Musk to Mars: We’re On Our Way


The man who sold the Mars trip. You’ve got to hand it to Elon Musk. Equal parts engineer, huckster, and visionary, he has mastered the art of setting mad goals and then ushering them towards mundane reality. Tuesday he unveiled how he plans to take humanity to Mars: with a really big, reusable rocket (Quartz). One that’s refuelable, both in earth orbit and at its Martian destination. One that will carry 100 passengers to the Red Planet, at $500,000 a seat — $200,000 if enough people sign up! The whole project will cost $10 billion, Musk estimates, with characteristic optimism. To his credit, he has both the self-awareness to poke fun at his ambition with an underpants-gnome joke, and the honesty to admit that the effort will be crazily dangerous for the foreseeable future. (“Are you prepared to die? Then, if that’s ok, you’re a candidate for going.”) Like the protagonist of some old Heinlein or Asimov novel, Musk makes the case that we must become a “multiplanetary” species, with a backup home as insurance against catastrophe. Fifty years ago, such stirring challenges trumpeted from presidents, but today they come from our billionaire CEOs. Whether Musk delivers or not, his investments will kickstart a community with expertise in solving the problems of planetary explanation, one that will outlast any individual venture’s life span.

Amazon is eating the world. At the dawn of the Web two decades ago, Amazon cornered the online book market by providing the most comprehensive, useful catalog and the best customer service. Since then, the company has gradually swallowed up lots of other markets using the same strategy — to the point where today, one new survey says, more than half of U.S. consumers start any and every online product search at Amazon’s site (Bloomberg). Anything that can be put in a box and dropped on a doorstep, you get from Amazon. This has huge implications, not just for the future of Big Retail (looking at you, Walmart and Target), but for the fate of Google, too. It also means that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos will most likely have an even bigger war chest than Elon Musk to fund his dreams of space travel.

When did CEOs start sounding like revolutionaries? Once upon a time, businesses worked hard to stay away from social and political controversies. “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” Michael Jordan famously remarked, explaining why he wouldn’t support a challenge to Jesse Helms. Things are different today. In The Conversation, A University of Michigan professor highlights two key factors behind corporations’ increasing willingness to take sides on social-war issues like LGBT rights and racial justice: Social media tools allow the public to easily organize protests and Millennial-generation preferences for companies with a “social value proposition.” Also: our companies, like our voters, are dividing along the red/blue fault line. While the majority are embracing liberal causes, conservatives — at outfits like Chik-fil-A and Hobby Lobby — are out in force, too. Maybe corporations really are people, after all.

Election Day should be a day off. In other countries, they vote on weekends, but the two parties in the U.S. remain deadlocked on any measure that actually makes it easier for more people to vote. (Democrats: yes please! Republicans: Not so fast.) So our elections are still held on workdays. Now a coalition of nearly 300 tech companies will give employees election day as a paid holiday, so they can cast their ballots without worrying about their to-do lists (The Washington Post). Low voter turnout empowers the more-motivated voters at the political spectrum’s extremities. Any measure that gets more people to vote is also likely to strengthen the moderate middle and provide more stability for our political system — something most businesses crave.

“You have to have something to say.” For companies burned out on the failures of old-school advertising, the social media world was supposed to be one where businesses and customers could actually join in conversation with each other. Instead, it has turned into an updated advertising medium, full of content marketing instead of banner ads. In a dialogue between NewCo editor-in-chief John Battelle and Weber Shandwick’s Chris Perry (Context, on Medium — start here), Battelle argues that content marketing will fail unless it has a true point of view and editorial purpose — one that is aligned with the “deep why” of a company’s mission.

Featured in NewCo Shift: Getting Past “Addicted To Being Right” — Bringing The Outside In At Citi. John Battelle talks with Deborah Hopkins, CEO of Citi Ventures, about how a banking behemoth got comfortable with speeding innovation, Lean Startup techniques, and helping small companies clear bureaucratic hurdles.

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