7 X-Tremely Successful Personal Branding Lessons From Elon Musk24 min read
We all know the brands Coca-Cola and Disney but I bet you can’t tell us who the company CEOs are…
If you can, well, we can’t hear you anyway.
So what makes the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX special? How have he and his companies become household names in equal measure? Did you know he wasn’t even the founder of Tesla?
Your grandma may think ‘Elon Musk’ is a widely popular men’s cologne but she’s still heard the name.
How? His personal brand.
While he sometimes sparks criticism (we’ll get to that later), Elon is top dog when it comes to personal branding.
Despite what you may think of him, there is much to be learned from his success. We’ve narrowed it down to 7 lessons learned from his career that you can apply to build your own.
Table of Contents
Personal Branding 101 – Who Are You?
How do you go from being bullied as a child to becoming one of the most successful (yet controversial) men in tech?
Your personal brand is your unique combination of skills, experience, and personality and the way you demonstrate those. It can be used alongside your business or as a solo venture.
If you’re trying to start or build a personal brand, the first thing to nail down is your niche. What’s your passion, your area of expertise? What do you want to be known for when people hear your name?
In saying that, you don’t need to be a business owner to build your own personal brand. Influencers use theirs to rise to that level (though many do become entrepreneurs) and so can you.
Elon Musk began his career as a computer programmer at the ripe old age of 12. After earning degrees in both physics and economics (a little later), he launched his first startup. Zip2 was created with his brother, Kimbal, and provided city travel guides to online newspapers.
Once that was sold, he used the money to launch his next startup, online banking company X.com. About a year later, he merged with financial startup, Confinity, to form PayPal.
Musk has long believed that for life to survive, humanity has to become a multi-planetary species. Once PayPal was bought by eBay, he was able to use the money from the sale to (literally) launch Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX).
The goal? Make spaceflight affordable.
After that, he invested around $70 million in Tesla, an electric car company co-founded by American entrepreneurs Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning. He later staged a boardroom coup at Tesla and took over the role of CEO.
While doing so, he created solar energy company SolarCity, which was later bought by Tesla.
You’ve probably read that to become successful, you must become an expert in a specific field. This ‘expert generalist’ has proven numerous times that it is not only possible but profitable to widen your net.
While it may seem like he’s everywhere in the business world, that is his niche. Studying many different fields has given him an “information advantage that fuels innovation”.
In saying that, despite spanning multiple industries, the common goal is putting futuristic technology into the hands of the average person. Creating a sustainable world (or two) and making the impossible possible.
Finding Your Niche
For those of you with a story to tell or who already know where your talents lie, great.
If you need some help figuring it out, here are 6 steps to get started:
- Write down your interests and passions
- Use your favourite search engine and research alternatives
- Identify problems you can solve
- Find your target audience
- Check out your competition
- Test your ideas out
Lesson 1: you can have multiple niches but focus on one at a time.
Use Your Expertise To Make a Positive Impact
There is a real ‘no-boundaries’ approach to everything Elon Musk does and he’s won multiple awards because of it.
When he first joined Tesla as an early investor, he took an active role within the company and oversaw the product design of the Tesla Roadster “at a detailed level”. He received the Global Green 2006 Product Design award and the 2007 Index Design award for his design of the model.
Before his later venture, Elon Musk knew little about rockets or space technology but he did have passion and curiosity. After being put in touch with Jim Cantrell, a former NASA aerospace consultant, he dedicated himself to learning everything about it.
By the time he founded SpaceX, he had literally taught himself rocket science by reading Cantrell’s college textbooks and talking to industry experts.
He was recognised for his design of the Falcon 1, the first privately developed liquid-fuel rocket to reach orbit. He won the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ George Low award for “the most outstanding contribution in the field of space transportation in 2007/2008”. Then, in 2010, he won the highest honour in the air and space industry – the FAI Gold Space Medal.
All of his startups have followed suit.
Source: CB Insights
Musk begins with an interest (yet little knowledge) in a certain topic that results in a company that transforms its field. His love of applied knowledge and his ability to learn extremely quickly means he can become an expert in any discipline.
He was even honoured with the Edison Achievement Award in 2014 for his “commitment to innovation throughout his career”.
How You Can Master Any Niche for Your Personal Brand
If Elon can…so can you!
