How much of a chance do entrepreneurs give to their new ventures? Based on the many I've spoken with or heard from, I'd wager that the most common answer would be "can't miss." That's the demonstration of the belief in positive thinking.
But that's not necessarily the smart answer. Any person starting a business, or anything else of substance, should recognize how difficult success can be to achieve. Ask Elon Musk, as experienced an entrepreneur as you'll find. But when recently questioned by the BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones about Musk's his three major business interests -- electric cars (Tesla Motors), space flight (SpaceX), and solar power (SolarCity) -- the business said that he hadn't given them all that much of a chance. In particular, he thought Tesla and SpaceX had only a ten percent chance of lasting in the long run (hat tip to Ars Technica):
Now, of course, he thinks the companies will stay in business -- at least in the near term. "Both Tesla and SpaceX have a lot of customers -- really earned the trust of a large number of customers -- and these are really solid organizations. Whenever your customers really want you to success, you will succeed."
But even that has its limits. Loving customers can't trump bad management or operations. Here are some characteristics that helped Musk overcome the odds and find success.
Innovation is key
You can build a business that is like others, but it's unlikely to be great. A company has to innovate and find new problems to solve, new ways to solve old problems, and new ways to make customers happy.
Know you could fail
Clearly Musk felt early on that failure with these ventures was not only possible, but likely. "There's a silly notion that failure's not an option at NASA," Musk said in a 2005 interview, in a clear reference to the line from movie Apollo 13. "Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough." You don't learn when everything goes smoothly, and if you aren't learning, you can't adapt to the changes or the future.
Have a sense of purpose
Focusing on money is fine, and many entrepreneurs create successful companies with that emphasis. But having a bigger framework can keep you going when a few more dollars can't. "If something is important enough, even if the odds are against you, you should still do it," Musk has reportedly said.
It's not enough to have a picture of where you could go. You have to be ready to do everything to make it happen. In an interview, Musk brushed aside questions of optimism and pessimism. "As God is my bloody witness, I'm hell-bent on making it work," he said.
Many people make the mistake of thinking that Musk is doing all this himself. He's critical to the process, but he needs others who can do what he can't. Musk originally was an investor in Tesla. Others brought the particular engineering and scientific skills to ultimately create an electric car that people wanted. He's not designing rocket engines at SpaceX. Surround yourself with people who have the skills necessary to make the vision work.