Local Onliner Bookshelf: ‘Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future’

We’ve all seen that the true tech visionaries defy conventional wisdom to define and create new markets. If Steve Jobs is the Michael Jordan of tech visionaries, than perhaps Elon Musk is the Steph Curry.

Musk has caught everyone’s attention, focusing on the big things that change people’s lives (payments, transport and power). At this point, he’s largely responsible for building everyone’s favorite electric car (Tesla), revolutionizing space transport (Space X), playing key roles in the new generation of electronic transactions (PayPal) and he’s also played, on the side, in solar power (Solar City). His vision for “Hyperloop” supersonic travel recently earned him a 90 minute audience with President Obama.

Business Week Writer Ashlee Vance’s new biography, “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future,” is quite a read. Based on over 200 interviews, Musk is shown as a true innovator who paired good timing with a relentless drive and work ethic. The book also details how Musk, like so many tech leaders, was slowed by personal issues and a super competitive nature that seemingly doesn’t know when to stop.

The dual stories of modern space transport and electric car development are properly the focus here. But, of course, I wish the book spent more time on the early Zip2 years from 1995-97, when Elon and his younger brother Kimbal were just out of school and launching Zip2 in Vancouver’s Gas Light tech district with $28,000 of their father’s savings. Zip2 was a pioneer in integrating maps with business listings.

While the Zip2 section is a short part of the 400 page book, many of us in the local community got to know Musk at this time, and some of his signature characteristics (i.e. his charm, his micromanagement of projects, his reputation as a strict taskmaster). Desperate to keep his company afloat, Musk is described by Vance during this period as something less of a visionary than a “huckster.”

After a merger with Barry Diller’s Citysearch derailed amidst angry accusations of misrepresentation on both sides, Zip2 jumped deeper into the arms of its newspaper partners. The newspapers bet on Zip2 to help them become the next generation’s Yellow Pages for local SMBs.

The newspapers’ sales staff was basically unprepared to tackle low-priced digital listings, however, and the papers were also unable to drive enough traffic to the listings. Musk and the VCs and newspapers luckily were able to unload the failing operation to Compaq Computers for $250 million. (Compaq naively thought it would succeed in local sales by leveraging its computer sales network to moonlight as local ad sales people.)

But from nothing comes something. Musk took some of his $22 million share from the Compaq sale and moved on to develop what eventually became PayPal. And then, almost simultaneously, Space X and Tesla.

The book fascinatingly details the deceit and treachery of the VC community and executive colleagues. It also breaks new ground in detailing how Musk went to the brink, spending his $200 million + PayPal fortune on Space X and Tesla. Indeed, he was so broke, he took to flying on Southwest Airlines and had papers drawn up to sell Tesla to Google (Larry Page is said to be a best friend). It was only at the last minute that he was rescued by a major deal with NASA to use Space X rockets.

The book may not have the fluency of the greatest Innovator bios. Some of these would include James Gleick’s Genius about Richard Feynman, Walter Issacson’s Steve Jobs, and Brad Stone’s The Everything Store about Jeff Bezos. But it’s a fascinating, well written and well researched tome, confirming that what it takes to be successful at the highest levels is a thick skin, a mission to rapidly succeed, important champions, independence, and immense capital.

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