On January 22, 2013, Elon Musk joined me in conversation at the Computer History Museum to share his life story and key turning points that led to the creation of PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla Motors and SolarCity. John Hollar, President and CEO of the Computer History Museum introduced the program. Here is a transcript of the in-depth interview. Note: this is a partial transcript of Musk’s early days in South Africa. Check back soon for more excerpts.
John Hollar: Here’s a thought exercise. If you compiled a list of the 75 most influential people of the 20th Century, who would be on your list? Or if you compiled a list perhaps of the 100 people who most affected the world in the 20th Century, who would be on that list? Now, think of the same list that you might start compiling for the 21st Century so far. And if all of that proves to be a little too much, I can offer some help. Elon Musk has been on every single one of those lists that has been compiled for the 20th Century to date, no matter who seems to be drawing the lists up.
Few scientists, entrepreneurs or industrialists of the last century can stake a claim to a career as boldly ambitious as the one Elon Musk is fashioning now. Transforming a large measure of the world’s commerce and payments systems as cofounder and chairman of PayPal in 1999, might be enough for anyone for one life time, but Elon Musk has gone on from there to pursue his passion for solving business, environmental and scientific problems on a global scale. He may be best known for his work at Tesla, where he serves as CEO and head of product design. The path breaking Tesla Roadster, and now the Model S have changed almost all the assumptions that the automotive world has made about what the styling, performance and future of a new generation of electric cars might be. Simultaneously, he serves as chairman and principal shareholder of SolarCity, the nation’s leading provider of solar power systems. But perhaps his most ambitious and intriguing work is taking place at SpaceX, where he is CEO and chief designer. SpaceX is erasing the boundaries between space flight and private enterprise. It has a multi-billion dollar, multi-year agreement with NASA to be a workhorse for cargo flights to and from the International Space Station, and in 2015, that is the companies stated goal: it will begin manned space flight. What is the source of Elon Musk’s revolutionary thinking? How has he been able to do what he’s done with the investors he’s attracted and the teams that he’s built?
Exploring these questions and more tonight with Elon is Alison van Diggelen, who is a very notable and noteworthy journalist here in Silicon Valley, a contributor to KQED and the Huffington Post; and one of the best interviewers in the field through her series, Fresh Dialogues. We’re delighted to have Alison here tonight. This is her first time on stage. She’s going to be terrific, as will Elon. Please join me in welcoming Elon Musk and Alison van Diggelen.
Alison van Diggelen: Good evening. Tonight I’d like to explore what makes a revolutionary. Elon, I’d like you to take us on a journey from South Africa to Silicon Valley and beyond.
So I’d like to start…you grew up in South Africa. I heard a wonderful story about when you were six years old and you started breaking the rules even then. You were six years old and you were invited by your cousin to a birthday party. But there were two problems with that: one you were grounded, and two it was on the other side of town. Can you tell us how you got there?
Elon Musk: All right. Well, this was when I was six, so the memory is a little fuzzy at this point. But as I recall, I was grounded for some reason. I don’t know why but I felt it was unjust (laughter)…and I really wanted to go to this party, my cousin’s party, who was five…a kids’ party. So at first, I was going to take my bike and I told my mom this, which was a mistake and she told me some story about how you needed a license for a bike and the police would stop me. So I wasn’t 100% sure if that was true or not, but I thought I’d better walk just in case. I sort of thought I knew the way, but it was clear across town…10 or 12 miles really quite far, further than I realized actually…So I just started walking to my cousin’s house. It took me about four hours and just as my mom was leaving the party with my brother and sister, she saw me walking down the road and freaked out. I saw she saw me, so I then sprinted to my cousin’s house – I was just about two blocks away – and climbed a tree and refused to come down…(laughter).
Alison van Diggelen: The first of many rule-breaking adventures for Elon Musk. So, by the time you were 12, you were already an entrepreneur and making a profit…
Elon Musk: Well…A small one…
Alison van Diggelen: You earned $500 equivalent in (South African) Rand for creating a video game. Can you tell us about that and what the inspiration was?
Elon Musk: Yes sure. So when I was about 10, I walked into a computer store in South Africa and saw an actual computer. I previously had some earlier precursors to the Atari system then I got the Atari system which I’m sure a lot of people here have played. Then I sort of actually started having a computer where you could make your own games and it was a Commodore VIC-20 . So that was the first computer I bought and then I got some books on how to teach yourself programming and this was like the coolest thing I’d ever seen so this was super-awesome and I started programming games in order to buy more games so that really put a circular thing…so more games, better computers. That kind of thing.
