Elon Musk: Starting A Company Is Like Staring Into The Face Of Death

Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal and founder of Tesla Motors and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), sat down with Erick Schonfeld tonight just before TechCrunch Disrupt’s closing ceremony. During the brief conversation, Musk provided insight into how entrepreneurs can get started disrupting major industries like energy, transportation and space.

It’s not an easy route to success, he warns. Musk described starting a company like “staring into the face of death.”

“If that sounds appealing, go ahead.”

The concept was appealing to him, however, because he wanted to have a significant impact on the future of the world. It wasn’t just about making money. It’s about the important problems that have to be solved for humanity to have a bright future, Musk said. Had it been only about money, that would have ruled out space exploration and electric cars.

For entrepreneurs who feel the same sort of passion and drive to tackle the world’s most pressing problems, Musk recommends beginning an Internet company. “It would have been impossible for me to do electric cars and rockets right from the start,” he said. Unless you have a lot of capital, it’s difficult to convince VC’s to give you the amount of funding you would need for the bigger ideas.

Higher capital means higher barriers to entry. It’s why there’s not more innovation in space exploration, a business mainly funded by governments. For entrepreneurs, a better way to get into these sorts of industries is to have a successful, but smaller-scale, company first, then apply the success of the first company to a second one (and so on).

Musk, of course, would know about how difficult it is to have successful companies. He currently runs more than one, having founded both Tesla Motors and SpaceX. How does that work, Erick wanted to know? “I do it with great difficulty, it’s quite hard,” Musk said. “I don’t recommend it.”

Because Musk is considered a tech visionary, Erick (and the audience, through Q&A’s) asked for his thoughts on the future.

On energy side, by the mid-point of century, Musk said that solar power will be the single largest source of energy, if not the majority of energy. In 20 years, the majority of new cars manufactured will be electric, and 20 years after that, the vast majority of the cars on the road will be electric. (The “install base” for cars turns over around every 20 years, he explained).

Musk also shared his vision for the future of education, painting a picture of a future where teachers don’t lecture in front of the classroom, like a “boring vaudeville act,” but where education itself is “more like an interactive game.” Teachers’ role should be to help you when you get stuck, he said.

As for Musk’s own companies, they’re doing well. Although Tesla was hit hard by the economic downturn, he now feels positive about its future. And SpaceX will begin docking with space stations in the next three to six months, delivering cargo and bringing experiments back to Earth. In three years, it will be carrying astronauts.

Is he worried about that?

No. “It’s just biological cargo.”