Three Insights for Innovators from Elon Musk

elon_musk_tesla_factory_fremont_ca_usa_8765031426Elon Musk was born in South Africa in 1971. He got his first computer at the age of 8 and learned to program. At 17 he went to University in Canada and subsequently settled in the USA where he founded a company, Zip2, which provided online travel guides. Zip2 was an early internet success and in 1999 he sold it to Compaq Computer Corporation for $330m. Straight away Musk started another internet company to provide online payments. It became PayPal and he held 11% of the stock when it was sold to eBay in 2002 for $1.5B.

In the same year, Musk founded his third company, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX to build commercial vehicles for space travel. In 2008 NASA chose SpaceX to transport cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). In 2012 SpaceX made history when it became the first commercial company to send a rocket into space carrying a payload to the ISS.

In 2004 Musk had helped fund the start-up Tesla Motors in order to produce mass market electric cars. In 2008 he became CEO and product architect. In the same year, the company launched its Roadster, an electric sports car powered by a lithium ion battery. In 2010 Tesla Motors raised $226m in its initial public offering. Elon Musk has helped shape the company’s many innovations. It was he who insisted on a carbon-fibre-reinforced polymer body. He took the unprecedented step of opening all the company’s electric car patents to outside use saying, ‘we will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.’ Unlike other automobile manufacturers, Tesla Motors sells direct to the public rather than using dealerships.

In 2013 Musk proposed a radical new concept for transportation, the ‘Hyperloop’ which would transport people at speeds of up to 700 mph through pods in low-pressure tubes. He has funded development of the idea and in 2015 he announced a competition for designs for a Hyperloop pod prototype.

He had expounded grand ideas on the potential of space exploration for the benefit and survival of the human race. To this end he created the Musk Foundation, to advance space exploration and the development of clean, renewable sources of energy.

Insights for Innovators

Think big. Elon Musk is not interested in just starting successful companies. He has a vision of space exploration for the benefit of mankind. He wants to find radically new and cleaner ways of transporting people. In his own way, he wants to use science and entrepreneurship to make the world a better place. He has set out to make a big impact. If you have a big vision then it can inspire people and give you and your team a stronger sense of purpose and value.

Bypass the normal channels. Tesla Motors sells direct to end-users. It has ‘galleries’ in shopping malls rather than expansive dealer showrooms. It makes all its patent innovation transparent and available to others. It is refreshingly different from conventional car companies and this increases its appeal to people who want an unconventional and cleaner car.

Use one success to build another. Elon Musk did not settle back after selling his first internet start-up. When he made his first millions he did not retire to a villa on the beach. He used his early successes to fuel his big ambitions. If you have an early victory then use it as a platform for further bigger and bolder ventures.

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Editor’s note: This post is based on a chapter in the new book, Think like an Innovator by Paul Sloane published by Pearson.


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Paul-Sloane-780812Paul Sloane writes, speaks and leads workshops on creativity, innovation, and leadership. He is the author of The Innovative Leader and editor of A Guide to Open Innovation and Crowdsourcing, published both published by Kogan-Page. Follow him @PaulSloane

Paul Sloane




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