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Musk Driven by Mission

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Both observations were included in Ashlee Vance’s new book, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. The book is written in rah-rah. Hopefully it is only trying to drum up inspiration for innovation and perseverance. Musk is criticized for taking big risks, playing the media, being impatient with foolishness, and, worst of all, taking government money for his businesses. But that’s where the negativity ends.

Musk is today an entrepreneurial all-star for being CEO of SpaceX, the first privately-owned business to launch a liquid-propellant rocket to low earth orbit, launch a craft to orbit and recover it, and deliver supplies to the ISS. The amazing thing is Musk’s company was vertically integrated, building its own parts or purchasing them from American manufacturers; so it spent orders of magnitude less on missions than the big guys.

Musk recruited the best and brightest to work for him. He looked not only for kids at the top of their college classes, he sought those who from childhood exhibited competence in making things, those who had pulled apart and reassembled clocks and lawn mowers. They had to be driven, sharing Musk’s mission to colonize Mars. To this, working 90-hour weeks every week and spending years on a primitive island was incidental.

Working for Musk would be hard for anybody who lost sight of the goal. Employees would be given impossible goals with impossible deadlines. When engineers would bring proposals to Musk, they could expect to be told to slash the cost ridiculously. If something truly was deemed impossible, Musk might be appeased with an explanation of the physics of why and an alternative proposal detailed with a bill of materials and resumes for prospective staff.

Vance praised SpaceX for its agility, contrasting it to the rest of the aerospace industry, which is “larded down by regulation and bureaucracy.” He quoted Carol Stoker of NASA’s praise of Musk’s open-floor, realtime-response factory as superior to the establishment, “which is designed to produce requirements documents and project reviews.” What’s more, Vance said it was very difficult for young grads full of fire to go work for the bureaucracies when they were still using technology one would find in a 1960s laundromat.

Musk is also CEO of Tesla Motors. Whereas colonizing Mars may be viewed as an escape hatch for if and when humanity destroys the planet; electric cars that can be recharged with, for all intents and purposes, ubiquitous solar power, would extend the life of a planet imperiled, as Vance believes, by manmade global warming. No attempt, incidentally, was made in the work to assuage concerns that the space industry does more damage to the atmosphere than all the little cars on the road.

Tesla Motors was begun by Marc Tarpenning and Martin Eberhard, but Musk soon joined as an investor. Electric cars were a joke at the time, and Musk wanted to change that by making something sleek. It would be a status symbol rich people could show off, play in, and use to reinforce their sense of global consciousness. The jump-off point was connecting oodles of lithium-ion batteries in series in a manner that wouldn’t overheat and explode. Another feature would be a seventeen-inch touchscreen control panel, which at the time was unheard-of and not recommended if it could exist for the automotive industry.

It was hoped enough luxury-line vehicles would sell to justify manufacturing lower and lower-end vehicles. As with the SpaceX launches, Musk’s deadlines kept getting pushed back. For one thing, Musk tends to be overly optimistic. For another, Musk kept finding ways to make things better and insisted on their integration. So great and plenteous were his successes, Musk often found himself and his businesses the targets of smear campaigns by cronies who, rather than innovating, would prefer to maintain cashflow through the pressure public opinion can exert on legislators.

Musk’s first startup was the company Zip2. It provided an online directory of businesses with maps. It was a hard sell in an era when a lot of business people didn’t see why anybody would even be interested in the Internet. Musk started small, with his buddies, working long hours, sleeping in the office, and showering at the YMCA. But unlike most Silicon Valley entrepreneurs in the dot-com feeding frenzy, Musk sold out at a handsome profit. He became a multimillionaire at age twenty-seven.

Musk’s next dream was to create a secure way of doing online banking, or even bypassing banking with its processing times and fees and letting buyers and sellers trade directly and instantly. He soon combined forces with Peter Thiel, Max Levchin, and others at PayPal, and egos raged. Musk was ousted in a board meeting while aboard a plane on a scheduled business trip/honeymoon. After the initial outrage, Musk refocused on his life’s goals and worked through or around the bottlenecks.

Like most accomplished souls, Musk began life as a genius. He could read two books a day, and he memorized a couple sets of encyclopedias when the library ran out of books. He was known for his visual thought processes that allowed him to mentally look at a machine from all angles, take it apart, tweak one or another park, and see how it would run. An all-out geek, he was bullied considerably as a child, getting a nose job at an early age after one clash. His father had issues, which the family won’t discuss. Adding to the mix the fact that he grew up in apartheid South Africa where he saw a lot of uncanny violence.

Some observers have concluded all the adversity in Musk’s childhood contributed to his unstoppable will in the business world. But Musk refuses to simulate the adversity for his five sons. He says their greatest challenge is not getting to play video games as often as they want. He makes them read more than they play, and they are not allowed to play games that don’t build skill. Vance states repeatedly that Musk does not “suffer fools.”

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