How Did Elon Musk Do It? Lessons for an Entrepreneur

Author: Gina Hall | June 9, 2015

With entrepreneur extraordinaire Elon Musk’s biography having just dropped, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look back and see what the founder of Tesla and SpaceX did as an up-and-comer that allowed him to succeed.

“Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future,” by Ashlee Vance is a portrait of a man with a relentless pursuit of his vision, a unique intensity, and a social awkwardness.

What becomes clear from the start with Musk is something reminiscent of one of the last century’s most brilliant minds, Thomas Edison, who famously said that “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” Musk’s work ethic is second to none. He seemingly is never not working.

“We all worked 20 hours a day, and he worked 23 hours,” Julie Ankenbrandt, who worked with him at the start-up X.com, said of him in the book.

On vacation, Musk likely won’t be found soaking up rays with a Mai Tai in hand. Kevin Hartz, an early PayPal investor, recalls a trip to Las Vegas with Musk, telling Vance, “We’re all hanging out in this cabana at the Hard Rock Cafe, and Elon is there reading some obscure Soviet rocket manual that was all moldy and looked like it had been bought on eBay.”

One reason the entrepreneur might be so reluctant to properly vacation derives from a trip to Brazil and South Africa 15 years ago, in which he contracted a malaria infection. “That’s my lesson for taking a vacation,” Musk said, half-jokingly perhaps, “Vacation will kill you.”

And Musk doesn’t just demand that devotion to the job from himself, he expects his employees to be similarly passionate about their work. A Tesla employee who preferred to remain anonymous said that the boss sent him a mean-spirited email message when he missed a company-related event to attend the birth of his child.

“I am extremely disappointed,” Musk allegedly wrote, saying that the birth of the child was no excuse to miss the event. “You need to figure out where your priorities are,” he continued, adding, “We’re changing the world and changing history, and you either commit or you don’t.”

Ouch, that’s quite a scolding for what most people would consider one of the most sacred moments in life (the childbirth, not the meeting).

Musk, however, took to Twitter recently to dispute the allegation, saying it was inaccurate.

“It is total BS & hurtful to claim that I told a guy to miss his child’s birth just to attend a company meeting,” Musk wrote. “I would never do that.”

What is without dispute is Musk’s laser-focus on work. “One night, he told me, ‘If there was a way that I could not eat, so I could work more, I would not eat,” Christie Nicholson, the daughter of a Musk advisor quoted him as saying. “I wish there was a way to get nutrients without sitting down for a meal.”

Don’t be surprised if Musk gets into the nutrition business next, Musk is a problem-solver who always seems to find a solution when he puts his mind to it.

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