On January 7, 2021, with Tesla stock trading at all-time highs, Elon Musk, at just 49 years old, learned that he was the richest person in the world after his net worth surpassed $190 billion. His reaction to the news was a brief acknowledgement on Twitter: “How strange. Well, back to work.”
What is it about this unassuming centibillionaire still just shy of fifty that attracts such gravitational fascination? For many, it’s Musk’s unrelenting drive to achieve great things and build products that he both believes the world needs and are logical expressions of his love for innovation and invention. It helps to be a true eccentric — in the most benign way. A real-life Iron Man. It’s not just the fact that the richest person in the world will take the time to appear for several hours on Joe Rogan’s podcast, twice, lend his voice to the character Elon Tusk in the quirky cartoon “Rick and Morty,” answer questions from strangers on Twitter, or — in his spare time — sell-out online flamethrowers (although technically, as his label informs us, it is “not a flamethrower.”)
At the risk of sounding obsequious, there is something decent and honest about Musk. It’s almost as if through building electric cars, promoting commercial space exploration, or boring tunnels under the freeway to alleviate auto congestion and CO2 emissions, he is trying to set the table for generations to come, and to inspire all who will buy into his contagious optimism to do great things and make the world a better, more habitable place, by doing them himself.
Although, truth be told, I really don’t know what makes the man tick. I take comfort in the notion that sometimes I don’t think Musk knows either, and I think that’s part of his appeal. What he does know about himself is that from a very young age his mind was, as he describes it, a constant “never-ending explosion of ideas that can’t be turned off.” So much so that he would confess that, at age five, he thought he was insane.
Elon Musk’s chronicle from an obscure and unhappy childhood in Pretoria, South Africa, to the richest person who’s lived so far is a circuitous, captivating, sometimes grim odyssey. In many ways, it is one of the most compelling stories in the annals of business. One that reads more like a novel than a Forbes article. And it is, in the end, inspirational in ways that the linear step-by-calculating-step rise of other great business titans — Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Gates, Bezos — is not. (Steve Jobs perhaps was his closest parallel, although their personalities and style differed dramatically).
Musk’s story starts in 1970 Pretoria, South Africa, when Errol Musk and Maye Haldeman started dating and soon after married. It was an impulsive decision, which Maye, a model at the time, would describe as an antidote to being alone and bored. They had three children, Kimbal, Tosca, and Elon.
It was not a happy childhood, their ideal family façade notwithstanding. Errol, an engineer, was an abusive, violent man. Or as Elon would bluntly recall, “a terrible human being who carefully thought out plans of evil.” An introvert and somewhat awkward, young Elon was also bullied in school, saying “I was almost beaten to death.”
And yet, as Don Henley once said, the creative impulse often comes from the dark side. Through the difficulty of this domestic dysfunction, Maye watched her boy Elon closely, and by the time he turned three she realized she had a prodigy on her hands. Elon’s ability to think through problems rationally, and his capacity to understand complex systems at such a young age stunned his mother. He was put in school a year early. From that point on, an unstoppable waterfall of ideas would cascade down upon the young man whose brain was hard-wired to accept, collate, and eventually act on them.
By age eight he’d read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. At ten he taught himself to code by finishing a six month course in three days; at age twelve he sold his first piece of software, Blaster, to a trade magazine for $500. He used the cash to buy better computers.
At seventeen, he left South Africa for Canada, with a passport courtesy of his Canadian-born mother, where he drifted, working odd jobs and living with relatives until landing at Queen’s University in Ontario. After two years he switched to UPenn where he would eventually receive joint bachelor’s degrees in economics and physics from the Wharton School. But Philadelphia was hardly where he saw himself. Silicon Valley was his Oz, and in 1995 he found himself in California looking for work. None came. At the time, given his college debt his net worth was somewhere in the negative one hundred thousand dollar range, and everything he owned could fit in the trunk of his car. Finally, unable to find full employment despite two internships (one at an energy storage start-up called Pinnacle Research Institute, which researched electrolytic ultracapacitors for energy storage, a technology he would revisit as a car maker) he went to Stanford, dropped out after two days, and vowed to simply make his own job.
So the 24-year-old Musk took a 30,000-foot view and decided that there were five areas that were in the process of changing the world, and where he could bring his technical acumen and inspired vision to bear: the Internet, sustainable energy, making life multi-planetary, genetics and AI.
