Elon Musk Biography: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance
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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 Musk the man he is today. Along the way, readers will learn how Musk has always dreamed big. 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. Musk has always been an innovator. Now, he wants to help start a new home for humans on Mars.
Elon Musk’s biography delves into his leadership style and unwavering vision. Discover the captivating story of a visionary entrepreneur who has revolutionized multiple industries through his innovations. This Elon Musk book summary uncovers the key life lessons and success stories behind his impact on the world.
Elon Musk’s biography was published in 2015.
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About Ashlee Vance
Ashlee Vance is a New York Times best-selling author and feature writer at Bloomberg Businessweek. Born on August 7, 1977 in South Africa, he later moved to the United States. Ashlee has worked as a senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek, specializing in tech industry coverage. 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. His journalistic achievements have earned him recognition and awards within the industry.
StoryShot #1: The Idea of Saving Humanity Drives Elon Musk
Musk’s motivations do not lie with money. Most entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley can be described as being money-obsessed. But Ashlee Vance describes Musk as possessing universal empathy. He cares for humanity more than he cares about money. These characteristics have allowed Musk 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, Musk also has more elaborate plans for saving humanity. He has explained that his primary goal in life is to save humanity. He wants to provide people with the opportunity to move to Mars before Earth is destroyed through climate change and asteroids.
Musk’s worries about the world never leave his mind. He does not let these worries consume him, but uses it as motivation to get things done. That said, this motivation can sometimes be overwhelming. Musk has also become well known for setting unrealistic goals for his companies and unrealistic expectations of his employees. So, several previous employees have provided examples of the unbearable workloads and his verbal abuse. In fact, Musk verbally challenged one employee for attending the birth of his child rather than attending a company event. Musk demanded that the employee considered where his priorities lay. Musk has this mindset as he believes that you either have to commit 100 percent to change the world or not at all. He felt his employee was not giving 100 percent.
Despite his unrealistic expectations, his employees still respect him. His clear sense of mission helps motivate them to follow his lead. They see he is successful in almost all his pursuits. They also see he is not a hypocrite. He also has unrealistic expectations of himself (which he somehow meets).
This is how Musk’s grueling weekly schedule looks like:
- On Monday, Musk works 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.
- He then flies back to LA again to work at SpaceX.
This schedule highlights just how committed Musk is to his pursuits.
StoryShot #2: Musk Had an Unhappy Childhood
Musk’s tough childhood shaped the man we see today. Growing up in South Africa, Musk had very few friends. He also had a complicated relationship with his father, Errol. After his parents separated, Musk lived with his father. That said, this decision led to a problematic young life for Musk. 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. His classmates also bullied him because he was more intelligent than most of them. On some occasions, Musk 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, Musk retreated into reading and studying. Musk had the remarkable ability to memorize information photographically. So, he could read two encyclopedias and remember everything. Out of all books, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was the one that had the most significant impact on him. It 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 Musk 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. During this time, Musk 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.
StoryShot #3: College Was a Productive Time for Elon Musk
In the 1980s, when Musk was reaching college age, military service was mandatory in South Africa. But Musk had no interest in the military. So, he left the country. The US was his dream destination, but he instead opted for Canada as a starting point. Musk’s first year in Canada did not go exactly as planned. 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 Musk enrolled at Queen’s University, though. This is where Musk’s self-confidence would grow, and the character we see today would take shape. Rather than just focusing on studying, Musk also engaged with public speaking contests and met Justine Wilson. She would later become his first wife and the mother of his five boys.
Musk applied the same determination to his pursuits of Justine Wilson as he does in the business world. Wilson initially had no interest in him. She stood him up on their first date at an ice cream parlor. Rather than giving up, Musk asked one of Wilson’s friends what her favorite ice cream was and where she was studying, then brought the ice cream to her. This success-through-determination approach is one reason that Musk is so successful.
Musk 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. He and a friend, Adeo Ressi, would also host house parties in a 14-bedroom house they had rented. They would request $5 from each attendee as their admission. Musk would not drink and party, but would instead collect others’ money and make a considerable profit. Musk’s most successful party provided him with so much profit that it covered his entire month’s rent.
