What Elon Musk Can Teach Us About Time, Risk, and Commitment
Time. It’s one of the dimensions of a entrepreneur’s journey that’s difficult to forecast. Yet, it’s the dimension that every critic fails to acknowledge when armchair quarterbacking a startup’s success and failure – they have the advantage of 100% clarity of hindsight and with that clarity it’s easy to second guess the choices a founder makes. What the critic fails to remember is they didn’t have to face their own fears in the moment of the decisions and actually make that decisions with the limited data available at the time.
I was reminded about the ‘time’ dimension while watching Elon Musk’s interview in All Things D this week at D11 with Walt Mossberg. The Internet discussion starts at 46:40, where he encourages considering arenas outside of the Internet. His success with Tesla and SpaceX has been amazing and his encouragement to get Internet founders into other industries that haven’t been disrupted by tech is inspirational.
I’ve heard Elon speak a number of times and I continue to be amazed by his transparency of the ups and downs in what he has accomplished and the challenges that he has faced in the process. When people look at him now they see the outcome – they don’t see the back story – the moments when he stood on the brink of failure or dealt with extreme personal challenges.
In an earlier interview at the 2010 Founder’s Showcase, Sarah Lacy sits down with Elon (her follow-on story is here). Elon reveals that he invested $170M of his own money — $100M for SpaceX and $70M for Tesla. Sarah asks about him having a lot of skin in the game and his response is: “All the skin I had.”
He explains, “all liquid assets were sold, I don’t even own my house, and as it was publicized, I had to borrow money from friends late last year to fund living expenses.”
He also talks in the Q&A session here about personal happiness at 12:20: “2007 was bad, 2008 was worse and 2009 was even worse.”
He goes on to say: “Probably the lowest point was late 2008,` when the Tesla financing round fell apart because the economy went into a tailspin, the third SpaceX rocket launch failed and I was getting a divorce… that sucked. Then fortunately the fourth launch worked for SpaceX, we were able to close an internal financing round late Christmas eve in 2008.”
What? That part of the story wasn’t included in the latest version. He had a choice of putting all free capital into Tesla or it would die. At a certain point, the critics and the fans only see what’s happening “now”.
As entrepreneurs, we all face our own personal doubts – fears that we’re not as smart as we thought (or hoped) we were, fears that we misread the market or customer. Some of us live those fears out quietly in our heads, and hopefully we get to work through these issues with the people who love us, and sometimes we are forced to live out those fears very publicly.
Physiologists call in the Imposter Syndrome – the fear all of us have of “being found out”. It’s a universal fear, in fact a group of incoming Stanford students were surveyed when arriving on campus and asked how many thought they were the one “admissions mistake” being accepted by the college and allowed to be at orientation – 2/3 raised their hands.
But as entrepreneurs we believe – or we wouldn’t take the risk, even if it looks foolish in hindsight.