3 things startup founders can learn from Elon Musk’s Thailand cave rescue drama

Anisa Menur
3 things startup founders can learn from Elon Musk’s Thailand cave rescue drama

The #ThaiCaveRescue event provides lessons in product development, publicity, and dealing with failures

Last week, the world held its breath as they watched 12 members of a Thailand junior football team, and their coach, be successfully rescued after having been trapped in a flooded cave for weeks.

For a few days, it was the biggest story in the world.

There were also several side incidents that grabbed attention during this period — particularly the behaviour of tech billionaire Elon Musk.

As soon as rescue plan was executed, Musk announced plans to build a mini-submarine that would help the rescue process by carrying the children out of the cave one-by-one.

What seemed like a good idea with well-meaning intention was soon hit with a wave of criticism from both internet-users and experts.

The mini-submarine ended up unused as the rescue team decided to complete the rescue mission in a more traditional fashion.

The situation was got more tense when Vern Unsworth, who was involved in the rescue effort, dubbed Musk’s idea as “just a PR stunt.”

“It just had absolutely no chance of working. He had no conception on what the cave passage was like. The submarine … was about five-foot-six long, rigid, so it wouldn’t have gone around corners or any obstacles,” he told CNN.

Things took a turn to the worse when Musk fired a baseless accusation at Unsworth, calling him a paedophile on his personal Twitter handle which has 22.3 million followers.

The tweet has since been taken down, but reports have coming in that Unsworth is considering a legal action against Musk.

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Despite temptations to dwell on the dramatic side of the incident, there are actually some useful lessons to take from the whole debacle. .

Here are the three major lessons that startup founders can learn from this mishap:

Don’t try to solve a non-existing problem

Tech innovation was built on top of the idea that existing solutions no longer work.

But in the case of the #ThaiCaveRescue, existing solutions did work. Yes, it was tough and a Thai Navy SEAL member lost his life in the process.

But the effort ended in a happy ending and it’s not clear how the submarines would have many chances of success more likely.

The challenges that the team met along the way did not signify that the rescue process was flawed or in dire need of “disruption”. It was a complicated rescue process, which has never been a walk in the park.

Any startup founder who had participated in a Lean Startup Methodology workshop – or at least had read the book– understands that the failure in identifying customers’ pain points is one of the reasons why many startups fail.

Engineers and developers often insist on building a sophisticated tech to solve a problem, while all that the users would need is actually a simple tool. Instead of solving a problem, they build a platform that nobody needs.

Musk fell into this trap and built a submarine that essentially performed the same task as a breathing tube.

Beware in how you use publicity

Publicity is a nice thing –but as many startups have proven it, it can be very tricky.

Does that mean that being silent about plans and milestones is the way to go? For some startups, yes. It is also the reason why they opt for stealth mode.

But the point here is not to say silence is better/worse than speaking up. The point is to be mindful of the consequences of your choices. If you decide to go public, remember that you will be held accountable for every claim that you make, so make sure you are prepared. Think of what happened to Theranos.

There will be times when you fail to keep up with your own promises; but even then, know how to deal with your failure.

Because it leads to the final lesson …

Fail like a startup founder

Compared to other industries, tech has a relatively open-minded attitude towards failure. It was treated as part of the development process, even sometimes as a necessity, instead of an abomination or a shame.

Personally, I would go as far as claiming that if you are still afraid of failure, or being seen making one, then perhaps you should avoid working in a startup.

Understanding this, it would be natural that the world would expect a startup founder to deal with failure gracefully. To bravely admit to themselves (and the world) that they have made mistakes, even apologise to involved parties for any detrimental effects, before heading back to the drawing board.

Essentially, it’s the old adage of “don’t be a jerk” because accusing a rescuer of being a paedophile for criticising your idea sounds as mature as spreading nasty rumours about a person for declining your offer to go to prom together.

Image Credit: Bruno van der Kraan on Unsplash

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