The divine Musk of failure2/17/2016
Failure is a part of life. At some point, we all have to deal with it. Depending on when you encounter it for the first time, losing can either be devastating or formative. The most recent example came from Super Bowl 50. Heading into the game, the Carolina Panthers’ offense looked unstoppable. Cut to the end of the game, and after being demoralized by the Denver Broncos’ defense, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton put on the worst display of sportsmanship in recent memory. Losing sucks. However, turning the world on its head, the tech industry wears defeat as a badge of honor.
If you plan to wade into the waters of technology, you will fail. There is no way around it. Setting aside the fact Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and every other international tech conglomerate has failed at one point or another, failure is woven into the very fabric of the technology development process. During what’s known as the “project development lifecycle,” there is a phase of programming called “debugging,” which basically is tech-speak for “figure out why this thing doesn’t work.” By the time a piece of software is compiled, packaged and presented to the public for download, it has probably failed 100 — if not 1,000 — times (and it will probably fail in some capacity immediately following public release).
There is little doubt anyone in technology is as comfortable with failure as Elon Musk. Musk has flown through the ranks of technology to become one of its most celebrated figures. Equal parts mad scientist (he once suggested setting off nukes on the poles of Mars to make it habitable) and Tony Stark, Musk is a big problem guy. Climate change, renewable energy, global transport, interstellar travel; if there is a global concern technology can fix, chances are Musk has looked into solving it. Whether it’s Tesla, Space-X or SolarCity, it seems almost everything Musk thinks up becomes an industry-shaking innovation.
At the same time, each of these celebrated breakthroughs has encountered setbacks that would cripple a less ambitious entrepreneur. Started in 2003, the electric car company, Tesla Motors, is Musk’s longest running enterprise. Way ahead of the hybrid car craze, Tesla has been fighting for more than a decade to not only become profitable but to be seen as a real alternative to fossil fuel-powered vehicles. While Tesla immediately became attractive to car enthusiasts with its hot-rod-style “Tesla Roadster,” it wasn’t truly appreciated as a mainstream option until gasoline prices started to rise in the late 2000s. When the country started to see $3 a gallon fuel costs from coast to coast, electric cars suddenly seemed like a natural solution. Its sedans became so popular that, after 10 years of toiling in cash-burning obscurity, Tesla posted its first profits in 2013.
But gas is once again cheap, and consumers are back to guzzling it by the tank-full. No matter for Tesla or Musk — they’ve waded through an unfriendly marketplace before and have plans to release a gasoline-competitive, affordable vehicle in the next year. So Musk and company will simply stomach failure until then (and presumably longer if necessary).
Beyond the trials of Tesla, Space-X has seen several half-billion-dollar rockets blow up while trying to traverse space, and SolarCity has hustled for a decade waiting for its solar cells to become popular with consumers. Musk, like many in the tech industry, understands that short-term failures do not necessarily equal long-term losses. If an idea doesn’t work, Musk and every other crackpot technologist will either wait or move on to the next big idea. CV
Patrick Boberg is a central Iowa creative media specialist. Follow him on Twitter @PatBoBomb.