Summary of Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance
Life gets busy. Has Elon Musk been gathering dust on your bookshelf? Instead, pick up the key ideas now.
Ashlee Vance’s Perspective
Ashlee Vance is a New York Times best-selling author and feature writer at Bloomberg Businessweek. He’s also the host of the Hello World television and internet show. Previously, he worked as a reporter for The New York Times, The Economist, and The Register.
Elon Musk is the renowned entrepreneur behind PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity. Musk’s mission with each of these companies was to save humanity. In this book, Ashlee Vance provides an outline of the experiences that have made Elon the man he is today. Along the way, readers will learn how Elon has always dreamed big. Plus, he eventually achieved many dreams people claimed he never could. From throwing massive parties to pay his way through his education at the University of Pennsylvania, to plans to create one of the first online banks. Elon has always been an innovator. Now, he wants to help start a new home for humans on Mars.
Elon Musk is Driven by the Idea of Saving Humanity
Musk’s motivations do not lie with money. Most entrepreneurs in silicon-valley can be described as being money-obsessed. However, Ashlee Vance describes Elon as possessing universal empathy. He cares for humanity more than he cares about money. These characteristics have allowed Elon to create two separate sustainable technology companies, Tesla Motors and SolarCity, that are each worth billions of dollars. Sustainability is a highly competitive industry, and without Elon’s internal drive, he probably would have failed.
As well as aiming to protect the planet through renewable energy, Elon also has more elaborate plans for saving humanity. Specifically, he has explained that his main goal in life is to save the human race. He wants to provide people with the opportunity to relocate to Mars before Earth is destroyed through climate change and asteroids.
Importantly, Elon’s worries about the world never leave his mind. He does not let these worries consume him but instead uses it as motivation to get things done. However, this motivation can sometimes be overwhelming. Elon has also become well known for setting unrealistic goals for his companies and unrealistic expectations of his employees. Subsequently, several previous employees have provided examples of the unbearable workloads and his verbal abuse. In fact, one employee was verbally challenged by Elon for attending the birth of his child rather than attending a company event. Elon demanded that the employee considered where his priorities lay. Elon has this mindset as he believes that you either have to commit 100 percent to change the world or not at all. In this instance, he felt his employee was not giving 100 percent.
Despite his unrealistic expectations, Elon Musk is still respected by his employees. His clear sense of mission helps motivate them to follow his lead. They see he is successful in almost all his pursuits. Plus, he is not a hypocrite. Although he demands unrealistic expectations of his employees, he also demands unrealistic expectations of himself (which he somehow meets). Ashlee Vance outlines what Elon’s grueling weekly schedule looks like:
- On Monday, Musk starts working at SpaceX in LA. He continues working here until Tuesday night.
- After this, Elon flies to Silicon Valley, where he spends his Wednesdays and Thursdays at Tesla.
- Then, he flies back to LA again to work at SpaceX.
This schedule highlights just how committed Elon is to his pursuits.
Musk Had an Unhappy Childhood
Elon’s difficult childhood shaped the man we see today. Growing up in South Africa, Elon had very few friends. On top of this, he had a complicated relationship with his father, Errol. After his parents separated, Elon decided to live with his father. However, this decision led to a problematic young life for Elon. The Musk family has been unwilling to elaborate on how Errol behaved. Still, they are willing to describe him as an unpleasant man to be around. As well as a difficult life at home, Elon was also bullied by his classmates because he was more intelligent than most of them. On some occasions, Elon would receive such a severe beating from the bullies that he couldn’t attend school for a week.
To escape from his complicated relationship with his father and the turmoils of school, Elon retreated into reading and studying. Elon had the remarkable ability to memorize information photographically. Hence, he was able to read two encyclopedias and remember everything. However, out of all books, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was the one that had the most significant impact on him. Specifically, the book taught him that answering a question is easy, but asking the right question is much more challenging.
This ethos of looking to ask the right questions led to Elon considering how he could expand and improve human civilization from a young age. For example, by high school, he already had strong opinions on solar power, moving to other planets, paperless banking, and space rockets. On top of this, during this time, Elon started to learn more about entrepreneurship. He created his own video game, Blastar, which he sold for $500 when he was just 12 years old.
College Was a Productive Time for Elon Musk
In the 1980s, when Elon was reaching college age, military service was mandatory in South Africa. However, Elon had no interest in the military. So, he decided to leave the country. The US was his dream destination, but he instead opted for Canada as a starting point. Elon’s first year in Canada did not go exactly to plan. He struggled for money, as he drifted between odd jobs, and he struggled to find a real home. Instead, he was moving from relative to relative for short periods at a time.
Everything changed when Elon enrolled at Queen’s University, though. This is where Elon’s self-confidence would grow, and the character we see today would start to take shape. Rather than just focusing on studying, Elon also engaged with public speaking contests and met Justine Wilson. She would later become his first wife and the mother of his six sons.
