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Since the death of Steve Jobs in 2011, only one Silicon Valley titan seems to carry a similar air of dark mystique. This would be Elon Musk, currently the C.E.O. of the rocket company SpaceX as well as the electric-car company Tesla Motors. The 43-year-old Musk is also chairman of SolarCity, the largest American solar power installation company. His wealth at the moment is estimated by Forbes to be around $13 billion, yet Musk emigrated from South Africa to Canada at age 17 with barely enough money to feed himself, living off the kindness of Canadian relatives and working odd jobs - cleaning boilers, cutting wood - before ultimately signing up for undergraduate classes at Queen's University in Ontario. Not long after, Musk switched to the University of Pennsylvania to study economics and physics. Then he moved west to Silicon Valley and began to build and sell companies. He is now, quite arguably, the most successful and important entrepreneur in the world.
The actual details of Musk's ascent are more complicated. As Ashlee Vance explains in this exhaustively reported biography, written with the cooperation (but not the final approval) of the subject, Musk had left home in Pretoria with the ultimate dream of making it big in the United States. His emigration was also a way of running from an emotionally abusive father and a country whose small-mindedness he despised. Dreamy, awkward and bookish, Musk was a teenager with little interest in athletics but a serious interest in science fiction and computers. His natural inclinations explain part of what set his course in life. For those wondering about the deeper roots, Vance, a technology writer for Bloomberg Businessweek, traces aspects of Musk's childhood that made him an extraordinary engine of resilience - for instance, the times his father ordered him and his brother to sit silent for four hours as he lectured them. Or when a band of school toughs that constantly bullied Musk pushed him down a concrete staircase and beat him so badly he needed to be taken to the hospital. 'It was just like nonstop horrible,' Musk recalls of his school and home life. It is a surprise to feel empathy for a jet-setting celebrity billionaire, but Musk's childhood as recounted in 'Elon Musk' is painful to read about - and no doubt excruciating to have lived through.
The book makes a persuasive case that money never drove Musk; ideas did. But from the evidence Vance compiles, Musk seems to have been motivated by more than just ideas, which, by themselves, might have pushed the brilliant young technologist toward a career in academia. Rather, he appears to have been driven to show that his beliefs about business and engineering were unassailably correct.
Musk's first start-ups, both begun in the 1990s, were built on his computer prowess and the commercial potential of the Internet. These were the web software Zip2 (sold to Compaq, netting Musk $22 million) and the online bank X.com (which merged with the company that owned PayPal and was sold to eBay, with Musk making about $180 million after taxes). He then wagered a large chunk of his fortune on a rocket start-up that aimed to drastically reduce the costs of space travel and, eventually, transport humans to Mars. His friends considered the gamble just shy of insane. Soon after, he invested millions more in a tiny electric-car company, begun by two other Silicon Valley engineers, that ultimately came under his control.
Vance traces the chaotic early years of these two firms - SpaceX and Tesla, respectively - with a compelling ticktock of events. We see that Musk is brutal on himself, routinely working 100-hour weeks. He is brutal as a boss, too, often berating or summarily firing colleagues while hogging credit for others' accomplishments. Yet he is without question a leader who pushes risky ideas forward through a combination of long-range vision and deep technical intelligence. He knows how to hire good people and how to motivate them. Most important, he never, ever gives up.
This is not a judiciously contextual biography. While rich in stories and scenery, the second half of the book, which describes the more recent successes of SpaceX and Tesla, is marred by chronologically confusing narratives, frequent gushes of admiration and insider jargon. (At one point we learn that 'SpaceX meeded an actuator that would trigger the gimbal action used to steer the upper stage of Falcon 1.') Readers, moreover, are repetitively told that Musk asks employees for the impossible, though in one instance we're regrettably informed that he also asks for 'the impossible on top of the impossible.' Most damaging to the latter chapters, I think, are the moments when Vance loses his reportorial distance and adopts Musk's own Silicon Valley business perspective - on the aerospace industry's incompetence, for instance, or on the automotive industry's myriad weaknesses. All too frequently we're left without enough background to ¬≠understand a highly complex global marketplace, or why Tesla and SpaceX still have significant vulnerabilities as well.
