Last month, I interviewed Tesla Motors and SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley and asked him what he’s learned from Steve Jobs and whether, in his view, innovation is plateauing. We also discussed how he felt about critics like his hero Neil Armstrong who spoke out against SpaceX and the commercialization of space. His answers may surprise you.
Here’s a transcript of our conversation that starts @51:19. (Page down for more transcripts)
Alison van Diggelen: I’d like to move on to innovation and motivation.There’s been a lot of talk lately about that fact that innovation is leveling off, we’re not making dramatic increases or improvements in innovation, like we did when the plane was invented…do you agree with that?
Elon Musk: No I don’t agree with that. We’ve seen huge improvements in the Internet, and new things…In recent years: Twitter, Facebook being pretty huge…when people thought the Internet was done. Some of the things we’re doing like electric cars are a new thing. And I do think there are some pretty significant breakthroughs in genomics. We’re getting and better and better at decoding genomes and being able to write genetics. That’s going to be a huge, huge area. There’s likely to be breakthroughs in Artificial Intelligence…and I suspect we will even see the flying car…
Alison van Diggelen: Is that going to be an Elon Musk production?
Elon Musk: No.
Alison van Diggelen: Are you going to let someone else do that?
Elon Musk: Yeah, Well, I think…someone else is doing that.
@1.00.30 On Steve Jobs
Alison van Diggelen: I’d now…let’s move on to focus on Silicon Valley. Steve Jobs was and is a wonderful Silicon Valley icon. Is he someone you’ve admired and what have you learned from Steve’s life and work?
Elon Musk: Well he’s certainly someone I’ve admired. Although I did try to talk to him once at a party and he was super rude to me… But I don’t think it was me, I think it was par for the course.
Alison van Diggelen: I don’t think you were the first.
Elon Musk: No not the first. No. I was actually there with… an old friend… Larry Page. I’ve known Larry since before he got venture funding for Google. He was the one who introduced me to Steve Jobs. It’s not like I was tugging on his coat (saying), ‘please talk to me.’ But obviously he was an incredible guy and made fantastic products. The guy had a certain magic about him that was really inspiring. I think that’s really great.
Alison van Diggelen: Is it that magic that you try to emulate?
Elon Musk: No, I think Steve Jobs was way cooler than I am.
Alison van Diggelen: So I’d like to get inside your head a little bit. When you come up with an idea, do you doodle it on a pad of paper, or do you get your iPad out and take notes? I mean, when you come up with something new, a new rocket design or whatever it is, how does that manifest itself? Could we see you being creative?
Elon Musk: It’s somewhat clichéd but it happens a lot in the shower. I don’t know what it is about showers. (audience whistles). I know, exactly. Get the camera. (laughter) Like, yeah. I just kind of stand there in the shower and ..
Alison van Diggelen: So you have long showers…create lots of ideas…
Elon Musk: I do actually (laughter). Long showers. It sounds wrong…
Alison van Diggelen: So there’s no iPad in the shower?
Elon Musk: …Not to mention the Burning Man epiphanies. Those are huge. And then there are some times late at night when I’ve been thinking about something and I can’t sleep then I’ll be up for several hours pacing around the house, thinking about things. Occasionally I might sketch something or send myself an email…(see FD)
Alison van Diggelen: So we have a question from the audience. Who inspires you or do you have a mentor?
Elon Musk: I don’t have a mentor, though I do try to get feedback from as many people as possible. I have friends and I ask them what I think of this that and the other thing. Larry Page is a good friend of mine…I value his advice a lot, and I have many other good friends, so I think it’s good to solicit feedback, particularly negative feedback actually. Obviously people don’t love the idea of giving you negative feedback, unless it’s on blogs…they do that.
Alison van Diggelen: How do you deal with negative feedback, because you get some tough criticism, especially with SpaceX, you had incumbents like Neil Armstrong even, speaking out and saying this is wrong, you know. We don’t want commercial companies in space, it’s not a place for commerce. So how did you deal with that and how with naysayers in general, because you’ve had a lot.
Elon Musk: Yeah, that was kind of troubling, cos growing up Neil Armstrong was kind of a hero. So it kind of sucks to…
Alison van Diggelen: Knife in the back…?
