Elon Musk has developed a reputation for boldness, brashness, vision and, in many ways, competence. He is a complex figure, unsurprisingly, who does not suffer fools easily and who not only wants to land people on Mars, but also to create a new human society there. As he puts it, “I want to die on Mars, just not on impact.” This article reviews a new biography on Musk that traces his roots and his reach, titled Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future.
Ashlee Vance’s new book, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, takes readers on a thorough and fascinating trek through the life — so far — of one of the most impressive contemporary American “Engineering Entrepreneurs,” from his birth in South Africa to his emigration to Canada as a teen, to the United States, where he completed college and went on to Silicon Valley.
Musk quickly earned his initial millions when his first company, Zip2, was bought out, then a fortune at PayPal. He came to the brink of vaporizing almost all of his money in a quest to build an electric car and meet a host of other ambitious goals, including putting satellites in orbit, supplying the international space station, laying the groundwork and developing the technology for the colonization of Mars.
It should be said upfront: This is not hagiography; Musk is represented as neither saint nor savior. It is biography — shot through with relevant strands of financial, technical and cultural history. The distinction is important, and Vance is particularly well credentialed — both on the tech side and on the business side — to “lead the tour.” He also did hundreds of interviews, and he spent thirty hours with Musk himself. For the most part, that shines through.
Out of Africa
Vance starts before the beginning, going back to Musk’s grandparents and beyond.
Musk was born in Pretoria, about an hour away from Johannesburg, in 1971, to a Canadian mother and an Afrikaner father. In an interesting overlap, Vance was born in South Africa in 1977, although he grew up, for the most part, in Texas. On his father’s side, Musk’s family roots in South Africa go back several generations. His parents divorced when he was young; he was first in the custody of his mother, then of his father.
Musk’s father is a rare “no go” research area: Neither Elon nor anyone else in the family will talk about the ways in which he was a scarring — though by no means exclusively negative — influence. This is all the more chilling given the unsparingly intense descriptions we get of Musk’s childhood.
“Bullied” is a word we hear often. Still, the descriptions of the violence Musk endured as a child, however, are disturbing. In eighth or ninth grade, for example, he was attacked by a group of boys, kicked in the head, thrown down a flight of concrete stairs, then set upon on the landing, kicked and beaten bloody until he blacked out. He required hospital care — and a week at home to recover.
Part of the “explanation” for this is that, for Afrikaners, South Africa under Apartheid, was a “hyper-masculine” culture, in which physical prowess was seen as an existential necessity. Elon, by way of contrast, was the boy who — when he had exhausted the resources of his school library — literally read the encyclopedia. He also remembered what he read, and spouted facts, statistics and explanations whenever anyone in his general vicinity launched a question.
“Those early Silicon Valley experiences … gave Musk both the capital and the contacts that he was able to use as a springboard for his more ambitious projects.”
He left South Africa for good at 17. Why? As elsewhere, Vance lays out the options evenhandedly, both the surface explanations and the other possibilities, and lets the reader be the judge: Laws had changed, allowing his mother to “pass down” her Canadian citizenship to her children; Elon was on the cusp of being drafted into the South African army; he had America in his sights and Canada as the optimal gateway.
Early Valley Days
Musk went first to Queens University in Kingston, on the northern shore of Lake Ontario, about 165 miles east of Toronto. After two years there he transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, pursuing joint bachelor’s degrees — one in physics, the other, via Wharton, in economics.
He apparently shared some of his undergraduate papers with Vance, on topics like space-based solar power plants and the use of ultra-capacitors for energy storage, keen to demonstrate that his interests were longstanding and consistent, that his goal had always been to make a difference, independent of the question of making a fortune.
Vance underlines the degree to which Musk’s dual-track undergraduate years were obviously reflected in his thinking, even in his early 20s.
“Musk’s clear, concise writing,” Vance tells us, “is the work of a logician, moving from one point to the next with precision. What truly stood out, though, was Musk’s ability to master difficult physics concepts in the midst of actual business plans. Even then, he showed an unusual knack for being able to perceive a path from a scientific advance to a for-profit enterprise.”
That “knack” would be crucial to Musk’s business accomplishments. The successful development and commercialization of the Tesla electric cars, for example, came about in significant part because he recognized that advances in lithium ion batteries had changed the weight/power/range/cost equation that had defeated most previous efforts. There were softer skills, more human equations, however, that he would need to work on.