This Medium article details how you can become an expert at just about anything in only 45 minutes a day:
- Determine what you want to master
- Break it down into a series of skills
- Focus on the most important skill
- Learn enough to get started
- Remove any barriers to practice
- Commit to 20 hours of practice
- Just do it!
Alongside your expertise, when it comes to building a strong personal brand, your soft skills are almost as important as your technical skills. To capture and engage your target audience as a thought leader, you must be likeable and relatable.
3 of Musk’s most prominent soft skills are:
- Critical thinking
Now, these aren’t your average CEO’s goals like making a profit (which isn’t his focus).
He often highlights his boredom with money, real estate and material things:
His goals for life are to:
- Move humanity away from a dependence on fossil fuels
- Make life on Mars possible
- Build vacuum tunnels for no-traffic, super-fast trains
- Integrate AI into human brains
- Revolutionise the solar and battery industries
Regardless of what you think of Elon himself, you can’t fault his ambition.
Ways To Make a Positive Impact
According to this Forbes article, there are 9 core behaviours of people who positively impact the world:
- Dedicate themselves to what gives their life meaning and purpose
- Commit to continually bettering themselves
- Engage with people in open, mutually-beneficial ways
- Invest time and energy in what could be
- Embrace critique
- Spread what they know
- Uplift others as they ascend
- View the journey as the goal
- Use their power and influence well
After what we’ve learned so far, do some of these sound familiar?
The thing is, you are capable of all of these and more. It’ll just take some hard work.
Lesson 2: you can become an expert in any field and make an impact with dedication.
Be Willing To Change and Adapt in Your Personal Branding Journey
Many ideas and businesses fall apart as they pursue a concept that’s doomed to fail.
Why? Because they don’t take into account the pain points of their target market before starting.
The first question to ask is, what problem are you trying to solve?
PalmPilot Pivot to PayPal
Did you know, back in 1999, PayPal was voted the ‘worst business idea of the year’ when it was released in its initial form? It began as security software for transferring money between PalmPilots. However, even at its most popular, only a small minority of US consumers owned one (or any type of handheld personal assistant device, for that matter).
Luckily, this was around the time that eCommerce was starting to boom and PayPal founders, Peter Thiel and Max Levchin, met Elon Musk.
Elon’s company (X.com) allowed users to send money via email. The two companies merged, scrapped the initial idea and focused on developing an online wallet. This proved extremely popular with eBay users and its popularity soared.
With Musk’s aggressive marketing strategy, growth exploded. From January through August 2000, PayPal accounts grew from 12,000 to 2.7 million.
As a result, Elon became CEO of PayPal…but not for long (more on that next!)
What could have been another startup failure spawned “billionaires, many millionaires and a number of generation-defining companies” – resulting in the ‘PayPal Mafia’.
Whether you’re trying to convert your business brand into a personal one or are starting a personal brand from scratch, don’t be afraid to change your focus if it isn’t working.
Elon has always adapted (when necessary) to move with the trends and create a product with a clear solution to the end-user. It sounds obvious but many people allow an obsession with a particular idea to blind them from the truth about the market.
Pivoting Your Personal Brand
No matter how good you believe your strategy to be, if the metrics aren’t adding up – change it.
So, what are some tips for focusing your personal brand on another area?
- If you have an existing audience, find out what they want more of by reading the comments on your content
- If you’re a newbie, research your competitors and read their feedback
- Engage with your target audience and ask for insight
- Network with those in your industry
- Curate and create content that’s relevant
- Keep your audience informed throughout the process
- LinkedIn is a great platform for personal branding research and inspiration
- You will inevitably lose some followers – but that’s ok!
Lesson 3: if something isn’t working for you, change it.
Failure Will Not Destroy You or Your Personal Brand
Sometimes, it’s hard to believe you can come back from failure. Elon Musk is proof you can – again and again.
He was CEO of PayPal – one of the fastest-growing, most influential tech companies of its time. So, what happened?
Well, in late-2000, Musk tried to convince the board to move their servers from the free Unix operating system to Microsoft Windows. This did not go down well and started a huge fight between the founders.
As a result, while Elon was on a flight to Australia for a well-deserved vacation, he was fired.
During his 2012 commencement speech at the California Institute of Technology, he explained his next pivot. “Going from PayPal, I thought, ‘Well, what are some of the other problems that are likely to most affect the future of humanity?’”
Rather than focusing on making a profit, he wanted to make a humanitarian change.
As he remained the majority shareholder of PayPal, when eBay bought it a couple of years later for $1.5 billion, Musk got $180 million.
