Elon Musk: The Tech Maverick Making Tony Stark Look Dull

By James O Malley on at

Elon Musk was born in 1971 in South Africa, just as the Space Race was drawing to a close. It seems as though he had missed the best bits - so perhaps that is what inspired by the man who would later spend his billions on doing his damndest to kickstart humanity back into the future that we had been promised. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Musk got his first computer, a Commodore Vic-20 when he was 10, and two years later had already sold his first game, written in BASIC, for $500. The show-off. All was not brilliant though, as he experienced bullying at school. He later said “They got my best [expletive] friend to lure me out of hiding so they could beat me up. And that [expletive] hurt. For some reason they decided that I was it, and they were going to go after me nonstop. That’s what made growing up difficult. For a number of years there was no respite. You get chased around by gangs at school who tried to beat the [expletive] out of me, and then I’d come home, and it would just be awful there as well.”

I’m guessing he had the last laugh though as in 1995 and he picked up a PhD in Applied Physics from the prestigious Stanford University in the US.

Even at college it seems he was already thinking big. The daughter of one of his advisers recalled meeting him for the first time at a college party: “I believe the second sentence out of his mouth was, ‘I think a lot about electric cars.’ And then he turned to me and said, ‘Do you think about electric cars?’ ”

Later that year Musk founded his first company, Zip2, an online publishing company that helped get old media on to this new-fangled World-Wide-Web. Clearly Musk could see which way the wind was blowing as four years later it was bought by Compaq and Alta Vista (!), and Musk walked away with a cool $22m.

The PayPal Years

His next venture was as one of the co-founders of a company that would later become PayPal. Back in the day, when the internet was scary and new, eBay was something of a phenomenon - a new market place that hooked up buyers and sellers around the world. But there was just one problem: How could we trust the person at the other end? If we send them an envelope full of cash, will they really send us the Beanie Babies (or whatever it is we bought in the 90s) they promised?

The genius in PayPal was that it did away with sharing bank details or cash, and instead had users send money to PayPal, acting as an intermediary, using email addresses to specify who ultimately gets the cash. As we know, it was hugely successful too and was later bought by eBay for $1.5bn in stock - giving Musk’s 11.7 per cent shareholding $165m. Not bad.

No doubt Musk was successful because he was hugely talented, but he doesn’t sound like he was particularly fun to work with. His mum recalled “He goes into his brain, and then you just see he is in another world. He still does that. Now I just leave him be because I know he is designing a new rocket or something.”

He also worked hard, allegedly once saying “If there was a way that I could not eat, so I could work more, I would not eat. I wish there was a way to get nutrients without sitting down for a meal.”

Apparently when employees would complain about the long hours he wanted them to work, he would tell them that they can see their families when the company goes bankrupt. Yikes.

Elon Takes Off

So having founded two fairly successful internet ventures, what to do next? Rather than play it safe by coming up with another website or service, in (appropriately enough) 2001, Musk made the maverick decision and decided that he’d much rather play with rockets - and founded Space Exploration Technologies, which would later become known as SpaceX.

SpaceX has proved hugely successful too -- not only was Musk one of the first movers in the private space sector, but he’s done a damn good job. But he eschewed the Richard Branson route and going for the glamorous zero-gravity tourism stuff, Musk has instead focused attention on the more fundamental problems about getting into space by making rockets more affordable. Musk didn’t want the easy win of having humans float about in low Earth Orbit -- he wants a revolution.

In just five years, SpaceX was already winning big contracts from NASA to build new launch vehicles, and as of 2015 is regularly launching unmanned resupply missions to the International Space Station using its Dragon rockets, having become the first commercial company to dock with the ISS in 2012.

The company has also unveiled plans for new rockets capable of transporting astronauts and at the time of writing, has most recently been attempting to maneuver controlled landings for its Falcon launch vehicles - so that they may become reusable (and thus cheaper) in the future.

Musk has apparently said that his goal is to create a “true spacefaring civilisation”. Hyperbole like that would sound ridiculous coming from basically anyone else.

Astonishingly, this isn’t where Musk’s story ends. In 2003 Musk also co-founded Tesla Motors, and has since made electric cars cool. For millions of motorists, it is no longer a great big engine roaring they want - it is an ultra-sleek Tesla Roadster. Whilst the Tesla Model S is still only a vehicle for the richest in society, Musk has recently said his goal is to build an electric car that can retail for less than $30,000, putting it within reach of many more.

Perhaps his most maverick move at Tesla though, apart from getting involved in electric vehicles in the first place, has been the move to open source his patents. Whilst the company still technically holds patents for various technologies, it won’t be calling the lawyers if rival companies copy.

This is brilliant because not only does it help create common standards for electric vehicles, but it should help tackle the chicken-and-egg problem of not having enough charging points until there are enough electric cars, and not having enough electric cars until there are enough charging points. Perhaps Tesla is helping create the conditions that will make a move away from fossil fuels viable -- so maybe humanity might actually stand a small chance of tackling climate change?

Today Elon Musk is apparently worth around $13bn and is at the helm of two companies that could potentially change the world. Clearly for Musk and especially SpaceX, not even the sky is the limit.

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