He has been called the real life Tony Stark, he’s worth $12.5 billion, he has been labelled the world’s 38th most powerful person and he has world leaders on speed dial.
The 45-year-old changed the way you shop, and now he’s working on the way you get there. When he’s done he wants to power our home, fire us like bullets through tubes that link cities and then take us all to Mars. Apart from that, he lives a pretty chill life.
The legend of Elon Musk has now gone further than the mighty Apple and he has become a cult all of his own.
It’s a tale of one man moving mountains. It is also a tale punctuated by massive, near reckless gambling of a fortune that he built from nothing on insane concepts that sound like drunk bar talk.
Muskrat grew up great
It’s an incredible rise to fame and fortune for the skinny kid they used to call Muskrat in his native South Africa. It was not a term of endearment. Had Musk been popular and good at sports, we might be living in a different world.
As it was he surrounded himself with books, computers and the burning desire to prove himself to the world. It could be the back story of a psychopath and the term benevolent psychopath might well apply to some level. Luckily, Musk found a positive, creative outlet with technology and business.
He sold his first video game at the age of 12 for $500. It was hardly ground-breaking, you can play this version of Space Invaders here and see for yourself. But it was a start.
Five years later Musk moved to live with relatives in Ontario and studied Physics and Economics at Ontario’s Queen’s University. He transferred to the University of Pennsylvania and sharpened his entrepreneurial chops staging alcohol-soaked parties for fellow students, even though he didn’t drink.
He was clearly a gifted student, as he was accepted for a PhD at Stanford. It lasted a matter of days, though, as Musk wanted to get out into the world of business.
YMCA showers to riches
Sleeping in the office and showering at the local YMCA, he built Zip2, essentially city guide software for newspapers, with his brother, and sold it to Compaq for more than $300 million in February 1999. He was 28 and reportedly pocketed $22 million. It was the ideal time to ride off on a thoroughbred horse and live off the interest on a big yacht.
He didn’t do that. Instead he ploughed all that money into an 11.7% stake in PayPal, which translated into a $160 million fortune when the payments company sold out to eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002.
Musk just about made time to marry Justine Wilson and they overcame the death of their first child, Nevada, at just 10 weeks old, to have five children together. Wilson reportedly never forgot the way Musk refused to grieve Nevada’s death, even though they went on to have five children together.
The two battled on for eight years together, but six weeks after their divorce he was seen with Inception star Talulah Riley. He married her in 2010, they divorced in 2012, remarried in 2013, almost divorced in 2014 and then finally Riley filed a massive suit in March 2016. They gave it a good try…
Musk doesn’t really do hobbies
Any woman would struggle to deal with him. That’s possibly because Musk doesn’t really have a work-life balance. He collects James Bond memorabilia and intends to turn the Lotus Esprit from the film into a functional submarine, but that’s about the only hobby he has.
You don’t build empires by playing hooky and Musk is famous for working 80-hour weeks, every week. His PayPal money went straight in to electric cars, space exploration and a heavy investment in solar energy. These were big concepts and Musk freely admits there was such a high chance of Tesla failing that he was only prepared to risk his own money. As for SpaceX, it looked like a lunatic’s mission.
First Tesla was rough and ready
The Tesla Roadster was a hatchet job on a Lotus Elise platform. The weight was in the wrong place, the batteries were heavy, the range was poor and people flat out laughed at it. Time Magazine called it the Invention of the Year in 2006, but not everybody approved.
When Top Gear publicly roasted the car’s range, Tesla sued the iconic program for defamation and blamed it for lost sales. Musk later claimed a New York Times writer similarly faked range issues with the Model S. This may have been the pressure talking.
He soon found to his shock that $160 million wasn’t nearly enough to get a car company off the ground, let alone his other ventures. At the height of the economic crisis, with costs and personal debts mounting, Musk was on the cusp of personal bankruptcy.
“A bunch of Tesla employees wrote checks to keep the company going,” said Diarmuid O’Connell, VP of business development at Tesla. “They turned into investments, but at the time it was $25 or $50,000 they didn’t expect to see again. It just seemed like: ‘Holy shit, this thing is going to crater’.”
That community spirit in the company and a $465 million government loan, together with serious incentives that slashed the price of admission for the customer, saved Tesla from becoming a footnote in automotive history.
Did Musk divert money?