Elon applied the same determination to his pursuits of Justine Wilson as he does in the business world. Wilson initially had no interest in Elon. She stood him up on their first date at an ice cream parlor. Rather than giving up, Elon asked one of Wilson’s friends what her favorite ice cream was and where she was studying, then brought the ice creams to her. This success-through-determination approach is one of the reasons that Elon is so successful.
Elon realized his dream of moving to America when he transferred to the University of Pennsylvania after two years at Queen’s. Here, he made several friends on his physics course. Also, he and a friend, Adeo Ressi, would host house parties in a 14-bedroom house they’d rented. They would request $5 from each attendee as their admission. Elon would not drink and party, but would instead collect others’ money and make a considerable profit. Elon’s most successful party provided him with so much profit that it covered his whole month’s rent.
Musk’s First Start-Up Made Him a Millionaire
Elon created his first company in 1995, straight out of college. He and his brother founded the Global Link Information Network. This company would later be renamed Zip2. The USP of this company was that they guided businesses that are struggling to understand how to set up and use the internet. Although this idea would eventually make Elon and his brother millions of dollars, they were not immediately successful. As the internet was a completely new concept, several businesses did not yet understand the value of putting their business online.
Despite all their hard work, Elon and his brother struggled to gain traction until a venture capital firm was impressed by Elon’s energy and drive. Mohr Davidow Ventures decided to invest in the start-up after meeting Elon. They hired Rich Sorkin as CEO of the company, moving Elon further down the business. Plus, started hiring better engineers who changed a lot of the coding that Elon had already created. Elon did not enjoy this process. He had gone from being the creative and business driving force behind the company to just being a shareholder.
Although Elon was frustrated by the venture capital firm’s influence, they did provide a degree of realism that helped the company flourish. In effect, their realism complemented Elon’s unrealistic goals. For example, the vice president of engineering at that time, Jim Ambras, has since said that they had learned to take Elon’s predictions with a pinch of salt. When Elon said a task would take an hour, they would expect that task to take a day or two.
Zip2 saw a considerable growth opportunity when, in February 1999, PC-maker Compaq Computer offered $307 million in cash for the company. Elon did not even have to think about selling his share. He already had several other projects in mind, and this money would help make those dreams a reality. Instead of sitting on the sidelines, Elon wanted to become a CEO who was heavily involved in the company’s decision making.
Elon Musk and PayPal
Although Elon decided to move on from Zip2 to invest in new projects, he also treated himself to some material treats. For example, he bought himself a McLaren sports car, an expensive apartment, and a small plane. However, this is all he spent his hundreds of millions on. The rest of this money went straight into his next business venture, which was X.com.
After selling Zip2 for such a large sum, Elon had started to develop a strong reputation. Hence, he was able to partner with Barclays for his next business venture, X.com. At this time, people were still very wary of the internet. People were not even willing to buy books online, as they worried about using their bank details on the internet. However, Elon opened one of the first online banks, X.com, and managed to increase people’s confidence in online banking through his innovative approach. Specifically, he backed up his online banking with FDIC insurance, coupled with three mutual funds that investors could choose from.
X.com was around before Paypal. However, it was not long after establishing X.com that Max Levchin and Peter Thiel set up a more streamlined payment system at the company Confinity, a precursor to the first version of PayPal. After initially battling for customers, X.com and Confinity decided to join forces in March 2000. PayPal was a superior product to what X.com was offering, but X.com had more advanced banking products. Therefore, both companies brought something to the table.
Elon struggled to exert his influence at X.com after the merge, though. Two months after the merge, Thiel and Levchin resigned. Musk was now in charge of a company where most of his employees wanted the company’s PayPal side to be advanced. In contrast, Elon wanted to focus more on X.com. These internal rifts led to computer systems failing and their website crashing on a weekly basis. Subsequently, when Musk and his wife Justine were boarding a plane for their honeymoon, one of the greatest coups in Silicon Valley history occurred. X.com’s executives asked the company board if they could bring Thiel back as CEO and demote Musk. The executives succeeded, and Musk lost any influence he had, as he became an advisor. Subsequently, the company’s name was also changed from X.com to PayPal. The company excelled after this, though. In July 2002, the company was sold to eBay for $1.5 billion. From this, Musk received $250 million. Again, Musk’s influence had been stunted. However, he now had even more money to make his dreams a reality.
Space Travel Was Elon’s Dream
Musk has always had a passion for space travel. Just before PayPal was sold, Elon moved from near Silicon Valley to Los Angeles. He was fed up with Silicon Valley and wanted a new adventure. This adventure was space travel. He moved just around the corner from the US space industry hub, where they were considering the possibility of putting life on Mars. To investigate this possibility, the Mars Society was sending mice into orbit. Although Elon was interested in this idea, in his usual character, he believed they could go one step further. He preferred the idea of just sending the mice straight to Mars.
