Elon Musk

date Sep 9, 2015
authors Ashlee Vance
reading time 29 mins

Resolve and how the author got his coorperation

One thing that Musk holds in the highest regard is resolve, and he respects people who continue on after being told no.

Specific goals and purpose

life’s purpose. “I would like to die thinking that humanity has a bright future,” he said. “If we can solve sustainable energy and be well on our way to becoming a multiplanetary species with a self-sustaining civilization on another planet

Innovation in 2 different fields

SpaceX flew a supply capsule to the International Space Station and brought it safely back to Earth. Tesla Motors delivered the Model S, a beautiful, all-electric sedan that took the automotive industry’s breath away and slapped Detroit sober. These two feats elevated Musk to the rarest heights among business titans. Only Steve Jobs could claim similar achievements in two such different industries, sometimes putting out a new Apple product and a blockbuster Pixar movie in the same year.


And this factory was not making one rocket at a time. No. It was making many rockets from scratch. The factory was a giant, shared work area.

Too many smartness in one area

“I think there are probably too many smart people pursuing Internet stuff, finance, and law,” Musk said on the way. “That is part of the reason why we haven’t seen as much innovation.”

Applying the principles in another area

Here was a guy who had taken much of the Silicon Valley ethic behind moving quickly and running organizations free of bureaucratic hierarchies and applied it to improving big, fantastic machines and chasing things that had the potential to be the real breakthroughs we’d been missing.

Challenges in Space / Recording industry

The space business requires dealing with a mess of politics, back-scratching, and protectionism that undermines the fundamentals of capitalism. Steve Jobs faced similar forces when he went up against the recording industry to bring the iPod and iTunes to market.

Towards a single goal

It’s the sweeping goal that forms a unifying principle over everything he does. Employees at all three companies are well aware of this and well aware that they’re trying to achieve the impossible day in and day out.

Trivial vs Important?

He’s less a CEO chasing riches than a general marshaling troops to secure victory. Where Mark Zuckerberg wants to help you share baby photos, Musk wants to . . . well . . . save the human race from self-imposed or accidental annihilation.


At the heart of this transformation are Musk’s skills as a software maker and his ability to apply them to machines. He’s merged atoms and bits in ways that few people thought possible, and the results have been spectacular.

Better enhancements

Born in South Africa, Musk now looks like America’s most innovative industrialist and outlandish thinker and the person most likely to set Silicon Valley on a more ambitious course. Because of Musk, Americans could wake up in ten years with the most modern highway in the world: a transit system run by thousands of solar-powered charging stations and traversed by electric cars.

Fantasy and reality

A boy fantasizing about space and battles between good and evil is anything but amazing. A boy who takes these fantasies seriously is more remarkable. Such was the case with the young Elon Musk. By the middle of his teenage years, Musk had blended fantasy and reality to the point that they were hard to separate in his mind.

Man’s fate

Musk came to see man’s fate in the universe as a personal obligation.

Questions > Answers

“He points out that one of the really tough things is figuring out what questions to ask,” Musk said. “Once you figure out the question, then the answer is relatively easy. I came to the conclusion that really we should aspire to increase the scope and scale of human consciousness in order to better understand what questions to ask.” The teenage Musk then arrived at his ultralogical mission statement. “The only thing that makes sense to do is strive for greater collective enlightenment,” he said.

Independent kids

The Haldemans had a laissez-faire approach to raising their children, which would extend over the generations to Musk. Their kids were never punished, as Joshua believed they would intuit their way to proper behavior. When mom and dad went off on their tremendous flights, the kids were left at home.

Tolerance for risk

My grandfather had this desire for adventure, exploration doing crazy things.” Elon buys into the idea that his unusual tolerance for risk may well have been inherited directly from his grandfather.


He could see images in his mind’s eye with a clarity and detail that we might associate today with an engineering drawing produced by computer software.

Knowing the unknown

I started to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica. That was so helpful. You don’t know what you don’t know. You realize there are all these things out there.” Elon, in fact, churned through two sets of encyclopedias a feat that did little to help him make friends.

Rational explanation

Maye tells the story of Elon playing outside one night with his siblings and cousins. When one of them complained of being frightened by the dark, Elon pointed out that “dark is merely the absence of light,” which did little to reassure the scared child.

Viewing risk

We saw some really rough stuff. It was part of an atypical upbringing just this insane set of experiences that changes how you view risk. You don’t grow up thinking getting a job is the hard part. That’s not interesting enough.”

