Pitch like Elon Musk: Lessons from the SpaceX BFR launch

Elon Musk, while not the most polished speaker, delivers some of the most powerful product announcements. Some of the impact from his presentations can be attributed to the audaciousness of the projects he announces. However, most of the impact is in how he delivers the message. His presentations are good enough to mask the informal nature of his speaking style. Most audiences are left wanting to buy, join or criticize whatever Musk is building. None are left without being impacted.

Here I summarize and deconstruct Elon’s most recent announcement of the Space-X BFR (Big Falcon Rocket aka Big F****** Rocket) in order to derive steps in organizing great product pitches. His past presentations have proven to be a great reference for product pitches. I wanted to see how much his presentations follow the same pattern, where they deviate, how they’ve evolved. Hopefully the lessons here can help founders think about how to make the most impact in their product & company launch presentations.

Part I. The Vision (aka the world as it should be)

“Fundamentally, the future is vastly more exciting and interesting if we’re a spacefaring civilization, and multi-planetary species than if we’re not.” — Elon Musk

Elon’s presentations tend to start with painting a picture of the world as he envisions it. Here, he explains why being a multi-planet species is a great idea. While this vision may fall in the realm of obvious ideas, Elon leverages its impact on the collective imagination. He deliberately explains​ ​how​​ interplanetary life will​ affect​ our​ future​ in an appeal to the audience’s imagination.

This approach is a slight deviation from his normal opening message about the dangers of unchecked GHG emissions, or in this case, the long-term doom of being a single-planet species.

Step 1 — Appeal to Wonder

It’s been shown that an appeal to people’s desire for gain is more effective than an appeal to their fear of loss or pain. The latter is powerful, but comes with the risk of panic, fatigue and defeatism. This is the challenge climate change advocates (and many impact-focused entrepreneurs) have faced.

A close parallel to an appeal to the desire for gain is an appeal to the imagination to envision a better world or a life of wonder. He wanted to inspire the audience with his vision.

“You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great.” - Elon Musk

What about your product’s long-term vision is an appeal to wonder? Your presentation might start by painting a picture of what that wonder looks like and why it matters to the audience’s present problems.

Step 2 — Explain the Pain

It helps to follow the carrot with a bit of stick, as Elon does, and remind people that choosing your vision means avoiding pain too. Multi-planetary life means an escape from problems such as overpopulation, eventual scarcity of resources and the probability of an extinction event.

It also helps to explain what the barriers to your vision have been in the past. These may have been technological or cost barriers, as in Elon’s case. The goal is to help change the frame of what people perceive as currently possible. Elon helps the audience realize that the capacity of human beings in terms of scientific progress has reached​ the​ point​ where​ what​ was previously seen​ as​ science​ fiction​ in​​ is​ now​ possible. He walks us through very specific barriers and the advancements the Space-X team has made (or plans to make) to overcome them.

Your presentation may not allow for too much time to go into this level of detail, but if there are major objections or doubts you might expect people to have, it helps to face them upfront. This serves as a contrast to the vision you just painted, brings the audience’s attention from doubt back to following you on the journey, and teases the answer to the question on everyone’s mind, “How?”

PART​ ​ II.​ ​ The First Reveal

“Last year, most people thought the plan to eventually make Mars habitable was farfetched. So this year, we decided to show proof of feasibility.”  — Elon Musk

Elon’s ambitious product announcements tend to face a fair amount of scrutiny, so he spends a significant amount of time proving doubters wrong. Since the products are on a continuum of a collective mission (eliminating existential threats to humanity), he leverages past successes as reference points. In the case of BFR, Space-X can show a timeline of proof that they are changing the dynamics of space travel.

Figure 1. The Fuel that will Power the BFR. Elon’s demo was this tank blowing up.

He takes a first step in shutting the doubters down by showing the main fuel tank of the BFR. “We developed a new carbon fiber matrix, that’s much stronger and more capable than ever before.” Elon claims.

In a second blow to skeptics, Elon shows proof that the question of “can this be done?” has already been answered (to some degree). He​ ​ gives ​ progress​ ​ reports​ ​ through​ ​ pictures​ ​ and​ ​videos so the audience can visualize the project. Your mileage may vary, but like Elon, you’ll face skeptics who want to see proof that you aren’t all talk.

Figure 2. The Growth in Launch Rate


He claims that the project has been progressing at a fast rate not just through talking but through a medium that the audience could visually grasp and understand. The bar graph above shows the success in launch rate of the rockets ever since debut.

