Elon Musk

Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance

I’ve made it a rule to not read biographies. I’m more intrigued by how things fit together and how organizations work. No one is a superhero. No one is perfect. Too often, people are put on a pedestal and portrayed as omnipotent. But I guess rules are meant to have exceptions. There were three major factors that got me to read Elon Musk’s biography. 1) Wait But Why articles – I’m rarely really inspired by reading about what people have accomplished – especially in recent history – probably because there has honestly not been much to celebrate (only one that comes to mind is that Obama has been elected president not once but twice, with the backdrop of overt racism in American society, and even this I consider more of a societal phenomenon than an individual achievement). 2) Appreciation for bringing technological advances to market – I’m sure there’s a lot of cool things happening (DNA, etc) probably even right here in Boston, but my daily exposure to clunky IT systems and planes that look like they have seen better days in the 90s has me worried about human progress. 3) I know people who work/worked at these Musk companies.

1) Musk used to tell people that “dark is only the absence of light” so there is no reason to be afraid of the dark.

What a rational human being.

2) Musk and his first wife Justine agreed to never let their children meet Musk’s father.

Do we all really need rough childhoods to do great things? It probably didn’t hurt his family was already very rich.

3) Musk wasn’t always an effective CEO, especially in the days of Zip2.

In 1996, Mohr Davidow invested $3 million into Global Link. The VCs hired a new CEO, changed the company name to Zip2, and came up with a new business model – selling to newspaper companies. Musk wasn’t seen as someone who could lead a company, and this early experience made him more adamant that he kept control of his companies in the future.

4) The board of X.com overthrew Musk as CEO and replaced him with Thiel when Musk was on a plane.

The merger of X.com and Confinity (Paypal) did not go smoothly, and once again people had no confidence in Musk running the combined company.

5) SpaceX first tested rockets at Kwaj in the Marshall Islands.

Sounds like an absolutely crazy time for these engineers. Imagine building and testing rockets on these remote islands for months.

6) Nuvomedia was founded in 1997 and created one of the earliest e-book readers – the Rocket eBook.

This book really hit home how long certain technologies have been around. E-readers were a thing in the last millenium. It has only recently become mainstream. Electric cars were a thing before gasoline-powered cars. We landed on the moon almost 50 years ago. So many things are scientifically possible and have been tested. Business and economics matter.

7) Falcon 1 became the first privately built machine to orbit the Earth on September 28, 2008.

This was 4.5 years later than the original date. As always, things take forever to do right. If anything finishes ahead of time, you should be very suspicious. Musk has a history of overpromising on deadlines, but he makes a good point that setting a later deadline in and of itself pushes back the final finish. The last Falcon 1 flight took place in July 2009 for the Malaysian government.

8) The total cost for Dragon was $300 million, about 10-30 times cheaper than ones built by other companies.

This is an outrageous ratio that shows how much better SpaceX is at what it does.

9) Musk almost sold Tesla to Google in 2013.

Tesla had a few weeks to convert its reservations into actual orders, and they did.

10) Ford claimed the name “Model E”, so Tesla went with 3.

Now it spells S-3-X-Y.

This biography was very easy to read and entertaining throughout. The last chapter felt a bit like a high school English paper when you had to address other points of view, then make a baseless claim that those PoVs were wrong, and conclude that you are right. Otherwise, the whole book was great. I particularly enjoyed reading about Musk’s early struggles with Zip2 and Paypal. Musk is painted as a genius now, although he still gets bad press for his actions. But people don’t hear about how he got to where he is now. It’s really hard to succeed. You need to be good. But you also absolutely need to be lucky. I also really enjoyed the sections dedicated to how Tesla and SpaceX employees delivered on their jobs. They must be some of the most competent and resilient engineers in the world.

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