He is the 21st Century Howard Hughes, John D. Rockefeller and Steve Jobs – all rolled into one dynamic package. His hunger for global change mirrors the sense of adventure of the great explorers of the past. His ideas, considered crazy by everyone around him, have opened up new frontiers as he continues to improve the world with the aid of technological advancement. His goal to make the earth a better place to live on has expanded to encompass the entire universe – including the possibility of supporting human life on Mars.
In this episode of Biographics, we get up close and personal with the man who was the model for Marvel’s Iron Man movie franchise character Tony Start… Of course, the man we are talking about is Elon Musk.
Elon Musk was born on June 28th, 1971 in Pretoria, South Africa. His Canadian born mother was a dietitian, with his father being a mechanical and electrical engineer. The boy had a natural leaning towards technology, buying his first computer – a Commodore VIC 20 – with money he had saved when he was just ten years old. By the age of twelve, he had created his own video game, Blaster, which he sold for $500. As a pre-teen, he had already taught himself computer programming.
Musk’s life came to a crossroads in his late teens when he was faced with compulsory military service in South Africa. While he had no problem with the thought of serving his country in uniform, he was repulsed by the idea of being a part of a system that suppressed the country’s indigenous black people. His desire was to get to America, the land of opportunity, especially in regard to his growing fascination with all things related to computer technology. To do so, however, he figured that he would have to use Canada as a stepping stone. His mother was still a Canadian citizen and, so steps were taken for Elon to acquire Canadian citizenship for himself.
After graduating from the Pretoria Boy’s High School, he emigrated to Canada in June 1989, aged just seventeen. He had hardly any money and no real connections, turning up on the doorsteps of distant relatives of his mother and being put to work on their farms.
As well as tending vegetables and shoveling grain, he got a job at a lumber mill, cleaning out boilers. Then he managed to secure a job as an intern clerk at a local bank. In 1990, he moved to Kingston, Ontario where he began a science degree at the Queen’s University. Two years later, he was able to achieve his goal of living in the United States, transferring his studies to the University of Pennsylvania. Within two more years he graduated with double degrees, in science and business.
It was around this time that Musk came across a copy of the Douglas Adams book, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The book, which revolves around a supercomputer which is built to figure out the ultimate answer to the question of “life, the universe and everything.” After 7.5 million years of computing, it spits out the answer – the number 42.
Along with that answer, the computer, which can talk, adds some sage advice, telling the inquirer . . .
“The problem with you, to be quite honest with you, is that you never really know what the question is.”
For Musk, reading that was a lightbulb moment. He later recalled . . .
“It highlighted an important point, which is that a lot of times the question is harder than the answer.” Elon Musk
By the time he emerged from university, Musk wasn’t entirely sure what the questions were. But he knew that they were tied up in three key areas: the internet, clean energy and outer space.
In 1995, Musk enrolled himself in a Ph.D. program for energy physics at Stanford University. Yet, after an attendance of just two days, he decided to drop out in order to launch his first business. His love for physics never wavered, but he saw greater opportunities in the burgeoning internet revolution – a way to make society better – and himself richer.
Musk realized that, as more and more companies established an online presence, they would need to have their printed materials converted into digital documents. If he could fill that need, he would be onto a winner. Elon teamed up with his younger brother Kimbal to develop content publishing software designed for news and media companies. At a time, when many venture capitalists had never even heard the word ‘internet’, it was a major risk.
The product that the Musk brothers came up with was called Zip2. It started life as a tool that would help people to search for maps and directions on the internet, with people also being able to post information through something similar to a micro-blogging system.
Things were tough for Musk in these early days. He had no money, not even enough to rent an office and an apartment at the same time. So, he rented an office where he slept on a futon, taking care of his personal hygiene down at the local “Y”.
Staring with small newspapers, Musk was able to quickly grow his client base. Agreements were made with large media companies, including the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times to allow those companies to use Zip2 to make their content readily available to their readers via the internet. The program was then used by many similar companies, along with e-commerce sites, as a platform for their web presence.
By 1999, the Zip2 Corporation was providing web hosting, web development and maintenance services for close to two hundred websites. They came to the attention of the online city guide CitySearch, who were interested in a merger. This deal didn’t work out, but another one did. After just four years of operation, the Zip2 Corporation was sold to Compaq Computers for $307 million in cash and $34 million in stock options.
At the age of 28, Elon Musk was a multi-millionaire. But, he was just getting started, and even before the ink was dry on the Zip2 deal, he had thrown himself into his next venture – X.com. Musk’s vision was to create the world’s first online bank and he invested $10 million to kick it off. The goal was to offer every service that you could get from a conventional bank, but with the added benefit that you could send and receive money securely using only your email address.