He began writing software with the aim of “making useful things happen on the internet.” With brother Kimbal, he started Zip2. Their first product would allow media companies to convert their print content to digital. But it was a difficult run. He didn’t have the resources to afford both a home and an office, so he lived out of the latter, sleeping on the futon and showering out of a local gym. He soon discovered the difficulties, and stress, of being an entrepreneur, balancing on a tightrope with the boiling lava of debt under your feet. Often he would field such questions as “what’s the internet?” from prospective users. It was an exhausting venture. Musk would later remember: “The website was up during the day and I was coding it at night, seven days a week, all the time.” But after landing clients like the New York Times and Chicago Tribune, Zip2 finally had legs. Three-and-a-half years after its founding, Elon and Kimbal sold the company to Compaq for $305 million. $22 million went to Elon and $15 million to Kimbal.
In 1999, one month after selling Zip2, Musk, along with buying a million dollar car (which he crashed, rebuilt, and sold for a profit) took some of the proceeds of the sale and started X.com with the goal of revolutionizing the banking sector. The idea was to allow customers to email money to each other. It would later be known as PayPal. The second time around was smoother as he’d become a seasoned businessman. He had a clever model which was to recruit customers to act as a cyclic sales force (after all, if someone sends you money via PayPal you have to sign up to receive it.) Within a year he had over a million customers.
Then he got fired. Having never gone on a honeymoon after his first marriage to Justine Wilson, whom he met at Queen’s University, he took two weeks off during a time when the company was experiencing serious stress as even successfully growing companies do. He was replaced as CEO while away. “There was just a lot of worry, and that caused the management team to decide that I was not the right man to run the company.” But in 2002, eBay purchased PayPal for $1.5 billion, and Musk earned a $165 million payday.
Next on his list was the modest aim of paving the way for the ultimate colonization of Mars. But he realized that mass civilian access to space travel was impossible without a re-making of the prohibitively expensive rocketry to bring the costs down. With this in mind he co-founded SpaceX in 2001 and traveled to Moscow to buy old ICBMs. Musk calculated that the raw materials for building a rocket were a mere three percent of the actual sales price. So building in-house gave him the breathing space to embark on his vision of reusable rocketry that could still show him a solid profit margin.
Along the way SpaceX has had its setbacks, including two rockets exploding and a loss of contact with several satellites. But the visionary company has more than made up for these problems, successfully launching over 100 times. On May 30, 2020, SpaceX successfully launched two NASA astronauts (Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken) into orbit on a Crew Dragon spacecraft during Crew Dragon Demo-2, making SpaceX the first private company to send astronauts to the International Space Station and marking the first crewed launch from American soil in 9 years. As of this writing, Musk sees no IPO in the future until Martian transport becomes a reality.
SpaceX also holds a 6% stake in Musk’s Boring Company, which seeks to create tunnels to alleviate traffic congestion and eventually deploy hyperloop tech. Plus if you go on the Boring website you can find a link to his “not a flamethrower” which has sold out.
With the advent of the new millennium, and two successful start-up sales behind him, Musk’s “explosions of ideas” must have sounded like an artillery barrage in his head. Not only would he embark on his dream of eventually sending humans to Mars, but Musk’s concern over the damage done to the environment through the burning of fossil fuels prompted him to enter into his most ambitious project to date. No matter one’s views on the politics surrounding the issue of climate change/global warming it is difficult to argue with the observation Musk expressed on Joe Rogan’s podcast a while back: “Taking vast amounts of carbon from deep underground and putting this in the atmosphere, especially when we know oil will eventually run out, is the dumbest experiment in human history.”
In 2004, he was approached by Martin Eberhard, Marc Tarpenning, and Ian Wright seeking venture capital for their new electric car company, Tesla Motors. Sources vary but Musk most likely contributed $6.35 million of the first round of $7.5 million and took an active role in growing the company; he contributed to design, engineering and styling concepts for the green and design of the automotive award-winning Tesla Roadster, as well as leading the subsequent investment capital rounds. His plan was to start off with high-end, experimental cars, but always with an eye for mass-producing affordable electric vehicles for everyone, like Henry Ford and his Model T. For Musk, Tesla was as much a mission as an investment. “The overarching purpose of Tesla Motors (and the reason I am funding the company) is to help expedite the move from a mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy toward a solar electric economy,” Musk wrote in 2006. “We will not stop until every car on the road is electric.”
By 2008, total investment in Tesla topped $100 million…but the severe burn rate was rapidly eroding their cash, forcing the company to let go 10% of its workforce to stay afloat. Musk soon found that his latest business venture would be a far more daunting challenge than the relatively smooth-sailing of X.Com/PayPal’s development arc from inception to sale. Software and coding was one thing. Now he was building a complex machine, with revolutionary technology, in the face of stiff competition in one of the most mature industries in business, with some companies like Ford having over 100 years’ experience in the auto-manufacturing space.
