Get inspired by one of the most successful entrepreneurs and visionaries ever
Suffering characterized Musk’s childhood and later life
Musk had a difficult upbringing in South Africa. Problems with his father and bullying by his classmates were the norm. Once he was beaten so badly by bullies that he couldn’t attend school for a week.
To escape the daily struggles, Musk lost himself in lecture. He was an avid reader and read two encyclopedias, being able to remember most things. He converted himself into a fact factory. He would spit out the distance from earth to moon when the topic came out on the dinner table, or point out that “darkness is merely the absence of light” when one of his friend was frightened of the dark.
Musk often lost himself in fantasy to the point that it was hard to separate reality from fantasy for him. “Maybe I read too many comics as a kid” he said, referring to the fact that from an early age he started seeing man’s fate in the universe as a personal obligation. “In the comics, it always seems like they are trying to save the world. It seemed like one should try to make the world a better place because the inverse makes no sense.”
His classmates may have thought that the shy Elon would never amount to much, boy were they wrong. Not only had he big visions for humanity and read tons of books, he also started to develop entrepreneurial skills. Selling his video game called Blastar for 500$ when he was just 12.
Leaving South Africa
Musk didn’t want to join the obligatory military service, so he had to leave South Africa. He headed to Canada, expecting to find a way to get to the US from there.
His first year in Canada wasn’t easy, he went from relative to relative and drifted between jobs. Eventually he enrolled at Queen’s University. At University he started to develop his character and ambitions. He entered public speaking contests, studied business and wooed girls.
His competitiveness was even notable in his relationships. Justin Wilson, who later became his wife and mother of 6 sons, initially had no interest in him. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He found out where she was studying and showed up in front of her carrying her two of her favorite ice creams. He had asked a friend of hers which ice cream she liked most.
Using an Internet startup as jump board to create high-risk, big ambition Companies
In 1995 Musk created his first company with his brother. The company was aimed at helping businesses getting online for the first time. Things weren’t easy, the company got many rejections as businesses saw little value in that new thing called the internet.
Eventually, inspired by Musk’s drive, venture-capital investors helped the start-up out, backing it off with their capital. They hired better engineers which rewrote much of the monolithic code Musk had written, typically for a self thought programmer. The new guys weren’t at all comfortable for Musk, who always wanted to do things his way.
Musk’s insane drive often made him make too optimistic assumptions or time estimates. When he said something would take an hour it meant one or two days. When he said a day, it would mean a week. Eventually Zip2 was sold to Compaq and Musk moved on, because he wanted to become CEO of a company and most importantly, maintain complete control of the company himself so that he would have the power to say how things should work.
Musk’s next business was named X.com. It was based on his vision to “remake” banking. He wanted to change how banking was done. Things went good for a while but then there was PayPal. Max Levchin and Peter Thiel had been working on their own online payment system aimed to replace banks.
After a brief arduous competition, the companies decided to join forces. Once again Musk’s lead didn’t work out perfectly, he found himself in charge of a divided company. Thiel resigned and Levchin threatened to do the same. When Musk went on his honeymoon with his wife Justin, executives at his company demoted him, asking Thiel to come back as CEO.
The company changed its name from X.com to PayPal and eventually sold it to eBay for $1.5 billion. Musk had still his fair share at the company and made $250 million profit.
The Space Industry
After some years off, Musk decided to pursue a long wanted goal, the space industry. He relocated to Los Angeles with his family, where the space industry had a hub.
He got involved in the Mars Society which at the time was debating the feasibility of sending mice into orbit. Not surprisingly Musk started to have bigger plans than Mars Society, instead of just sending them into orbit, he wanted to send them straight to Mars.
Musk eventually decided it was time to make rockets more efficient, creating cheaper space flight. He started reading old Soviet rocket manuals and went to Russia with an intent to buy rockets.
The experiment didn’t succeed so Musk decided he would just build them himself. In June of 2002 SpaceX was born. It took about 4 years for SpaceX to successfully launch a rocket and the company was on the brink of bankruptcy several times.
His unshakable passion and drive, however, lead SpaceX through all impossibilities and made it the first commercial company to reach space.
Not only did Musk venture into Space, he also started a company which would accomplish his vision for green energy in the car industry. It started when he met J.B. Straubel, Martin Everhard and Marc Tarpenning who were working on electric cars powered by traditional lithium-ion batteries. In 2003 Tesla Motors was born. The company was founded by Eberhard and Tarpenning but Musk became sole shareholder and chairman after investing $6.5 million.
Against the estimates of the car industrie’s giants and all the naysayers, Tesla emerged as a great success. Tesla’s mid-2012 Model S sedan changed the car industry forever, proving that quality electric cars were indeed accomplisheable. A report from Motor Trend named it the highest rating car in its history (99/100), converting Tesla to the most successful car company since the emergence of Crysler in 1925. Musk overcame decades of criticism and doubts about electric cars.
Musk’s green tech company called SolarCity, in which he became chairman after joining forces with his cousins the Rive brothers, fitted in well with his other two companies. He got a nice horizontal integration, having the possibility to swap technologies. Tesla’s battery packs were useful to SolarCity and SolarCity’s panels were useful for Tesla’s charging stations.
In 2013 after getting frustrated with the high-speed rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco which would be completed in 2029 and cost $ sixty-billion, he unveiled another proposal, Hyperloop. Hyperloop would consist of a low pressure tube which would guide pods floating on a bed of air with high speed (800 mph) from one city to city. This transport would enable travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes.
Saving the human race
How did Musk succeed in the sustainable-technology industry where so many had failed before? How did he succeed in arguably one of the highest risk industries, the space industry?
What differs Musk from other Silicon-Valley entrepeneurs is his vision. Instead of focusing only on making more money, money isn’t what drives him. He has no problem to put everything he has and more into a risky endeavour if he believes that humanity will benefit from it. What drives him are higher goals. He want’s to save humanity, and his way to do that is converting us to a multi planetary species.
He fully believes in his visions, visions other people often dismiss as crazy. His drive, passion, and belief in making the impossible possible are what made him do the unthinkable. Succeding in the space industry, the electric car industry, green energy industry, and other areas.
Of course the success comes at a cost. Musk has little sense of work balance and often is overworked. What’s more, he demands the same commitment from his employees. Making himself a lure for lack empathy, firing people whitout twinkering. For trivialities like asking for a raise due to high workload or spelling mistakes in an email.
Think of him as you want, you gotta respect his accomplishments. Even most people who had bad experiences with him still respect his insane drive to succeed.
Also published on Medium.