On the time he almost died from malaria while on holiday: “That’s my lesson for taking a vacation: Vacation will kill you.”
X.com was an immediate success. After just a year of operation, it was merged with a money transfer system called Confinity. The combined businesses were renamed Paypal in 2001. Now working with Confinity founders Peter Thiel and Max Levchin, the business dropped the idea of a fully functional online bank and focused on the feature that seemed to grab everyone’s attention – the ability to send money to and from anyone who had the same app. At this early stage, the system relied on a Windows based handheld device.
During the first months of the merger, from January 1999 to October 2000, Musk was CEO of X-com. During this time he set up a viral system that grew it into the world’s largest e-mail payment system. New customers were offered a twenty dollar cash card, along with an additional ten dollars for referring a friend. Within two months, more than a hundred thousand new customers came onboard.
But not all was well within the company’s management. The problem was Musk’s management style, which can best be described as dictatorial. Both Thiel and Levchin found it difficult to work with him. They were especially frustrated at his need to micromanage everything. Disputes and divisions arose over which technologies to use and how to brand the company.
As a result of such divisions, Thiel and Levchin organized a coup against CEO Musk while he was meeting with prospective customers overseas. He returned to the country to discover that he had been fired as CEO by the board and replaced by Thiel. Shortly thereafter the name of the company was changed to PayPal.
From there it grew exponentially, leading to a buy out by Ebay in 2002. The cost of the sale was a staggering 1.5 billion dollars. As the largest shareholder, Musk walked away with $165 million.
Even before PayPal was sold, Musk was on to his next business venture. Ever since he was a child he had been fascinated by space exploration. He had been an avid science fiction reader – now he had the money to turn fiction into reality. He was convinced that the earth was destined to collapse as a life sustaining planet. The sooner we started working on the technology required for interplanetary travel and for sustaining life beyond Earth, the better.
In discussions with a friend one day, Musk complained that, despite the vast improvements in the technology industry, the space industry has lagged sorrowfully behind. Since man had set foot on the moon way back in 1969 it appeared to him that no meaningful progress had been made. He was determined to change that and his third company, Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, was to be his platform to do it.
A major goal of SpaceX is to create a space vehicle that can take people, equipment and other necessary resources to Mars and to build a transportation infrastructure that will allow humans to become a multi-planetary species.
On how he’d rather die: “I would like to die on Mars. Just not on impact.”
When Musk let the world in on his vision, he was immediately subjected to ridicule. Industry experts dismissed him as a rich, bored playboy, claiming that his physics degree and previous business ventures hardly made him qualified to conceptualize, develop and build rockets. However, they were underestimating Musk, who was not only a quick study, but who also brought on board the best engineers from top aerospace companies such as Boeing, TWA and NASA.
Musk was disappointed that NASA seemed disinterested in space exploration. He wanted to pique the public’s interest in order to encourage NASA to increase their allocated funds on a project to land a device on Mars and then build a bubble bioverse.
He also wanted to introduce a cheaper and safer alternative to Space shuttle travel. He was struck by the fact that the Russians were able to produce rockets that were cheaper and safer than anything the Americans could come out with. He traveled to Russia in an attempt to purchase a ‘refurbished ICBM’, but the deal became too complicated.
Musk next set his sights on creating and successfully launching a reusable rocket, which he called Falcon 1, that could fly off to space, return to Earth and then be launched back to space again. The first scheduled launch for Falcon 1 was in 2005, yet three years later, after multiple failed attempts, Falcon 1 was still to have its first successful flight.
“My biggest mistake is probably weighing too much on someone’s talent and not someone’s personality. I think it matters whether someone has a good heart.” Elon Musk
Finally, on its fourth attempt, Falcon 1, successfully launched. On the back of this success, SpaceX was able to secure a $1.6 billion contract from NASA involving 12 future flights on their rocket, Falcon 9, to the International Space Station. Musk has estimated that SpaceX’s efforts can minimize the U.S. government’s expenses by around $1 billion per year…
Musk has always been fascinated by cars and specifically by the dream of creating a breed of electric cars that totally transform the driving experience. While he was still a sophomore at university, he had become aware of the world’s depleting resources. What was needed was an alternative source of fuel, one that would not produce the carbon emissions that were damaging the environment. It was from these ideas that Musk decided to pursue electric cars.
A year after launching SpaceX, Musk was introduced to Al Ciccone and Tom Gage of AC Propulsion, the company behind an all electric car known as the Tzero. Musk was interested in mass producing the Tzero, but Ciccone and Gage showed no interest. They did, however, introduce Musk to a group of men who were dedicated to finding a more environmentally friendly vehicle. In July 2003, Musk teamed with three of them, Ian Wright, Marc Tarpening and Martin Eberhard to form the Tesla Corporation, in recognition of the father of AC induction motors, Nikola Tesla.
