Elon Musk draws both ire and admiration, but few would accuse the world’s richest man of lacking perseverance. Leading Tesla and SpaceX from easy-to-dismiss startups to hard-to-ignore giants in the previously obscure fields of electric vehicles and commercial space flight, respectively, required a high degree of stubbornness.
Marc Andreessen, the billionaire cofounder of venture capital giant Andreessen Horowitz, believes Musk’s refusal to give up is what propelled the two companies to success. And in a time when many startup founders are taught to “fail fast” and move on, Andreessen thinks Musk serves as an instructive lesson on doing just the opposite.
“He should have lost both Tesla and SpaceX,” Andreessen said in an interview posted by ElevenLabs this week. “They both should have gone under multiple times. Basically with any other founder, I think they both probably would have gone under.”
SpaceX’s success was far from guaranteed. Andreessen described an “inspiring” compilation video of every SpaceX rocket that failed before the company’s first successful launch, saying, “It is rocket after rocket after rocket after rocket exploding.”
He added, “Who wants to invest in a company when the rockets keep blowing up? There were points where they almost lost the company.”
In August 2008, Wired asked Musk how he maintained his optimism given all the rocket failures. He replied, “Optimism, pessimism, f**k that; we're going to make it happen. As God is my bloody witness, I'm hell-bent on making it work.”
A month later, SpaceX became the first privately owned company to send a liquid-fueled rocket into orbit. Musk later admitted that, with the company “running on fumes” financially, a “failure would have been absolutely game over.” Instead, three months later SpaceX won a NASA contract worth over $1 billion for servicing the International Space Station.
As for Tesla, even as late as 2019 “it looked quite uncertain it would exist in two years,” legendary investor Jeremy Grantham recently told The Compound & Friends podcast. “They had a cash crunch.” Grantham admitted to the mistake of not investing in the carmaker at the time, despite being impressed with a Tesla he’d purchased. Tesla’s market valuation proceeded to rise tenfold from then to now.
'Fail fast' versus 'blind stubbornness'
Andreessen noted that many startup founders have adopted the “fail fast” mentality, which essentially says that if a business idea is not working after a certain point, it’s time to move on and try something else, rather than waste years of one’s life on it.
“There's something to it,” he said of the philosophy. “How much of your life do you want to spend pounding away at something that isn't going to work? A lot of companies pivot and modify their strategies along the way.”
But, he added, “I’ve seen greater success come from the opposite approach, which is basically like—almost but not quite—blind stubbornness.”
While Musk assembled “great teams” at both companies, Andreessen said, “part of it is he just would not quit. And then, by the way, not quitting is infectious. When you have a leader with that attitude at the head of the company, that's a big deal.”
Of course, not every startup is based on a world-changing vision, and some business ideas will simply never pan out. Elad Gil, a Silicon Valley angel investor, recently warned against wasting years of one’s life in such cases.
“People end up spending years and years and years of life just grinding away on something that isn’t going to work, because maybe it will work if I do these three more tweaks, and maybe it will work this month if I keep going,” he said on the Logan Bartlett Show podcast. “For a very small number of cases that happens, but for the majority it works immediately, or near immediately.”
Andreessen acknowledged the danger and suggested a point at which founders should consider whether to keep trying, saying “the basic framework I would use” is a startup having a five-year opportunity to prove it can succeed. He noted that there are exceptions, but “beyond year five, if there aren't tangible signs of progress and success, you just have a very hard time holding the team…at some point people lose faith.”
That can result in key talent jumping ship for opportunities elsewhere.
On the flip side, he said, “there are founders who spend their lives doing the fail-fast strategy. The problem is it's a risk minimization framework that has the effect of basically preventing success.”
Taken to its limit, he said, what it means is that “you never stick to any one thing long enough to make it work… There are people who do that. They might have had a chance of greatness and they just pulled the plug too quickly.”