Entrepreneurship, innovation and your will.

I’m at SXSW, the annual Spring Break for geeks and in past years I have written about my observations from this intense and crazy world where technology, innovation, and hope collide. But this year I decided that I just wanted to kick back and take it all in rather than concentrate on developing content.

But I did hear a talk yesterday that pretty much blew me away.

The keynote speaker was Elon Musk, a founder of PayPal, the CEO of Tesla Motors, and the CEO and CTO of SpaceX. Oh yes, he also runs a company that installs solar systems and he has five kids.

Elon Musk is certainly on a different level of human civilization. He thinks, acts, and processes as if he is taking his direction from a newly-evolved strand of DNA.

But he told a story about why he started SpaceX that got me thinking.

Elon said that he has always believed that the human race should keep exploring space and thought that we would colonize Mars in his lifetime. But when he searched the NASA website, he couldn’t find any plans to do so. He kept searching, kept questioning, and was disheartened that he would not see a person land on Mars in his lifetime.

He originally started SpaceX to inspire people in hopes that NASA funding would be approved for a Mars mission but realized that it wasn’t going to happen. Somebody had to make it happen.

Here was the quote that captured my attention and imagination:

“We can figure out the technology for an interplanetary mission. But we needed the will to do it. Somebody needed to have the will to make it happen.”

And so that became his mission, to provide the will for the human race to move throughout the solar system.

So with no experience in the field, he has now created and assembled a private company that just sent a payload to the International Space Station. He also showed a video during his talk that demonstrated a successful test of a re-usable multi-stage rocket that could dramatically change the economics of space flight.

I had not considered this idea of “will” in a long time. It’s fashionable on the social web to talk about following your interest, your passion, or creating your art, but having the will to drive significant change … isn’t that the realm of something deeper?

He mentioned in his talk that he invested everything he had in his vision. Every penny he made from Paypal, his personal fortune, as well as everything he could leverage from every friend and business connection he had. “I’m all in,” he said.

This was both inspiring and disconcerting. If I had to be “all in” on a venture that could change the world, what would it be? Would I ever take that chance? What is the role of “will” in my life? Is “will” an under-tapped resource for all of us or something that only be activated by a super human entrepreneur like Elon Musk?

Any way, I figured if this story captivated me it might be interesting to you too.

You might have a dream, you might have the passion, but do you have the will?


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  • It’s an interesting story – thanks for sharing. The vision is audacious, but going ‘all-in’ seems to be highly risky – even for a less ambitious goal than colonizing Mars.

    In the book ‘Startup of You’, Reid Hoffmann talks about Plan A, B, and Z, where Z is the worst case scenario. His advise was not to take a drastic risk with a really bad Plan Z outcome. Leveraging everything you have to pursue a fantastic vision sounds like it.

    Maybe, different rules apply, if you have such a stellar record of success like Elon Musk has!

  • I agree with you Alex. I have been asked a lot lately in interviews about mistakes I’ve made as an entrepreneur. But you know what, entrepreneurs try to avoid mistakes! It is no badge of courage to make a mistake. It’s a mistake. And that’s OK — as long as it not one that is big enough to destroy you.

    Elon’s DNA is different. He is playing in fields where you have to take huge swings with a high probability for failure — but he has also surrounded himself with massive financial resources from fellow dreamers who can buffer the problems and get him through those failures. Thanks for the very interesting comment Alex!

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  • MrTonyDowling

    I found this extremely inspiring!
    I’ve always been interested in the ‘difference’ between those that win and those that don’t. The ones that get to the ‘top’ whatever that might be, and those that fall by the wayside.
    I wonder if ‘will’ is the answer? Seems to work?
    I love the idea, and I think you can apply to so much of human endeavour – from the entrepreneur winning at something as prosaic as business, through to the ‘Mum’ taking on the world to protect or nuture her children
    Great article as ever mark, you never fail to make me think
    And I have to say, Im a fan of the ‘all in’ phiospphy! But it must be very, um… exilerating!

  • Great message for my entrepreneurial students, Mark; thank you for packing your inspiration and taking it with you!

  • I haven’t decided on this myself, to be honest. But I did think this was a provocative idea and I’m looking forward to the community feedback! Thanks Tony!

  • Glad I could help out your students Kathy!

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  • Will is like being stalked by your soul. If it gets down into you, deep inside you have nowhere to run or hide. He couldn’t be anything but all in. Gutsy indeed, when so many would coast on the money. Will and willpower, phew! when those to are mixed you have something beyond a person. Good to throw this into the mix Mark. I’m thinking…

  • That is quite a comment my friend! It would have been easy to coast, wouldn’t it? But it was more than money, too. It was his reputation and legacy. An interesting guy. Maybe the most interesting entrepreneur in the world?

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  • Although I agreed to start a company over 12 years ago, and went “all in”, we knew we had a backlog of work going into the venture. Therefore, we didn’t have to go looking for investors…or throw our own life savings into the mix.

    I’ve always been willing to be “all in” with my time and commitment, but I’m also “all in” with keeping a roof over my family at all times. That trumps any large financial commitments – whether it be in my own company or just investments in general. I’m a big fan of diversification in those cases!

  • Shalin

    It is indeed an amazing story. Elon Musk is someone who inspires a different breed of entrepreneurs-the kind who have foolhardy dreams and then the achieve those and change the perceptions of the human race. If you have a dream coupled with the guts and conviction to fulfill those going “All In” comes naturally. As a proverb rightly goes “The entire human history can be summed up by the achievements of few great men who dreamed the impossible and then achieved those dreams”

    Thank you so much Mark for this amazing article that gives hope who tread this path and inspires many to do so.

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