Elon Musk has become a sort of demi-god in the pantheon of heroes in the entrepreneurship and innovation space. What makes him the cynosure of every startupper’s eyes? What makes him the apparent torch-bearer of global innovation? Is it his idiosyncrasies? His ‘don’t-care-a-dime’ attitude? His lackadaisical approach towards his stockholders and wealthy backers? His social savviness? Or his innate business acumen to spot trends and back the right horses?
Elon Musk currently heads Tesla Motors and SpaceX as CEO. He has also founded The Boring Company, OpenAI, and NeuraLink, all of which deal with futuristic technologies. And he openly aspires to leave Earth and colonize Mars. If there is any resemblance to Musk and the fictional character of Tony Stark (from the Iron Man movies), it was well-intended. but Musk has had a chequered past and a not-so-happy childhood. However, his inherent genius and entrepreneurial streak made him chase his dreams against all odds and made him the person he is now.
Elon Reeve Musk was born to Errol and Maye Musk (née Haldeman) in 1971 in Pretoria, South Africa. He is the eldest of three siblings and has a younger brother, Kimbal, and a younger sister, Tosca.
We all know the story of Musk – how he decided to stay with his father after his parents separated, how he spent difficult years being bullied in school and with his father. These difficult formative years can not only be attributed to Musk’s attitude, but also to his love for technology.
As someone who didn’t have many friends, Musk found respite in technology. He was an avid learner from an early age. He taught himself programming when he was only 10, on a Commodore VIC-20, the popular personal computer back in the days. He became proficient enough to create a video game called Blastar, the BASIC code for which he sold to a magazine called PC and Office Technology for $500.
Musk’s move to the United States was a cornerstone in his life as he believed that “America is where great things are possible, more than any other country in the world.” In 1997, he graduated from physics and economics from the University of Pennsylvania. during one of his summer internships, his recruiter noted that Musk had ‘boundless energy.’ And because of his hacker background, he was different from the other kids and was not afraid to ‘go figure things out.’
Although he was accepted for a Ph.D program at Stanford University, within just two days, he dropped out instead to venture in the bright new world of the Internet boom and launch an internet startup.
And then came Zip2, a web software company that he co-founded with his brother Kimbal and Greg Kouri. Within four years, the company was acquired by Compaq for US$ 307 million in cash and Musk received US$22 million for his 7% share from the sale. This kickstarted the take-off of Musk’s career and launched him into the big league.
Musk invested US$10 million from his share to co-found X.com, an online financial services and e-mail payment company. In 2000, the company merged with Confinity to become PayPal, the online payments services company. In October 2002, PayPal was acquired by eBay for US$1.5 billion in stock, of which Musk received US$165 million.
Since then, there has been no looking back. His career has a unique narrative, and his multiple business ventures look very audacious, risky and well calculated at the same time. He has sort of got into a pattern – he completes one seemingly impossible, insane venture and dives headlong into a new, more impossible, more insane one!
He then launched SpaceX in 2001, a company with an overly ambitious plan to design spacecrafts meant to ferry people to the International Space Station and back. And then happened Tesla in 2004, the disruptor in the automotive industry, designing the futuristic electric car, pegged as the most sustainable mode of transport. In 2006 he launched SolarCity, to create a utility to install solar panel systems on homes, in order to reduce fossil fuel consumption and propel adoption of sustainable energy at a mass scale. He has also disclosed Hyperloop- the very sci-fi sounding, futuristic, vacuum based transportation design and has plans to bore tunnels under cities to launch his tube-based transportation for high speed, traffic free movement. And the latest we heard of him is Neuralink, the company he founded to build implantable technology that facilitates seamless communication between human brains and computers.
He courts controversies openly, most of his ideas sound very lofty and far-fetched at first, and it seems impossible to wrap your head around them. He has even gone almost broke in the process, and bounced back, and boasts of a true story that is indeed stranger than fiction. He leaves everyone impressed and – may we say- asking for more!
While he had no friends as a child, and mostly keeps to himself even now, his media savviness is of legendary level. All his public appearances and media interviews have more to do with how he talks than what he talks about. He makes it a point to offer his ventures as solutions to societal and economic challenges. For example, SpaceX is not just about colonising Mars, it is about ensuring that humanity survives longer than what experts have been projecting until now. He talks about humans becoming multi planetary species, and that may seem like some shtick, but his unbridled passion, and his drive to make it a reality is unmistakably evident. He is also one of the biggest fund providers to The Future of Life Institute, dedicated to alleviate existential risks to the human race from rapidly growing artificial intelligence.
He breaks every rule in the investor/millionaire rulebook, and does it with panache. In the words of none other than 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 has a finger in every pie- Automotive industry, Aerospace industry, Solar Energy, Energy Storage solutions, Satellite, High-Speed Ground Transportation, and even Multi-Planetary Expansion. The highs and lows in his business are obviously enormous, and anyone who is at the helm of such affairs would be pretty stressed out most of the time. But you see him at Hollywood parties, you see him fooling around, and it is hard to believe that this is the same man who works (and has people working for him) crazy hours. Intense is the one word that describes him. His unorthodox stance, his enthusiasm for all things tech, and his zeal to push every possible limit is inimitable. He has no qualms in spending billions to shift the common paradigm about the possibilities technology offers. Advocating renewable energy, reshaping mass transit, even leading it to space, he is building a legacy like nobody else has ever done.
No wonder then, that he never has a moment to waste- he walks fast, eats fast, works fast, wants things done fast, even types emails while sitting on the stage as he listens to the speaker introduce him. After all, he is a man on a mission! He often comes across as cold, because he has no pretences, and refuses to answer questions he considers dumb! He carries an unassuming, no-nonsense air about him at work and beyond. He doesn’t believe in complaining about things that are messed up. In fact, he digs deep into the mess and turns it around on its head in the most unbelievable manner. He is heavily invested in his pursuit of saving the Earth while also helping humans move to Mars in the future. And he has proven it that he is not in it for the money- he had made enough of it to buy an island with his early deal with Compaq already. He does what he does because he has a vision for the average Joe- he wants the average Joe to visit Mars, to live on clean energy, and to drive the most hi-tech, environment-friendly car. And in the process, he has churned out one-billion-dollar company after another. And defying all rules, he is willing to lose all his money again to continue making a difference to the way humans live on this planet. With a portfolio as diverse as his, his bulldog attitude, and selling skills to match, he is nothing if not a go-getter. Remember he took NASA head-on with SpaceX!
Think of him as a delusional billionaire business tycoon, an eccentric genius, a Silicon Valley icon, a visionary, or a real practitioner of science, he has his unique persona, carefully crafted and cultivated over decades. And this persona is set to rock the world economy for many more years! Whether he will succeed or not in achieving what he has set out for remains to be seen, he has certainly opened our minds to see through possibilities and believe in concepts that we could have never have imagined until a few years ago.