The Amazing Saga of Elon Musk

By Shlomo Maital    



  This is the amazing story of Elon Musk, who was born in Pretoria, South Africa, 41 years ago.  His life story can teach us more about persistent visionary innovation than any textbook.   Musk and brother Kimbal left South Africa when Elon was 15; neither wanted to do compulsory army service for the apartheid regime.  Since his mother was originally Canadian (born in Saskatchewan, like me), Musk chose Canada, and studied at Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ontario, (my undergrad college), before transferring to Univ. of Pennsylvania. (Elon’s dream was always to reach America, where wild dreams can be made to come true).  He studied physics at Penn, then got a scholarship to study at Stanford. He dropped out to launch a Yellow Pages director company, Zip2, sold to Compaq for over $300 m. (Elon’s profit from the deal was $21 m.)  Elon saw, just a few years after the World Wide Web was born, how it could replace print city directories.   

Elon had big dreams, to tackle “important problems that would most affect the future of humanity”, as he said later —  ”  the Internet,   clean energy, and   space”

Internet:  He founded a company that was to become PayPal, with the insight that “money is just an entry in a database”. (How many of us are stuck in the rut of money being coins, paper or checks?).

He founded Space X,  (Space Exploration), to build commercial rockets.  Space X’s Falcon 9 rocket, after initial failures, now has a NASA contract to supply the Space Station, replacing the Space Shuttle.  Musk has a dream to create colonies on Mars and the Moon.  “I would like to die on Mars”, he has said, “just…not on impact”.

He founded Solar City, which provides photovoltaic cells to generate power, for the roofs of homes and businesses, and is one of the largest power companies in America.

He founded Tesla, the first new car company in decades, to create cool speedy all-electric cars.  The Tesla Model S (named after Henry Ford’s Model T) is a family sedan, aimed at a mass market.  To make it, Tesla has bought the NUMMI car plant, near San Francisco.

On several occasions, e.g. with Tesla, Musk has put up his own money, down to his last dollar, to keep his companies alive.  His $40 m. cash injection kept Tesla alive, after the global recession hit in late 2008, leaving Tesla without money.

What can we learn from this amazing man?  First, study physics.  The fact that Musk knows physics, as well as computer science and programming, is a big advantage. It enabled him to help guide Space Exploration toward creating a successful rocket, when nations with huge budgets have failed,  all this in only 6 years, and to guide Tesla.

Second, go to America. Despite all America’s woes, Silicon Valley (where Musk is based) is still the world’s center for innovation.  For example, when Musk decided to develop electric batteries for cars, he found all the expertise he needed not in Detroit, MI, but in Silicon Valley.

Third, one innovative creative daring person can help revitalize an entire industry.  GM went bankrupt.  Bob Lutz helped revive it, by emulating Musk and competing with Tesla to build the Chevy Volt.  He credits Musk with inspiring him and GM.  Volt, and some other innovations, have brought GM back from the dead.

De Tocqueville wrote 200 years ago: “Boldness of enterprise is the foremost cause of America’s rapid progress”.   Perhaps that is still true.