Step 3 — The Demo

There is no better way to quiet doubters than to show them you’ve already done what you’re claiming. Even if what you are able to show is a beta version, showing is an order of magnitude better than telling.

You may not need to (or have the time to) walk the audience through a full demo, but you want to show something that represents the fact that you’ve actually built something. *Even vaporware can have a powerful effect*

When showing a product, the propensity is often to first share the features or technical specs. While some light touch-points on those two might be helpful for answering obvious questions, your focus is better spent on benefits first. Better still is a contrast of benefits that your solution provides over existing solutions. If your product represents something that’s never been done before or has been tried and failed, it may help to use an analog that people can understand. For example, Elon compares the BFR spaceship to an airplane.

You can share benefits in a number of ways. One is using analogs, as mentioned above, like how fast a spaceship can go from one country to another versus a normal airplane. Note that this specific example is master craftsmanship that Elon employs, as we’ll learn later. Another is to explain how the benefits of your product have evolved over time from earlier beta versions. Yet another is to explain how your solution is built to continue to develop benefits, for example, cheaper through economies of scale, or more valuable through network effects.

If you are showing a product rendering, it pays to be very grounded relative to your bigger vision. While a rendering of a terraformed Mars is impressive, it still left too much doubt in Elon’s past presentations. In this instance he shows renderings of the device that is the first step in getting there, the rocketship.

Figure 3. Perfecting Propulsive Landing. Elon Musk demonstrated the progress of propulsive landing by showing different scenarios in which the rocket landed on different terrains successfully showing its reliability.

Step 4 — The Specs

Though features can often bore and distract an audience, at times highlighting features can be helpful to remind people that what you’re building is very hard to do. While you may or may not want to flat out say that, it can be powerful to detail some of the components that go into making the thing.

For the project to make sense to the audience, Elon Musk discussed the specifications of the ship that enable it to function and simplified each part so that everyone would understand their importance in the project.

Walking through the specifications is another opportunity to highlight benefits. It’s also an opportunity to do more showing versus telling. Additional pictures, video clips or holding the product up in a different light might help.

The main value of this step is to further alleviate your audience’s doubts by showing how specific feature decisions impact benefits and make the whole thing possible, and better. The additional value is in showing that you and your team are putting a lot into making a great product and that replicating your efforts would be very difficult.


Figure 4. BFR’s Engine Testing

“The raptor engine will be the highest thrust engine of any vehicle ever made”, as Elon claims. Given the specifications of the engine depicted in the picture above, this was a big step in the right direction with regards to spacefaring projects. The specifications on the engine are indeed off the charts out of any spacefaring project.

In this part of Elon Musk’s presentation, he took a step back and reminisced to when the SpaceX project started. This is important since it starts to answer the question “Why us? “. In SpaceX’s case, this is a team that has had to learn from many failed attempts at the first Falcon rockets.

Elon Musk featured the Falcon projects in contrast to the BFR to show not only how the technology for space travel has evolved, but also how they’ve progressed through successive iterations of the projects. This is comparable to how major smartphone brands showcase their flagship devices by contrasting new technology with the old. Elon Musk even stated that you could fit a stack of Falcon 1 spaceships in the payload section of BFR. This gave the audience a grasp on how they’ve progressed since the early stages of development.

Step 5 — Team Effort

You may have already introduced your team in an early effort to eliminate doubt by showing credentials or in your introduction. While you can use this opportunity to make this the first time you show your team’s bonafides (past companies and achievements), this is really about showing what your team has done together.

There are many ways to do this. One is by explaining the length of time and amount of struggle your team has endured in working on this project. Another is to briefly talk about how your team has overcome struggles together in the past. Yet another is to show the progress of the product itself (as Elon does). “We messed up the first 3 launches of Falcon 1, but thankfully the 4th launch was a success”, Elon stated as he looked back to the early stages of SpaceX.

The goal here is not to list off a resume, but to show your ability to ship a great product as evidenced by the amount of progress your team has already made together. The inference is that you have the team dynamic and character to continue to deliver on expectations. You don’t necessarily need to even talk about the team or individual team members in detail. Your product and traction can speak for themselves.

Figure 5. From Falcon 1 to BFR

From the figure above we the audience could see the exponential growth of the SpaceX projects with not just the size difference of BFR from the earlier Falcon projects but also the capabilities.

Part IV. This is a BFD aka How We Win

Next in his presentation, Elon showed the engineering designs of BFR and highlighted how the current version surpasses the previous designs. He discusses this and a few other product decisions to continue to show how the team has learned from previous mistakes in landing failures and how they’ve adapted their approach engineering-wise. This continued deep dive into the product furthers his efforts to remove doubts.