Early programming interest

While Musk might not have been among the academic elite in his class, he was among a handful of students with the grades and self-professed interest to be selected for an experimental computer program. Students were plucked out of a number of schools and brought together to learn the BASIC, COBOL, and Pascal programming languages.

As Musk saw it, “I just look at it as ‘What grades do I need to get where I want to go?’ There were compulsory subjects like Afrikaans, and I just didn’t see the point of learning that. It seemed ridiculous. I’d get a passing grade and that was fine. Things like physics and computers I got the highest grade you can get in those. There needs to be a reason for a grade.

Surround yourself with people

Musk had found people who responded to his ambition rather than mocking it, and he fed on this environment.

Deep interest in what he wants to get done

“When Elon gets into something, he develops just this different level of interest in it than other people. That is what differentiates Elon from the rest of humanity.”

Mixing Science and Business

Musk’s clear, concise writing 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.

3 areas of impact

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.

Not trends, but intentions

But for Musk, the distinction between stumbling into something and having intent is important. Musk has long wanted the world to know that he’s different from the run-of-the-mill entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. He wasn’t just sniffing out trends, and he wasn’t consumed by the idea of getting rich.

Drive to get it done

“Even then, as essentially a college kid with zits, Elon had this drive that this thing whatever it was had to get done and that if he didn’t do it, he’d miss his shot,”

Knowing enough programing to get it done

While Musk had excelled as a self-taught coder, his skills weren’t nearly as polished as those of the new hires. They took one look at Zip2’s code and began rewriting the vast majority of the software.

LOL … not refactored code

They had a knack for dividing software projects into chunks that could be altered and refined whereas Musk fell into the classic self-taught coder trap of writing what developers call hairballs big, monolithic hunks of code that could go berserk for mysterious reasons.

Did not rest after Zip2

“As soon as it was clear the company would be sold, Elon was on to his next project,” Proudian said. From that point on, Musk would fight to maintain control of his companies and stay CEO.

Did not wait for things to get done

Employees at Zip2 would go home at night, come back, and find that Musk had changed their work without talking to them, and Musk’s confrontational style did more harm than good. “Yeah, we had some very good software engineers at Zip2, but I mean, I could code way better than them. And I’d just go in and fix their fucking code,” Musk said. “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,

More ambition

He had solved Silicon Valley and become what everyone at the time wanted to be a dot-com millionaire. His next venture would need to live up to his rapidly inflating ambition.

Lecturing despite impossible

The youthful Musk lectured the scientists about the inevitable transition coming in finance toward online systems, but they tried to talk him down, saying that it would takes ages for Web security to be good enough to win over consumers.

Entering a new industry despite being a noooooob

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.

Demand yet make it easy

“Elon can be very demanding, but he’ll make sure the obstacles in your way are removed,”

SpaceX mission to ISS

Per the name, this rocket would have five engines and could carry more weight 9,200 pounds to low orbit around Earth. Crucially, the Falcon 5 could also theoretically reach the International Space Station for resupply missions a capability that would open up SpaceX for some large NASA contracts. And, in a nod to Musk’s obsession with safety, the rocket was said to be able to complete its missions even if three of the five engines failed, which was a level of added reliability that had not been seen in the market in decades.

Hiring talent

When he found someone good, Musk was relentless in courting him or her to come to SpaceX. Bryan Gardner, for example, first met Musk at a space rave in the hangars at the Mojave airport and a short while later started talking about a job.

Looking for people from other industries

Instead of always hitting up aerospace guys, for example, he located suppliers with similar experience from different fields.


David Schmitz was a general manager at Spincraft and said Musk earned a reputation as a fearsome negotiator who did indeed follow up on things personally. “If Elon was not happy, you knew it,” Schmitz said. “Things could get nasty.”

Looking for a space launch place

Searching for a new site, Shotwell and Hans Koenigsmann put a Mercator projection of the world up on the wall and looked for a name they recognized along the equator, where the planet spins faster and gives rockets an added boost.

Some funding of infrastructure was not allowed

Musk refused. This left the engineers moving the rocket and its wheeled support structure in the fashion of the ancient Egyptians. They laid down a series of wooden planks and rolled the rocket across them, grabbing the last piece of wood from the back and running it forward in a continuous cycle. The whole situation was ludicrous.

Errors after errors

Time and again, the rocket would get marched out to the launchpad and hoisted vertical for a couple of days, while technical and safety checks would reveal a litany of new problems.

Firs success!

