For the first time, entrepreneur Elon Musk shared his whole life story in front of a live audience in Silicon Valley. He joined me in conversation at the Computer History Museum on January 22 and we explored: What makes a Revolutionary?
Musk takes us on a journey from the suburban streets of South Africa to the tech mecca of Silicon Valley…and beyond. He tells me about his teenage “existential crisis” and his bookish quest for the meaning of life; how the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle inspired his space transport startup SpaceX; and why he became the reluctant CEO of electric car company Tesla Motors.
Interview highlights and key turning points in his career:
The Rebellious Child: Musk grew up in South Africa. At age 6, he desperately wanted to attend his cousin’s birthday party, but was grounded for some long-forgotten transgression. How did he get there? (This was probably the first of his many rule-breaking adventures.)
“It was clear across town, 10 or 12 miles away, further than I realized actually, but I just started walking…I think it took me about four hours…My mother freaked out.”
The Iron Man Inspiration: He was a huge fan of comics and read Iron Man comics. Did he ever imagine he’d be the inspiration for Robert Downey Jr’s movie character, Tony Stark?
“I did not. I would have said zero percent chance…I wasn’t all that much of a loner…at least not willingly. I was very very bookish.”
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: How did the novel fire his imagination?
“I was around 12 or 15…I had an existential crisis, and I was reading various books on trying to figure out the meaning of life and what does it all mean? …I read Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and it highlighted an important point which is that a lot of times the question is harder than the answer. And if you can properly phrase the question, then the answer is the easy part. To the degree that we can better understand the universe, then we can better know what questions to ask. Then whatever the question is that most approximates: what’s the meaning of life? That’s the question we can ultimately get closer to understanding. And so I thought to the degree that we can expand the scope and scale of consciousness and knowledge, then that would be a good thing.”
Why was Silicon Valley his mecca at age 17?
“Whenever I read about cool technology, it would tend to be in the United States…I wanted to be where the cutting edge technology was and of course, Silicon Valley is where the heart of things is…it sounded like some mythical place.”
Why did his startup X.com (the precursor to PayPal) come close to dying in 2000?
“The growth in the company was pretty crazy…by the end of the first four or five weeks we had a hundred thousand customers and it wasn’t all good…we had some bugs in the software…Various financial regulatory agencies were trying to shut us down, Visa and Mastercard were trying to shut us down, eBay…the FTC…there were a lot of battles there. (But) we had a really talented group of people at PayPal…It worked out better than we expected.”
After making over $150M from PayPal, why not just buy an island and relax?
“The idea of lying on a beach as my main thing sounds horrible to me…I would go bonkers. I’d have to be on serious drugs…I’d be super duper bored…I like high intensity.”
On the seeds of SpaceX
“I always thought that we’d make much more progress in space…and it just didn’t happen…it was really disappointing, so I was really quite bothered by it. So when we went to the moon, we were supposed to have a base on the moon, we were supposed to send people to Mars and that stuff just didn’t happen. We went backwards. I thought, well maybe it’s a question of there not being enough intention or ‘will’ to do this. This was a wrong assumption. That’s the reason for the greenhouse idea…if there could be a small philanthropic mission to Mars…a small greenhouse with seeds and dehydrated nutrients, you’d have this great shot of a little greenhouse with little green plants on a red background. I thought that would get people excited…you have to imagine the money shot. I thought this would result in a bigger budget for NASA and then we could resume the journey…”
On negotiations with the Russian military to buy two ICBMs
“They just thought I was crazy…I had three quite interesting trips to Russia to try to negotiate purchase of two Russian ICBMs…minus the nukes…I slightly got the feeling that was on the table, which was very alarming. Those were very weird meetings with the Russian military…’remarkably capitalist’ was my impression (of the Russians).”
Why he chose to create his own rocket company, SpaceX
“I came to the conclusion that my initial premise was wrong that in fact that there’s a great deal of will, there’s not such a shortage. But people don’t think there’s a way. And if people thought there was a way or something that wouldn’t break the federal budget, then people would support it. The United States is a distillation of the human spirit of exploration. People came here from other places…people need to believe that it’s possible, so I thought it’s a question of showing people that there’s a way…There wasn’t really a good reason for rockets to be so expensive. If one could make them reusable, like airplanes then the cost of rocketry (and space travel) would drop dramatically.”
How did the vigils for the death of the EV 1 help inspire Tesla Motors?
“It’s crazy. When was the last time you heard about any company, customers holding a candlelight vigil for the demise of that product? Particularly a GM product? I mean, what bigger wake-up call do you need? Like hello, the customers are really upset about this…that kind of blew my mind.”
On being the reluctant CEO of Tesla Motors
“I tried really hard not to be the CEO of two startups at the same time…It’s not appealing and shouldn’t be appealing if anyone thinks that’s a good idea. It’s a terrible idea.”
On the idea for SolarCity
“Solar is the obvious primary means of sustainable energy generation…in fact, the earth is almost entirely solar powered today. The only reason we’re not a frozen ice-ball at 3 degrees Kelvin is because of the sun…”
Check back soon for more from Musk on:
where his inspiration strikes (hint: not just Burning Man)
how to build, motivate and retain an excellent team
time management advice
keeping it in the family
the likelihood of a SpaceX IPO this year
how the SolarCity IPO got done, “by the skin of its teeth”
why Musk wants to go to Mars before he’s ‘too old’
Here are transcripts of our conversation
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