These faults hardly make Vance's book unreadable, however. And until we see how things finish up many years from now - Will Tesla crash? Will SpaceX take us to Mars before NASA? Will Musk become the richest person in the world? - this work will likely serve as the definitive account of a man whom so far we've seen mostly through caricature. By the final pages, too, any reader will sense the need to put comparisons to Steve Jobs aside. Give Musk credit. There is no one like him.
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As Elon Musk took to the dancefloor with his bride at his first wedding, he pulled her close and whispered in her ear: 'I am the alpha in this relationship.'
The South African-born founder of Tesla Motors, SpaceX, PayPal and SolarCity is one of the outstanding innovators of our time: he draws comparisons not only to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates but also to Thomas Edison, Howard Hughes and John D Rockefeller. Yet he is also a gauche, chauvinistic and ruthlessly insensitive individual, according to this fascinating biography by a Bloomberg technology reporter that portrays the 43-year-old billionaire as a man who personifies both the best and worst of characteristics of Silicon Valley°«s workaholic, testosterone-driven culture.
Described by underlings as more of a general than a CEO, Musk has a tendency to fire loyal employees at will, set utterly unrealistic deadlines and to fall out spectacularly with the co-creators of his businesses.
'Elon doesn't know about you and he hasn't thought through whether or not something is going to hurt your feelings,' complains one former colleague, bruised by a lack of gratitude for working 90-hour weeks. 'He just knows what the f*** he wants done.'
Most technology entrepreneurs are happy to set themselves small challenges - create an app to smooth your grocery shopping, a social network to meet like-minded people or a method of sharing music more conveniently than the rest. Musk, though, thinks big. His companies are built to replace the internal combustion engine, to make humans interplanetary and to solve global warming.
As Ashlee Vance observes, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg wants to make billions out of helping you share baby photographs, while Musk has pretensions to save the human race.
People laughed, at first, at Musk's ambitions - but in Tesla, he has built a car company worth $31 billion, which is more than half the value of General Motors, and in SpaceX, he has created a functioning rocket science business that makes Richard Branson°«s Virgin Galactic look like a laughable folly. With a fortune of $13 billion, Musk is the 39th richest person in the United States.
This biography attributes his macho work ethic to a rough, tough upbringing in 1980s South Africa where he was bullied by his schoolyard peers as a nerd and was the subject of psychological games played by a distant father. Gifted from a young age, his parents used to lose him on family outings, then find him in bookshops reading Encyclopaedia Britannica.
In an adult life with more than its fair share of bruising challenges, Musk has been divorced three times, twice from the same woman, and lost a child to sudden infant death syndrome. As a newly single man, he recently pondered how much diary time to allocate to dating: would five to ten hours weekly be enough to devote to a girlfriend? A father of five, he banned soft toys from the family home when his youngest child turned seven. His peripatetic billionaire lifestyle is such that he doesn't just have a team of nannies - at one point, he employed a full-time nanny manager.
While unsparing on Musk°«s personal foibles, this account is full of admiration for his achievements. He has, after all, succeeded in turning business logic on its head. While much of industry cuts costs by contracting out everything that they can, SpaceX and Tesla attempt to make almost every component for their rocket ships and electric cars in-house. Nobody could accuse Musk of lacking cojones: this is a man who flew to Moscow to try to get the Russian military to give him their surplus space rockets for a knockdown price.
Since reviews began trickling out, Musk has taken umbrage at a handful of details in this book: he denies comparing himself to a samurai by declaring that he would 'rather commit seppuku [suicide by disembowelment] than fail'. He also rejects an anecdote that he once bawled out an employee who missed a company meeting to attend the birth of a child, complaining on Twitter that this is 'total BS and hurtful'.
If this is all he's worried about, though, then the rest is surely well sourced. It is an entertaining read for anybody interested in getting into the mind of one of the 21st century's most hyperactive entrepreneurs who bounces between being eccentric, obnoxious and a genius. He even, apparently, urinates in a hurry: three seconds and it's all out.
IN MOST parts of the world, chief executives strive to be steady, straightforward and as uncontroversial as possible. Not in Silicon Valley. The titans of the technology business tend to be outspoken optimists whose quests to challenge entrenched industries and change the world make them seem like megalomaniac characters out of an Ayn Rand novelóalbeit flecked with an engineerís social awkwardness.