Elon Musk: Yeah, that’s a bit of a blow. I think he was somewhat manipulated by other interests. I don’t know if he knew quite what he was saying in those congressional hearings.
Want to continue reading the transcript? Here’s the final part of the interview:
As the nation anticipates a “climate friendly” State of the Union speech from President Obama Tuesday, let’s take a look at what one of Silicon Valley’s most successful innovators and job creators has to say about the government’s role in climate change and innovation.
Last month, I interviewed Tesla Motors and SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley and asked him what specifically President Obama can do to stimulate the economy. He acknowledges that presidents can only do so much, saying,”You’re actually like the captain of a very huge ship and have a small rudder.”
Musk argues that too much government regulation can stand in the way of innovation, especially in the auto industry; and is generally in favor of minimal government intervention in the economy. On climate change, however, he was forceful and described our oil based, carbon intensive economy as creating a “crazy chemical experiment on the atmosphere” with likely catastrophic consequences. He concludes that taxing carbon is vital.
Elon Musk: Well sometimes…I don’t think the government tends to stand in the way of innovation but it can over-regulate industries to the point where innovation becomes very difficult. The auto industry used to be a great hotbed of innovation at the beginning of the 20th Century. But now there are so many regulations that are intended to protect consumers…I mean the body of regulation for cars could fill this room. It’s just crazy how much regulation there is. Down to what the headlamps are supposed to be like. They even specify some of the elements of the user interface on the dashboard…some of these are completely anachronistic because they’re related back to the days when you had a little light that would illuminate an image. So we had to reserve space on the instrument panel of the Model S for where all of the indicators…that a car would have…you know you’ve got these little lights…
Alison van Diggelen: Check engine or whatever…
Elon Musk: Yeah…all these little things. There is a whole bunch of them. ‘We can’t have anything else in that space. ‘ But how about we have one space and render a different graphic? ‘Oh no, because people are expecting to see them in this space.’ Nobody is expecting to see them in that space.
Alison van Diggelen: So you can’t argue with these regulations?
Elon Musk: Well you can argue with them, but not with much success. (laughter). You can actually get these things changed, but it takes ages. Like one of the things we’re trying to get is: why should you have side mirrors if you could have say, tiny video cameras and have them display the image inside the car? But there are all these regulations saying you have to have side mirrors. I went and met with the Secretary of Transport and like, can you change this regulation…? Still nothing has happened and that was two years ago.
Alison van Diggelen: So you’re banging your head against the wall…
Elon Musk: We need to get these regulations changed.
Alison van Diggelen: So talking of government, President Obama is obviously trying to do what he can…if you had five minutes with President Obama, what would you advise him for one: stimulating the economy and entrepreneurship and (two) creating jobs. Is there one thing if he could successfully get through that would be a big stimulus?
Elon Musk: I think actually…the reality of being president is that you’re actually like the captain of a very huge ship and have a small rudder (laughter). If there was a button that a president could push that said ‘economic prosperity,’ they’d be hitting that button real fast…
Alison van Diggelen: Full steam ahead.
Elon Musk: You can imagine…the speed of light, how fast they’d be pressing that button. That’s called the re-election button. I’m not sure how much the president can really do. I’m generally a fan of minimal government interference in the economy. The government should be the referee but not the player. And there shouldn’t be too many referees. But there is an exception, which is when there’s an un-priced externality, such as the CO2 capacity of the oceans and atmosphere. So, when you have an un-priced externality, then the normal market mechanisms don’t work and then it’s the government’s role to intervene in a way that’s sensible. The best way to intervene is to assign a proper price to the common good that is being consumed.
Alison van Diggelen: So you’re saying there should be a tax on gas?
Elon Musk: There should be a tax on carbon. If the bad thing is carbon accumulation in the atmosphere, then there needs to be a tax on that. And then you can get rid of all subsidies and all, everything else. It seems logical that there should be a tax on things that are most likely to be bad. That’s why we tax cigarettes and alcohol. These are probably bad for you, certainly cigarettes are (laughter). So you want to err on the side of taxing things that are probably bad. And not tax things that are good. Given that there is a need to gather tax to pay for federal government…We should shift the tax burden to bad things and then adjust the tax on bad things according to whatever’s going to result in behavior that we think is beneficial for the future.
