6 ways any organization can be more like SpaceX and Tesla

6 ways any organization can be more like SpaceX and Tesla

Every month we read a different book and find ways to apply the insights to challenges we face as one person trying to make a big impact. If you’ve ever felt like changing your organization was like turning a cruise ship, it could be helpful to look at how others approach rethinking entire industries. March’s book was “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future” by Ashlee Vance.

Elon Musk is a controversial figure with a particular leadership style and approach to business. I don’t advocate copying him exactly. But there were a few insights from the book that could be helpful for anyone trying to organize a band of people to tackle important and complex problems. There are ways that any organization can apply similar techniques in their own setting.


1. Put the “engineers” and “technicians” near each other

Siloing of perspectives is a huge problem once it comes time to integrate your work into the final solution. Musk helped combat some of those challenges by putting the engineer’s offices in the center of the manufacturing floor in both SpaceX and Tesla. That way the engineers would interact with the technicians and the production line every day.

Application to daily life

Many organizations have different people defining the budget allocation, business processes, the technical requirements, and actually executing the processes. It was set up that way in the name of efficiency (“don’t distract the people getting work done!”) But this causes huge problems when it comes to identifying issues and opportunities and building solutions. Better integrate your “designers” and “doers” and you’ll see differences in the quality of outputs and team morale. Whether that means physically putting them in the same space, setting up a shared Slack channel, or regular check-ins and planning sessions, don’t forget to balance functional expertise and cross-functional sharing. If this tactic doesn’t make a significant difference, send me a message and let’s troubleshoot.


2. Build your business around a vision

Musk’s standards and habits were difficult to deal with but according to Vance, people stuck with it because they believed in the broader vision. Having a vision that clearly drives decisions can help with multiple challenges like recruitment, fundraising, selling products that don’t exist yet, and keeping beta customers excited enough to stick around for the future.

Application to daily life

Check out this post for help with defining your own vision.


3. Create an ecosystem, then reuse what you already have

Investing in so many businesses, factories, and design projects at once is definitely risky, and Musk’s businesses have been on the brink multiple times. But now that they’re in place, he’s seeing more opportunities. The knowledge and products of one can positively impact the others or spark brand new business ideas.

“…SolarCity is a key part of what can be thought of as the unified field theory of Musk. Each one of his businesses is interconnected in the short term and the long term. Tesla makes battery packs that SolarCity can then sell to end customers. SolarCity supplies Tesla’s charging stations with solar panels, helping Tesla to provide free recharging to its drivers… Tesla and SpaceX help each other as well. They exchange knowledge around materials, manufacturing techniques, and the intricacies of operating factories that build so much stuff from the ground up.”

– Ashlee Vance

Application to daily life

Unless you’re as embedded in both the execution and strategic vision as Musk is, there’s probably activity going on or assets that you’re not aware of. Process models can be a helpful first step to identify where you could reuse existing work. Keeping track of the technologies you’ve purchased and/or installed and their full capabilities can also be a helpful reference. It’s like keeping inventory in your house so you don’t go out and buy yet another bottle of the exact same thing.


4. Don’t treat knowledge gaps as a barrier

The biggest inspiration I get from reading about impressive entrepreneurs is hearing about their early days entering a market and building their business when motivation was high and skills or knowledge were low. That is a big enough barrier to keep many of us in our lane, whether starting a new venture or taking a leadership role in our existing groups. If we didn’t learn it as a child, study it in college, or feel 100% qualified then we tell ourselves we might not be up for it. Musk reminds us that’s never a good reason to stop, cause you can always learn new things, practice skills, and recruit smart people to your cause along the way.

“At SpaceX, he had to pick things up on the job. Musk initially relied on textbooks to form the bulk of his rocketry knowledge. But as SpaceX hired one brilliant person after another, Musk realized he could tap into their stores of knowledge. He would trap an engineer in the SpaceX factory and set to work grilling him about a type of valve or specialized material.”

– Ashlee Vance

Application to daily life

What do you think is the most valuable problem to solve? What information would you need to solve it? Pick one resource to reference or person to talk to and make it happen this week.


5. Mix learning from others with tinkering in-house

Musk’s businesses made a radical departure from many other businesses in their industry and decided to manufacture a lot of components in-house. I don’t know all of the details to say if that was the fastest approach and how much re-inventing vs. improving the wheel was going on, but his strategy seemed to work. They mixed studying what other people had learned with deciding which expertise they wanted to have in-house so they could make changes and improvements rapidly in the long run. That way they could both benefit from the knowledge of others and focus on their competitive advantage.

Application to daily life

Do you have a knowledge base for inspiration, papers, or studies from other groups that anyone in your organization can reference? Do you devote time, tools, and processes for people within your organization to learn and explore new ideas?


6. Sell a lifestyle, not a product

Vance suggests that part of the allure of Musk’s businesses (and Apple under Steve Jobs) comes from the fact that they’re selling a lifestyle, not just products. With that view in mind, the marketing, the details, the systems and services around the products become just as important as the product itself. When you’re supporting those businesses you’re taking on a new identity.

“What Musk had done that the rival automakers missed or didn’t have the means to combat was turn Tesla into a lifestyle. It did not just sell someone a car. It sold them an image, a feeling they were tapping into the future, a relationship.”

– Ashlee Vance

Application to daily life

With the abundance of products and information, there’s a shift from quantity to quality of goods, from noise to simplicity. To curating fewer items that speak to your own values, needs, and preferences. It’s not always about the physical product you receive but the experience around it. The community you join, the chance to feel like a celebrity for a while, the packaging that perfectly reflects your favorite aesthetic. How will your customer’s life change after purchasing or using your product? What new identity could your product symbolize? Building out some customer profiles could help you identify opportunities to tweak your messaging, product, service, delivery method, or packaging to better fit with the lifestyle that your customers would love to have.


Whether your goals are to help people live on Mars, improve one person’s life, or anything in between, there’s a lot of untapped potential in existing companies. Tweaking a few elements could mean the difference between becoming a market leader and losing relevancy.

So which tactic will you try out? 

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