StoryShot #4: Musk’s First Start-Up Made Him a Millionaire
Musk 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 unique selling point of Zip2 was helping businesses understand how to set up their online presence. Although this idea would eventually make Musk and his brother millions of dollars, they were not immediately successful. As the Internet was a completely new concept, many businesses did not yet understand the value of putting their business online. To start Zip2, Elon Musk and his brother rented a small office space, acquired basic furniture, and used the financial help they received from their father to buy software and equipment. For the first three months, they lived at the office, keeping their clothes in a small closet and showering at the YMCA to save money. Then they rented a two-bedroom apartment, but they didn’t have the money to purchase any furniture and slept on mattresses on the floor instead.
Despite all their hard work, Musk and his brother struggled to gain traction until Musk’s energy and drive impressed a venture capital firm. Mohr Davidow Ventures invested in the startup after meeting Musk. They hired Rich Sorkin as CEO of the company, moving Musk further down the business. They also started hiring better engineers, who changed a lot of the coding that Musk had already created. Musk 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 Musk was frustrated by the venture capital firm’s influence, they provided realism that helped the company flourish. In effect, their realism complemented Musk’s unrealistic goals. For example, the vice president of engineering Jim Ambras, has since said that they had learned to take Musk’s predictions with a pinch of salt. When Musk 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. Musk did not even have to think about selling his share which amounted to $22 million. He already had several other projects in mind, and this money would help make those dreams a reality. Instead of sitting on the sidelines, Musk wanted to become a CEO who was heavily involved in the company’s decision-making.
StoryShot #5: Elon Musk’s X.com Venture Led to PayPal
Although Musk moved 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 private jet. That said, this is all he spent his tens 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, Musk had developed a strong reputation. So, he could partner with Barclays for his next business venture, X.com. At this time, people were still very wary of the Internet. They were not even willing to buy books online, as they worried about using their bank details on the Internet. But Musk opened one of the first online banks, X.com, and increased 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. That said, 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 joined forces in March 2000. Confinity’s most sought-after product was PayPal. Yet, their financial resources could not sustain their daily $100,000 awards to new customers. Meanwhile,
X.com had more advanced banking products. So, both companies brought something to the table.
Musk 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, Musk wanted to focus more on X.com. These internal rifts led to computer systems failing and their website crashing on a weekly basis. So, 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. In June 2001, PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel rebranded X.com to its current name, PayPal. The company excelled after this, though. In July 2002, they sold the company to eBay for $1.5 billion. From this, Musk received $250 million. Again, Musk’s influence had been stunted. But he now had even more money to make his dreams a reality.
StoryShot #6: Space Travel Was Musk’s Dream
Musk has always had a passion for space travel. Just before PayPal was sold, he moved from 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 Musk 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 dropped this program, but this did not stop Musk from dreaming big about the space industry. In June 2002, Musk 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. But as is often the case for Musk, 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 first launch of Falcon 1 occurred on March 24, 2006. However, the launch was unsuccessful due to a fuel leak and fire2. The first successful launch of Falcon 1 happened on September 28, 2008.
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. This technology will enable human space travel to the International Space Station and beyond. Musk still has big plans for space travel, and his determination has ultimately made SpaceX a success.
Elon Musk is determined to establish a self-sustaining city on Mars and his goal is to launch multiple times a day. He envisions a Mars mission that utilizes a booster, spacecraft, and tanker powered by methane.
Musk believes SpaceX can develop the necessary technology by 2025, allowing multiple flights to depart for Mars each day to reach the Red Planet within three months, carrying large quantities of people and cargo.
StoryShot #7: Tesla Inspired an Electric Car Future
Before Tesla, electric cars were available but were not mainstream. Wealthy people would usually opt for a Jaguar or Ferrari over buying an electric car. Tesla changed the game. They provided powerful and stylish electric cars. Elon Musk made electric cars cool.
