Cool article about a former employee of Elon Musk/SpaceX with some of her insights: https://www.businessinsider.com/what-i-learned-working-for-elon-musk-early-stages-spacex-2020-6
- Tereza Tranakas is an entrepreneur, communications expert, and former employee of SpaceX, billionaire Elon Musk’s spacecraft manufacturing and space transportation company.
- She landed a job offer from Musk after meeting him in 2002, and was hired as SpaceX’s head of communications and official spokesperson and was one of the first 100 employees.
- During her time at SpaceX, Tranakas says that Musk always often worked alongside his employees and emphasized the importance of having a clear vision; he does whatever it takes to reach his goals.
Elon Musk made history for successfully launching the first crewed commercial mission to the ISS from American soil. While he’s known for Tesla, his electric vehicle company, Elon’s first “true love” is space exploration. And with SpaceX’s recent launch, he just got one step closer to fulfilling his dream of putting people on Mars.
I worked with Elon in 2002 when no one knew his name and SpaceX was just founded. It was one of the many startups in California with bold and unrealistic (to some) ambitions.
We met at an industry event and chatted, and it wasn’t long before he made me an offer to join his venture. He was determined to attract talent that matched his same drive, ambition, and belief in his goals, which is why he preferred to personally recruit many of his staff back then. I didn’t have to send in a resume, and I didn’t have to go through more rounds of interviews. He made the offer and that was that.
It was his vision and stubborn determination that got me to join SpaceX in its founding year at its first headquarters in El Segundo. I was living in Washington D.C. at the time (working for another space venture) and had to commute across the country to California, but he really persuaded me with his very clear end goal: put people on Mars. This is still very much his vision today, and he’s said he hopes to inhabit the red planet with a million people by 2050. I remember him speaking with great passion and bluntness — he was always very direct and persistent.
When I started at SpaceX, the company had less than 100 employees, so I had the chance to work directly with Elon as his head of communications and official spokesperson. Even though I stayed on for a short period (almost two years), working alongside Elon during those startup moments taught me valuable business lessons that I apply even to this day.
1. Have a clear vision
Set a clear vision from the start — even if it’s overly ambitious — and make the end goal clear to the core team. This is essential for a business to succeed. It’s not just an exercise for attracting investors, but it’s crucial in setting a roadmap to the final destination.
For example, whenever Elon talked about colonizing Mars, the goal was always extremely well articulated. I was impressed by his detailed steps and I can still recall the steps he wanted to achieve this goal:
- First: Make commercial spaceflight affordable.
- Second: Make it so with reusable rockets.
- Third: Generate revenue from volume of commercial business, thus gaining credibility and funding the ultimate ambition to Mars.
His mind is extremely methodical and he was always able to make these huge ideas seem so simple and achievable.
And even though SpaceX moved along at a slower pace than Elon expected, he grew to become patient because of his clear vision (and patience wasn’t something that came naturally to him). Yes, the first years were slow and difficult — finding the right engineers and developing a low-cost reusable spacecraft is no easy task. In fact, it took almost eight years to get it right, and ten more years to put the first people in space. But Elon motivated his team and persevered because of his one clear vision.
2. Do whatever it takes to build a sustainable business
Once the vision and plan are in place, staying the course is the second most important thing you can do for your success. Even though he was very young when he started SpaceX, Elon knew that he needed the right people and the right plan to get him to Mars. Other private entrepreneurs might have expressed their own goals of sending people to space, but Elon was the first to succeed.
He realized that in order to make it happen, he had to finance his ambition by building a sustainable business around it — like designing more affordable spacecrafts and cooperating with NASA. It could not work with private money alone. He was a young and bold 30-year-old entrepreneur, and he was meeting with members of Congress along with Ministry of Defense officials and persuading everyone he met with to sign on to his plan.
He built rockets, attracted private and public clientele for payloads to space, learned from others’ expertise, and financed better spaceships that eventually helped secure important NASA contracts for manned spaceflight.
Anyone can dream up big ideas, but here’s what you have to ask yourself: does this idea translate into a sustainable and self-financing business model? And, what do you need to make that happen? Consider the path ahead.
3. Be a technical problem solver alongside your team
Elon is not a soft-skills leader, unlike many other American business leaders. I often found him on the factory floor, speaking directly to his engineers about how to make something work better. He clearly enjoyed the technical parts of his job (it was what he focused on most intensely, at least while I was at SpaceX) and even took on the role of chief engineer.
When a challenge presented itself, he would spend hours and days trying to figure out how to solve it. He is extremely persistent, and seeing your boss work that hard to find a solution was really motivating to the team.
Whether your business has more than 7,000 employees like SpaceX or 15 employees, you must constantly motivate your team during the hard times and lead from the trenches. Everything — from your level of involvement, to your passion, to your leadership style — is scrutinized and noticed by your employees and will determine whether they will be loyal to you or fall away. Figure out what your best skills are and use them to solve issues alongside your employees.
In Elon’s case, he’s worked relentlessly all the way from the startup phase to the most critical times of the company. He’s often said that the 9-5 job is not for those who want to achieve ambitious goals. He wants to change the world, he said, and that can’t be done during regular business hours.
4. Be direct
While Elon was more hands-on with the technical team, he didn’t micromanage the rest of us during my time at SpaceX. He always kept meetings short and to the point. He’d lay out the brief and then it had to be delivered on time and as promised.
Elon was always very direct when expressing anything, including disappointment. I’ve been in meetings that were tough to handle because his directness was sometimes interpreted as aggression. He was very demanding of all of us, but then again, the task at hand was not an easy one.
I never felt intimidated and, despite his harshness, he was always fair — he gave credit when it was due and objectively pointed out mistakes. It was never personal and always professional, and I think people who understood that were best suited to work alongside him.
I personally enjoyed his working style. It was clear, efficient, and straightforward. He had no patience for excuses or delays, and you always knew what he expected.
As a business leader, adopting a straightforward and direct communication style increases the effectiveness in managing people and time, which are both precious resources.
5. Don’t ever accept that something can’t be done
During SpaceX staff meetings, the technical team would sometimes run into problems with the rocket’s production, the materials used, or the engine or thrusters. But Elon never bought the “it can’t be done” line. He always pushed the team’s limits and would always challenge anyone who told him something couldn’t be done. And most of the time, he was right. There is always a solution or another way of looking at the problem. This is a mindset that I’ve applied to my business ever since.
Elon also knew that there was a high risk of failure when trying to build rockets, and he factored that failure into his expectations. Even though some of the country’s most talented aerospace engineers worked on his team, Elon’s rockets still imploded, and the company suffered from setbacks and delays.
Of course those complications were times of pure frustration, but even in those moments, he always pivoted and made decisions quickly — he’d send the team right back to the drawing board. Elon often rolled up his sleeves and worked alongside us to move past any hurdle.
Working alongside Elon inspired me to start my own business and to achieve my own goals. I’ve learned that no matter the size of the business, you must have very clear goals, make sure your idea is sustainable, and be ready to work relentlessly to get it off the ground. It may take years before you see the fruits of your labor, but if the goal is important to you, stay the course.
Tereza Tranakas is an entrepreneur, communications expert, former SpaceX employee, and the founder of Oxygen. Tranakas worked at SpaceX as marketing and PR representative and official spokesperson from 2002 to 2003, being among the first employees in the then-start-up company. After returning to her home country of Romania, she founded Oxygen, a top communication agency.