But the energy, smarts, and resourcefulness of the SpaceX team still could not overcome their inexperience or the difficult conditions. More problems arose and blocked any thoughts of a launch. Finally, on March 24, 2006, it was all systems go. The Falcon 1 stood on its square launchpad and ignited. It soared into the sky, turning the island below it into a green spec

Prelude to Tesla = Software + Energy

He developed his own major called energy systems and engineering. “I wanted to take software and electricity and use it to control energy,” Straubel said. “It was computing combined with power electronics. I collected all the things I love doing in one place.”

Battery and power

Musk, who had been thinking about electric vehicles for years. While Musk had mostly focused on using ultracapacitors for the vehicles, he was thrilled and surprised to hear how far the lithium ion battery technology had progressed.

Solution to global warming and alternative energy

The United States’ repeated conflicts in the Middle East bothered him, and like many other science-minded folks around 2000 he had started to accept global warming as a reality. Eberhard began looking for alternatives to gas-guzzling cars.

Even if the location did not have such a history

No, Tesla would do what every other Silicon Valley start-up had done before it, which was hire a bunch of young, hungry engineers and figure things out as they went along. Never mind that the Bay Area had no real history of this model ever having worked for something like a car and that building a complex, physical object had little in common with writing a software application.

Battery explosions

Thousands of batteries exploded along the way, and the effort was worth it. It was still early days, for sure, but Tesla was on the verge of inventing battery technology that would set it apart from rivals for years to come and would become one of the company’s great advantages.

Fail fast and move

Throughout these early years, the engineers credited Eberhard with making quick, crisp decisions. Rarely did Tesla get hung up overanalyzing a situation. The company would pick a plan of attack, and when it failed at something, it failed fast and then tried a new approach.

When internal software is a mess

No one liked using the company’s software that tracked the bill of materials. So some people used it, and some people didn’t. Those that did use it often made huge errors. They would take the cost of a part from the prototype cars and then estimate how much of a discount they expected when buying that part in bulk, rather than actually negotiating to find a viable price.

When remote work does not work

He also put in some basic rules like making sure that people all showed up at work at the same time to establish a baseline of productivity a tricky ask in Silicon Valley’s work anywhere, anytime culture.

Not interested in selling Tesla

But Musk had little interest in polishing up Tesla’s assets for the highest bidder. He’d started the company to put a dent in the automotive industry and force people to rethink electric cars. Instead of doing the fashionable Silicon Valley thing of “pivoting” toward a new idea or plan, Musk would dig in deeper.

Dealing with the inevitable delays

While the customers complained a lot about the delays, they seemed to sense this passion from Musk and share his enthusiasm for the product. Only a handful of customers asked for their prepayments back.

Manufacturing delays and dealing with external people

Musk dealt with it directly. He flew to England in his jet to pick up some new manufacturing tools for the body panels and personally delivered them to a factory in France to ensure that the Roadster stayed on its production schedule.

Cheaper cheaper cheaper and analyse pricing

Employees were required to meet at 7 A.M. every Thursday morning for bill-of-materials updates. They had to know the price of every part and have a cogent plan for getting parts cheaper. If the motor cost $6,500 a pop at the end of December, Musk wanted it to cost $3,800 by April. The costs were plotted and analyzed each month.

Never because it’s the standard way

If you told him that you made a particular choice because ‘it was the standard way things had always been done,’ he’d kick you out of a meeting fast. He’d say, ‘I never want to hear that phrase again. What we have to do is fucking hard and half-assing things won’t be tolerated.’

Excited place to work on hardware

To Downey, the SpaceX facility looked like a giant, exotic hardware store. Enthusiastic employees were zipping about, fiddling with an assortment of machines. Young white-collar engineers interacted with blue-collar assembly line workers, and they all seemed to share a genuine excitement for what they were doing.

Failure emotions

The failed launch left many SpaceX employees shattered. “It was so profound seeing the energy shift over the room in the course of thirty seconds,” said Dolly Singh, a recruiter at SpaceX. “It was like the worst fucking day ever.

After the pep talk

“It was like magic. Everyone chilled out immediately and started to focus on figuring out what just happened and how to fix it. It went from despair to hope and focus.” Musk put up a positive front to the public as well.

What it took: 6 years + 500 people

And, finally, around nine minutes into its journey, the Falcon 1 shut down just as planned and reached orbit, making it the first privately built machine to accomplish such a feat. It took six years about four and half more than Musk had once planned and five hundred people to make this miracle of modern science and business happen.

