Elon Musk’s Advice To Entrepreneurs: “Work Like Hell”

Billionaires don’t tend to be ordinary people. But even among billionaires, Musk stands out as being a little different. He doesn’t so much see himself as a rich man, or even a businessman, but rather somebody on a mission to save the world. Musk doesn’t actually care all that much about money, except for how he can use it to get humanity closer to his goals. And so everything is about dreaming big while relentlessly focusing on the next stage of his well-thought-out business plans.

Musk began building his wealth with a company called Zip2 which he then sold to computer giant Compaq for $307 million in 1999. He ten went on to found and build PayPal, which he wound up selling to online auction site Ebay for over $1.5 billion, taking a handsome cut for himself in the process. Then, so the story goes, he took a couple of months vacation, and in the process realized that he was bored and wanted to save the planet.

Musk was then motivated to found SpaceX and Tesla Motors, two companies with a strong, ethical drive. SpaceX has the purpose of colonizing Mars so that humanity has more of a chance of survival if something awful were to happen on Earth – like an asteroid impact. Likewise, Tesla was founded with the intention of getting the world off fossil fuels, based on Musk’s belief that continuing to use fossil fuels will lead to the devastating changes to the climate in the future.

Time magazine recently listed Musk as one of the world’s 100 most influential people. And given that no billionaire has had such an avid fan base since Tony Stark, it’s a fair conclusion. The industrialist routinely pulls crowds in the thousands, just to hear him speak. And he has singlehandedly breathed life into two entire industries (space and electric cars) which today would arguably be nowhere without him.

Now worth more than $13.6 billion, is there anything this modern-day Isambard Kingdom Brunel can teach us?

Work Like Hell

If there’s one thing that most of us don’t want about the billionaire lifestyle, it’s the ridiculously long working weeks to make it all happen. Musk himself almost always looks pasty, as if he only has time to eat sausage and egg McMuffins for breakfast and it’s all probably because of how long he works. He works “like hell” and regularly puts in 80 to 100-hour weeks to make sure that projects happen. His reasoning is a little something like this: if his competitors are working 40 hour weeks, then it is going to take them a year to finish a project. But if he works 80 hour weeks, it’s only going to take him six months, putting him and his company at a significant advantage.

Don’t Just Follow The Trends

Just a casual look at Musk’s businesses tell you something about the man. He’s not in the business of solving regular problems. He didn’t just start up a new restaurant (like his brother) or a new online clothes shop. He reached out and tried to do things that were truly unique that nobody had ever done before. Paypal is an excellent example of this. He wanted to make sure that people could pay for things over the internet safely and cheaply, without having to necessarily trust the vendor on the other end. Then, of course, there’s SpaceX – a company which isn’t talked about enough. Musk has built a rocket that can land back on Earth, rather than burning up in the atmosphere on reentry, dramatically cutting the cost of going into space in the future.

Musk says “don’t just follow the trend,” which is reminiscent of what people like Warren Buffett often say. His advice for getting the biggest rewards is to focus on innovation, rather than worrying about the competition. Broadly speaking, he’s right of course. Apple enjoys fat profit margins while companies like Walmart operate on a knife’s edge.

Create A World Class Work Environment

Most car factories are dark and gloomy spaces – well, at least they were in the past. But Musk, like so many of his Silicon Valley brethren, recognize the importance of creating beautiful working spaces for employees. Musk’s factories look more like clean rooms or showrooms than vehicle plants. And he pays meticulous details to things like paint shops and flooring. Everything in his factories is designed to be modern and beautiful, and a great place to work.

Of course, Musk is benefiting from a whole raft of new products, designed to make the working environment better. Sites like, for instance, list how modern painting facilities are being built to make workshops and factory floors safer and cooler. It’s innovations like these that Musk is using to become a genuine, modern-day Henry Ford, creating a new deal with workers for the 21st century.

Start With A Premium Product And Work Your Way Down

When Musk started Tesla, what did he do? Well, he certainly didn’t leap into making a mass market. Instead, he focused on making a limited run of high-end electric vehicles designed to prove to the world that electric vehicles could be just as high-performance as their petrol equivalent. It was a smart strategy. Musk knew that battery prices, the main cost of an electric vehicle, weren’t low enough to make a car that appealed to everybody. So his only option was to target the high end of the market and find people who would be willing to pay over-the-odds for a performance electric vehicle. He then used the money he made from this to invest in the second stage of his business. This was to be a mid-priced, mid-volume car that catered for the moderately wealthy. Currently, he is using the revenues from this business to fund the final stage of his operation, to build a low-priced, high volume car that he can sell to the masses.

Take Risks

Musk has some advice for young entrepreneurs. He says that it gets a lot harder to take risks as you get older and start having a family. So his advice is to do it while you’re young and unencumbered by other commitments.

It’s funny, though, Musk himself has managed to succeed, all the while having a young family. Despite this, he still poured so much of his own money into his companies, SpaceX and Tesla, that he had to ask friends and family for money to pay rent. Perhaps, then, he’s warning us against what he did. It must have been very stressful.

Don’t Fear Failure

Musk has been asked many times in interviews whether he thought any of his ventures would fail. He says that he believed that both his space and electric car companies would ultimately fail. But he also said that if something is important enough, entrepreneurs should try to do it anyway, even if they think that they will ultimately fail, according to

It’s not easy to do what Musk has done, of course. He’s introduced a whole new product class to the market, as well as totally transforming public perceptions. So, if anything, his example is that even the craziest of ideas can succeed, with the right leadership.

Focus On The Signal Through The Noise

Billionaires seem to understand advertising better than the average Joe. Donald Trump, for instance, managed to conduct his entire primaries campaign on a shoestring, while his opponents dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into theirs. Musk is the same. He decided early on that he wasn’t going to bother with direct advertising. Instead, he chose to put all his extra money into research and development and hoped that his lofty ideas and boundless ambition would generate the necessary airtime for his companies. It worked: the tech press started covering him feverishly, and continue to do so to this day. Musk build a brand around himself and sold people not only products but a future that they could believe in and get excited about. Being a part of Musk’s businesses feels different.  

Make Something That’s Just Better Than Everything Else

You would have thought that with more than a century in the game, regular gas-powered car manufacturers would have a significant headstart over new car startups. And for the longest time, that was the case, with nobody managing to break the market for decades. Then along came Musk. He didn’t just want to build an electric car and hope that the world would buy into his vision. He wanted to make the very best car out there, despite being a new company and despite car battery technology being a largely untested technology.

Musk’s gamble paid off, and his car wound up not only being the best alternative fuel vehicle but also the best car in the world based on customer reviews. It’s also the fastest, and once battery technology matures, will be among the cheapest to run.

Always Be Learning

Finally, Musk says it’s important to always be learning. People think of him as a CEO, making business decisions and dealing with strategy. But the truth is that he leaves those jobs to other people. Instead, he personally works on the engineering side of all of his products, something few other billionaires would even dream of doing.  

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