You don’t have to be a jerk to change the world

Between Elon Musk’s daily shenanigans and politicians behaving badly, I thought we should revisit this article on business lessons learned from founders, which originally appeared in my newsletter. Not a subscriber? Click here to get more insights like these.

A while back, I read Ashlee Vance’s Elon Musk’s biography. Before he ruined Twitter, Musk built three complementary companies (SpaceX, Tesla and SolarCity) that meaningfully impacted three large, slow industries (aerospace, cars, and energy) in a short time.

How it started. Musk’s first company was Zip2, which helped print publications digitize their classifieds. He used the earnings from that sale to start, a finance company that became PayPal. (What’s his obsession with X? And is this why the URL for X is still This is how he got the personal fortune to start SpaceX and Tesla, and to buy Twitter. He is relentlessly driven to realize his vision of making Earth livable and creating a back-up place for humans.

How it’s going. Musk’s biographer points out that he burns through people. He fired his longtime assistant after a vacation because she had too high an opinion of her contribution to his success. And let’s not forget that he notoriously told his first wife – a successful novelist and mother of six – “If you were my employee, I’d fire you.” That was during the good times. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that:

  • Average tenure at his companies is two years of working 80-100 hour weeks. 
  • At one point in 2017, 90% of SpaceX employees said their job was meaningful but 86% said they were stressed to the point of quitting.
  • During one nine-month period in 2019, turnover among his direct reports at Tesla was a stunning 44% turnover. 
  • In 2022, loads of Twitter employees quit after Musk issued an ultimatum to sign on for “long hours at high intensity” or bail. 

Let’s look at how self-funded founders scale humanely.

Thanks for the honor of being a serf in your empire, sir

We’ve long accepted that the ends justify the means for “visionaries.” Their contribution is so big, so important, it’s worth the collateral damage.

Creating economic value while destroying human value – isn’t that the same crappy story of all of human history? What’s visionary about ruining people’s lives in pursuit of your goals?

I’ve got a list of three other pitfalls founders can and should avoid.

Let’s rethink what it means to be a visionary

We can be visionary without being jerks.

But this only happens if the person with the vision believes it’s both possible and valuable, and is relentless in protecting the big picture

We can achieve big, meaningful, innovative work and still be whole people. But, since we don’t often hold up the people aspect of innovation, it really does take vision to stand by the way you want to do it and find the people who support you.

So that’s my takeaway from this book. 

I want us to hold up visionaries who are equally uncompromising in getting to their own goals and supporting others. I want more of us to do crazy big things and bring people with us, not just because they have the money to buy our stuff but because they believe in the way we’re doing it.
If you’d like to get more of my advice for founders, grab 20 minutes with me this week. And don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter for exclusive early access to insights and advice.

Related Content

What founders and small business owners can learn from Barbie

Unexpected business lessons from Lizzo

6 ways you may be holding yourself back

More From Jill James

Blog Article

I blew all my money

Be a more strategic leader and more effective manager of your business finances by embracing the difference between investing and spending. I’ll show you how.

Read More »