What Elon Musk Means When He Says ‘I Don’t Know What a Business Is’
Elon Musk, billionaire entrepreneur and possible savior of humanity through technology, runs multiple companies. He co-founded PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla Motors and Solar City, and yet he claims he doesn’t even know what a business is.
That’s what he told Tim Urban of Wait But Why when asked about his knowledge of business. Musk scolded him, saying:
“I don’t know what a business is. All a company is is a bunch of people together to create a product or service. There’s no such thing as a business, just pursuit of a goal — a group of people pursuing a goal.”
When Musk sees a company, he doesn’t see profitability or marketable products — he envisions the common goal that every employee is passionate about and works for. More often than not, that goal is to better humanity and push the limits of technological development further and further. Even the very way he conducts “business” is unique.
When he started SpaceX, he became well-versed in the science and engineering of rockets so that he could effectively lead his team of rocket scientists. A CEO who fully understands every minute detail about every moving part of his company? It’s a rare find these days. When rocket launches go awry, it’s usually Musk himself who explains to the public what exactly went wrong.
When Musk hires employees, he looks at raw talent, teamwork skills and a passion for his companies rather than looking at degrees — in a sense, he handpicks those with a brain and the heart. He also told Urban that he wouldn’t hire someone who came off like an asshole because that’s what puts others off from coming into work and working long hours.
His companies do as much as they can to rely on themselves and not others. Tesla manufactures their own batteries for their electric cars and even sells them to other companies like Mercedes. SpaceX builds the vast majority of their rockets rather than relying on pieces developed by other companies in the the notoriously inefficient and expensive rocket industry.
And while there are many separate teams within each of his companies, they all work right next to each other — for each other — rather than operate via the usual corporate compartmentalization.
Musk’s high level of understanding of the science behind his products also gives him an unparalleled level of control of his teams. Urban writes:
“Some bosses are called micromanagers — at Musk’s companies, his level of involvement earned him the term ‘nanomanager.’ ”
So what most of us might call a company that conducts business, to Elon Musk, he and his team of passionate, intelligent and very hard-working team members are really just a group of people trying to accomplish something incredible — it’s a whole new machine. Is that not the true (and best) motive behind any startup?