PayPal. SpaceX. Tesla Motors.
The second entrepreneur, next to James H. Clark, to have created three companies in Silicon Valley, each with a market capitalization of over $1 billion - Elon Musk’s resume needs no introduction in the tech industry.
Musk is as much a brilliant innovator, engineer, and product manager, as he is an entrepreneur.
As the chief product architect of Tesla Motors, he leads the company’s product strategy - right from design to engineering and manufacturing of the products.
He is also the lead designer of SpaceX, where his team has designed, produced, and launched a rocket that sent the first commercial vehicle to the International Space Station.
What sets Elon Musk apart, as a product manager?
In other words, what are the specific lessons that other product managers can learn from him to translate into their own work?
Hop into your Tesla and dive in to find out.
“Build sports car
Use that money to build an affordable car
Use that money to build an even more affordable car
While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options
Don’t tell anyone.”
- that’s how Elon Musk summed up his initial strategy (aka the first “Master Plan”) for Tesla.
When communicating his product strategy, Musk begins with the first, simpler step Tesla needs to take of building a sports car and ends with the bigger, ultimate goal of creating zero-emission electric vehicles.
The chronological order makes it easier for the readers to process the plan, considering that back in 2006, it was easier for us to imagine a premium car rather than an eco-friendly electric car, right off the bat.
However, while crafting the strategy, it’s only natural for Musk to have started with the grand vision of developing affordable alternative energy technology and then track it back into the steps that would take him to achieve it.
Vinny Lingham, co-founder and CEO of Civic, calls this the recursive product strategy - working back from an end goal set in the future, until you can identify and set key milestones that would advance the team to the subsequent stages, and eventually to that end goal.
“The offer of recursive product strategy is a way to build a company for the long-term. The trick to getting there is first to pave the right length of runway and back down it in reverse. And of course, as Musk said, don’t tell anyone.” - Vinny Lingham
Ten years later, when Musk had to share his second Master Plan for Tesla for the next decade, he chose to write it down in a detailed, clear, and readable format.
No slide decks. No visuals, graphs, or charts. Just plain prose.
While visual elements and slides are effective tools to convey ideas and strategies, written prose demands and ensures maximum clarity of thought and vision, from both sides of the desk.
Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, is another firm believer in the power of prose over PowerPoint. He even introduced a rule that his executives must present their product strategy and product proposals in prose, referred to as narratives.
“PowerPoint is a very imprecise communication mechanism. It is fantastically easy to hide between bullet points. You are never forced to express your thoughts completely.” - Jeff Bezos
That’s all it took for Elon Musk to receive a customer complaint on Twitter, devise a solution for the same, and drive it to completion.
A Tesla customer tweeted to Musk about other customers hogging spots at the local Supercharger station.
(Oh, and we love the country song punishment. :) )
It took hardly a few minutes for Musk to respond with a promise to act on it.
Six days later, his team announced that Tesla users would be charged a fleet-wide idle fee of $0.40, if they left their cars connected to a Supercharger after they’d finished charging.
Tesla also pushed out a software update along with a warning for the same.
“This type of communication contributes to what people love about Musk, and what they value in leaders today: authenticity. Not only does Musk say he values customer feedback--he hops on Twitter to prove it.” - Justin Bariso, Author of EQ Applied
According to Elon Musk, it is essential to question constraints, in order to make progress.
A product manager is generally expected to find solutions that accommodate the constraints laid down by multiple teams (like the engineers, designers, and customer-facing departments, to mention but a few).
In such cases, the distance between the product manager’s success and failure lies in investigating these constraints and figuring out if broken communication channels, silos, or inaccurate calculations are sabotaging the product.
“Product errors reflect organizational errors. One department will design to the constraints of another department without calling them into question. You should actually take the approach that the constraints you’ve been given are, to some degree, wrong. Because the counterpoint to that would be that they’re perfect - which never happens. So question those constraints. It doesn’t matter if the person giving them to you has a Nobel Prize. Even Einstein was wrong sometimes.” - Elon Musk
In an interview with Wall Street Journal, Elon Musk described himself as a “nano-manager,” while other leaders are often regarded as micro-managers.
“I always see what’s... wrong. Would you want that? When I see a car or a rocket or spacecraft, I only see what’s wrong. I never see what’s right. It’s not a recipe for happiness.” - Elon Musk
According to Ashlee Vance, the author of “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future,” his attention to detail was one of the major reasons for his business’s success.
He knew about (and obsessed over) every single thing on the rockets and the cars manufactured by his companies.
For instance, when none of his engineers wanted to include the retractable door handles on Tesla Model S, Musk insisted to go ahead with them.
And as it turned out, the handles became the car’s iconic feature.
“When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor.” - Elon Musk
Elon Musk is an ardent champion of the preservation of the human race.
His passions extend to space exploration, renewable energy, and even pediatric research - all narrowing down towards achieving that singular vision.
His belief in a bolder, braver future and his unshakeable commitment to that belief are what make him a one-of-a-kind inventor and product manager.
The first step to product management success is pretty straightforward: Identify the problem that you’re passionate about solving with your product, and make that your ultimate North Star (or Mars, like how Elon Musk did), and the rest will fall into place.