Four inspiring lessons from Elon Musk and what they tell us about innovation

Joel Svensson

Whatever you think of him, there’s no denying that Elon Musk is one of the most influential businessmen of our time. After making $180 million from inventing PayPal, the self-taught programmer went on to found Tesla, Solar City and SpaceX, and even has his sights set on Mars.

His audacious visions and bold pronouncements have made Musk an inspiring and controversial figure – but we have to admit, he knows how to innovate.

Here are four quotes from “the real-life Tony Stark” that highlight the necessity of innovation.

#1 A constant feedback loop is critical

“I think it's very important to have a feedback loop where you're constantly thinking about what you've done and how you could be doing it better. I think that's the single best piece of advice: constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.”

Having processes in place to capture, measure and apply feedback and analysis is essential to keeping your operation lean and agile. And in today’s ever-shifting landscape, agility has never been more important.

An interesting example is BlackBerry (formerly Research in Motion), which faced a clear threat in the form of the first iPhone, but whose founding CEOs never seemed to take it seriously. Today, BlackBerry’s market share is less than 0.0%.

And thus the company that invented the smartphone became a cautionary tale; taking success for granted and failing to question oneself constitutes a deadly risk, even for accomplished entrepreneurs.

#2 Making a real difference is relative

“I think something that makes a big difference, but affects a small to moderate number of people is great, as is something that makes a small difference but affects a vast number of people. The area under the curve would be roughly similar for those two things. So it's really about trying to be useful."

Do you focus on making a big difference for a niche market, or a small difference for a mass market? According to Musk, all other things being equal, each approach will yield a similar amount of demand.

Identifying which approach is most suitable requires careful analysis of your sector and your product.

#3 Strive to do things better

"You shouldn't do things differently just because they're different. They need to be... better."

In striving to avoid their products being branded as “me too” entries, a lot of companies get hung up on differentiating their products from the competition. And while being different is never a bad thing, an innovation risks being seen as a gimmick if it doesn’t add enough value.

This is usually what people mean when they use the phrase “innovation for innovation’s sake”. If something’s sole purpose is to be different, it’s not necessarily all that innovative.

#4 Reverse conventional thinking

"When you want to do something new, you have to apply the physics approach. Physics is really figuring out how to discover new things that are counterintuitive.”

We think what Musk is getting at here is that while we humans are wired to look for obvious patterns, innovators are called to go beyond this and search for counterintuitive truths. Because sometimes, the obvious is wrong.

Just take the story of Herb Hyman, who decided to open a coffee shop right next to a Starbucks, despite Starbucks’ reputation as notorious killer of local businesses. Hyman instead reasoned that the Starbucks name would draw in droves of coffee-drinkers, and then the franchise’s long lines and steep prices would push customers right through his door. Within the first twelve months, Hyman’s operation had cleared a million dollars.

Hyman’s story is an extremely specific example, but it does go to show that sometimes, reversing the conventional thinking can pay off.

Joel Svensson

Joel Svensson is a Canberra-based freelance writer specialising in politics and business.

(Lead image: Starman by Elon Musk via James McCloskey / Flickr. Promo image: Steve Jurveston / Flickr)