This came at the perfect time and gave him the funds to found SpaceX and invest heavily in Tesla. However, it wasn’t smooth sailing from there and both companies have had their share of defeats.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the things Elon has bounced back from:
|Netscape||Didn’t get the job|
|Zip2||Removed as CEO of own company|
|PayPal||Fired whilst on vacation|
|SpaceX||Multiple launch failures and almost went bankrupt|
|Tesla||Delays in production and almost went bankrupt|
|Personal Life||Multiple fines for behaviour and tweets|
|Personal Life||Lived off personal loans from friends in 2008 to keep his failing companies afloat|
|Personal Life||3 divorces|
Part of Elon’s personal brand is a willingness to take massive risks and endure multiple failures to turn them into wins. He has previously said:
“If something is important enough you should try, even if the probable outcome is failure.”
And what’s better than learning from failure? Making fun of it as you do.
Check out this compilation from SpaceX’s YouTube channel:
Even Walt Disney (perhaps one of the most famous examples of self-branding) had failures. He once said:
“I think it’s important to have a good hard failure when you’re young. I learned a lot out of that. Because it makes you kind of aware of what can happen to you. Because of it, I’ve never had any fear in my whole life when we’ve been near collapse…”
Similarly, Elon admits he’s made plenty of mistakes:
If Walt Disney and Elon Musk can admit failure and bounce back – you can too!
Lesson 4: don’t be afraid of failure, always aim high.
Build an Online Presence Using Social Media
For most marketers and branding experts, social media platforms provide a simple way of engaging with consumers directly. According to GlobalWebIndex, each person spends an average of 2 hours and 25 minutes on social networks and messaging.
While a personal website is important, rather than trying to get people to come to you initially, it’s much easier to go to them. Top influencers from all industries use social media profiles to connect with their target audience; Elon Musk is no exception.
The Negative Impact of Tweets
He is an avid Twitter user, communicating directly with consumers and the general public regularly. He broadcasts company updates, values and doesn’t shy away from scrutiny.
As a result, this interaction builds trust in his leadership (for both buyers and investors) and allows his audience to become part of the story and vision for the company. For example, when a Tesla battery caught fire in 2013, he quickly addressed it.
Musk got involved with Tesla because he believes in its importance for a sustainable future. The mission statement and product quality hold greater value for him than profit. This synergy between his personal and company values only strengthens both.
In saying that, while Elon gets it right most of the time, he’s not without his controversies.
In 2018 he was accused of fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) when he tweeted that he was planning to take Tesla private and had secured funding.
The US financial regulator said his claims that he had secured funding to take the electric carmaker private were “false and misleading”. As a result, both Tesla and Elon received a $20 million penalty.
More recently, his comments on the COVID-19 pandemic received a ton of backlash.
Then, he wiped $14 billion (£11 billion) off Tesla’s value in May 2020 after tweeting he felt its share price was too high.
Luckily for Elon, being one of the richest people in the world means you can weather most storms. For the rest of us, it’s best to err on the side of caution.
Building a Personal Brand on Social Media
Here are our suggested steps for building a personal brand on social media:
- Make sure you have social media profiles on all relevant networks
- Fully complete and update profiles (delete any you won’t be using)
- Build your network by importing your email and phone contacts
- Keep ‘brand voice’ and image consistent
- Find and join groups to explore new opportunities
- Post regularly and share your expertise (but don’t spam)
- Curate a variety of content (blogging, podcasts, webinars etc)
- Research your competition and see what they’re doing right/wrong
- Engage with your audience
- Keep it positive!
Lesson 5: social media can make or break your personal brand – use it wisely!
Expand Your Network and Mind at the Same Time
Remember Jim Cantrell? The former-NASA consultant then a major player in the early days of SpaceX?
“He has a real applied mind. He literally sucks the knowledge and experience out of people that he is around…”
When Musk began planning for his mission to Mars, he quickly realised Russian rockets were the cheapest available. He began cold calling those in the know to begin building the expertise and network that would become SpaceX.
However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. On a trip to Russia, Musk and Cantrell were spat on by a Russian rocket designer who revealed: “the technology was intended as a weapon for war, not for capitalist billionaires to purchase”.
The Russians gave them the runaround.
So much so, that it resulted in the pair deciding to build rockets themselves.