From the very beginning, Tesla faced an uphill battle. The concept of an electric car was years away from capturing the public attention. And, just as was the case with SpaceX, the question was loudly asked how a visionary with no experience in the car industry could successfully establish a new company and a new product and stand against the industry giants. What’s more, they were attempting to do something that those industry giants had been unable to do. In fact, Robert Lutz, CEO of General Motors, stated that lithium ion technology for cars was at least 10 years into the future.
As a result of the lack of industry enthusiasm, very few investors wanted anything to do with Tesla. In fact, Musk had to fund the majority of the operations of the company himself. The goal of having the first roadstar rolling off the assembly line by 2007 never materialized, as costs continued to mount. Just as with X.com years earlier, tensions arose among the management. Musk, who was Chairman of the Board, had no faith in Martin Eberhard, the president of the company. Before long Eberhard had been ousted and Musk put himself in full control.
He was now the CEO of two start ups. Even for a dynamo like Musk, this was too much.
Still, he had to make both companies work. His master plan for Tesla was to build a luxury electric sports car, along with a line of more affordable cars, and an electric powered car with zero emissions.
In 2008, the first Roadstar was shipped out. This $110,000 electric sports car could run for 200 miles on a single charge and was capable of going from 0-60 miles per hours in less than 4 seconds.
The more family affordable electric car was called the Tesla Model S. Its release began in June of 2012. Sales took off, and there are currently 500 rolling off the production lines every week.
As well as being the CEO of Tesla, Musk is also the chairman of the board of directors of another environmental company, SolarCity. While not the founder of the company, he is very involved in achieving the company’s mission to deliver complete solar energy systems to the end users without the cost of any up-front fees. It also promised reduced utility bills for all of its customers. By offering free installation and zero down payment to homeowners, Musk has made it easier for consumers to afford solar energy and has revolutionized the way the solar industry is run. SolarCity had enjoyed tremendous growth and success, with clients that include eBay, Wal-Mart and the U.S. Military, making it the number one solar power service provider in the United States.
As if being an industry leader in space travel, electric cars and solar power isn’t enough, in August 2013, Musk proposed a completely new mode of personal transport. He called it the ‘Hyperloop.’ The concept will allow people to travel between large cities at the speed of sound, allowing passengers to go from San Francisco to L.A. in about 30 minutes. It involves a vacuum sealed pod that rides on top of electromagnetic waves, in much the same way as a surfer’s board rides an ocean’s waves. The pods will glide across the track at speeds of many hundreds of miles per hour. This eliminates the problem of friction created by wheels on tracks.
The same month that Musk unveiled plans for Hyperloop, the crowdsourcing and collaboration platform JumpStartFund was established. Comprised of more than a hundred engineers, developers and investors, the group took on Hyperloop as their first project. In 2014 they formed Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, and undertook a feasibility study. In 2015, Musk ran a student competition to design and build HyperLoop pods. A SpaceX sponsored mile long track was built to run the pods on.
On July 20th, 2017 Musk announced that he had gained ‘verbal government approval’ to build a Hyperloop track between New York City and Washington, D.C.
Elon Musk is one guy who it is a challenge to keep up with. In the twelve months from December 2015 to December 2016 he started no less than three companies – Open AI, a not-for-profit artificial intelligence research company, Neuralink, a neurotechnology start-up with the aim of integrating the human brain with A.I and The Boring Company, which aims to bring down the cost of tunnel boring by ten-fold.
Elon Musk has been married two times. He met his first wife, Justine Wilson, while they were both students at Queen’s University in Ontario. They tied the knot in 2000. Justine is a fantasy novelist who described her life with Elon as a ‘dream lifestyle’ that was empty at the core. Her husband was so focused on his work that, even when he was at home, his mind didn’t seem to be there. The marriage ended in 2008 in a very messy public divorce.
Elon and Justine have five children together, a set of twins and a set of triplets.
Musk met his second wife, Talulah Riley, at a London nightclub. They were married just six weeks after he filed for divorce from Justine. The wedding took place at Skibo Castle in Scotland – he was 39, she was 23. Things apparently didn’t go well, with Musk announcing their separation just two years later on Twitter . . .
@rileytalulah It was an amazing four years. I will love you forever. You will make someone very happy one day.
The couple got back together in 2014, but a divorce was finalized towards the end of 2016.
When it comes to the future of Elon Musk, the best advice is to watch this space. He has never backed down from his ambition to travel to Mars and, possibly, retire there one day. Until that happens we can be assured that he will continue to revolutionize the way that the world consumes energy, benefits from technology, and travels into space.