The Genius Plans Of Elon Musk, Amazon, and Basecamp

by Kevin Evans — 4 min read

Photo Credit: Danor Shtruzman

Photo Credit: Danor Shtruzman

Previously, we discussed the foundation of how top performers progress faster is by choosing a vision for their work. Knowing where you are trying to go helps solve  the 1,000s of decisions that will inevitably follow. As we learned, we must always begin with the end result in mind.

Now comes taking that vision and turning it into a plan of attack.

The Master Plan behind Elon Musk

From Day 1, Elon Musk has been transparent that the master plan behind Tesla has been to provide sustainable energy to the world. In a blog post, he describes how he planned to achieve this:

  1. Create a low volume car, which would necessarily be expensive.
  2. Use that money to develop a medium volume car at a lower price.
  3. Use that money to create an affordable, high volume car.
  4. Provide solar power. No kidding, this has literally been on our website for 10 years.

Elon continues in the post, providing his reasoning:

The reason we had to start off with step 1 was that it was all I could afford to do with what I made from PayPal. I thought our chances of success were so low that I didn't want to risk anyone's funds in the beginning but my own…

A low volume car means a much smaller, simpler factory, albeit with most things done by hand. Without economies of scale, anything we built would be expensive, whether it was an economy sedan or a sports car. While at least some people would be prepared to pay a high price for a sports car, no one was going to pay $100k for an electric Honda Civic, no matter how cool it looked.

Elon could have jumped to Step 3, creating an affordable, high volume car on Day 1, and in all likelihood he would be among the majority of bankrupt car makers (Google Mr. DeLorean). All his prioritized tasks lists for the day would have been a fool’s errand. What Elon needed was leverage. The low volume Tesla Roadster was the means by which he wanted to achieve his more ambitious goal of providing sustainable energy.

What leverage do you need to achieve your more ambitious goals?

How Amazon and Basecamp Prioritize New Projects

When Segway was released in 2001, it was supposed to revolutionize public transportation. Instead, it became one of the most noted business failures of all time. Their assumptions had no foundation upon which to achieve their end goal.

  • Would consumers really ditch their cars for a $5,000 weird looking scooter thingy or willing to pay $5,000, in addition to their car?
  • Would local governments suddenly put in the infrastructure to make the segway a viable city transportation option?
  • Where would you keep your segway at work?

Of course in hindsight, it’s easy to point out the reasons why something did not work but Segway’s seem very thin when laid out.

Compare this to Amazon.

Before releasing any new product, product managers at Amazon are required to write a press release detailing exactly how the item solves a problem and who would buy it. Ian McCalister, a general manager at Amazon, notes, “Iterating on a press release is a lot quicker and less expensive than iterating on the product itself."

Here’s an example outline for the press release:

  • Heading — Name the product in a way the reader (i.e. your target customers) will understand.
  • Sub-Heading — Describe who the market for the product is and what benefit they get. One sentence only underneath the title.
  • Summary — Give a summary of the product and the benefit. Assume the reader will not read anything else so make this paragraph good.
  • Problem — Describe the problem your product solves.
  • Solution — Describe how your product elegantly solves the problem.
  • Quote from You — A quote from a spokesperson in your company.
  • How to Get Started — Describe how easy it is to get started.
  • Customer Quote — Provide a quote from a hypothetical customer that describes how they experienced the benefit.
  • Closing and Call to Action — Wrap it up and give pointers where the reader should go next.

While less formal, software management company Basecamp follows a similar practice. Before committing to a project cycle, Basecamp has “idea pitches” to see the impact it will have on their business. These pitches are happening on an ongoing basis where they try to poke holes in a potential idea to make sure it has no glaring weaknesses and if it can be fit into a six-week cycle, their preferred way of structuring work. The default response to when a new idea comes up is, “no, maybe later.”

As Steve Jobs said,

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.”

Your Personal Idea Lab

The above are all business examples, but what if you wanted to apply it personally?

Here is a simple 5-Question Framework you can use (get the spreadsheet here):

  1. What project / goal / habit / career / decision am I trying to make?
  2. Why do I care about it and what do I hope to gain?
  3. How will I feel about it 10 minutes/months/years from now from now if I do or don’t do it?
  4. Make a decision based on what you are most excited about / will have the most impact long term.
  5. What are the potential pitfalls of you not taking action and what systems are required to overcome these obstacles?

Similar to how Amazon is creating press releases for their products or Basecamp is doing idea pitches, you are selling your ideas to yourself. Because you only have so much time, most will not make the cut.

Investor Warren Buffett is notorious for his 5/25 rule. Write down 25 things you want to accomplish, choose 5, and actively ignore the rest until you accomplish your top 5.

Also, another way to frame your priorities is by focusing on what won’t change, Jeff Bezos’ strategy behind Amazon:

Akin to how journaling can help you deal with pent up emotions, seeing your master plans on paper can help you evaluate its true potential and the roadblocks you will need to overcome along the way. You need to Waze your ideas from the start!

Now get to work!

 

Written by: Kevin Evans

Head of Growth and Marketing at Intelligent Change. I have my hands in all things from emails to product creation. Passionate about improving mental health education. Sucker for donuts. You can find me in sweet home Chicago.

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