Musk “knows everything about what he’s building,” Cantrell said, but of course, even a brilliant mind like Elon can’t master everything. By working alongside Cantrell and tapping into his network in the aerospace industry, he created his own of some of the best in the business.
And so, SpaceX was born.
Harnessing Others’ Expertise
As mentioned earlier, Tesla was founded by Marc Tarpenning, a technology entrepreneur, and Martin Eberhard, an electrical engineer.
Elon believed in Tesla’s long-term goal to create affordable mass-market electric vehicles. By joining as an investor initially, he became chairman of the board of directors and then took an active role.
However, it was Tarpenning and Eberhard’s expert vision that began it all.
In 2016, Elon founded Neuralink alongside Max Hodak, Ben Rapoport, Dongjin Seo, Paul Merolla, Philip Sabes, Tim Gardner, Tim Hanson and Vanessa Tolosa, a group of experts in neuroscience, biochemistry and robotics.
The name even came from out-with his circle.
Pedram Mohseni, an electrical engineer, and his scientific partner, Randolph Nudo owned the trademark on “NeuraLink” after they developed a device for the treatment of those with brain injuries.
But the researchers were struggling to get investment. That is, until they were offered tens of thousands of dollars by a stranger for their company’s name.
As you can see, Elon surrounds himself with experts in the niche he’s focused on.
By creating these relationships and networks, he has ventured into a whole range of industries for his startups.
Benefits of Networking for Your Personal Brand
You can apply these benefits of business networking to your personal brand strategy too:
- Form connections based on mutual benefit
- Get fresh ideas and new information regularly
- Increase your visibility within your industry
- Gain a different perspective
- Develop long-lasting personal relationships
- Get an answer to every question
“Constantly think about how you could be doing things better, and keep questioning yourself” – Elon Musk
Lesson 6: absorb the expertise of others and grow your network.
Creating a Strong Personal Brand Takes Time and Dedication
Why do people buy Teslas? How are potential clients and investors convinced?
For some, it’s the running costs and performance. For others, the sustainability of electric transport and the wonder of auto-pilot.
Tesla’s brand is all about cutting-edge automotive technology for a sustainable future. SpaceX and Neuralink are making science fiction reality. The Boring Company will revolutionize travel.
Each brand revolves around innovation, hard work and risk-taking.
All deriving from Elon Musk.
Whether or not you have a business alongside, you need your audience to be invested in your personal brand. This takes commitment.
Musk has previously said, “I hate the whole idea of brands and branding.” Ironically, this is very on-brand for him.
However, he is famously dedicated to each of his startups. In 2018 when Tesla was facing a multitude of production issues, he was at the facility 24/7 and working 120-hour weeks to help solve bottlenecks.
Clearly, this is extreme but his usual workweek is still around 80-90 hours.
Summarised perfectly in this BBC article:
“Remember, this is a man who judges success on the basis of the important problems he’s solved, not how much money he has made.
Think how liberating that is. He isn’t worried about looking stupid because his big financial bet hasn’t paid off, what he cares about is pursuing important ideas.“
Are You Dedicated to Your Personal Brand?
While we don’t encourage burnout, you do need to be committed to your personal branding strategy if you want results. So, this means putting in time and effort, as and where.
Elon is all about content discovery. His life revolves around continuous learning, digital marketing and venturing into new niches. (Funnily enough, we are too!)
So, we ask you. When was the last time you made a point of learning something new?
The more you learn, the easier learning becomes. Here comes the science:
“Learning a new skill helps you learn things faster over time. By stimulating neurons in the brain, more neural pathways are formed and electrical impulses travel faster across them as you attempt to process new information. The more pathways that are formed, the faster impulses can travel.”
Who better demonstrates this?
In addition, taking time to learn new skills has the following benefits:
- Keeps you and your brain healthy
- Increases your adaptability
- Opens doors to new opportunities
- Increases your likeability (when used wisely)
- Keeps you relevant as you progress
Elon truly does live his personal brand. He is continuing to achieve the impossible and isn’t showing any signs of stopping.
Lesson 7: continuous learning is key to self-development and, therefore, your personal brand.
Whatever you think of him, you can’t fault Elon’s relentless will to succeed. The man works super hard, throws himself into the deep end and, despite criticism, sees his bold ideas through.
Take a leaf out of Elon’s book and learn something new today.
You never know, you could end up discovering a new passion.
What’s something you’ve learned recently? We’d love to hear in the comments – no matter how random!