Elon Musk… Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future is an in-depth, extensively-researched, and balanced biography by Ashlee Vance, a well-known business and technology columnist who has written for the Economist, BusinessWeek, and the New York Times.
Described as the Thomas Edison or the Iron Man of our times, Musk is painted as an eccentric industrialist – both inventor and business man – with insanely big vision, the impressive capacity to deal with stress, and the often jarring but necessary capability to squeeze the most out of his people.
To put the Musk oddity in context, after the Silicon Valley implosion in the turn of the millennium, entrepreneurs and investors started playing it safe, often working on incremental improvements, whereas Musk never gave up on his leap-forward visions. To the point that those closest to him were following him around to make sure he wasn’t actually going insane.
From early on – even as a student – Musk had determined that his life goal would be to alleviate our dependence on oil and make us a multiplanetary species. The former was a necessity to make humanity sustainable on Earth. The latter was essential to make us future-proof. He saw it as an obvious ‘risk management’ strategy for humanity, in case something happened to Earth. Eventually, he succeeded on both fronts… but it was quite a bumpy ride.
After the sale of PayPal, Musk had the liquidity to attempt to turn his dreams into reality. He founded SpaceX in 2002 with the mission to become the Southwest Airlines for space! Later on, he heard of a team developing a fully electric car and plowed much of his money there as well.
Both startups were money-pits but Musk was committed to go broke while trying. In 2008, he had to face the ultimate choice: which of his two babies to save? He was running out of cash and could only support SpaceX or Tesla, but not both.
In the end, he accomplished the unfathomable during the heights of the financial recession: he scraped together financing for Tesla the day before he wouldn’t have been able to meet payroll; and he secured a large government contract for SpaceX, competing against the incumbent behemoths.
Musk brought two much-needed things to two very ‘old-school’ industries: Silicon Valley thinking, and Apple-like design. He dove right into executing his big vision and figured it out as he went along – ignoring the status quo in order to deliver step-change improvements. And he made sure that design was an integral part of execution: minimal, functional, and delightful – whether he was building rockets or cars.
Musk was often seen as part playboy and part space cowboy. He talked the biggest game in town, but he also delivered no matter what stood in his way – perhaps a bit late, but otherwise as promised. In the process, he went from multi-millionaire to selling almost everything and staying at a friend’s house, but in the end it all came together. The book recounts this tightrope act blow by blow to get a glimpse of what it’s like to be Elon Musk. Of the people interviewed for the book – whether they loved or hated Elon – in the end they were all awed and inspired by him.