Have you ever considered why Musk creates the companies he does?
Elon Musk has a grand strategy. It’s just that no one seems to talk about it or the implications his vision may have for his business empire.
Like many people, I’ve watched with fascination and excitement as the Mars Perseverance rover landed successfully. What an amazing accomplishment. When you look at the plan to get samples back to Earth, the difficulties involved are almost mind-blowing. Good on them.
But this also makes me think about Elon Musk’s long-term objective to colonise Mars and the complexity that will involve in comparison — it needs far more than just space shuttles and satellites. What’s his wider strategy, and why does he dedicate so much time to his non-SpaceX businesses?
Musk, despite his maverick persona and occasional mishaps, is anything but crazy. You don’t get to build multiple successful companies by being a lunatic. Yes, you need what others might view as a crazy vision, but we all have those; what’s much more important is the ability to deliver that vision. That’s where most of us fall short and decide another Netflix binge is probably easier.
But Musk is also human, and, I think, particularly logical and calculating. He has only limited time to achieve his objective and like all of us, he must have to prioritise his projects. So why has he created the businesses he has? Is it simply because he has identified core industries in need of alternative thinking, as much of the marketing and investment discussions seem to say? I think that misses the point.
While Musk’s businesses are marketed at solving real-world problems, this is window dressing for the sake of fundraising and investors. They should actually be viewed from his often stated goal to colonise Mars. Each is using the same strategy – identify a core problem on Mars and how to tackle it, then create a company that learns how to address that problem, while funding itself by selling products for Earth-orientated issues. Take them individually:
This one is obvious. You need a way to get humans to Mars, and you need all of the infrastructure that surrounds that. Space X’s commercial endeavours, e.g. launching satellites and Starlink, offer rapid ways of learning how to deal with these problems, while providing commercial revenue — perfect.
This may not seem quite so relevant, but ignore the cars and focus on the power elements of the company. Reliable power is going to be absolutely critical to exploration and any hopes of a future colony. Look at Tesla’s website and there you have it — solar and battery power. By installing the World’s largest battery in Hornsdale, Australia, Tesla also demonstrated the capability to build batteries on a settlement basis. Ever wondered why a car manufacturer would do that? Because Tesla is a car manufacturer built on the core battery product, rather than the other way around. If it turns a profit, while learning how to make the best batteries possible, it’s a great solution.
The Boring Company
Mars has been described as a ‘frigid desert prone to violent dust storms’. Burrowing down would seem to offer a relatively good way to address this problem, which Musk himself has previously said. Get down into the ground, install your zero emissions batteries (fumes below ground are a big problem) and place solar cells above ground. Things are looking rosier. So ignore The Boring Company’s website that it aims “To solve the problem of soul-destroying traffic” and start thinking about the entirely different long-term goal that it was setup for.
Mars is not exactly hospitable to humans in our natural form. But neither is it great with the current state of autonomous robots. NASA’s Perseverance, one of the most advanced robots ever made, will still have issues when faced with certain environments, obstacles, breakdowns, etc. Having humans on Mars (as well as being Musk’s objective), though, makes sense — they are really good at sorting out problems as they crop up. Think Matt Damon, in The Martian.
This is where Neuralink may play a key part, although quite how, I don’t know (I imagine Musk does). You can see ways that such a machine-human interface could have great utility on Mars. It could allow a human to be plugged in to roving robots that are out landscaping, etc. on Mars, combining the robustness of the robot with a human’s ability for fine motor skills and problem solving (think of it like the robots in Avatar). Alternatively, this is where the concept of cyborgs come in to their own; “a being with both organic and biomechatronic body parts.” (Thanks Wikipedia). That may sound Dystopian, but when you take a step back, from a long-term sustainability perspective, you ideally want to to survive on resources that are native to your environment. On Mars, one option is to find effective ways to manufacture oxygen and water, but another solution would be finding a way to survive without. I’m not sure how I would feel personally about that, but it would be a solution.
I’m obviously not saying that the above is the only way of looking at Musk’s business empire but I think there is clear narrative that can be applied to Musk’s business decisions and strategy.
If I am right, what does that mean for the future? First, Musk might one day decide to bring all of these companies together for the common Mars cause, even if that’s just supply agreements between them. Secondly, I suspect that Musk will try and avoid ever giving up control of his core companies fully, because the moment he does, a typical Board may not agree with, for example, risking the entire business on establishing a colony on another planet.
What I find impressive is the concept that Musk may have looked at his grand vision for Mars, identified the core problems that twenty years ago, anyone would have said were impossible to address, and realised that no one would ever fund them. He’s then gone out and found ways to solve those problems by developing solutions which are also commercially viable products on Earth. Anything that isn’t needed (Hyperloop), he has passed on rather than divert effort into. What a great template for any Grand vision if that’s the case.
On a separate note, I am interested to see if there are other ideas that come along. I would have thought a robotics company company, for example, would be really useful, but perhaps I’m missing something, or Musk thinks others are addressing this problem well enough already.
I note that I haven’t talked about OpenAI in the above, which I think does tie-in, but simply because AI has the potential to be so intrinsic to so much future technology. Maybe that can be the subject of another future blog.