If you admire hardcore entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Richard Branson, you’ll love Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX & the Quest for a Fantastic Future. I’m not much of a reader and I finished it in three days. It was literally too exciting to put down.
Elon Musk’s trajectory into the superstar entrepreneur spotlight has been relatively recent compared to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. He was just ten years old when the PC was introduced into mainstream culture, but even at ten he showed unmistakable signs of greatness. In addition to being exceptionally intelligent, Musk was also an outstanding organizer, an exceptional thinker and a voracious reader. By the fourth grade, he had read through two complete sets of encyclopedias.
Unlike Gates and Jobs, who were driven by producing one project at a time in the evolution of the PC, Musk started with the premise that the only reasonable decision, when deciding your life’s course, is to make the future a better place for all mankind. So he set out to do just that.
While Gates and Jobs were born and schooled in the United States, Musk is a transnational, having been born in 1971 to a Canadian mother and a South African father and raised in South Africa.
He attended the local school system through high school and then attended the University of Pretoria for five months before moving to Canada to attend Queen’s University.
In 1992, he left Canada to study business and physics at the University of Pennsylvania; he graduated with undergraduate degrees in economics and physics.
He then moved on to Stanford University with the intent of earning a Ph.D. in energy physics, but the internet was exploding so he dropped out in order to create his first company.
Compared to Gates, who made his fortune on a single company he started and maintained control of, Musk started several companies before he found his ultimate success.
His first start-up, an online city guide called Zip2 that was partnered with the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, was sold to Compaq Computer Corporation for $307 million in cash and $34 million in stock options. Elon got a $22 million pay day from the sale.
He then co-founded a second company, X.com, an early pioneering attempt at an online financial services company. A year later, X.com merged with Confinity, which had a branch called PayPal. The merged companies were renamed PayPal. In 2002, PayPal was acquired by eBay for $1.5 billion in stock; this time Musk received $165 million.
The two projects seemed necessary for Musk to accomplish, since nobody else was attending to them and since both are needed in order for human beings to have a brighter future, according to Musk’s way of thinking.
First, he wanted to build a rocket ship transportation company that would carry passengers into space on a regular schedule and enable the establishment of a human colony on Mars. To do so, Musk founded Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, with $100 million of his own money. Musk is the CEO and CTO of the company, which develops and makes its own space launch vehicles and has revolutionized rocket technology.
SpaceX now has contracts with NASA and launches regular successful rocket trips to and from the International Space Station and is the largest private manufacturer of rocket engines in the world.
The second project Musk tackled was building an electric car, one that would hopefully become so popular that the world would abandon the internal combustion engine. In order to do so, Musk invested in Tesla Motors, and joined its Board of Directors, becoming the company’s chairman in February of 2004.
After the financial crisis in 2008, Musk became the CEO and product architect at Tesla Motors, (he currently remains in both positions). The Tesla Roadster was soon unveiled — an electric sports car that can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds and is powered by a lithium ion battery. Tesla Motors also manufactures a Model S sedan and a Model X SUV.
Neither of these groundbreaking projects was easy. In fact, both SpaceX and Tesla Motors required many more millions of dollars than Musk himself could afford to put up, so he had to recruit investors and sell stock in order for these companies to survive.
In December of 2008, both of these dynamic start-ups were desperately in need of cash, and bankruptcy seemed the most likely outcome. Elon Musk himself has stated that he was exhausted and nearing a breakdown.
Then, over the Christmas week, SpaceX received a $1.6 billion contract from NASA and a renewed investment of $40 million in Tesla Motors, saving both the future of both companies.
Elon Musk drives his corporate teams as hard as any entrepreneur has in the past, including Steve Jobs, and he demands the impossible from them. You wouldn’t say working for him was cool or laid-back with Google-style perks like valet parking and multiple on-campus restaurant choices.
Yet he is clearly passionate about what he does—amazingly, Musk announced in 2014 that Tesla Motors will allow its technology to be utilized by anyone, in the hopes that more car manufacturers will begin producing additional types of electric cars.
Although the author of Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX & the Quest for a Fantastic Future, Ashlee Vance, set out to write Musk’s biography with or without his cooperation, Vance was eventually sanctioned by Musk, who granted him access to his friends and employees. The book is well researched and the details were checked by multiple sources.
This allowed Vance to accurately describe events in Musk’s personal life that Musk might not have wanted to be included. It makes Musk seem like a real guy, vulnerable and somewhat tragic during his most trying time.
Although his five sons live with him four days a week and he takes them with him in his private jet on special trips, he clearly puts his work and ambition ahead of a stable family life, like many a driven genius, including Jobs, Einstein and countless others.
Ashlee Vance has a healthy respect for Musk, as would anyone who understands the psyche of a man who has been driven from childhood to accomplish great feats. In Musk’s world, a simple premise propels him: to make the future on Earth both safe and viable.
It’s not wealth or power that motivates and consumes Elon Musk with ambition; rather, it’s his vision that mankind must live sustainably and find an alternative planet to live on, in case planet Earth sustains a cosmic, environmental or man-made catastrophic event.
There is much to learn about Elon Musk. He’s an amazing individual who now runs SpaceX, Tesla and Solar City. He’s definitely out to take us all for a ride, in the best sense of the phrase.