Musk spent his two “Penn summers” in part in internships in Silicon Valley — not always one at a time. On graduation, he and his brother Kimbal headed west and settled there. Together they would launch Zip2, Musk’s first company, which would essentially end up pushing him aside for more “mature” management — which is not to say that he didn’t profit from the experience, in every meaning of the word. Something similar happened with the company that would become PayPal, which provided an even greater payoff.
As presented by Vance, those early Silicon Valley experiences did a number of things: they gave Musk both the capital and the contacts that he was able to use as a springboard for his more ambitious projects; they gave him an early, and somewhat traumatic, introduction to corporate infighting which bred a strong impulse going forward to make sure that he kept control of his companies; and they taught him at least limited lessons in how to be an effective — if hard-driving — manager.
Some of the “management learning” has about it the air of an anthropologist trying to figure out a foreign culture.
“I could code way better,” Musk says of the software engineers at Zip2. “And I’d just go in and fix their [expletive] code. . . I would be frustrated waiting for their stuff, so I’m going to go and fix your code and now it runs five times faster, you idiot.”
“When considering if Musk’s aim of going to Mars is credible or hype, there is Musk’s track record to consider.”
He cites another example, in which he publicly chastised, and then corrected, an engineer who had miswritten a quantum mechanics equation.
“I’m like, ‘how can you write that?’ Then I corrected it for him. He hated me after that. Eventually, I realized, okay, I might have fixed that thing but now I’ve made the person unproductive. It just wasn’t a good way to go about things.”
It’s worth underlining that Musk did not say, “made an enemy” or “hurt the feelings of a subordinate.” The lesson he extrapolated was that to completely ignore how other people felt was inefficient.
The triumvirate of companies most dear to Musk and with which he is most closely associated is made up of: Tesla Motors, which produces electric cars; SolarCity, which produces electricity — some of which feeds free fueling stations for Tesla owners; and SpaceX, a private company with the not-entirely-low-key aim of making humanity a multi-planetary species — the likely first step in that direction being the colonization of Mars. The road to making those companies viable enterprises has been, predictably, rocky.
“Musk has consistently brought clarity to bear on both the engineering problems and the financial hurdles that have heretofore kept humankind earthbound.”
In early 2007, the actor Robert Downey Jr. visited the SpaceX factory. Musk gave him a personal tour. Downey, in turn, modeled some core parts of his Tony Stark character — the techno-billionaire who suits up to battle evil as Iron Man — on Musk, going as far as to ask that a Tesla Roadster, not yet available to the public, sit next to Stark’s desk.
The year 2008, however, was an annus horribilis for Musk, both personally and financially. His first marriage ended; he came perilously close to losing just about every penny he had earned; both Tesla and SpaceX were on the brink of bankruptcy.
“I’ve just never seen anything like [Musk’s] ability to take pain,” Vance quotes Antonio Gracias — a friend of Musk’s, an investor in both Tesla and SpaceX, founder and CEO of Valor [Equity Partners] — as saying, which sounds less like a description of an engineer or an entrepreneur, more the kind of descriptive applied to someone in extreme sports.
In May of that year, the “Truth About Cars” website began a “Tesla Deathwatch.” In June, Musk filed for divorce. In August, the SpaceX Falcon I had its third disastrous launch failure — taking a U.S. Air Force satellite down in flames with it. Then in October, (tech industry gossip site) Valleywag released a scathing attack on Musk in general (not its first), and on Tesla in particular.
There were a few, crucial, bright spots, as well. In July, Musk met Tallulah Riley, a British actress 14 years his junior who would end up being his second wife. September saw the fourth (and finally successful) launch of the Falcon I and — most important of all on the business side — the holiday season brought a last-minute financial reprieve.
“The deal,” Vance writes, a lifesaving infusion of capital, “ended up closing on Christmas Eve, hours before Tesla would have gone bankrupt. Musk had just a few hundred thousand dollars left and could not have made payroll the next day. Musk eventually put in $12 million, and the investment firms put up the rest.”
“You Are Also Wrong”
Musk is the kind of subject who puts writers in a quandary: Some people talk about him — he sometimes talks about himself — in Messianic terms; others take a dimmer view — though more in the spheres of finance and personality than in the realm of science and engineering. How is one to present readers with a simulacrum of the truth?
First and foremost, Vance notes that Musk is not a purveyor of vaporware, the Silicon Valley term for a “visionary” product, usually software, which exists only in the perpetual future. When considering if Musk’s aim of going to Mars is credible or hype, there is Musk’s track record to consider.
