Elon Musk, the eccentric self-made billionaire, might actually be the coolest guy on the planet. As Sir Richard Branson so eloquently put it:
Whatever skeptics have said can’t be done, Elon has gone out and made real. Remember in the 1990s, when we would call strangers and give them our credit-card numbers? Elon dreamed up a little thing called PayPal. His Tesla Motors and SolarCity companies are making a clean, renewable-energy future a reality…his SpaceX [is] reopening space for exploration…it’s a paradox that Elon is working to improve our planet at the same time he’s building spacecraft to help us leave it.
So Who is Elon Musk, Really?
Musk was born in South Africa in 1971, and it didn’t take him long to figure out that he didn’t belong there. Despite a rough family life, and never really fitting in socially, Musk manages to write his first software program at the age of 12. At the age of 17 he left South Africa for Canada, and eventually the US. When Musk sat down and questioned what he wanted to do with his life, he asked himself one question:
“What will Most Affect the Future of Humanity?”
The answer he came up with was “the internet; sustainable energy; space exploration, in particular the permanent extension of life beyond Earth; artificial intelligence; and reprogramming the human genetic code.”
Musk’s first endeavor with the internet was to start a company with his brother called Zip2. Zip2 was basically the first incarnation of Yelp, in that it listed businesses based on location. He and his brother slept in their office, showered at the YMCA, and eventually sold the company for $307 million dollars. At 27, Musk was now a millionaire. Instead of sitting back and enjoying being a millionaire, musk pressed forward and created the first online bank, simply called X.com.
The idea of an online bank replacing traditional banks in 1999 was thought to be insane. Another internet company at the same time known as Confinity was keeping pace with X.com, and in 2000 the two companies merged into what is now PayPal. With all of the egos that came out of that merger, Musk was replaced as the CEO by Peter Thiel, in what was essentially a coup – considering it was done while Musk was out raising money. Instead of taking the replacement badly, he simply stayed on a senior adviser and was instrumental in that sale of PayPal to Ebay in 2002. Musk made $180 million in that deal.
2002 was a big year for Musk, who began taking an interest in rockets and space travel. So he took $100 million dollars and started SpaceX, a company whose sole purpose was to make interplanetary travel a reality. Their goal was to revolutionize the cost of space travel, and colonize Mars with at least a million people in the next century. By 2004 Musk as looking to multitask and founded an almost unthinkable company at the time: an electric car company, Tesla.
No one had ever started a successful electric car company. Musk poured $70 million of his own dollars into the project, and it’s become the only successful electric car company ever. In 2006 he decided to invest in a company that his cousins were starting called SolarCity that wanted to install millions of solar cells on houses across the country. SolarCity’s goal was simply ““accelerating mass adoption of sustainable energy.”
In 2006 people thought that Musk was simply just another new millionaire hopelessly dumping money into too many failing projects. SpaceX was building rockets, but they didn’t work. The deadline to release Tesla’s first model, the Tesla Roadster was looking bleak too.
A Silicon Valley gossip blog, Valleywag, actually made the Tesla Roadster its #1 tech company fail of 2007. It didn’t help that the economy crashed at roughly the same time, and the automotive market was in the dumpster.
2008 was Musk’s year. SpaceX launched their fourth rocket, and the first one that succeeded. That earned him a $1.8 billion dollar contract from NASA, essentially saving SpaceX from certain doom. On Christmas Eve of 2008, Tesla’s investors reluctantly agreed to match whatever Musk could come up with to keep Tesla afloat. Five months later Daimler invested another $50 Million Dollars. SpaceX and Tesla were in the clear.
Since then SpaceX has done regular work for NASA, and is indeed revolutionizing the way that things make it to space, making it cheaper, more efficient, and easier to launch stuff into space. SpaceX is valued at $12 billion dollars.
The Model S from Tesla Motors has been a SMASH success, achieving the highest Consumer Reports rating ever, a 99/100. Tesla is single-handedly changing the automotive world’s opinion of electric cars, and is valued at $30 Billion. SolarCity went public in 2012 and is worth $6 billion dollars.
So What Makes Elon Musk Such a Bad Ass?
Ashlee Vance, a Musk biographer, said that what Musk is building “has the potential to be much grander than anything Hughes or Jobs produced. Musk has taken industries like aerospace and automotive that America seemed to have given up on and recast them as something new and fantastic.” From his humble beginning in South Africa, Musk has never given up.
He has never quit pushing forward. Every single time someone has said he has failed, he’s just basically looked them in the eye, and said “Just Wait.” That is such an admirable quality in a man that I am humbled to even have the opportunity to write about him. He has done all of the things that people previous thought were undo-able. He did it all by teaching himself, trusting his gut, and never giving up, which is a lesson in life all by itself.
Oh, and as far as the “Real Life Tony Stark” reference, John Favreau – the director of Iron Man, actually sent Robert Downey Jr. to spend time with Musk. So yeah, he is the inspiration for what we came to know as Iron Man in the Avengers series, and I can’t think of a better inspiration.