His younger brother Kimbal Musk even claimed Elon diverted funds meant for Roadsters into running the company. “I’m sure he would have found a way to make it right, but he definitely took risks that looked like they could have landed him in jail for using someone else’s money,” he is quoted as saying in Ashlee Vance’s book Elon Musk: How the billionaire owner of SpaceX and Tesla is shaping our future.
It’s not the first time, nor the last, that Musk has faced financial oblivion. He’s painted as a genius and that’s almost certainly the way the world will see him in hindsight. At the time, though, many of Musk’s decisions were driven by pure necessity and maybe even a touch of desperation.
Tesla is still losing money, but the rate of expansion has quelled the early fears. Musk hasn’t just built a car company, he created the charging infrastructure that the likes of BMW and Mercedes shied away from and built the world’s biggest battery factory to keep them running. He made electric cars possible and forced the others into action they were not ready to take.
Don’t for one second underestimate this achievement.
Electric cars could have turned out to be the next Betamax and nobody but Elon Musk was willing to bet so heavily on them. Not only that, with no charging stations Musk was essentially banging a square peg into a round hole. Through sheer force of will, he made it fit.
Tesla is a serious car company these days
Now the Model 3 and the Model Y are on the way and Tesla has evolved from something Doc Brown might have knocked together in the shed into a serious global car company. Elon Musk has faced down the dealers with a direct sales model they fought to the bitter end, and he has consistently powered through objections, obstacles and competitors.
With the Model Y, Tesla will break into the world’s top 10 manufacturers, the Model S P100D is the world’s fastest mass production car and the scary part is this isn’t even the end goal. Self-driving cars, unmanned minibuses and autonomous big rigs sounded like madness a few years ago. They’re coming thanks to one man’s drive.
Musk hasn’t always got it right in terms of timing, but he’s becoming a master of the political art. By the time the establishment took him seriously in the automotive world and tried to shut him down with dealer disputes, he was big enough to fight back.
He hid his ambition to put the power company out of business by hiding the whole plan in plain sight. Musk repeatedly claimed he would not link the SolarCity panels to Tesla batteries, even after he revealed the Powerwall storage unit. He kept to that mantra until he was too big to stop.
SolarCity was Musk’s concept, he’s the largest shareholder and his cousin Lyndon Rive was the founder. These concepts were always going to unite down the road, but showing his hand too early could have brought a swift conclusion to the legend of Elon Musk. That’s why he only put in an offer this year.
Now, space, why not?
Space X started small, too, with a simple plan to reduce the cost of space transport. Musk sent relative toys into space, but it won him the contracts to scale up. NASA scaling back operations basically opened the door for Musk and in 2008 he signed a $1.6 billion deal to become the high-tech delivery man for the International Space Station.
After three very public failures with rocket launches, SpaceX was literally hours from bankruptcy on the lead-up to that deal, while Tesla teetered on the brink too. Musk had to decide to save one definitively or bet the farm, split the money and risk losing both. He chose the latter option and both companies made it through by the skin of their teeth.
Now he has his sights set on Mars. He even sold his work to the world as some ambitious space tourism venture, with a colony of 80,000 people paying $500,000 each for the privilege of living in his off-world utopia. He gets ripped for it to this day. But you have to wonder if that is the actual end goal, or if there’s a curveball coming. There was with everything else.
Ambitious schedules, but total overachievement
Once again he has taken criticism for his outrageous schedules. It’s an accusation that has followed him throughout his business career and it tends to infuriate Wall Street. But then he has achieved at an outlandish rate and those that know him well know that the impossible deadlines are just part of the plan.
At the launch of the Model 3, he said: “Now, will we actually be able to achieve volume production on July 1 next year? Of course not. In order for us to be confident of achieving volume production of Model 3 by late 2017, we actually have to set a date of mid-2017 and really hold people’s feet to the fire, internally and externally,” Elon Musk.
Without the insane pressure, Musk simply couldn’t have hit the heady heights and he puts the same pressure to perform on himself. With a more conservative approach then the likes of Hyperloop would be sitting on a designer’s desktop somewhere, forgotten and unloved. It simply would not have happened.
He has taken insane risks, put himself through the mill and just about come out the other side more times than most of us could take. And yet he keeps putting his hand in the fire. Every time he does the human race takes a step towards a better, brighter, cleaner future and history will remember a man that changed the world.
Read the details, though, and you start to wonder if he just might be a benevolent psychopath after all…