Alison van Diggelen: Right. So the money wasn’t the end goal for you, it was more a means to an end?
Elon Musk: Yeah. Basically I’d spend money on better computers and Dungeons & Dragons modules. Things like that. (laughs) Master 3000 basically.
Alison van Diggelen: I understand at that time you were heavily into comics…I’m curious to know, did you love Iron Man? The comic Iron Man, was that…?
Elon Musk: I did like Iron Man, yes.
Alison van Diggelen: You did? And did you ever imagine you’d be the inspiration for the (Iron Man) movie version?
Elon Musk: I did not. That was pretty much, I would say zero percent chance.
Alison van Diggelen: What kind of kid were you? Can you look back and see yourself? Were you a loner kid? A bookish kid?
Elon Musk: I wasn’t all that much of a loner…at least not willingly (laughter). I certainly was very very bookish. I was reading all the time. So I was either reading, working on my computer, reading comics, playing Dungeons & Dragons…that kind of thing.
Alison van Diggelen: I understand Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, that wonderful book by Douglas Adams, that was a key book for you. What was it about that book that fired your imagination?
Elon Musk: I guess when 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? It all seemed quite meaningless and then we happened to have some books by Nietzsche and Schopenhauer in the house, which you should not read at age 14 (laughter). It is bad, it’s really negative. So then I read Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy which is quite positive I think 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. So, 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.”
Alison van Diggelen: So you were having these deep thoughts at what age? 10…14?
Elon Musk: Yeah. In the…puberty, I guess….13 through 15. Probably the most traumatic years.
Alison van Diggelen: So by the time you were 17, you were…had actually left (South Africa)…I assume you’d hatched the plan earlier when you were 14, 15?
Elon Musk: I did hatch the plan earlier. Actually I tried to hatch several plans, which they did not hatch (laughter).
Alison van Diggelen: But by 17, you were on a plane from South Africa. You’d had enough of South Africa, you were ready to seek new pastures. Now why was it the United States was your destination? Why not Europe or somewhere else?
Elon Musk: Well, whenever I would read about cool technology, it would tend to be in the United States…or more broadly North America, including Canada. So, I wanted to be where the cutting edge technology was and of course, within the United States, Silicon Valley is where the heart of things is. Although at the time, I didn’t know where Silicon Valley was…it sounded like some mythical place (laughter)…I tried to convince my mother or father, who were divorced, if either one of them would move to the United States, then I could get there. At one point I convinced my father but then he reneged, unfortunately.
Alison van Diggelen: You had him convinced? And then he changed his mind?
Elon Musk: He did say yes, and then he changed his mind.
Alison van Diggelen: Why?
Elon Musk: I don’t know. I guess he was fairly established in engineering, established in South Africa and didn’t want to have to go through that again in another country.
Alison van Diggelen: So you got on that plane all by yourself at 17?
Elon Musk: Yes, so…my mother was born in Canada. Her father was American. But unfortunately she didn’t get her American citizenship, so then that broke the link and I couldn’t get my American citizenship. But she was born in Canada, so I actually filled out the forms for her and got her a Canadian passport, and me too. Within three weeks of getting my Canadian passport, I was in Canada.
…To be continued.
Check back soon for the next chapter of Elon Musk’s journey: University of Pennsylvania, two days at Stanford, his first startup…and the inspiration for PayPal.
It’s been a stellar year at Fresh Dialogues. Here are our top ten green interviews: from Tesla’s Elon Musk to Google’s Rick Needham. Most are exclusive Fresh Dialogues interviews, but some were special assignments for NPR’s KQED, The Computer History Museum, The Commonwealth Club and The Churchill Club (2013).
