Almost anyone that has ever heard of Elon Musk seems to have formed some sort of an opinion of him from the various stories they’ve heard about him or from the Tweets he’s made. In the internet age a multi-billionaire CEO can't stay in the shadows. The recent claim that we’ll one day be able to fly anywhere in the world on a rocket in 30 minutes might seem like a stretch of the imagination for most of us I'd say. You'd have to ask yourself though why someone as high profile as Elon Musk would say things like that if he didn’t intend to deliver. He simply wouldn’t do that, would he?
As a designer I admire many of the products Musks companies have already designed – and some of those that he’s committed them to. Some of his ideas might seem farfetched at first but when you dig a little deeper* into Musks past you begin to see that he means what he says. *not intended to be a pun about The Boring Company, one of the latest ventures…
Inventors and entrepreneurs have always fascinated me. The stories of Howard Hughes, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, James Dyson, to name a few, all make for interesting reading. The story of Elon Musk makes for an equally interesting read. The latest book I read by Ashlee Vance details Musks rise to the super CEO we know today right back to before his troubled childhood in his native South Africa. I’d thoroughly recommend it.
It turns out that some of the ideas (that many have scoffed at) have been whizzing around in Elon’s brain since he was a young boy. Vance writes in his book that as a young child Elon would zone out of goings on around him, seemingly deep in thought. Sometimes young Elon would read two books a day to fuel his mind. A vivid imagination and the ability to seemingly dream in 4K detail have propelled Elon to become one of the richest men on the planet (that’s if you measure riches in terms of monetary wealth). The electric cars we now know as Teslas (disputes about company foundation aside) were part of Elon’s agenda a long, long time ago. Space travel was another fascination. When the opportunity to start SpaceX came along it wasn’t on a whim that Elon embarked upon a rocket building programme, it is part of a lifelong mission to get to Mars. In fact, it seems that dying on Mars is a goal for Musk (not in impact he insists). Elon wants to make humanity an interplanetary species.
Besides his amazing mental capacity there also seems to be a huge reserve in terms of physical capacity too. When you see the demands Musk puts on himself in terms of his schedule its quite sobering. He’s a driven man. It seems that the drive to make cash doesn’t simply seem to be to get rich, it’s about delivering his mission and making a significant change to humanity. You could say that Elon seems to be well set on the path to doing just that based upon his past achievements and those he’s aspiring to. During its lean start-up phase Tesla might have been considered something of a joke in the established auto industry. Then Tesla launched the Model S, the Model X and now the Model 3. Who is laughing now? The auto giants have had to sit up and take note of the shiny newcomer who sells direct. Musk’s ability to disrupt the establishment by doing the improbable seems to be working so far. How would a start-up ever get into the rocket business dominated by huge US corporations? By being innovative, achieving a lower launch costs and being alarmingly quick (by comparison to the conventional standards of the space industry). SpaceX has made the establishment look stodgy, expensive and slow. Another victory for the visionary against the odds.
Not simply content with shaking up the auto industry or rocket building business Musk wants to cure us from our dependency on fossil fuels and move us to solar energy. As with most renewables, whether it be solar, wind or wave you need to be able to smooth out the peaks and troughs in the supply. That’s were batteries come in, a means of storing and supplying the energy. Using the Lithium Ion technology developed for the early Tesla cars Musk is now in the process of building his first Giga factory not only to supply batteries for Tesla but for his energy projects. There are supposedly another four Giga factories planned, not all in North America. The push into solar has also been assisted by the work done by Musks cousins Lyndon Rive & Peter Rive. Their own start-up SolarCity (with Musk on board) grew at a furious pace and has followed a similar vertically integrated model that Musk has used to great effect at his other businesses.
It’d also seem that Elon Musk has an uncanny ability to find exactly the right combination of people and talents for the given moment. It’s not simply enough to have the cash to get started (that helps of course), Musk brings the right ingredients together and keeps track of it all somehow. In order to make these key people deliver Musk sets incredibly hard time and cost targets. Saying no doesn’t figure in Elon Musks vocabulary it seems. The mediocre needn’t apply. Those who can’t hack the pace soon whither. People have complained of harsh treatment. The truth is that without the unforgiving drive & focus of someone like Elon Musk to make things happen you have to ask yourself if any of these seemingly fanciful ideas for projects would ever get done. Opinions will differ. It’s an underlying passion to deliver his vision. You can’t deny it - based on results from SpaceX and Tesla that people deliver. Who’d have thought a company with not even two decades of history could make a re-usable orbital stage that could land back on earth? Sure, it’s made some people uncomfortable, but rightly so.
So? What next? Electric cars are not new, space rockets are not new, solar energy is not new, digging tunnels is not new either – but doing them the Muskian way is. How long will it be before ventures like Hyperloop or The Boring Company make any money? Who knows? (I guess that Elon Musk does… mind you he has been known to take the odd risk or two). You can be sure that Elon Musk and his businesses will learn a great deal along the way by pursuing these seemingly frivolous ideas and put it to good use. The very nature of pressurised and intensive Research and Development means that they’re sure to find a couple of interesting avenues to explore along the way.
It seems that Elon Musk is one of the few people in the manufacturing business that really truly understands and exploits the real value of synergies, and vertical integration, they are not just a buzz words to him. Elon’s vast & complex mind is mapping out his visions, creating synergies between his businesses and taking us places faster & sooner than we might have thought possible. It all happens fast! Anyone in an established industry should start having nightmares if Elon Musk even dares to dream about getting into their industry. History shows us that if he says it, he means it.