Have you got what it takes to lead a start-up?

Over on Quora, the world’s best search engine, this question was asked this month: How can I be as great as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Richard Branson?

Justine Musk, a terrific writer and Elon’s ex, had a crack at answering it. It’s so damn good, here’s her answer, verbatim. As you read it, ask yourself if it’s possible for any established company to tolerate the kind of driven personality necessary for the creation of radical – not incremental but radical – new forms of business value. Most of the time, innovation runs counter to the current interests of the enterprise. That’s just reality.

Usually when a strong personality parachutes into a comfortable, mutually-supportive management team, institutional antibodies quickly swarm to manage and kill the perceived threat. But the truth is that only by pushing hard against the status quo and the self-reinforcing instruments of status and personal enrichment can powerful new brands and truly effective competitive responses be built.

Managing the conflict between an established management team and a newcomer brought in to spur change is the essential leadership challenge of the digital age. I should know. I’ve parachuted into newspaper companies too often. And I’ve helped lead them.

Here’s what Justine has to say:

Extreme success results from an extreme personality and comes at the cost of many other things. Extreme success is different from what I suppose you could just consider ‘success’, so know that you don’t have to be Richard or Elon to be affluent and accomplished and maintain a great lifestyle. Your odds of happiness are better that way. But if you’re extreme, you must be what you are, which means that happiness is more or less beside the point. These people tend to be freaks and misfits who were forced to experience the world in an unusually challenging way. They developed strategies to survive, and as they grow older they find ways to apply these strategies to other things, and create for themselves a distinct and powerful advantage. They don’t think the way other people think. They see things from angles that unlock new ideas and insights. Other people consider them to be somewhat insane.

Be obsessed.

Be obsessed.

Be obsessed.

If you’re not obsessed, then stop what you’re doing and find whatever does obsess you. It helps to have an ego, but you must be in service to something bigger if you are to inspire the people you need to help you  (and make no mistake, you will need them). That ‘something bigger’ prevents you from going off into the ether when people flock round you and tell you how fabulous you are when you aren’t and how great your stuff is when it isn’t. Don’t pursue something because you “want to be great”. Pursue something because it fascinates you, because the pursuit itself engages and compels you. Extreme people combine brilliance and talent with an *insane* work ethic, so if the work itself doesn’t drive you, you will burn out or fall by the wayside or your extreme competitors will crush you and make you cry.

Follow your obsessions until a problem starts to emerge, a big meaty challenging problem that impacts as many people as possible, that you feel hellbent to solve or die trying. It might take years to find that problem, because you have to explore different bodies of knowledge, collect the dots and then connect and complete them.

It helps to have superhuman energy and stamina. If you are not blessed with godlike genetics, then make it a point to get into the best shape possible. There will be jet lag, mental fatigue, bouts of hard partying, loneliness, pointless meetings, major setbacks, family drama, issues with the Significant Other you rarely see, dark nights of the soul, people who bore and annoy you, little sleep, less sleep than that. Keep your body sharp to keep your mind sharp. It pays off.

Learn to handle a level of stress that would break most people.

Don’t follow a pre-existing path, and don’t look to imitate your role models. There is no “next step”. Extreme success is not like other kinds of success; what has worked for someone else, probably won’t work for you. They are individuals with bold points of view who exploit their very particular set of unique and particular strengths. They are unconventional, and one reason they become the entrepreneurs they become is because they can’t or don’t or won’t fit into the structures and routines of corporate life. They are dyslexic, they are autistic, they have ADD, they are square pegs in round holes, they piss people off, get into arguments, rock the boat, laugh in the face of paperwork. But they transform weaknesses in ways that create added advantage — the strategies I mentioned earlier — and seek partnerships with people who excel in the areas where they have no talent whatsoever.

They do not fear failure — or they do, but they move ahead anyway. They will experience heroic, spectacular, humiliating, very public failure but find a way to reframe until it isn’t failure at all. When they fail in ways that other people won’t, they learn things that other people don’t and never will. They have incredible grit and resilience.

They are unlikely to be reading stuff like this. (This is *not* to slam or criticize people who do; I love to read this stuff myself.) They are more likely to go straight to a book: perhaps a biography of Alexander the Great or Catherine the Great or someone else they consider Great. Surfing the ‘Net is a deadly timesuck, and given what they know their time is worth — even back in the day when technically it was not worth that — they can’t afford it.

I could go on, it’s a fascinating subject, but you get the idea. I wish you luck and strength and perhaps a stiff drink should you need it.”

Looks like she knows her guy, right?

There is only rule for any leader managing agents of change. Have their backs. When the sniping starts and they turn around and look for you, make sure you’re there. When their product threatens the core business, let them go at it – self-disruption is always better than death at the hands of the competition. When their product has to change in response to what the market says and initial assumptions prove flawed, continue to give them your support. Change of direction is not failure. It’s the opposite.

You didn’t get into the business of building a new product to prove your initial assumptions were correct. You got into it to test those assumptions in the real world. There is real value in failing, and in the digital world in particular, you can moderate the scale of experimentation so that failure doesn’t break the bank: https://blastofwinter.com/2014/08/13/digital-product-development-means-start-small-fail-often/

This does not mean the leaders of your venture should be given an open check book to do whatever the hell they want. They should be held as accountable to goals and budgets as any other manager, and they must understand they cannot live forever spending a buck to make a dime – at some point the line showing the cost of customer acquisition and the line showing the revenue value of those customers must cross. Not everybody can get away with what Jeffrey Bezos gets away with…

What it does mean is that you have their backs until you’re absolutely positively certain those lines are never going to cross – and you understand why – or until they’ve proved their point, at which time you set them free.

That’s what leadership is.

For more of Justine’s commentary, go here: http://www.quora.com/Justine-Musk/answers

Posted by Peter M. Winter

Peter is a traditional media veteran and a digital media pioneer. He is an active angel investor and occasional consultant. He advises established companies on cultural regeneration and also consults to digital start-ups, helping them incorporate management process without sacrificing speed. He holds five technology patents. Peter is an award-winning public speaker and writer. His new book, "The Cannibal in the Room," will be published soon — it is the ultimate insider account of the battle to find a digital future for newspapers when the Internet came to town. He blogs on media and leadership here at blastofwinter.com and publishes his unconventional ideas about management on his LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/peter-winter-92b69033/ His collection of short stories can be found at medium.com/peter-winters-life-of-fiction


  1. Fabulous. Beautiful. How do you say it’s more than true?



    1. Don’t thank me pal. Thank Justine!



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