Entrepreneurs

The Real Reason Elon Musk Should Not Be Your Role Model

Recently, a young founder asked me about the options for selling his startup, now that he was losing his personal passion for it. Believe it or not, I hear this question a lot, especially from young entrepreneurs.

The answer to his question was easy, at least in terms of how to approach an acquisition. He was surprisingly already doing a lot of things right, starting with critically thinking through his commitment, to proactively soliciting multiple offers from various buyers, to refusing to settle just to get it done. 

The difficult thing was how torn he was about the decision to sell, and the fact that he didn’t know what this crack in his passion said about his still-nascent entrepreneurial skills. 

“This isn’t something Elon Musk would do,” he wrote.

First, understand that if you’re really an entrepreneur, you’re going to get bored.

I’ve been at the startup game for well over two decades now, and I love the earliest days — every moment from the initial idea to the launch to the first million dollars in revenue. I’ve gotten really good at that part, because I’m so driven to fire the initial rocket.

But that passion led to my founding several startups that did really well only to hit a ceiling of stagnation. 

It’s only been over the past 10 years or so that I’ve forced myself to get really good at the rest of the startup lifecycle–the boring (yes, boring) slog of climbing from that first million dollars to the second million dollars and then to 10 million and beyond. 

To get good at that, I had to essentially rewire my entrepreneurial brain to find the dopamine in those later stages. And in doing so, I realized that I wasn’t lazy or unfocused or any other label that would make me a “bad entrepreneur.” As it turned out, I wasn’t good at the growth stuff because I hadn’t learned it, and you need to learn it, because if you don’t, the growth stuff is scary and dead boring at the same time. Who wants to live a life in those two camps?

I do. Now. But only because I learned how to do it. It was a painful learning process full of failure and frustration, but I got there. Now the growth process is all I freaking talk about, because there are too many un-taught, would-be successful entrepreneurs walking that fine line of fear and boredom.

Why you shouldn’t emulate Elon Musk.

I like Elon Musk. He seems crazy enough for me to want to hang out with. Crazy like driverless-Tesla-donuts-in-a-parking-lot crazy. But I’m not picking on Elon Musk. Just insert your own famous entrepreneur here, then don’t be that person. 

Young entrepreneurs (and even old entrepreneurs) spend way too much time trying to emulate icons of entrepreneurship that came before them. The truth, however, is that usually the more iconic the entrepreneur is, the less likely anything can be learned from their success. 

Did Musk lie awake at night, haunted by fear and boredom over Zip2 or X.com? It may seem like a rhetorical question. Or course he didn’t. But maybe he did. The thing is, you don’t know. And if he did, he probably wouldn’t drop those stories into a podcast.

Or maybe he would, like I said, I like the crazy in that guy. But my point is that no two startups are alike, and no two founders are alike. The path that leads to your success and what kind of leader you’re going to be isn’t Elon Musk’s path. It’s your own. Walk it. 

Learn to become the entrepreneur you are.

I’ll admit, I don’t know the context of “Become who you are”–a quote attributed to Nietzsche. The source of the quote is irrelevant. It’s the meaning that matters.

The younger an entrepreneur is, the less experienced they are, for sure, and the more prone they are to making mistakes. But they’re also young enough that they can make at least a dozen more gigantic life mistakes and still have time to reinvent and recover. 

Younger entrepreneurs haven’t yet learned what can’t be done. And in figuring out how to do what can’t be done, they also need to learn to become who they are. It’s not a process of emulating someone who came before them, it’s a process of self-discovery. 

Discover who you are, what your strengths are, and where you have weaknesses, especially those driven by fear and boredom. Then either learn to overcome those weaknesses or find people who are better at those things and hire them or even sell them your company.

Then take that next step on your own path to success.

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

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