The Mars Society decided to drop this program, but this did not stop Elon from dreaming big about the space industry. In June 2002, Elon started Space Exploration Technologies, also known as SpaceX. SpaceX had the mission of becoming the South-West Airlines of Space. SpaceX innovated the game. Previously, rockets could send a 500-pound payload for no less than $30 million. SpaceX’s Falcon 1 was planned to carry almost three times this weight for just $6.9 million. However, as is often the case for Elon, his plans for the company’s timescale were unrealistic. He had planned for their first launch to happen just 15 months after starting the company. The reality was that SpaceX didn’t launch their first rocket until over four years after the company’s creation.
Despite these delays, SpaceX has become the first commercial company to carry the Dragon capsule to space and retrieve it safely after an ocean landing. Elon still has big plans for space travel, and his determination has ultimately made SpaceX a success.
Tesla Inspired an Electric Car Future
Before Tesla, electric cars were available but were not mainstream. Wealthy individuals would always opt for a Jaguar or Ferrari over buying an electric car. However, Tesla changed the game. They provided powerful and stylish electric cars. Elon Musk made electric cars cool.
Not many people know that Elon was not actually the founder of Tesla. Instead, Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning founded Tesla Motors in 2003, with another electric car innovator, J.B. Straubel, joining later. Originally, Tesla started as a company that would license its AC propulsion technology and use the Lotus Elise chassis for its body. However, no venture capitalists were willing to invest due to the unattractive style of the car. Despite this, Elon saw the potential in this company. Therefore, he chose to invest $6.5 million and become the sole shareholder and chairman. Elon believed that Tesla Motors had the potential to revolutionize electric cars and change the world.
Tesla had slow growth at first but has now become one of the world’s most successful companies. Tesla’s Model S is the most influential of Tesla’s cars, with its release in 2012 changing the way we interact with cars. For example, this car has continuous internet access and a sensor that allows the driver to start the engine without touching a button. The media described it as a computer with wheels. This model was subsequently named car of the year. Consumer Reports even gave the car their highest review rating in the report’s history. Tesla became the most successful car company America had seen since Chrysler.
Again, Elon’s determination allowed Tesla Motors to become a success. Without his input, the company was failing despite its potential. With his input, Tesla is on the brink of becoming part of the S&P 500.
Musk’s Companies All Aim to Save the Human Species
Elon now runs three companies: Tesla, SpaceX, and SolarCity. Each of these companies works toward a common goal of helping extend the existence of the human species. His most recent pursuit is SolarCity.
SolarCity is a venture that Musk had been passionate about for many years before starting the company. However, he previously couldn’t see any opportunities to make enough money. Despite this, Elon did not give up. He and his brothers spent two years attempting to find a solution to making money out of solar power. Eventually, they thought up a company that did all the hard work of selecting the best solar panels, purchasing them for individuals/companies, and installing them. This was an effective idea as solar panels had recently become more affordable. However, people were still put off by the cost and effort of installation. SolarCity solved this problem.
Elon helped his cousins, who would also be involved in the business, to develop the business plan for SolarCity. Plus, he became the chairman and largest shareholder. By the time Ashlee Vance was writing this book, SolarCity had become the largest installer of solar panels in the US and was worth $7 billion. This achievement was obtained within just six years. Plus, they now have contracts with some of the US’ largest companies, including Walmart and Intel.
As well as having a common goal, Elon has created a network whereby each of his businesses supports each other. For example, Tesla Motors makes battery packs that SolarCity can sell to end customers. Similarly, SolarCity supplies Tesla’s charging stations with solar panels. He can integrate these businesses so seamlessly because they all have a common goal of improving the longevity of the human species.
Elon Musk Has Many More Big Ideas
Elon has already achieved a considerable amount in his few decades of working as an entrepreneur. However, he has even bigger plans for the future. Firstly, he unveiled the Hyperloop in 2013. The Hyperloop is a large scale pneumatic tube. These are the same tubes used to send mail around offices. However, Elon has taken this idea and applied it on a grand scale. Large versions of these tubes will be used to transport people and their cars within pods. This idea is not brand new, but Elon’s approach is novel. Elon’s Hyperloop will work by creating low pressure within the tube. Then, the pods will float on a bed of air. Finally, each pod will be moved forward via an electromagnetic pulse, and motors will provide an added power boost. Each of these tubes will be powered by solar energy.
The innovative approach that Hyperloop adopts allows the pods to travel as fast as 800 miles per hour. If adopted on a large scale, people will travel from LA to San Francisco in just 30 minutes.
As well as a new venture, Musk also has big plans for his other companies. Musk wants to bring an SUV version of the TESLA to the market. Plus, this car will be affordable at just $35,000. In 2014, Musk also announced plans to build a Gigafactory. The Gigafactory is the world’s largest lithium-ion manufacturing facility. This will make the battery component of electric cars cheaper and more readily available.
Finally, SpaceX has started taking people into space. This includes joy rides and taking astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA. SpaceX is also likely to move into building and selling satellites, one of the industry’s most lucrative areas.
Elon Musk is an innovator and somebody who has always been thinking above-and-beyond what is realistic. However, this approach has allowed him to change the game in every industry he has infiltrated.
We rate this book 4.3/5.
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