Let’s talk about Iron Man. We all love him. A genius, eccentric, billionaire engineer, with a desire to change the world. But if you think such a person is possible only in comic books, you probably haven’t heard of Elon Musk. This article is a brief account of his life and how he became the CEO of 3 billion dollar companies.
Elon Musk is a South African-born American business magnate, investor and engineer. He is the founder, CEO, and lead designer of SpaceX; co-founder, CEO, and product architect of Tesla, Inc.; and co-founder and CEO of Neuralink.
As a kid, he was nerdy and smart. But he had a rough childhood. He was repeatedly bullied and beaten in school. He really loved comic books as a kid, and his love for reading still continues. In one interview, he said that classroom education was really slow for him. The data input rate was not as efficient as it was when he was reading. He believes that everything can be learned by reading books, and I totally agree. I mean, what’s the point of spending hours daily in class when you can just sit in a library and finish those things up in less than half the time?
He taught himself programming at a very young age, and by the age of 12 he had sold his first program for $500. It was a space game called Blastar. He moved to Canada when he was 17 to attend Queen’s University. He transferred to the University of Pennsylvania two years later, where he received an economics degree from the Wharton School and a degree in physics from the College of Arts and Sciences. He began a Ph.D. in applied physics and material sciences at Stanford University in 1995 but dropped out after two days to pursue an entrepreneurial career. He co-founded Zip2 along with his brother Kimbal Musk after borrowing $28000 from his father, which was one of the first internet based startups, at a time when many did not see the value of the World Wide Web. It helped businesses get a listing online to enhance their reach towards customers. It was acquired by Compaq for $340 million in 1999, from which he received $22 Million. He then used $10 Million from the sale, and founded X.com, an online banking company. At the time, it took hours to complete a bank transaction, and some major work meant you had to take a day off work. X.com merged with Confinity in 2000 and became PayPal, which reimagined banking. It was bought by eBay for $1.5 billion in October 2002. Elon received $165 Million from this. In May 2002, Musk founded SpaceX, an aerospace manufacturer and space transport services company. He did this company as a part of his dream of making affordable rockets, and eventually building a colony on mars. He used around $100 million of his own money on this company, amounting to more than half of his sale of PayPal, and later made money from it, with NASA giving the company contracts worth billions. He co-founded Tesla, Inc., an electric vehicle and solar panel manufacturer, in 2003, and operates as its CEO and product architect. In 2006, he inspired the creation of SolarCity a solar energy services company that is now a subsidiary of Tesla, and operates as its chairman. In 2015, Musk co-founded OpenAI, a nonprofit research company that aims to promote friendly artificial intelligence. In July 2016, he co-founded Neuralink, a neurotechnology company focused on developing brain–computer interfaces, and is its CEO. In December 2016, Musk founded The Boring Company, an infrastructure, and tunnel-construction company.
In addition to his primary business pursuits, Musk has envisioned a high-speed transportation system, known as the Hyperloop, and has proposed a vertical take-off and landing supersonic jet electric aircraft with electric fan propulsion, known as the Musk electric jet. His goals include reducing global warming through sustainable energy production and consumption, and reducing the “risk of human extinction” by establishing a human colony on Mars. What I admire the most about Musk is that when everyone around him had lost faith in him and his projects, and when his companies were near bankruptcy, he didn’t give up. His worst time was between the years 2006 - 2008. The financial crisis hit him hard, all his companies were at their worst, his marriage was falling apart, and he had a nervous breakdown. He needed capital to keep Tesla running, and therefore he took the company public. The stock was thought of as “Least likely to succeed.” But he proved them all wrong. Before Tesla, people believed that electric cars would never be a thing. Tesla made the first electric sports car, the Tesla Roadster, which sold around 2,450 units in over 30 countries. He repaid the loan on him from the government, with full interest, while a similar loan given to Ford and GM was defaulted.
At the time when Tesla was in crisis, SpaceX wasn’t doing so well either. He received heartbreaking comments from the people that he said were his heroes, like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Neil Armstrong, who said that he didn’t believe in commercial space flights. After 3 unsuccessful launches, while people believed that the company is about to end, on April 8, 2016 the Falcon 9v1.2 landed successfully on a drone ship, paving way to the usability of rockets, which would significantly decrease the cost of space flights. And now, they have perfected their landing.
In December 2016, he was ranked 21st on the Forbes list of The World’s Most Powerful People. As of February 2018, he has a net worth of $20.8 billion and is listed by Forbes as the 53rd-richest person in the world.
The first thing that hits you about his ventures is that all of them are ideas that people thought impossible and infeasible, but went on to change their respective industries in ways unimaginable. No one else can claim this diverse an empire with fingers so deep in everything he does. This guy didn’t just buy ideas or companies and started running them. He thought of all of these revolutionary ideas, and then build companies around them.
When one visits Musk’s office in the SpaceX headquarters in California, they are greeted by two giant posters of Mars hanging side by side. The poster to the left depicts Mars as it is today—a cold, barren red orb. The poster on the right shows a Mars with a humongous green landmass surrounded by oceans. The planet has been heated up and transformed to suit humans. Musk is driven by one goal: to make humans a multiplanetary species. All of his ventures are a means towards that end, intending to solve the problem of cheap space travel and sustainable energy.
He built a private space company that has surpassed, in a few years, the ventures of nation-states with higher budgets and having spent much more time. The primary cost in space missions arises from the fact that once the boosters had served their purpose, they had to be discarded. SpaceX is the first, and to date, the only company to have achieved the coveted title of having safely landed back and reused a rocket’s used booster. He kickstarted the electric vehicle movement with Tesla. The same automotive behemoths like GM and Chevrolet who criticized his worldview 10 years back, saying electric vehicles could never be successful, are now racing to get their own electric vehicle divisions going, after Tesla’s success, and are nowhere near as close. Tesla’s cars have a range paralleling those powered by gasoline, speeds that rival supercars, and safety ratings that are one of the highest.
In an interview once he had said: “No, I don’t ever give up. I’d have to be dead or completely incapacitated.” Along with a lot of other people, I consider him to be an inspiration and a hero.
To quote Richard Branson,
“Whatever skeptics have said can’t be done, Elon has gone out and made real. Remember in the 1990s, when we would call strangers and give them our credit-card numbers? Elon dreamed up a little thing called PayPal. His Tesla Motors and SolarCity companies are making a clean, renewable-energy future a reality… his SpaceX [is] reopening space for exploration…it’s a paradox that Elon is working to improve our planet at the same time he’s building spacecraft to help us leave it.”
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a fantastic future, a book by Ashlee Vance.