Few people know that Musk was not actually the founder of Tesla. 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. No venture capitalist was willing to invest because of the unattractive look of the car. Tesla was experiencing success in 2007, but was challenged to produce enough electric cars to keep up with demand. This led to severe financial difficulties and the company was close to bankruptcy. Despite this, Musk saw the potential in this company. So, he invested $6.5 million and became the sole shareholder and chairman. Musk believed that Tesla Motors had the potential to revolutionize electric cars and change the world. However, due to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, the major automakers in the US were heading towards bankruptcy, making it difficult for Tesla to secure investments.
Musk was running out of cash to fund his three companies: SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity. He had invested most of his fortune. He suspected that VantagePoint’s tactics (one of the early investors in Tesla) were designed to bankrupt the company. It allowed them to oust him as CEO, reshape the company, and sell it or change its focus. To thwart this, he re-characterized the funding as debt instead of equity. He knew VantagePoint had no authority over debt deals. This strategy put investors such as Steve Jurvetson in an awkward spot, as venture capital firms don’t usually deal with debt.
Musk threatened to fund the entire round with his own money ($40 million). This bluff convinced investors to go ahead with the deal. The deal was finalized on Christmas Eve, just hours before Tesla’s bankruptcy. Musk contributed $12 million, while the investment firms provided the remaining funds.
In May 2009, Tesla’s prospects improved when Daimler acquired 10% of the company for $50 million. This added credibility to the company. In January 2010, the Department of Energy struck a $465 million loan agreement with Tesla. Though the loan was a fraction of the cost of bringing a new vehicle to market, Tesla was still thrilled to receive the funds.
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, Musk’s determination allowed Tesla Motors to become a success. Without his input, the company was failing despite its potential. With his input, Tesla is part of the S&P 500.
StoryShot #8: Elon Musk’s Companies All Work Towards Extending Human Existence
At the time of the publication of Elon Musk biography, he ran 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. He previously couldn’t see any opportunities to make enough money. But he did not give up. He and his brothers spent two years attempting to find a solution to make 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. But the cost and effort of installation still put people off. They eventually abandoned the idea of starting a solar company. But SolarCity solved this problem.
Musk helped come up with the idea for SolarCity to develop the business plan, and served as its chairman, while his cousins ran the company. He also 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. They achieved this within just six years. They now have contracts with some of the largest companies, including Walmart and Intel.
As well as having a common goal, Musk 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.
StoryShot #9: Musk Has Many More Big Ideas
Musk has already achieved a considerable amount in his few decades of working as an entrepreneur. But he has even bigger plans for the future. First, 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. That said, Musk has taken this idea and applied it on a grand scale. Large versions of these tubes will transport people and their cars within pods. This idea is not brand new, but Musk’s approach is novel. Musk’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. Solar energy will power each of these tubes.
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 can travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in just 30 minutes.
As well as a new venture, Musk also has big plans for his other companies. He wants to bring an SUV version of the Tesla to the market. This car will also 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 taken people into space. This includes joyrides 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. This approach has allowed him to change the game in every industry he has infiltrated.
Final Summary and Review of Elon Musk Book
Elon Musk biography is the first deep dive into the life of one of the world’s most influential individuals. This book highlights how Musk has been an innovator from a young age. Since coding his own game at 12, Musk has always had high expectations and elaborate dreams. A few of these dreams are becoming a reality, and he continues to dream about how he can save the human species.
As you explore the life of Elon Musk, you’ll discover the story of a visionary entrepreneur who has disrupted many industries. By examining his early life and ventures, you’ll gain insight into the mindset and strategies that have fueled his success.
Embrace the lessons you can learn from his story and apply them to your own life and aspirations. Now, it’s your turn to share your ideas and dreams with the world. Tag us on social media and let us know how Elon Musk’s biography has inspired you to think bigger and work towards creating a brighter future. Together, we can make a difference and turn our visions into reality.
We rate Elon Musk biography book 4.2/5.
How would you rate Ashlee Vance’s book based on this summary?
This article was first published in April 2021. It was updated and deeply revised on 29/03/2023.
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