Previous electric cars had failed in part because of power limitations — and the resultant “range anxiety.” Musk assessed the improved state of battery technology, improved it further, and built a marketable product. Solar power — even with state and federal subsidies and the falling cost of solar panels — had proven a difficult sell, particularly around the issue of up-front investment. Musk was a key part of developing a new model in which the installer took on those costs, reaped the rebate benefits, and made “getting into solar” both technically seamless and financially painless for the end user.
Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, and the other aerospace “incumbents” were tangled up in bureaucratic procedures and inflated costs. SpaceX showed that they could cut expenses by as much as 90% and still “get the job done.”
Another strength of Vance’s book is healthy skepticism. Within Silicon Valley, he writes in the first few pages, Musk was “a deity.” But outside this “warped version of reality,” he continues, “Musk often comes off as a more polarizing figure. He’s the guy with the electric cars, solar panels and rockets peddling false hope. Forget Steve Jobs. Musk is a sci-fi version of P.T. Barnum … I’d long been a subscriber to this latter camp. Musk had struck me as a well-intentioned dreamer — a card-carrying member of Silicon Valley’s techno-utopian club.”
To his credit, Vance provides a good deal of primary source documentation — as in Musk’s own ruminations about the evolution of his “management style.” Readers can also dig through the appendices and make their own judgments. In Appendix III, for example, we get the full text (several pages) of an email Musk sent to all of the employees at SpaceX, many of whom were evincing dissatisfaction that the company was in no great hurry to go public — which limited the value of options employees had .. on a stock that did not yet exist.
“Some at SpaceX who have not been through a public company experience may think that being public is desirable,” Musk wrote, on June 7, 2013. “This is not so…. For those who are under the impression that they are so clever that they can outsmart public market investors and would sell SpaceX stock ‘at the right time,’ let me relieve you of any such notion… If you think ‘Ah, but I know what’s really going on at SpaceX and that will give me an edge,’ you are also wrong.”
Musk writes well. He anticipates and understands the questions he needs to address; he gathers and presents information cogently. It is not that anything that he writes is nasty exactly — it’s more a matter of tone — perhaps best described as that of a patient but exasperated parent, willing to provide a full and calm answer, not trying to rush or scant his response, working with reasonable success to maintain a degree of civility.
The Unified Field Theory of Elon Musk
“Bringing it all together” at the end provides a good overview and synthesis. Vance’s titling the final chapter as he did (above) is witty, given Musk’s lifelong affinity for physics.
When Vance maps out the connections between Musk’s various ventures — SpaceX, Solar City, Tesla Motors, the intersections between technologies and the ways in which the totality of Musk’s career has a clear nexus, we believe him because he has meticulously laid the groundwork and shown us the evidence in the preceding 350-plus pages.
In that sense, Vance’s comparison of Musk to Thomas Edison — or to Nikola Tesla — is fair: All had vision. Musk has, irrefutably, done things that have not been done before. Never mind anything else: He founded, ran, carried, goaded and nurtured a company that built rockets from scratch and put them into orbit, then sent them further on to the International Space Station. In previous human history, countries have done that, not companies. And other entrepreneurs, other companies, have vaporized fortunes in attempts to achieve that same goal — a fate to which, as Vance documents, Musk came perilously close. Yet, it did not ultimately slow him down all that much.
The first line of the book, Vance quoting Musk, is “Do you think I’m insane?” The last paragraph of the book (before the after-matter), drawn from Vance’s “Last Supper” with Musk, includes the quoted line: “I’d like to die on Mars,” along with an important codicil, “Just not on impact Twitter ,” because physics is a precise “business.” That final line would be insane, had Vance not taken readers on the journey that gets us there.
Will Musk get to Mars? Will humanity? While both are open questions as of this writing, Vance does a good job of explicating and illuminating why and how Musk — the bullied and beaten South African know-it-all adolescent; the scientific savant with his secondary bachelor’s degree in business from Wharton; the tyrannical boss (almost always unfiltered, frequently limning the edges of unhinged) who inspires both stunned exasperation and fierce loyalty from his colleagues and from his workforce — might be the person to actually achieve that goal.
“The scientists of today,” Nikola Tesla wrote around the turn of the last century, “think deeply instead of clearly. One must be sane to think clearly, but one can think deeply and be quite insane.”
Vance credibly makes the case that — however fantastical his dreams — Musk has consistently brought clarity to bear on both the engineering problems and the financial hurdles that have heretofore kept humankind earthbound.