Not business, but for goals

Musk feared that VantagePoint would oust him as CEO, recapitalize Tesla, and emerge as the major owner of the carmaker. It could then sell Tesla to a Detroit automaker or focus on selling electric drivetrains and battery packs instead of making cars. Such reasoning would have been quite practical from a business standpoint but did not match up with Musk’s goals for Tesla.

2008 was a down year

“What he went through in 2008 would have broken anyone else. 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.

Surviving despite odds

“Their decisions go bad. Elon gets hyperrational. He’s still able to make very clear, long-term decisions. The harder it gets, the better he gets. Anyone who saw what he went through firsthand came away with more respect for the guy. I’ve just never seen anything like his ability to take pain.”

Low cost and home build

Where these competitors rely on Russian and other foreign suppliers, SpaceX makes all of its machines from scratch in the United States. Because of its low costs, SpaceX has once again made the United States a player in the worldwide commercial launch market.

Side projects + Personality A

The SpaceX hiring model places some emphasis on getting top marks at top schools. But most of the attention goes toward spotting engineers who have exhibited type A personality traits over the course of their lives. The company’s recruiters look for people who might excel at robot-building competitions or who are car-racing hobbyists who have built unusual vehicles.

Personal touch

Musk has left his personal touches throughout the factory. There are small things like the data center that has been bathed in blue lights to give it a sci-fi feel. The refrigerator-sized computers under the lights have been labeled with big block letters to make it look like they were made by Cyberdyne Systems,

To reinvent the wheel or not

SpaceX tends to buy as little as possible to save money and because it sees depending on suppliers especially foreign ones as a weakness. This approach comes off as excessive at first blush. Companies have made things like radios and power distribution units for decades. Reinventing the wheel for every computer and machine on a rocket could introduce more chances for error and, in general, be a waste of time. But for SpaceX, the strategy works.


SpaceX designs its own motherboards and circuits, sensors to detect vibrations, flight computers, and solar panels.

Optimism with hard problem

I certainly don’t try to set impossible goals. I think impossible goals are demotivating. You don’t want to tell people to go through a wall by banging their head against it. I don’t ever set intentionally impossible goals. But I’ve certainly always been optimistic on time frames.

Fast decision maker

One of my favorite things about Elon is his ability to make enormous decisions very quickly. That is still how it works today.”

Sensors everywhere

Someone “launches” the rocket from a computer and then every piece of mechanical and computing hardware is monitored with sensors. An engineer can tell a valve to open, then check to see if it opened, how quickly it opened, and the level of current running to it. This testing apparatus lets SpaceX engineers practice ahead of launches and figure out how they would deal with all manner of anomalies.

Acronyms and beginner friendly

One of the more famous e-mails arrived in May 2010 with the subject line: Acronyms Seriously Suck: There is a creeping tendency to use made up acronyms at SpaceX.

Very way of working in the same old industry

“Elon is changing the way aerospace business is done,” said NASA’s Stoker. “He’s managed to keep the safety factor up while cutting costs. He’s just taken the best things from the tech industry like the open-floor office plans and having everyone talking and all this human interaction. It’s a very different way to most of the aerospace industry, which is designed to produce requirements documents and project reviews.”


SpaceX’s staff is paid well but by no means exorbitantly. Many of them expect to make their money when SpaceX files for an initial public offering. The thing is that Musk does not want to go public anytime soon, and understandably so.

Going public is not always a good idea before a mission is in execution phase

This is something that I am open to reconsidering, but, given my experiences with Tesla and SolarCity, I am hesitant to foist being public on SpaceX, especially given the long term nature of our mission. Some at SpaceX who have not been through a public company experience may think that being public is desirable. This is not so.

Why not go IPO earlier?

This causes people to be distracted by the manic-depressive nature of the stock instead of creating great products.

Experience of buying and retail

characteristic of the Model S was the experience of buying and owning the car. You didn’t go to a dealership and haggle with a pushy salesman. Tesla sold the Model S directly through its own stores and website. Typically, the stores were placed in high-end malls or affluent suburbs, not far from the Apple stores on which they were modeled.

Automatic software updates

While the owner slept, Tesla’s engineers tapped into the car via the Internet connection and downloaded software updates.

Software + hardware

Overnight, the Model S sometimes got new traction controls for hilly and highway driving or could suddenly recharge much faster than before or possess a new range of voice controls. Tesla had transformed the car into a gadget a device that actually got better after you bought it.

Great engineer == 3 medium ones

Tesla would make up for its lack of R&D money by hiring smart people who could outwork and outthink the third parties relied on by the rest of the automakers. “The mantra was that one great engineer will replace three medium ones,”

Building your own office

In the tradition of many a Musk employee, von Holzhausen had to build his own office. He made a pilgrimage to IKEA to buy some desks and then went to an art store to get some paper and pens.

