Ashlee Vance, frequent Bloomberg Businessweek collaborator, tells the story of the man some call the real life Iron Man in Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future.
Vance takes us to the heart of the Musk ecosystem or the "unified field theory of Elon Musk", that employs more than fifteen thousand people. An army of talent at SpaceX, Tesla and SolarCity is working relentlessly to achieve Musk’s raison d'être: solving the issue of clean energy and global warming and turning humans into an interplanetary species.
Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson
The book’s roadmap follows Musk’s ventures: Zip2 (an ancestor of Google Maps), X.com (PayPal), Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity. "He viewed the Internet, renewable energy, and space as the three areas that would undergo significant change in the years to come and as the markets where he could make a big impact. He vowed to pursue projects in all three."
Here are some lessons found along the road.
Find an alternate route, the startup grind
"I think we can build this rocket ourselves."
Musk builds his companies like an architect, applying the Silicon Valley startup blueprint. He cherishes the "cheap and fast approach", a path he mastered first at X.com and Zip2. In-house manufacturing, building a better, cheaper product, becoming engineering one-stop shop and having an interdisciplinary skill force allows him to gain an edge over competition. Musk can fix problems on the fly with energy, smarts and resourcefulness. At Space X, each new employee is asked to build his or her own office from Ikea furniture. With commune working spaces gathering together Ivy League computer scientists and engineers, welders and machinists, Musk is responsible for a major culture clash with the more traditional, "boring", aerospace companies that prefer to segment or build silos between each expertise.
Musk uses the startup way as a systematic long-term vision for scale and efficiency in space discovery. "So long as we continue to throw away rockets and spacecraft, we will never have true access to space." The startup blueprint allowed him to disrupt established industries by trying things no one had ever tried and end up at the cutting edge of the technology in battery packs, rocket engines, etc. “We are building something from scratch.”
An “impossible” dream at the roots of the company’s culture
"Musk also began to hone his trademark style of entering an ultracomplex business and not letting the fact that he knew very little about the industry's nuances bother him in the slightest."
Musk sets a strong culture that promotes industrial innovation within his three major companies based on the belief that young guns want to work on significant projects and change the world. Planet Mars is the common dominator, the "rally cry" among the three projects and the purpose for technological cross-pollination. The result is the "feeling of a small, tight-knight family up against the world, facing a sort of insurmountable challenge and that it had to band together to fight the good fight.”
Musk attracts talents and capital with extraordinary dreams, pushing the limits of technology, established industries and human knowledge. He plays a pivoting role by setting the vision and then becoming the culture guardian, the knight of the secret sauce.
"One great engineer will replace three medium ones."
Musk has a keen eye for young, brilliant engineers, such as Peter Thiel, his partner at PayPal who found most impressive Musk's ability to find bright, ambitious people and lure them into his companies. "He has the most talented people in the aerospace industry working for him, and the same case can be made for Tesla, where, if you're a talented mechanical engineer who likes buildings cars, then you're going to Tesla because it's probably the only company in the U.S. where you can do interesting new things. Both companies were designed with the vision of motivating a critical mass of talented people to work on inspiring things."
Musk has a scouting canvass he applies to find talents with brains and who have been building things since a young age. He is looking for an engineering degree from a top university, a master’s degree in another discipline and several years of practical experience at a large company such as Boeing, NASA, Ford, and Lockheed Martin. He chases "young, nimble engineers who crosses disciplines out of necessity and the spirit of adventure."
Follow your passion and do something significant
Musk has always had a passion for video games but desired to do something meaningful with his life, something lasting. "I really like computer games, but then if I made really great computer games, how much effect would that have on the world. It wouldn't have a big effect. Even though I have an intrinsic love of video games, I couldn't bring myself to do that as a career." He focuses on what is important today and tomorrow, not according to a group of investors but for mankind, for generations to come. "I think there are probably too many smart people pursuing Internet stuff, finance, and law. That is part of the reason why we haven't seen as much innovation."
The roots to becoming an outmaneuvering, outthinking, out-executing machine
"For Musk, the call to ensure that mankind is a multiplanetary species partly stems from a life richly influenced by science fiction and technology. Equally it's a moral imperative that dates back to his childhood. In some form, this has forever been his mandate."
It is very clear throughout the book; Elon Musk’s childhood was very challenging. For starters, he grew up in Pretoria, South Africa, during apartheid. "His notion that something about the world had gone awry received constant reinforcement, and Musk, almost from his earliest days, plotted an escape from his surroundings and dreamed of a place that would allow his personality and dreams to flourish." Then, after his parents divorced, he decided to live with his dad Errol Musk, a difficult man. "Elon's family has an agreement that he is not a pleasant man to be around but have declined to elaborate. (...) they clearly experienced something awful and profound during those years with their father. They both talk about having to endure some form of psychological torture." Musk and his ex-wife Justine have even vowed that their children will not be allowed to meet with Errol!
As a child, to shield himself from his environment, Musk would go into trancelike states, intense pensive moments. "He had found a way to block out the world and dedicate all of his concentration to a single task." He developed a skill, the compulsion to read, "vacuuming books into his brain", that would be a powerful tool for his adulthood success: "Musk had reverted to his childhood state as a devourer of information and had emerged from this meditative process with the realization that rockets could and should be made much cheaper than what the Russians were offering."
Musk developed other defense mechanisms throughout his tough childhood (tinkering, fast reading, devotion to knowledge and science, intense focus) that would make him strive today in an equal competitive environment. "Suffering, though, has always been Musk's thing. The kids at school tortured him. His father played brutal mind games. He arrived in the United States with nothing. Musk then abused himself by working inhumane hours and forever pushing his business to the edge. He lost a child. He would be pilloried in the press by reporters and his ex-wife.”
Musk is not the first genius entrepreneur (Walt Disney, Coco Channel, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, etc.) with a tough, destiny altering childhood, generating a key strength: resilience. "That's Elon. Do or die but don't give up. He didn't just survive. He kept working and stayed focused. That ability to stay focused in the midst of a crisis stands as one of Musk's main advantages over other executives and competitors." Under pressure, he becomes hyper rational. "I've just never seen anything like his ability to take pain."
"Do you think I'm insane?"
This book, just like Musk, is deep, fascinating and rich in content. There is so much more to cover here: The flight travel stories of his great-grandfather; Musk's Canadian finance network; The intricate development stories of each ventures; His link to Adeo Ressi, the guy behind The Founder Institute; His perception of time and schedule building; The knowledge exchange between his three main companies; Financing of "Thank you for smoking”.
Elon Musk is an important person in our world. His advancements in science and his entrepreneurial methods to answer our environmental challenges are unique and innovative. More so, I believe Elon Musk to be important because of the message he conveys. Having achieved great wealth, he did not compromise and has always been in the pursuit of knowledge. He is (re)building our world to dream bigger and beyond personal profits, to redefine us as inventors, pioneers, discoverers. Musk is this novel idea, something our parents once knew, that there are new horizons to reach; we need to push the barriers, to reach for the stars, to build a fantastic future.
By Jean-Philippe Gagnon