Branson and Musk: Most Businesses Fail. So What?

Two of the world's leading entrepreneurial risk-takers talk about business as a force for good, and how to handle failure when it comes

Written by Mira Shenker

As part of a Google for Entrepreneurs’ “hangout” video series, Richard Branson and Elon Musk met via video with entrepreneurs in offices across the globe, from Johannesburg to Bogota to Newcastle.

When asked why there are a disproportionate amount of startups in Silicon Valley, Musk (from his base in Silicon Valley) said that even in the fabled cradle of such tech giants as Google and Facebook, most businesses fail. “There’s a high failure rate no matter where you’re located,” said Musk.

“There’s a very thin line between success and failure and all that matters when you’re building a company is survival,” added Branson. “But if you don’t survive, you’re one of the 8 out of every 10 who don’t, so don’t feel downhearted, just learn from it and try again.”

In fact, failure is almost a guarantee for the entrepreneurial risk-taker.

Read: 5 Reasons Why Early-Stage Companies Fail

Musk says in every one of his ventures, there has been a very difficult time—usually shortly after launching—when he thought the business was not salvageable. “When you first start, things seem very oprtimistic and exciting,” he said. “And then things start to go wrong. Years two through five are usually quite difficult. You make mistakes, you encounter issues you didn’t expect, you step on landmines.”

Musk says the thing to remember is you are above nothing. “A friend of mine says about starting a company, ‘It’s a bit like eating glass and staring into the abyss.’ In most cases, you go through a stage where you’re in constant danger of the company dying. You’ve got to do all sorts of tasks as founder and CEO that aren’t interesting to you (that’s the eating glass part) and if you don’t do your chores, the company won’t succeed.” Musk, who failed three times to launch his SpaceX rockets (and almost bankrupted his company) before succeeding, stresses: “No task is too menial—that’s the attitude a CEO needs to have.”

While failure is a badge every entrepreneur will likely wear at some point, both Musk and Branson agree that governments would be smart to do a better job of protecting fledgling businesses. After all, doesn’t everyone want the reputation Silicon Valley has built? “Big companies will try to stamp out small ones and its government’s role to make sure that doesn’t happen,” said Branson.

“Government doesn’t always play that role well, so in the end it’s up to you to use whatever means you can to defend yourself,” added Branson, who sued British Airways when it tried to crush his newly-founded Virgin Airlines.

Listen: Why Are Canadians Afraid to Fail?

And why should governments protect smaller businesses? For one thing, entrepreneurs are a valuable resource. “If you’ve built a successful company, then you can use your entrepreneurial skills to look at some of the seemilngly intractable problems of this world and see if you can address them,” said Branson.

For its part, Virgin has incubated a handful of not-for-profit organizations aimed at incorporating social and environmental factors into companies’ bottom lines. The B Team aims to put “people and planet alongside profit,” and OceanicElders is a collective of leaders working with partners to protect the ocean and its wildlife.

Musk is busy looking for a more sustainable mode of transportation for North America (read: Entrepreneurs Are Real-Life Superheros).

Watch the full video:

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