Entrepreneurs that have the capacity to change the world are hard to come by. When they do, the smart money and resources tend to follow them in droves. Two of my favorite ones that I've tracked for quite some time, Jack Dorsey and Elon Musk, have a good shot at transforming the entire landscape of media, automotive, energy, and financial sectors. While ambitious to say the least, they are both attempting this feat by leading multiple companies at the same time. Are entrepreneurs in such short supply that we rely on them to take on multiple engagements? And is it possible for them to effectively do so?
As a cofounder of Paypal, Elon Musk has made enough to spend it all in hopes of bringing space exploration and sustainable energy platforms to the masses. To do so, he is attempting to build three multi-billion dollar businesses as the head of Tesla Motors, SpaceX, and SolarCity. He generally splits his day between the companies; he is notorious for being a stickler for details which makes the task even more daunting. So how is he doing? He's had his share of ups and downs but showing some signs of progress. Earlier this year, he announced a successful rocket launch into space as well as Tesla's completion of significant safety test hurdles for its new electric sedan within days of each other. Certainly too early to call (all in early stage, pre-profit), but Musk is showing no signs of restraint. No wonder he was the inspiration for John Favreau's "Iron Man" in the recent movie.
While no superhero, Jack Dorsey made his name in a big way as co-founder of Twitter. His latest venture Square is a frontrunner in the white-hot mobile payment space. Shortly after departing for his new company, Twitter experienced a major management and technological implosion which almost derailed it. Now Dorsey is back at the helm, leading both concerns. In public, he articulates his vision and passion for both in great depth, but some inside think the dual role is taking a toll on the companies (see recent Fortune article on Square employee frustration). To be sure, the imbedded large players that Twitter and Square both look to unseat have significant money and resources invested in competing with them. Dorsey will need to successfully thwart the likes of Google, Facebook, Paypal, and Visa all at the same time.
Is there any precedent to Dorsey and Musk's attempt ? Let's start from the top. Steve Jobs was very successful in multiple endeavors, but not all at once. Pixar's big splash occured between Jobs' stints at
Apple; the IPOD and IPhone did not come out at the same time given
different technologies and market strategies required. It is debatable, but I don't think he would have been able upend
animation, PC, phone, and the music industry all at the same time. In looking through all the major industrialists, it is hard to find one that has done so (or even attempted). Certainly inventors throughout time have created multiple blockbuster innovations, but did not commercialize them into full fledged businesses.
In today's laser quick internet pace, it is much more plausible than before. Technology allows for scalability and virtualization and sophisticated investor backing provides management expertise and an earlier way out. Perhaps the role of these entrepreneurs have changed with the times. Maybe we don't need them to build huge businesses like Henry Ford did, but rather to incubate new ideas for experienced business management teams to grow. I tend to think you lose quite a bit of the cultural DNA when you separate a founder from his or her business (it didn't work for Apple). Call me old fashioned, but isn't building a space-age travel company enough for one mere mortal? Apparently not.