Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping our Future
Out of this world thinking
Elon Musk is a self-made multi billionaire and is still only 45 years old. His astounding vision is to solve sustainable energy and help humanity become a multi-planetary species with a self-sustaining civilization on another planet, namely Mars.
While many people may scoff at this idea, Musk has been confounding his critics by using his phenomenal energy and money from the buy outs of his first internet start up Zip2 (an early version of Google maps crossed with the yellow pages) and then X.com which became PayPal, to transform energy use in the home and on the road, and run commercial space flights.
Author Ashlee Vance, a fellow South African by birth, carried out over 200 interviews with friends and colleagues of Musk, and Musk himself, to try and uncover more about the man who has been touted as the next Steve Jobs or Thomas Edison.
Musk doesn’t look for business opportunities but for opportunities to help the world. He is known for being a profoundly gifted engineer and difficult to work with, but has learnt many useful lessons along the way:
- At the age of 12 Musk made money from his first computer game about an alien space freighter – inspired by his love of comics and the battles of good and evil to save the world. One of his favourite books – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – showed him that the most difficult thing was figuring out what questions to ask. Once you had done that the answers would come relatively easily
- From the earliest age he would go into a trance like state to think things through. While not endearing him to his peers who thought he was being rude, these pensive moments allowed him to block out the world and dedicate of all his concentration to a single task
- An avid reader, when he had exhausted the supply of books from his local library he turned to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Musk says he found this very helpful – “You don’t know what you don’t know” – and his photographic memory meant he became a fact factory and able to correct others – another reason he found it difficult to make friends early on
- At seventeen, Musk left South Africa for Canada – hoping to use it as a pit stop to get to America and Silicon Valley, and to avoid military service in the apartheid regime. While in Canada he took on a succession of odd jobs and with his cousin developed a list of interesting business people they wanted to meet. The two took turns cold calling them to see if they were free for lunch. Their persistence ended in a summer internship at the Bank of Nova Scotia and a link to a trusted advisor for his later finance start up
- His first start up with his brother – Zip2 – saw Musk learn his first lessons in leadership. Once investors came on board he was sidelined to the role of Chief Technology Officer. It was only later he was able to reflect on his combative approach and realise that upsetting people doesn’t make them productive. And that you should not assume that other people have the same information as you, and therefore they won’t behave like you
- Musk then took a huge personal risk investing $12 million dollars personally into X.com – a precursor to PayPal – and hiring top notch engineers and bankers. He didn’t let the fact that he knew very little about finance stop him. When a falling out with his cofounders led to just the shell of the company in place, he hired more people and partnered with Barclays and new venture capitalists to create an agile bank, at first competing with PayPal before joining forces. But then employees performed an outrageous coup against Musk while he was on his honeymoon – delivering letters of no confidence in Musk to the board. Instead of feeling bitter, he stayed as an advisor and invested more money in PayPal to become the largest shareholder. The disputes remain, but EBay’s purchase of PayPal allowed Musk to net $250 million to pursue his bigger goals.
All these experiences have shaped Musk into a confident CEO, able to command the respect of thousands. He is talented at finding bright, ambitious staff – looking for people who have built things since they were young and luring them to his companies where twenty hour days are not uncommon. Tesla, SolarCity and SpaceX are thriving businesses, despite setbacks like exploding rockets. Whatever people’s personal experience of Musk, there is no denying he is a true inventor and celebrity industrialist who is able to take big ideas and turn them into products that sell. A lesson for us all in thinking big, remaining focused and getting the right people in place.
- Tesla Motors has won countless awards for its sleek electric cars and solar powered supercharger network – free to use for all Tesla customers. By turning the traditional motor industry model on its head the company became as valuable as Mazda just one year after the Model S went on sale, going public in 2010 and raising $226 million. Musk has decided to open source his Tesla patents because he wants more people to make and buy electric cars – he believes that man’s future depends on it
- SpaceX has turned from a joke into a successful business worth an estimated $12 billion. It sends unmanned rockets to space about once a month, carrying satellites for companies and nations and supplies to the International Space Station, and landing them with astounding accuracy. The low flight cost has made the US a major player in the worldwide commercial launch market and Musk has plans to develop ways to reuse them so that he can cut costs even further. This ties into Musk’s vision to lower the cost so much that flying thousands of supply trips to Mars and starting a colony becomes viable
- SolarCity was founded by Musk’s cousins in 2006 with Musk becoming Chairman. Six years later it became the largest installer of solar panels in the US, by making the installation as painless as possible and creating thousands of white and blue collar clean tech jobs. It went public in 2014, and was valued at close to $7billion
- All the businesses are connected in the long and short term. Tesla makes battery packs that Solar City can sell to end customers. SolarCity supplies Tesla’s charging stations with solar panels. Tesla owners often decide to follow the Musk lifestyle and kit out their homes with solar panels. Tesla and SpaceX exchange knowledge around materials and manufacturing techniques
About the author
Ashlee Vance is an award winning feature writer for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. He previously worked for The New York Times and The Economist.
Vance was born in South Africa, like Musk, and grew up in Texas and attended Pomona College. He has spent more than a decade covering the technology industry and is a noted Silicon Valley historian.
“An essential read….a riveting portrait of Silicon Valley’s most driven entrepreneur since Steve Jobs” Financial Times
“Exhaustively reported . . . this work will likely serve as the definitive account of a man whom so far we’ve seen mostly through caricature. By the final pages, too, any reader will sense the need to put comparisons to Steve Jobs aside. Give Musk credit. There is no one like him” New York Times
Author: Ashlee Vance