US.
While SolarCity was all about creating sustainable energy, Tesla Motors was all about consuming sustainable energy. The biggest challenge with Tesla wasn’t how to build an electric car, that had already been done, the challenge was how to make electric cars desirable. Musk realized he had break the mold of what an electric car could be. Tesla did this by making a high-end sports car, a car that is sleek, sexy, and fast, Ferrari-level fast. Rather than creating an affordable product, sometimes its better to create an exclusive product and then work your way down.