In Startup Smart

Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk says the best entrepreneurs are the ones that follow through with their ideas despite the naysayers and their own fear.

Speaking to Y Combinator, Musk says that it takes dedicated and sometimes “crazy” entrepreneurs to make huge technological advancements.

“People sometimes think technology just automatically gets better every year, but actually it doesn’t – it only gets better if smart people work like crazy to make it better,” Musk says.

And these people have to face their fears head on and overcome them.

“I feel fear quite strongly,” he says.

“There are just times when something is important enough that you believe in it enough that you do it in spite of fear.

“People shouldn’t think, ‘well I feel fear about this and therefore I shouldn’t do it’. It’s normal to feel fear.”

Musk says an attitude that he had nothing to lose motivated him to launch the audacious SpaceX.

“When starting Spacex I thought the odds of success were less than 10%, and I just accepted that actually, probably, I would just lose everything but that I would maybe make some progress,” he says.

“If we could just move the ball forward, even if we died, maybe some other company could pick up the baton and keep moving forward, so we’d still do some good.”

Small ideas

While most of Musk’s ventures have focused on world-changing technologies, he says an idea doesn’t have to be a moonshot in order to make a difference.

“Stuff doesn’t need to change the world just to be good,” he says.

“It’s actually really about just trying to be useful and to matter. If you make something that has high value to people, even if it’s just a little game or some improvement in photo sharing, if it has a small amount of good for a large number of people, I think that’s fine.”

To decide whether an idea is worth pursuing, he proposes a formula.

“Whatever this thing is that you’re trying to create, what would be the utility delta compared to the current state of the art times how many people it would effect,” Musk says.

“So that’s why I think having something that makes a big difference but effects sort of a small to moderate number of people is great, as is something that makes even a small difference but effects a vast number of people.”

The most important technological advancements

Musk says that developments in AI technology and genetic reprogramming will be some of the most important for humanity.

“AI is probably the single biggest item in the near-term that’s likely to affect humans,” he says.

“We really need to make sure it goes right.”

He says AI tech can do immense damage if it falls in the wrong hands so Musk says creators in the space should seek to keep it in the grips of the greater public not in the control of a powerful few.

“The best of the available alternatives that I can come up with, and maybe someone else can come up with a better approach or better outcome, is that we achieve democratisation of AI technology,” he says.

The possibility of solving genetic diseases is the second most important development for Musk.

“If you can prevent dementia or Alzheimer’s or something like that with genetic reprogramming, that would be wonderful,” he says.

A third development Musk is keen to see progress is the final frontier of digital technology that is its integration with the human central nervous system.

“We have a digital tertiary self in the form of our email capabilities, our computers, phones, applications – we’re practically superhuman,” he says.

“But we’re extremely bandwidth-constrained in that interface between the cortex and that tertiary digital form of yourself.

“And helping solve that bandwidth constraint would be, I think, very important in the future as well.”

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