How to Launch Like Elon Musk


Starting a business isn’t rocket science. In fact, entrepreneurship may arguably be more difficult than rocket science. And yet, while the two endeavors have many parallels, it’s the approach that creates the polarity between success–and failure–amongst the two. 

Every entrepreneur wants to succeed, but 90 percent will fail. Rocket launches, on the other hand, have a 90 percent success rate. Neither plans to fail, and yet the reason for the difference may come down to how each approaches the prospect of failure. 

To become more successful and more like rocket scientists–and like the entrepreneurial mastermind Elon Musk–there are three things you need to know about rockets. 

1. What Drives Success 

A rocket requires vertical propulsion to lift off, and after breaking through the thickest (and toughest) portion of Earth’s atmosphere, the rocket redirects. The vertical propulsion has served its purpose, and to stay on course and reach orbit, the rocket requires horizontal velocity. 

Entrepreneurs have been wired to take what appears to be the path of least resistance by following the (mathematically accurate, yet deceiving) theory that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. However, what those breaking ground with out-of-this-world missions–and launching rockets–know, is that according to physics, staying on a straight path may in fact be the quickest route to failure. 

2. What Drives Failure 

If a rocket were to lift off and maintain a vertical trajectory, it would eventually fall right back down to Earth upon running out of fuel. The ability to change direction mid-flight is mandatory, but rockets do this very differently from startups. 

Rockets proactively pivot to stay on course. Startups reactively pivot when going off course. 

From a more proactive perspective, the question, “does it scale” is the equivalent to the rocket’s pivot–it’s a necessity, and when planned and executed with precision, it’s (literally) part of the equation to success. Founders know this question well. The difference may be that the answer if it were directed at a rocket scientist, would entail a meticulous description of not only whether or not it can scale and what that might look like, but exactly how and when it scales. 

3. Planning for Failure Produces Success 

The measure of success in a space mission is not gauged solely by its launch, but by its landing. Rocket launches are consistently successful because those planning it, plan for failure. By considering every possible challenge, hurdle, dead-end, and potential catastrophe, rocket scientists are able to design a highly strategic–even tactical–plan. 

Startups commonly plan every detail of what it looks like for things to go right, but it’s not always evident when things start to go wrong. So much so, that many don’t realize it until it’s too late. They pivot, they overcorrect, they overcompensate, and they come crashing down. 

To launch like Elon Musk, plan the entire mission from launch to landing. It’s not that you need to focus solely on the prospect of failure, but put yourself in the seat of the astronaut whose life depends on a strategy where every possible scenario has been considered and covered. Because even though you’re probably not a rocket scientist, you are a founder on a mission, and in many ways, that’s pretty much the same thing.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.


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