1.Elon Musk on burning oil, climate change and electric vehicles
“It’s the world’s dumbest experiment. We’re playing Russian roulette and as each year goes by we’re loading more rounds in the chamber. It’s not wise… We know we have to get to a sustainable means of transportation, no matter what.” Tesla CEO, Elon Musk. Read more/ see video
“I want to see a standard that could bring this country back to international prominence in terms of leaning in to a low carbon green growth strategy, so that we can dramatically change the way we produce and consume energy and lead the world.”Gavin Newsom, Lt. Governor of California. Read more/ see video
7. Steven Chu on climate change deniers
“I’d put them in the same category as people who said, in the 60′s and 70′s, that you haven’t proved to me that smoking causes cancer. This is a real issue. We have to do something about it!” Former Energy Secretary, Steven Chu. Read more/see video
8. GM’s Pam Fletcher on electric vehicle adoption
“We need a lot of customers excited about great products. I want to keep people focused on all the good things that moving to electrified transportation can do for customers and for the country.” GM’s Chief of Electrified Vehicles, Pam Fletcher. Read more/ see video
9. Laurie Yoler on why Tesla is succeeding, despite the odds
“You know you’re on to something good when everyone you talk to is a naysayer. It takes a huge amount of courage and tenacity to continue going forth.” Qualcomm executive and founding board member of Tesla Motors, Laurie Yoler. Read more/see video at 11:20
10. Rick Needham on self driving cars, car sharing and Google’s electric car fleet
“It’s not just the car that’s underutilized; it’s the infrastructure, the roads…There’s an enormous opportunity…on the environmental side, on the human safety side, on utilization of infrastructure side.” Google’s Rick Needham. Read more/see video
I was very honored to be included in such an illustrious collection. If you missed my interview at the Computer History Museum in January 2013, here’s the video.
And here’s some feedback from across the web:
“I am impressed with your ease and confidence and the way you were able to lead Musk with charm and fluency and keep the flow of the interview crisp and vital — in a word alive! Good work & warm congratulations.” Michael Krasny, Host KQED’s Forum
“Having seen every single video of Elon Musk, what I really apppreciated was that the interviewer prefaced her questions with content from Elon’s more practiced answers, so we saved a lot of time and just jumped into a ton of new information never mentioned in other interviews. Very good interviewer. 10/10!” Maximus Victorius on YouTube
“Loved the program. Alison conveyed a mastery of the subject, and the vocal counterpart was delicious. Perhaps the best interview I have heard.” Steve Jurvetson, Silicon Valley Venture Capitalist
“Alison really captured his charm and warmth and aspirations in a lovely way. He seemed more at ease and willing to be honest with Alison than in any interview I have seen him in. Her questions were excellent, and she was so articulate and poised on stage.” Laurie Yoler, a Tesla investor who was part of the 500-strong live audience.
“This is an example of my favorite kind of interview, the journalist asks well thought questions and then sits back and lets the subject tell the story.” Tyra Robertson, Elon Enthusiast
“I love how knowledgeable the interviewer is. It really opens up different answers from Elon that I haven’t heard a million times.” AlphacentauriAB on Reddit
On Tuesday evening, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors sat down with me at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View to discuss his life’s work. During the hour long interview, he gave a detailed account of Tesla Motors’ early days and how he became the reluctant CEO.
Why reluctant? Well, he was in the throws of getting his other little startup off the ground…the rocket company, SpaceX. If you missed that story, SpaceX has become the de facto replacement for NASA’s space shuttle and serves the International Space Station.
But back to electric cars…Here’s what Elon said:
“I really didn’t want to be CEO of two startups at the same time. It was not appealing. And shouldn’t be appealing by the way, if anyone is thinking that’s a good idea. It’s a terrible idea.”
And yet, he’s somehow making it work. Tesla’s Model S was picked as Motor Trend’s Car of the Year 2013 and he doesn’t seem quite so reluctant these days. In this transcript excerpt, he also offers this advice to entrepreneurs:
“In the beginning there will be few people who believe in you or in what you’re doing but then over time, as you make progress, the evidence will build and more and more people will believe in what you’re doing… it’s a good idea when creating a company to have a demonstration… a good mark up or if it’s software to have good demoware, or to be able to sketch something so people can really envision what’s it’s about.”
The interview aired this week on KQED radio and the podcast is now available on this page. Or listen here
Here’s a transcript excerpt.
The Reluctant Tesla CEO: Transcript of January 22, 2013 Interview with Elon Musk
Alison van Diggelen: Shortly after founding SpaceX, you then got interested in electric vehicles and I understand you watched the vigils for the death of the EV1, when they were all smashed. Talk about that and why you felt even after founding SpaceX: ‘I have to get involved with Tesla.’
Elon Musk: Yea, well. My interest in electric vehicles goes back a long time…goes back 20 plus years.
Alison van Diggelen: To the dating scene…(Musk refers earlier in the interview to the fact that in his college days, he used to bore dates with his fascination with electric cars and says, ‘it was not a winning combination…but recently it’s been more effective.’
Elon Musk: Exactly and in fact the original reason I came to Silicon Valley was to work on electric vehicle energy storage technology. I thought that big car companies would develop electric cars. It was obviously the right move and I thought that was vindicated when General Motors and Toyota announced…General Motors was doing the EV1, Toyota did the electric RAV 4, the original one. And they made these announcements and brought those to market and I thought: well this is great, we’re going to have electric cars, GM is obviously going to do the EV2 and 3 and then just keep getting better. Everything would be cool.
