I think it is possible for ordinary people to choose to be extraordinary – Elon Musk
Musk was in the news recently as he became the second richest man on the planet with a net worth of 128 bn USD. 70% of the gains in his net worth came in 2020. Its cool to be the in striking distance of the title of the richest man in the world. It’s even cooler to be the only second entrepreneur in silicon valley to create three companies with a market cap of $1 billion or more with , and . But for me it is coolest to have the character of Iron Man partially modeled on you. All this while you are still below 50 years of age. Let’s take a better look at this real life iron man.
Musk was born on June 28, 1971, in Pretoria, South Africa. The eldest of 3 children, Musk was so lost in his daydreams about inventions that his parents and doctors ordered a test to check his hearing. He was introduced to computers when he was 10 with the Commodore VIC-20. His parents also separated around the same time. He quickly learned how to program and at the age of 12 sold a game called Blastar to Spectravideo for $500. In 1989 he moved to Canada to attend Queen’s University and obtained his Canadian citizenship that year. In 1992 he moved to USA to study business and physics at the University of Pennsylvania. He graduated with an undergraduate degree in economics and stayed for a second bachelor’s degree in physics. After leaving Penn, Musk headed to Stanford University in California to pursue a PhD in energy physics. However he dropped out after just two days to launch his first company, Zip2 Corporation in 1995. Musk became a U.S. citizen in 2002
Grand visions are common but execution is where the good gets separated from great. This is where Musk excels. He has been able to create fabulous companies in totally different areas. What he has achieved involves dedicated teams of extremely talented people working in harmony to execute his vision. This is his edge. The sheer range of the areas which he has disrupted is mind boggling – finance, mobility, energy, space travel and AI. Let’s look at the history of the various companies he started -
Zip2 Corporation – 1995 sold to Compaq in 1999 for $307 million in cash and $34 million in stock
PayPal – 1999 sold to EBAY in 2001 for $1.5 billion in cash
SpaceX – 2002 – Lower the price of space launches by reusing rockets, Offer satellite internet for sparsely populated regions. Only private company to have taken astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA
Tesla – 2003 – Build the coolest and lowest cost electric vehicle, Autonomous Cars, More efficient batteries. Highest valued car company in the world.
Solar City – Aug 2016 - Solar Roof, more efficient solar panels. Now a part of Tesla.
The Boring Company, Hyperloop – Jan 2017 – reduce tunneling costs, build alternate transportation infrastructure, Increase the range of people staying away from work places, reduce freight costs. Working on projects for a couple of US cities.
AI and Neuralink – Creating the best AI system in the world, reducing the cost of effective prosthesis, allow enhancement of human capabilities, better modelling of brain – machine interaction
Musk has had his fair share of challenges. A difficult childhood, being fired as a CEO of his own company (PayPal). His personal life has been in the news with 3 divorces. The biggest test came in 2008 when a struggling Tesla nearly collapsed during the financial crisis. When Tesla needed cash to fund the Model S, Musk chose to bankrupt himself — giving up the all money he had rather than let it die. Tesla had multiple problems of scaling up production (demand for Tesla cars was never an issue). SpaceX had multiple problems starting with Russia refusing to sell rockets to Musk and multiple rocket launch failures each costing millions of dollars. His tweets also got him into trouble with the US regulators. However he persisted and seems to have learnt from his mistakes.
Musk has a relentless work ethic (100 hour work weeks are common) and a single minded vision. He is also self-taught, reading up on the various projects he is working on to develop a deep understanding of the subject. “(Physics is) a good framework for thinking,” he says “Boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there.”
The legend of Musk is in tackling giant problems and solving them, again and again. The legend of Musk is not retiring on his pile of cash but being true to his core where he is an entrepreneur who is always creating companies and scaling them up. The legend of musk is in 100% skin in the game. The legend of Musk is in the big impact he is having in inspiring fellow billionaires and ordinary folk to dream of audacious things. So the next time someone tells you “its not rocket science” be aware that even if it was rocket science smart people with dedication will figure it out.
For those still wondering, the first silicon valley entrepreneur to start 3 billion dollar companies was Jim Clark. There is a brilliant book by Michael Lewis on the man – The New New Thing. Do check it out.