The shared genius of Elon Musk and Steve Jobs
- Nov. 21, 2013
You'd say Elon Musk was crazy, except that he has an unnerving track record of turning his dreams into reality. His second successful Internet startup, PayPal, which was sold to eBay (Fortune 500) in 2002 for $1.5 billion only three years after its founding, was just the warm-up. (Compaq bought his first web software company.) His next act, Space Exploration Technologies, known as , SpaceX, became the first private company to deliver cargo to the Space Station and has picked up billions of dollars of orders from NASA and others. His electric-vehicle company, Tesla Motors (, with sales up more than 12-fold for the first three quarters of 2013, is proving that cars can be green and sexy. (Oh, and earlier this year, while running those two companies, he found time to unveil a radical new intercity mass-transport concept called )Hyperloop.) For all those reasons and more, Fortune has named Musk its 2013 Businessperson of the Year.
When you look at the incredible range of his endeavors and search for recent comparisons in the business world, only one emerges: Steve Jobs. Most business innovations involve only incremental improvement. And of those entrepreneurs lucky enough to succeed with bigger ideas, the large majority then stick to their industry sector for expansion and consolidation. Jobs and Musk are in a category all their own: serial disrupters.
Jobs created the world's most valuable company, and along the way transformed at least four industries (computers, music, animated movies, mobile communications). Musk may achieve even greater impact. SpaceX has already slashed the cost of rocket launches, outperforming the world's national space programs. Meanwhile Tesla is on track to become the first successful new automobile manufacturer in the U.S. in 50 years -- and in the process galvanize global adoption of electric-powered transport. He's pumped money and ideas into SolarCity (, which is now America's leading provider of domestic solar energy. )
It is no surprise, then, that Musk has often been referred to of late as "the next Steve Jobs." The comparison I want to make between them, however, is not just in the diversity and scale of their achievements. It's also in their thought processes. I see in them a mental trait that is incredibly rare, a trait that has made me a huge admirer of both men, and of their creations.
So what is their unique brand of genius? Here's how I think of it: system-level design thinking powered by extraordinary conviction. Each of those italicized phrases is critical. Let's dig in.
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