Aesthetic + features

Throughout this process, von Holzhausen and Musk talked every day. Their desks were close, and the men had a natural rapport. Musk said he wanted an aesthetic that borrowed from Aston Martin and Porsche and some specific functions.

Automatic interlock

“Why would we need a switch? When it’s dark, turn the lights on.”

Long term thinkings vs short term returns

Even if he remained the largest shareholder in Tesla, the company would be subjected to the capricious nature of the public markets. Musk, the ultimate long-term thinker, would face constant second-guessing from investors looking for short-term returns. Tesla would also be subject to public scrutiny, as it would be forced to open its books for public consumption.

Using it himself

He took a Model S prototype home for a weekend and came back on the Monday asking for around eighty changes. Since Musk never writes anything down, he held all the alterations in his head and would run down the checklist week by week to see what the engineers had fixed. The same engineering rules as those at SpaceX applied.

Customer’s don’t know what they want

The result is a confident, assertive perspective that does resonate with the tastes of consumers. Like Steve Jobs before him, Musk is able to think up things that consumers did not even know they wanted the door handles, the giant touch-screen and to envision a shared point of view for all of Tesla’s products and services. “Elon holds Tesla up as a product company,” von Holzhausen said. “He’s passionate that you have to get the product right. I have to deliver for him and make sure it’s beautiful and attractive.”

Outside as well as inside

“Anyone can make a car big on the outside. The trick is to make it big on the inside.” Musk went from one rival’s car to the next, illuminating the vehicles’ flaws for me and von Holzhausen. “It’s good to get a sense for just how bad the other cars are,” he said.

Everything is white

The floors received a white epoxy, the walls and beams were painted white, the thirty-foot tall stamping machines were white, and then much of the other machinery, like the teams of the robots, had been painted red, making the place look like an industrial version of Santa Claus’s workshop.

Fighting PR himself

Disobeying conventional public relations wisdom, Musk went after the reporter, using data pulled from the car to undermine the reviewer’s claims. Musk penned the feisty rebuttal himself, while on vacation in Aspen with Kimbal, and friend and Tesla board member Antonio Gracias. “At some other company, it would be a public relations group putting something like this together,” Gracias said. “Elon felt like it was the most important problem facing Tesla at the time and that’s always what he deals with and how he prioritizes.

Software in a car

“Software is in many ways the heart of the new vehicle experience,” he said. “From the powertrain to the warning chimes in the car, you’re using software to create an expressive and pleasing environment. The level of integration that the software has into the rest of the Model S is really impressive.

Solar City strategy

Unlike other companies, they would not manufacture their own solar panels. Instead they would buy them and then do just about everything else in-house. They built software for analyzing a customer’s current energy bill and the position of their house and the amount of sunlight it typically received to determine if solar made sense for the property.

Getting the most talented

Most impressive to Thiel has been Musk’s ability to find bright, ambitious people and lure them to 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 building cars, then you’re going to Tesla

Pushing explorations

Not everyone will identify with the mission but the fact that there’s someone out there pushing exploration and our technical abilities to their limits is important. “The goal of sending a man to Mars is so much more inspiring than what other people are trying to do in space,”

Moral imperative

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.

Loosing manufacturing capabilities

when some three decades ago the United States stopped making virtually all ‘commodity’ consumer electronic devices and displays, it also lost its capacity to develop and mass-produce advanced flat screens and batteries, two classes of products that are quintessential for portable computers and cell phones and whose large-scale imports keep adding to the US trade deficit,”

First principles

Page said. “The way Elon talks about this is that you always need to start with the first principles of a problem. What are the physics of it? How much time will it take? How much will it cost? How much cheaper can I make it? There’s this level of engineering and physics that you need to make judgments about what’s possible and interesting.

Progress steps

Engineers are usually trained in a very fixed area. When you’re able to think about all of these disciplines together, you kind of think differently and can dream of much crazier things and how they might work. I think that’s really an important thing for the world. That’s how we make progress.”


No, Musk just seems to possess a level of conviction that is so intense and exceptional as to be off-putting to some.

Huge incentive for internal transactions

The reason it worked was because the cost of transactions in PayPal was lower than any other system. And the reason the cost of transactions was lower is because we were able to do an increasing percentage of our transactions as ACH, or automated clearinghouse, electronic transactions, and most importantly, internal transactions. Internal transactions were essentially fraud-free and cost us nothing.