This also set his presentation up to provide contrast to the competition. He goes on to showcase the capability of BFR by comparing it with other well known spaceships such as the Saturn V. For example, he explains how BFR surpasses the competition in terms of the payload.

Figure 6. BFR vs the competition

As the audience could see from the figure above, the BFR exceeds all other spacecrafts in terms of the amount of payload it could carry. “It is important to note that BFR has more capability than Saturn V even with full reusability.” Elon claims.

He further wowed the audience by showing how cost-effective BFR is compared to these spaceships. He emphasized here that BFR would cost the least amount of money to launch, provide more capabilities and would be reusable.

Figure 7. The launch cost of BFR vs the competition

Step 6 — Competition

Whether you like it or not, and whether you know it or not, you will face competition in anything you launch. This includes competing with inaction (inertia or even comfort with the status quo) . Therefore, it’s essential to paint a clear contrast that makes the advantage of your product abundantly clear. If you’re lucky to be in a league of your own, you may even show how you make past versions of your own product obsolete.

In Elon’s case, he helps the audience realize how important it is to not just abandon an aircraft after it has traveled to its destination. “It’s really crazy how we build this sophisticated rockets and then crash them everytime we fly, this is mad!” Elon stated. The cost of the main fuel of the spaceship is very low. Obviously the cost of actually just refuelling the spaceship is lower than getting another spaceship to fly out to another destination. No other competing systems offer this, and now that it’s abundantly clear how stupid it would be to not strive for a system like this, SpaceX wins.

At this step, Elon mainly shows the benefits of BFR and how it can affect current space projects. In many cases, the BFR is a big step up in terms of efficiency and cost, as well as form and function. This entices the audience to believe this project is really in a league of its own. “Reusability is absolutely fundamental, and the refilling spacecrafts is very valuable.” Elon claimed as he emphasizes the reusability of BFR.

If nothing else, this step is an opportunity for you to continue to highlight your product’s unique benefits. If you can, show how you kill the competition with a thousand cuts of benefits.

Part V. The Big Reveal

Given the trajectory of the project, Elon Musk claims that landing on Mars will be possible in the year 2022. Due to the Mars and Earth synchronization every 2 years, SpaceX also plan to land 4 ships on Mars by 2024. This frequency of landings gives rise to the creation of a Mars base, which eventually spans into a city paving the way for terraformation. But none of this is the big reveal.

Figure 8. Terraformation in Mars

“If you build a ship that’s capable of going to Mars, what if you take that same ship, and go from one place to another on Earth?” Elon Musk as he teased the audience on what’s to come.

The big reveal is that transportation on Earth using BFR is also possible, heralding a revolution in international travel. As a result, the distance from Los Angeles to Toronto can be traversed in a mere 24 minutes. Whoa.

As you may recall from earlier in Elon’s presentation, claims about planetary travel were used to lightly tease the fact that you can think of a spaceship as an airplane. He does this multiple times, seemingly in an innocent effort to create an analog that people can use to better understand the power of the BFR rocket. But when he states that the BFR is so fast that it can compete with airlines, and that a flight from North America to Europe will take 30 minutes, he is deliberately seeding the audience to think of the BFR as a civilian aircraft. Just a really big and really fast one.

Since he’s already primed the audience to believe in the feasibility of the bigger vision to colonize the Moon and Mars, super-sonic travel seems like a piece of cake.

Figure 9. International travel through BFR

Step 7 — What’s Next

Your product is likely not a spaceship or rocket (or maybe it is), but that doesn’t mean you can’t employ the same “show them the stars and give them the moon” technique. You, and your audience with you, are already invested in the grand vision that your product offers. If your vision truly is grand (and you are significantly better off in fundraising if it is), yet tantalizingly believable, all that’s left to seal the deal is to give the audience something they can grasp today — but not just any something. Something that is almost as bold as your big vision, but significantly more believable by contrast.

Again, if your vision is grand and you are on the path to creating a truly great product, the next feature or version of the product you can release should be quite impressive. Even if it’s only remotely related to your long-term vision. Especially if it further creates a bridge in the imagination to that vision (i.e., ”Wow, I can fly in a spaceship to the other side of the planet!“)

This last step in your presentation is your chance to plant a final nail into the coffin of doubt. It’s an opportunity to let your audience know that they can join along for the ride. You are telling the audience what the immediate next steps are towards your vision, a better version of the future, and inviting them aboard.

Information from www.hackernoon.com

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