The launching of the Heavy Falcon, with a whimsical payload of a cherry-red Tesla roadster with “Starman” at the wheel as a possible proxy for Elon Musk, is a brilliant piece of double-tiered promotion for the Tesla and SpaceX brands. Perhaps this had an element of kitsch, but nevertheless, it is an iconic image that will be indelibly imprinted in many peoples’ minds. No matter how you perceive this promotional gimmickry, it was a huge advertisement for the private sector space program, demonstrating how entrepreneurship and visionary thinking can challenge the status quo, and do things better at a lower cost.
Mr. Musk has been recently skewered by the business press, and Tesla’s share prices have taken a whipping as a result. The criticism is undoubtedly justified to some extent. After all, when he promised to deliver 20,000 model-3 cars per month, starting in December 2017 and only delivered 2,500, it is definitely a concern for investors. But he has overpromised and underdelivered in the past and bounced back before.
The SpaceX project is supported by a solid business plan based on launching satellites and providing regular shuttles to the international space station. Its reusable rockets substantially cut the price of these missions. On top of this, Mr. Musk has dropped a challenger’s glove to Mr. Bezos and his Blue space project. Competition between two private sector behemoths will bring down the price even further. Outside of the sheer chutzpah of the Starman event, there are lessons to be learned for even the smallest enterprises:
Whimsy and humor are potent advertising influencers – Looking beyond the Starman and the Tesla Roadster, many Super Bowl commercials over the years drew on humor to add impact to its message. This is true of other major sports events such as the Olympics and FIFA world cup tournaments. The lesson to businesses of any size is that adding a touch of humor to website content in posts and featured pages rivets peoples’ attention, and this is what promotion is all about.
Making your own employees proud – A little bit of fun in the workplace loosens the competitive stresses within the organization and contributes to greater bonding. This is something that many successful entrepreneurs know and practice on a regular basis. With artificial intelligence-driven bots being applied at every level of the organization, ingratiating humor may be what distinguishes human response.
Makes the big boss look more human – No matter what type of leadership style you possess, whether a socializer, challenger or dominator, a little lightness of being from time-to-time makes everyone appear more human and approachable. This tends to invite reciprocal openness from others. They may feel more at liberty to flush out their own ideas and offer them up freely.
Elon Musk’s missed milestones stimulate performance – Setting overly aggressive goals can be invigorating for employees that like to be challenged. The kind of people that are attracted to high-energy leaders are motivated to rise to the occasion and deliver the goods. Even if the exact goals are not achieved on time and on budget, the extra effort provides a much-needed boost. Problems and issues get solved more rapidly and make it easier to hit the next target. This may be a risky way to do business and certainly scares off more conservative investors, but it also adds excitement and flare. So even if precise deadlines are missed, many people are willing to bet that this type of entrepreneur will get there first. Perhaps this is why Tesla has achieved such a high stock market valuation, which still remains close to $50 billion.
Push and pull – It is necessary to recognize when it is time to push, and when it is better to pull back or take a break from driving a project through. This is a well-recognized approach that ultimately leads to results. Pulling back after a hard push is a good time to perform a statistical review, which measures what has been achieved to date. It provides a persuasive argument to carry on in the same way or to take a different direction. The original plan brought forward by the leader can thus be placed in a context of hard numbers and quantifiable data.
Failing may achieve higher goals – When the project is ground-breaking like SpaceX, high-quality electric automobiles, the gigafactory and the “hyperloop” for high-speed intercity travel, even if they do not entirely succeed, they encourage others to borrow some of the ideas and create their own versions. This stimulates the market to produce more goods that benefit mankind in the long-term.
A “Boring” sense of humor – It seems that Mr. Musk’s humor influences even the names that he chooses for companies. The Boring Company is actually a tunneling enterprise recently launched. Even more quirky, he managed to raise over a million dollars by what he referred to as an “Initial Hat Offering”, which sold baseball caps to investors. But the project has a very serious objective: to reduce urban congestion by placing cars on underground transportation units. Like Starman, this is another masterly promotional tactic to bring attention to a high-tech concept and gain investor support. In a way, these bits of outrageous humor reduce complex technology to its comprehensible essence. Politicians, like Ronald Reagan, were able to do this well.
Matching humor with great visionary instincts– While this is true of almost all of Mr. Musk’s projects, the gigafactory will provide an enormous boost to the entire electric car industry and make it a viable replacement for the internal combustion engine in the next decade. When the gigafactory was launched, the total demand for batteries was only 12 gigawatts-hours per annum. The gigafactory is scheduled to add another 40 GWH of capacity, more than tripling supply. Expanding on this vision the purchase of SolarCity, a solar-power and home-energy company, will help to absorb some of the surplus supply of batteries. The bet here is that storage may become the biggest market for batteries in the future.