I think currently that what we’re doing right now, which is mining and burning trillions of tons of hydrocarbons that used to be buried very deep underground, and now we’re sticking them in the atmosphere and running this crazy chemical experiment on the atmosphere. And then we’ve got the oil and gas companies that have ungodly amounts of money. You can’t expect them to roll over and die. They don’t do that. What they much prefer to do is spend enormous amounts of money lobbying and running bogus ad campaigns to preserve their situation.
It’s a lot like tobacco companies in the old days. They used to run these ad campaigns with doctors, guys pretending they were doctors, essentially implying that smoking is good for you, and having pregnant mothers on ads, smoking.
Alison van Diggelen: Do you have a message for the climate change skeptics and the big oil people?
Elon Musk: Well, as far as climate change skeptics…I believe in the scientific method and one should have a healthy skepticism of things in general…if you pursue things from a scientific standpoint, you always look at things probabilistically and not definitively…so a lot of times if someone is a skeptic in the science community, what they’re saying is that they’re they’re not sure that it’s 100% certain that this is the case. But that’s not the point. The point is, to look at it from the other side. To say: What’s the percentage chance that this could be catastrophic for some meaningful percentage of earth’s population? Is it greater than 1%? Is it even 1%? If it is even 1%, why are we running this experiment?
Alison van Diggelen: You’ve called it Russian roulette. We’re playing Russian roulette with the atmosphere…
Elon Musk: We’re playing Russian roulette and as each year goes by we’re loading more rounds in the chamber. It’s not wise. And what makes it super insane is that we’re going to run out of oil anyway. It’s not like there’s some infinite oil supply. We are going to run out of it. We know we have to get to a sustainable means of transportation, no matter what. So why even run the experiment? It’s the world’s dumbest experiment (applause).
Read more Transcript Excerpts from our 2013 interview:
Here is the transcript from the final part of my January 2013 interview with Elon Musk at the Computer History Museum. We discuss team building; time management; the Buffett school of thought; keeping companies ‘in the family;’ and why Musk wants to die on Mars, just not on impact.
More transcript excerpts are available at Fresh Dialogues. See below for selections.
Alison van Diggelen: It’s one thing to have these wonderful ideas in the shower or at Burning Man, but it’s another to build, motivate and retain a team of excellent people. Can you talk about some tips and things you’ve learned that obviously work for you?
Elon Musk: Well I mean, think about a company. 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 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 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. If that makes sense.
Alison van Diggelen: So you’re CEO of two companies, you’re chairman of SolarCity. Talk about time management. How on earth do you do this? Do you get any sleep?
Elon Musk: Sometimes, not enough. Sleep is really great. I find if I don’t get enough sleep then I’m quite grumpy. Obviously, I think most people are that way. And also, I try to figure out what’s the right amount of sleep, because I find I can drop below a certain threshold of sleep and although I’d be awake more hours and I could sustain it, I would get less done…my mental acuity would be affected. So I found generally, the right number for me is around six to six and a half hours on average per night.
Alison van Diggelen: And any other tips on managing to run two companies simultaneously?
Elon Musk: Having a smart phone is incredibly helpful because that means you can do email during interstitial periods, like if you’re in a car (he has a driver), you’re walking, in the bathroom, everywhere. You can do email practically when you’re awake and so that’s really helpful: to have email for SpaceX, and Tesla integrated on my phone. And then you have to apply a lot of hours to actual working.
Alison van Diggelen: And where do the boys fit in? You have five sons. Do they tag along?
Elon Musk: I do drag them along on a lot of things actually…they’re remarkably unimpressed. I wish they were more interested…the twins are eight the triplets are six. maybe they’ll get more interested later.
Alison van Diggelen: Do you see one day grooming one of them, or several of them, to take over your companies?
Elon Musk: If they’re really interested in working at Tesla or SpaceX then I’d help them do that. I’m not sure I’d necessarily try to insert them into the CEO role at some point. If the rest of the team and the board felt that they were the right person, then that would be fine but I wouldn’t want people to feel that I’d installed my kid there. I don’t think that would be good for either the company or the kid really.
