Elon Musk biography review

June 28, 20205 min read

The image of Elon Musk above has been my laptop wallpaper for the past 7 years

Elon Musk is a fascinating character - interesting / messy relationships, eccentric on Twitter, and naming his son X Æ A-12.

He can arguably be the most important entrepreneur in the history of humanity - revolutionizing space travel (SpaceX), electric cars (Tesla), and solar energy (SolarCity) - in his quest of bringing human civilisation to Mars. Even Robert Downey Jr. modelled his portrayal of Tony Stack / Iron Man after Elon Musk.

With the recent launch of Falcon 9 by SpaceX, I picked up a copy of his biography titled Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance.


Some thoughts:

1) History will only remember winner

No one will remember Martin Eberhard.

Eberhard was the founder and CEO of Tesla for five years before being ousted by Elon Musk, who was a majority shareholder at the time and took over as CEO.

All the glory and success of Tesla will forever be attributed to Musk.

History is cruel. But it also shows that merely having an idea and starting a company is not enough - you need to be the one who executes it and brings the idea to fruition.

Elon Musk did the hard work from bringing Tesla from a hobbyist car brand to the most valuable car company in the world, deserving all the recognitions he gets.

2) Competent boss over nice boss

Elon Musk inspires fierce loyalty from his team because of his grand visions to save the human race and his willingness to bet his entire fortune to realize them.

But he is not a nice and empathatic boss who will give you a pat on the back and help groom your career. In fact, he can be extremely demanding and unreasonable, and not many could survive the pressure of working with him.

But those who do, they would have followed him to the gates of hell.

A demanding but transparent boss who executes well often commands more respect than a nice boss who is mediocre.

3) Computer on wheels

Tesla did not try to be just the best electric car, but the best car ever built. The iPhone of car.

In fact, a Tesla is often not considered a car, but rather a computer on wheels.

Traditionally, when you buy a car, all the functionalities of the car are fixed; any significant update will need the car to be recalled.

Tesla pioneered over-the-air software updates to their cars so that your 2016 Tesla Model S can enjoy the same new features as 2020 Tesla Model S, turning cars into a gadget with software updates just like our smartphones.

"People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware". - Alan Kay

The above quote formed the underlying philosophy of Steve Jobs and Apple.

Along the same spirit, different from other car OEMs, Tesla builds its car software and firmware in-house to ensure they get the whole Tesla experience right. Even its internal team's ERP and CRM tools are developed in-house instead of licensing from SAP or Salesforce.

4) Cost matters

When we think about great innovators, we talk about making great products and achieving generation-changing missions, but we seldom mention cost.

What surprises me is how tight a rein Elon Musk has on cost and expenses - he had to sign off on every expenditure over $10,000, from rocket parts to car seat material. When his team got back a quote from supplier for $100,000, he would ask them to negotiate or build it for $5,000.

Cost matters. The fundamental economics of a business needs to work in order to deliver its values and realize its missions.

If you can't manage your burn rate, it doesn't matter how rosy and great a vision and plan you have, especially in the most capital-intensive of all industries - space tech and automobile.

5) No Shame in Trying to Survive

When Tesla and SpaceX first started, there were quite a few technologies that were not yet mature / optimised for to be cost-effective.

Tesla start with high-price low-volume of Roadster (sports car version) to build consumer consciousness and change the perception of electric car from being boring, low-performance, and sterile to being cool and sexy.

More importantly, this approach gave Tesla valuable time to perfect the technology and economics to finally build an affordable mass-market model.

Side note: in his usual quirk, Elon Musk wanted Tesla car model names to be "S", "E", "X", "Y". But Ford filed a lawsuit claiming trademark on "Model E", so the model names changed to "S", "3", "X", "Y".

In the tough early days, Tesla and SpaceX did everything needed to survive:

  • Tesla building electric battery and engine for European car makers
  • Building electric prototype for competitors
  • Kowtow-ing to Washington DC to help SpaceX get government grants
  • IPO early despite Musk hating to lose control

When your mission is important enough, there is absolutely no shame in getting your company to do things tangential to your mission in order to survive.

6) Hands-on

Elon is not just a visionary and a CEO that sets visions and looks at dashboards - he executes fiercely and is probably the most hands-on CEO there is.

He is obsessively detail-oriented and masters the fundamentals of his domains - physics and engineering of rocket science and electric fuel - more than even industry veterans. He is intimately involved in the entire design and engineering process, and is often the quality assurance tester himself. He interviewed every new employee until the companies grew to thousands of people.

There is a school of thought that good CEOs knows how to delegate and hire people smarter than them.

But just as importantly, especially in the early stage, Musk shows that a great CEO needs to be involved in every facet of your company, and that if your company builds rockets, you better know more about rockets than an Aerospace Engineering PhD holder.

7) Big important missions take time

Both SpaceX and Tesla had a rough first decade. From having 200 millions after Paypal exit, at one point Elon Musk was all-in and had to personally borrow money to keep the capital-intensive companies going.

The space shuttle industry is notoriously hard to break in - there was only 1-2 companies, a handful of clients (NASA, and a few other countries), and space technology is highly regulated as it is considered a sensitive defense technology. The start-up capital is extremely high, and one launch failure will set you back a decade if not bankrupt your company.

SpaceX's Falcon 1 failed the first 3 launches, and they had money for only one more.

The 4th launch had to work, or SpaceX and the ultimate dream to go Mars would be over. But lady luck smiled on Elon that day: the 4th launch finally went smoothly and the dream was kept alive.

"When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor" - Elon Musk

The successful Falcon launch took 6.5 years instead of the projected 2 years. Tesla took 10 years to finally bring Model S to mass market.

Even the most determined entrepreneurs might not have the tenacity and conviction to survive the trials and tribulations needed to achieve generation-changing works. For that, Elon Musk deserves our respect, if not gratitude, for bringing humanity forward.

8) History will remember Musk fondly

The book shares an interesting assessment of Musk as the love child of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, combining:

  • Jobs's consumer sensibility and obsessive attention to details, but less charismatic
  • Gates's engineering prowess and business acumen, but more personable

It will probably be a long time before we can bring civilisation to Mars or achieve 100% electric transport.

But I would not bet against Elon Musk.

He is no longer just a crazy man who runs 2 high-risk game-changing ventures at the same time; he might just be the most important innovator in humanity's history. And he is still young (49) and just getting started.

9) Biography

Overall, the biography is a vivid and smooth read, and shares a fair and balanced take of Musk.

In term of where this book ranks amongst my favorite biographies, it will be top 10 but not the most favourite:

  1. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson- Jobs is a much more complex, conflicted person with rich tapestry of history and flaws
  2. Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, Nike's founder
  3. Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh
  4. My Life by Bill Clinton
  5. Elon Musk

I look forward to reading another biography of Elon Musk in 20-30 years if he can continue bringing his visions forward.

P.S. today is Elon Musk's birthday

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