Elon Musk is an important figure in our times, impacting a variety of industries from online banking to space exploration. At times controversial, Musk is no stranger to taking seemingly insurmountable risks. He delves deep into every area he takes an interest in and stays fully committed. This is true whether he is deciding to build a business or simply expressing an opinion. This South African-Canadian native set out to have an impact on the world and is on track to do just that. In this zero-to-hero story, we will explore the journey Musk took to get to where he is and what we can learn from this incredible human.
Musk's Early Life & Struggles
Though seen as a success by many’s standards, today, Musk’s journey has hardly been a smooth one. As a kid, Musk was heavily bullied in school. He also had issues at home, having a complicated relationship with his father and being the child of divorced parents. However, he also showed a lot of promise, using technology as an escape from his school and familial struggles.
He learned to code at the age of 10 and even sold a computer game he created to a tech company for $500. This was an early sign of his genius and entrepreneurial tendencies. It also marked the beginning of what would later become a very successful career as a business creator in comparatively complex and difficult industries.
Though raised in South Africa, Musk did not feel connected to his fellow South Africans. So at age 17, he left the country to go to Canada, where his mother held citizenship. Musk, then, used Canada as a stepping stone to get into the United States, transferring from Queens University to the University of Pennsylvania. He graduated with a dual bachelors in economics and physics and started on Ph.D, shortly after. Having had his sights set on Silicon Valley, however, Musk dropped out after just a couple of days to do work in the business world, where his current journey starts.
Elon Musk & Zip2
Musk had already held internships in Silicon Valley, but his attempt at getting a job there was unsuccessful. He applied to work at Netscape, only to get silence as a response. Still determined to work in the Valley while the internet was still hot and early, Musk set out to create his own company. With the help of his brother Kimbal and a man named Greg Kouri, Musk founded the internet business, Zip2.
At a time, in the mid-1990s, when many saw the internet as a mere fad, Musk understood that the internet would change the way people did business. His goal with Zip2, then, was to create a digital version of the Yellow Pages. The going was tough, however. Having just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with about $100,000 in debt and no answer from Netscape, Musk could not even afford a second computer for Zip2. With this limitation, the trio ran the site during the day, and at night - every night of the week, infact - Musk coded.
To make matters more challenging, Zip2 was having a hard time getting customers, as people thought advertising on the internet was a joke. As we now know, however, the tide would soon change as people became more aware of what the internet was capable of. This change in attitude meant that Zip2 was able to start gaining customers and eventually sell for over $300 million during the dotcom bubble of the late 90s. This left Musk with $22 million for his 7% share and seed money to start his next venture.
Banking of the Future: Elon Musk & Paypal
In keeping with his last business, Musk co-founded the company, X.com, an online bank. Again, Musk dove into a business that many around him thought was crazy. Not only did he not retire on the exit money he gained from the sale of Zip2, he also invested that same money into creating a company that competed with giants on a platform hardly anyone in that industry was operating on. At the same time, he was also working in the same building with a competitor - Peter Thiel’s Confinity. The competition between the two companies became fiercer and fiercer until they finally decided to join forces. This merger became known as Paypal.
Unfortunately, the merger replaced one problem with a different one. There were many internal conflicts, and Musk appeared to be on the losing side. While away from the office, the other core members of Paypal voted to replace Musk with Thiel as CEO of the company. Though Musk disagreed with the decision, he left the position peacefully managing to walk away with a few wins. He maintained his investments and influence in the company and helped sell it to Ebay for $1.5 billion. Musk, the largest shareholder at the time, walked away with $180 million.
Then, he founded SpaceX. And Tesla.
Competing with Giants: Elon Musk & SpaceX
Once again, we see Musk entering into incredibly challenging industries, competing with giants on platforms no one in those industries had ever delved into. One of those industries was the government controlled and abandoned space industry. The other was the mature and innovation resistant automobile industry. Within the space industry, Musk sought to commercialize and expand the reach of human space exploration, and within the auto industry, Musk sought to make transportation more sustainable. These tasks seemed impossible at the time, and a few years later, Musk’s efforts would look like failures.
By 2008, Musk had launched three rockets into space through SpaceX. All three were failures. At the time he only had enough money for one more launch. If that failed, too, SpaceX would have to close its doors. At the same time, Tesla had failed to produce a viable car and was already deemed a failed company in Silicon Valley’s gossip circles. To make matters worse, Musk was dealing with the breakdown of his eight year marriage, which ultimately ended in divorce. This was not a good time for him. The once successful entrepreneur appeared to be ending his career as a failure.
Then, good fortune struck.
SpaceX’s fourth rocket launch and orbit were a success. This landed the company a $1.6 billion contract with NASA as well as the ability to perform 20 more launches, all of them successful. Meanwhile, Musk put all his money into Tesla. This was matched, if hesitantly, by investors. This paved the way to a very successful Model S launch, which got high marks from Consumer Reports and the National Highway Safety Commission.
And the rest is history.
In addition to all of this, Musk has created several other companies, including Solar City, Hyperloop, and the Boring Company, all of which tackle their own complex challenges. Despite the many difficulties faced and substantial risks taken, Musk has proven to be quite the impactful entrepreneur. His accomplishments are so lauded, that he has been compared to the likes of Steve Jobs and Henry Ford. He is seen by many as a real life hero. He even has the Marvel character, Iron Man, modeled after him.