Steve Jobs, the late head of Apple, took on music labels, redefined computing with the iPod and iPhone, and helped change the look of animated films through Pixar. Peter Thiel, a libertarian venture capitalist and a founder of PayPal, wants to set up a floating island that can incubate new social policies. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is spending millions to commercialise human space travel and build a clock that can last for 10,000 years.
Whatever their pet projects, Silicon Valley's giants are disconcertingly focused. This is especially true of Elon Musk, the subject of a new biography by Ashlee Vance, a journalist with Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. More than perhaps anyone since Mr Jobs, Mr Musk has assumed legendary status in the Valley. He is only 44, but has already played a role in disrupting internet, finance, car, space and energy businesses. He is best known for making a fortune at PayPal, an online-payments company, and using the proceeds to fund two of this era's most interesting technology companies: Tesla, which makes electric cars and batteries, and SpaceX, a rocket company.
Mr Musk seems to be a unique melding of the brash and the brainy. He wants to wean the motor industry off fossil fuels, and help human beings become a 'multiplanetary species' by eventually settling on Mars. He has a flair for self-promotion, although appears less motivated by profits than by purpose. Indeed his determination to change the world can, at times, make him appear slightly unhinged. 'Do you think I'm insane?' he asks Mr Vance during a dinner.
South African-born, Mr Musk was brought up mostly by his curmudgeonly father after his parents divorced, and he was badly bullied at school. (He ended up needing a nose job to repair one injury.) Aged 17 he moved to Canada and lived with relatives before enrolling in university in Kingston, Ontario. He eventually headed to Stanford, but dropped out to start his first software company, Zip2, which made online maps. It was sold to Compaq for $307m in 1999. That same year he started X.com, an online-finance firm, which merged with PayPal.
Mr Musk is a compelling character in part because he embodies the booms and busts of his own industry. Before becoming a billionaire he risked nearly all his money to put some $100m into SpaceX and $70m into Tesla, and watched both flirt with bankruptcy. Even today their success is not guaranteed: on June 28th an unmanned SpaceX rocket bound for the International Space Station exploded.
Mr Vance's highly readable book offers some clues to those trying to understand Mr Muskís involvement in some of Silicon Valley's biggest fights. A grand vision must be combined with a relentless focus on detail. The only other renowned boss of recent times to obsess so much about the specifics of products was, again, Mr Jobs. Like him, Mr Musk has created a working environment characterised by brutally high expectations, where he sets unrealistic deadlines for rocket launches and car debuts and then dresses down employees who do not meet them.
Success in the technology world also requires both a stomach for failure and an enthusiasm for reinvention. Mr Musk was fired by the boards of Zip2 and PayPal, yet stayed involved in the firms. Such setbacks are reminiscent of Mr Jobsís experience. Fired from Apple, he later came back and turned the company around.
Another, more controversial quality that has helped Mr Musk and some of his peers to succeed is a certain lack of empathy. Mr Vance tries to play down Mr Muskís brittleness, but it is hard to obscure. While dancing with his first wife on their wedding day, he told her, 'I am the alpha in this relationship.' When Mary Beth Brown, his longtime assistant, asked for a pay rise, he said he wanted to see if he could do her job, and then fired her instead. Mr Vance concludes that Mr Musk is not on the Asperger's spectrum, as some have suggested, but is 'profoundly gifted'. Bent on saving humanity, he sometimes lacks the patience to deal with individual humans.
The most fascinating and at times frustrating relationship revealed by the book is in fact the one between biographer and subject. Several times Mr Vance compares Mr Musk to Tony Stark, the businessman who becomes 'Iron Man' (of Marvel Comics fame). Mr Vance comes across as a 'Musketeer', someone who believes in Mr Musk's power to reshape the world. Having waited 18 months for an interview he may have felt indebted for the access that was eventually granted. The reverential tone grates, but it also reflects this moment in the technology business, when celebrity entrepreneurs are riding high, and their big personalities and ambitions are seen as virtues. They will inevitably stumble, and some of their companies will suffer declines, but many will make a comeback, as heroes often do.
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