And then when California relaxed its regulations on electric cars, GM recalled all of the EV1s and crushed them into little cubes, which seemed kind of nutty. So in fact, the people didn’t want their EV1s recalled…
Alison van Diggelen: Yes…
Elon Musk: In fact they tried court orders to stop the cars from being recalled. They held a candlelit vigil, OK in the yard where the cars were crushed…now…
Alison van Diggelen: Did you attend that vigil?
Elon Musk: No, I did not.
Alison van Diggelen: You’re moved by it.
Elon Musk: Well certainly, I mean, it’s crazy…When was the last time you heard about any company… customers holding a candlelight vigil for the demise of their product? Particularly a GM product? (laughter) I mean what bigger wake up call do you need? Like hello! The customers are really upset about this. They’d really prefer if it didn’t get recalled. So that kind of blew my mind. So it was like ‘wow.’
And then we had the advent of lithium ion batteries which really is one of the key things to make electric cars work, but it’s still nothing. And so in 2003, I actually had lunch with one of the other cofounders of the company JB Straubel (now CTO of Tesla Motors) who was actually working on a hydrogen airplane or something. He mentioned to me the tzero car that was done by AC Propulsion.
AC Propulsion are the sort of guys who had actually been on the EV1 program and they took a gasoline sports car, a kit car and outfitted it with lithium ion batteries, consumer grade cells, and they created a car which was essentially the precursor of the (Tesla) Roadster, and had very similar specifications: sub 4 seconds zero to 60 mph, 250 mile range and also a two-seater sports car. But it was quite primitive. It didn’t have a roof for one thing. At all. And none of them had doors. But it didn’t have any safety system at all, no air bags, it wasn’t homologated, so you couldn’t sell it. So in order to sell that car, in order to create a commercial version of that car, there was a fair bit of work that was required.
I kept trying to get AC Propulsion to commercialize the tzero, and I said: ‘Look, I’ll fund the whole effort, we really need to do this.’
But they just refused to do it. They wanted to make an electric Scion. Which in principle sounds good, but in fact it would have cost $75,000 and nobody wants to buy a $75,000 Scion.
The technology was just not ready. There was just no way to make a good value proposition.
Alison van Diggelen: What was it that compelled you to say: ‘I have to be CEO here and lead this company.’ Why not just say: ‘I’ll help you JB and get this rolling’?
Elon Musk: Well I really didn’t want to be CEO of two companies. I tried really hard not to be actually. Yes. So AC Propulsion finally said…I told AC Propulsion: ‘If you’re not going to do this, I’m going to create a company to do this.’
And they said well, there’s some other guys who’re also interested in doing that and you guys should combine efforts and create a company. And that’s basically how Tesla came together.
And then we had a lot of drama (laughter). But since I’d provided like 95% of the money, so I could have been the CEO from day one… but I really didn’t want to be CEO of two startups at the same time. It was not appealing. And shouldn’t be appealing by the way, if anyone is thinking that’s a good idea. It’s a terrible idea.
Alison van Diggelen: It’s one thing to have all those wonderful ideas in the shower and at Burning Man, but it’s another thing to build, motivate and retain a team of excellent people. Can you talk about some tips and some things you’ve learned that obviously work for you?
Elon Musk: Yeah. Well a company is a group of people that are organized to create a product or service. That’s what a company is. So in order to create such a thing, you have to convince others to join you in your effort and so they have to be convinced that it’s a sensible thing, that basically there’s a some reasonable chance of success and if there is success, the reward will be commensurate with the effort involved. And so I think that’s it…getting people to believe in what you’re doing – and in you – is important.
In the beginning there will be few people who believe in you or in what you’re doing but then over time, as you make progress, the evidence will build and more and more people will believe in what you’re doing. So, I think it’s a good idea when creating a company to create…to have a demonstration or if it’s a product to have a good mark up or even if it’s software to have good demoware, or to be able to sketch something so people can really envision what’s it’s about. Try to get to that point as soon as possible. And then iterate to make it as real as possible, as fast as possible. I think that makes sense.
Last night, Elon Musk’s SpaceX achieved a spectacular milestone in the history of space travel: its Falcon 9 rocket launched 11 satellites into orbit, performed a spin and landed back on earth, six miles from where it launched. Why is this ultimate recycling feat so consequential?
Quite simply, this could revolutionize space travel as we know it today.
and “then we could resume the journey”…to Mars and beyond. Watch the interview, starting at 35:00
The back story 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.”