But what made Musk so successful? How was he able to manage such large scale risks and still come out on top? The answer to these questions lies in both his work ethic and his way of thinking.
Musk's Journey to Success
The Mind of a Scientist
Remember that physics degree? The courses that led up to that degree profoundly shaped the way he processes the world around him. Instead of following convention just because it’s convention, Musk questions what is possible. He experiments and pushes the boundaries of what is thought to be possible, and in doing so, ends up with results that seem impossible.
Musk takes nothing for granted. If the problem lies in his lack of knowledge, he studies to fill the gap. If the problem lies in money, he works with the resources available until he can build up to his goal. If the problem is fierce competition, he carves out a niche and holds steady, even in the face of opposition. No problem is too difficult for him, and no risk is too big. While not everything he pursues is successful, his successes in some of the most challenging industries more than make up for that. The difficulties he faced early in life gave him the mental strength to face even bigger challenges later. Despite his many external successes, that mental strength might just be his greatest success.
Extreme Work Ethic
Another thing that contributes to his success is his work ethic. As a kid, Musk plunged himself into learning code. The result of that became his first sale. In the early days of Zip2, Musk worked 7 nights a week working on the service. As the founder and CEO of several companies, currently, Musk is known for working 100 hours a week. Every week. He has high expectations of those who work with him, but even higher expectations of himself. He expects those around him to work harder than average, but he pushes himself even harder. While his high expectations tire those around him, his own work ethic garners the respect of those very same people. Again, Musk takes nothing for granted, including those who work with and for him. He may not be the easiest person to work for, but he is certainly one of the most respected.
Lessons from Elon Musk Story
So, what can we learn from this great success?
One, take nothing for granted. Much of what has been achieved by Musk and other great leaders, past and present, has been done by pushing past the boundaries of what most had thought possible.
Two, expect more of yourself than you do of others. Musk, undoubtedly, needed the help of many, many people to pull off these amazing feats. However, he had to prove himself worthy of that kind support. This is especially true given the challenges he chose to take on. He did that by studying the industries he entered inside and out and by working harder than anyone he knew.
Finally, Musk asked himself a very important question - how did he want to impact the world. His answer to this question laid the foundation to many of his efforts. Without that clear sense of purpose, it is unlikely that Musk would have had the mental strength and resolve to pursue the challenges he pursued.
So as you go about pursuing your own projects, think about the lessons from this article. Take nothing for granted, expect more from yourself than you do from others, and finally, develop your mental strength by having a clear answer to how you wish to impact the world. Best of luck on your adventures!
* Photo Credit: James Duncan Davidson
Elon Musk Best Quotes
"When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor."
"If you get up in the morning and think the future is going to be better, it is a bright day. Otherwise, it's not."
"Some people don't like change, but you need to embrace change if the alternative is disaster."
"I would like to die on Mars. Just not on impact."
"It's OK to have your eggs in one basket as long as you control what happens to that basket."
"Patience is a virtue, and I'm learning patience. It's a tough lesson."
"Land on Mars, a round-trip ticket - half a million dollars. It can be done."
"There's a silly notion that failure's not an option at NASA. Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.The reality is gas prices should be much more expensive then they are because we're not incorporating the true damage to the environment and the hidden costs of mining oil and transporting it to the U.S. Whenever you have an unpriced externality, you have a bit of a market failure, to the degree that eternality remains unpriced."
"The reality is gas prices should be much more expensive then they are because we're not incorporating the true damage to the environment and the hidden costs of mining oil and transporting it to the U.S. Whenever you have an unpriced externality, you have a bit of a market failure, to the degree that eternality remains unpriced."
"I do love email. Wherever possible I try to communicate asynchronously. I'm really good at email."
"There have to be reasons that you get up in the morning and you want to live. Why do you want to live? What's the point? What inspires you? What do you love about the future? If the future does not include being out there among the stars and being a multi-planet species, I find that incredibly depressing."
"I think that's the single best piece of advice: constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself."
"If something's important enough, you should try. Even if you - the probable outcome is failure."
"Brand is just a perception, and perception will match reality over time. Sometimes it will be ahead, other times it will be behind. But brand is simply a collective impression some have about a product."
"I think it's very important to have a feedback loop, where you're constantly thinking about what you've done and how you could be doing it better."
"In order to have your voice be heard in Washington, you have to make some little contribution."
"Any product that needs a manual to work is broken."
"I think life on Earth must be about more than just solving problems... It's got to be something inspiring, even if it is vicarious."
"The path to the CEO's office should not be through the CFO's office, and it should not be through the marketing department. It needs to be through engineering and design."
"The future of humanity is going to bifurcate in two directions: Either it's going to become multiplanetary, or it's going to remain confined to one planet and eventually there's going to be an extinction event."
"An asteroid or a supervolcano could certainly destroy us, but we also face risks the dinosaurs never saw: An engineered virus, nuclear war, inadvertent creation of a micro black hole, or some as-yet-unknown technology could spell the end of us."
"I'd like to dial it back 5% or 10% and try to have a vacation that's not just e-mail with a view."
Tal Gur is an impact-driven entrepreneur, author, and investor. After trading his daily grind for a life of his own daring design, he spent a decade pursuing 100 major life goals around the globe. His journey and most recent book, The Art of Fully Living - 1 Man, 10 Years, 100 Life Goals Around the World, has led him to found Elevate Society.