And worse, when the crash of 2008 crushed the global economy, he was in the unenviable position of trying to build a car company already hemorrhaging cash in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Economic downturns tend to hit car companies hard. And when times are tough, paying $100,000 for an electric car is not high on one’s priority list. Soon, the very real threat of insolvency loomed large. In May 2008, the website The Truth About Cars (TTAC) had a “Tesla Death Watch.” This was not hyperbole. Musk himself admitted that by late December 2008, “We were only a few days from bankruptcy. Literally just two days. Three days maybe.” Only another round of funding packaged as $40 million in debt financing saved Tesla from going under.
By 2009, the crisis had passed and armed with $465 million in loans from the Department of Energy, Tesla began its growth that would eventually lead to a successful IPO on June 29, 2011 at $17.00 per share. It was the first time a US automaker went public since Ford’s 1956 offering. It raised over $225 million for the company and Musk’s 12.88 million shares added over $219 million to his net worth on a $6.35 million investment. Obviously, his stake is worth a tad more today as Tesla is now the most valuable car company in the world by market cap.
So, what’s next? Switching gears back to SpaceX (as the flamethrowers are still sold out) Musk aims to “go to Mars by 2024.” We shall see.
It’s difficult to encapsulate such a life’s run of achievement and interest in one piece. From an abused nobody in Praetoria, to a boy genius, to star pupil, to Silicon Valley giant, Musk has left his indelible imprint on so many facets not just of our daily lives, but indeed the future. So much of where he is now comes from a boiling optimism one sees just below the calm, almost self-deprecating demeanor. “Pessimism,” he once said, “F*** that.”
But, as with many business captains, success in the boardroom has come at a cost in his personal life. Although fiercely independent, Musk believes in having a partner. Keeping them is another matter. He has been married and divorced twice, three times if you consider his double-go-around with second wife Talulah Riley.
Nor has Musk been immune from tragedy. Shortly after he and first wife Justine were married, their first child, Nevada Alexander, died of SIDS at just ten weeks old. But even as they moved forward and had five subsequent children, triplet and twin boys, they were growing apart. In Justine’s view it was work that ended their marriage. A successful writer, she would remember, “the whirlwind of glitter couldn’t disguise a growing void at the core. Elon was obsessed with his work: When he was home, his mind was elsewhere.” Those constant explosions in the mind can be a curse too at times. They were divorced in 2008 and share custody of the children.
He and his current partner, the musician Grimes, sparked a buzz when they originally named their new baby X Æ A-12 . (“X” for the unknown variable, “Æ” is Elvin for AI which is Artificial Intelligence, and A-12 was the precursor to the Lockheed SR-71, “the coolest plane ever.”) Go figure. I said he was eccentric.
Although brave when it comes to business risk-taking, Musk is not blindly fearless. If there is one thing that keeps him up at night, beside the explosions of ideas, it is Artificial Intelligence. “I’m very close to the cutting edge in AI, and it scares the hell out of me. It’s capable of vastly more than almost anyone knows. The rate of improvement is really dramatic. So we have to figure out a way to make sure the advent of digital superintelligence is symbiotic with humanity. I think that is the single biggest existential crisis that we face.”
There is comfort in knowing that a force like Musk understands and respects the moral hazard of technological advancement getting out of control of people who are, as he often says, not nearly as smart as they think they are. Maybe that’s the smartest thing one of the world’s most successful innovators can know.
However iconoclastic his behavior, Musk is a man grounded in common sense. Beneath a thick atmosphere of ebullient energy and optimism is a pragmatic center core. When he came to believe that California’s draconian Covid restrictions both disregarded common sense and impacted businesses, he defied Sacramento’s lock-down orders. Then he moved Tesla to Texas. He has been a vocal advocate of free speech, which would make him an island in a sea of censorship-mad Big Tech plutocrats. He pragmatically gives to both Democrats and Republicans. Yet, one gets the feeling he’d rather not even play the political game but just be left alone to do his thing and make the future happen in peace.
Applying the cliché of marching to the beat of a different drummer is woefully inadequate in the case of Elon Musk, because the man doesn’t march at all. He coasts, flies, loops, spins, and bounces from one (successful) idea to another. And unlike his fellow billionaires in social media whose business models rely on tapping into the combative, the addictive, and the dysfunctional avenues of the human condition, even monetizing coarseness, aggression, loneliness and narcissism, Elon Musk makes his money the old fashioned way, albeit with an eye towards the revolutionary in the process. He rolls up his sleeves and builds things. And yet through it all, even if he sometimes makes his share-holders shudder with his unorthodox ways, he seems to be driven by one overarching theme to everything he does. Make the world a better, indeed cooler, place than before. And if he becomes the richest human in the world in the process, well that’s fine too. At this point in his life, what he cares about the most is what’s next. I, for one, can’t wait.
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.
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