I was of the school of thought that it’s best to give away 99% or more of one’s assets, the Buffett School of thought. I’m mostly inclined in that direction, but after seeing what happened with Ford, GM and Chrysler, where GM and Chrysler went bankrupt but Ford did not, and Ford seemed to make better long term choices…in part because of the influence of the Ford family. I thought, well OK, there may be some merit in having some longer term family ownership. At least a portion of it. It acts as a positive influence…in the longterm interest of the company…so the company does proper longterm things. Look at what happened also in Silicon Valley with Hewlett Packard. I think it’s quite sad. That to some degree is because there was much diminished influence by the Hewlett and Packard families. I think they should have prevailed…when they were opposed to the merger that took place at one point. I think they were right, actually.
Alison van Diggelen: And looking to the future for SpaceX…is there an IPO planned for this year?
Elon Musk: No, there’s no IPO planned. I must say, running a public company does have its drawbacks.
Alison van Diggelen: So you’re not in a hurry?
Elon Musk. No. In the case of Tesla and Solarcity…we had to raise capital and we had a kind of complex equity structure that had to be resolved by going public. So I thought we kind of needed to do that in those two cases. We don’t have to do that at SpaceX. I think there’s a good chance we will at some point in the future, but SpaceX’s objectives are super longterm and the market is not. So I’m a bit worried that if we did go public, certainly if we went public too soon, that the market pressure would force us to do short term things and abandon longterm projects…
Alison van Diggelen: Like going to Mars?
Elon Musk: Right! Going to Mars is very longterm.
Alison van Diggelen: You do have other projects on the back burner. You’ve talked about the Hyperloop: a way of people getting from downtown LA to downtown San Francisco in under half an hour. An electric supersonic airplane. Which of those two are bubbling up that we might hear more about in the near future?
Elon Musk: I did promise that I’d do some paper on the Hyperloop idea and things got a little hectic toward the end of last year because I’d committed to make these milestones at Tesla, to the public markets, and I had to stay true to that obligation, which required an insane level of work and attention. And then we also had the SolarCity IPO and it was a very difficult IPO to get done. That IPO occurred just by the skin of its teeth. It was such a tough one…
Alison van Diggelen: Were you just determined that it had to be in December?
Elon Musk: Well,if it wasn’t in December, it would mean pushing it out quite a bit and the problem is, we’d already pushed it out quite a bit. So if we didn’t go public, we’d have to do a private round and then…the whole thing wouldn’t feel right. It’s like you’re sitting at the altar, and you don’t do the wedding. It’s a bit awkward. So we really needed to do it and I think if we hadn’t done it, people would have looked at it as a failure. It wouldn’t have been good. There have just been too many failures…in the solar…not enough success, let’s say, in the solar arena. We need to chalk up success…
Alison van Diggelen: It was a rare piece of sunshine for the solar industry last year…
Elon Musk: Right. Exactly. Ironically…the solar industry doesn’t have a lot of that.
Alison van Diggelen: So it’s time, unfortunately, for the last question. You’ve come a long way since being that six year old little boy, breaking the rules. You turn 42 this year. What is on the cards…where do you see yourself in 10 years time, 20 years time…40 years time?
You famously said you want to die on Mars, just not on impact (laughter).
Elon Musk: Right. Exactly.
Alison van Diggelen: Tell us about that dream…
Elon Musk: Actually, I was asked by a journalist, ‘Do you want to die on Mars?’ and I said, ‘yes, but wait…not on impact. Just to be clear.’
That’s one of the possibilities… So I guess I’d like to be able to go to Mars while I’m still able to manage the journey reasonably well. I don’t want to be like 75 and go to Mars…
Alison van Diggelen: You don’t want to take your zimmer frame with you?
Elon Musk: Ha. Right, you know, at least in the beginning, it could be mildly arduous…I’d like to get there ideally in my 50’s. That would be kind of cool.
Alison van Diggelen: So you see that happening, in the next…?
Elon Musk: I aspire to make that happen, and I can see the potential for that happening. I’m not saying it will happen, but I think it can happen…I’ll try to make it happen.
Alison van Diggelen: Great. Ladies and gentlemen: Elon Musk.
Highland Cathedral music courtesy of Carol Stiglic, VP Programming, Computer History Museum
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.
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.