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Elon Musk

Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a
Fantastic Future
Ashlee Vance
ELON MUSK: Tesla, Space X, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance.
Copyright © 2015 by Ashlee Vance. Published by arrangement with Ecco, an imprint of
HarperCollins Publishers
400 pages
[@] getab.li/24658
Book:

 

 

Rating

9

9 Importance
8 Innovation
8 Style

Take-Aways
• Vision, risk taking and competence run in Elon Musk’s family.
• From an early age, Musk showed great powers of concentration and visualization.
• Musk’s character and intellect made him an outsider in his native South Africa.
• Musk’s first major business, Zip2, sold online databases of business information.

Focus

• With X.com, Musk tried to revolutionize online banking. This visionary venture didn’t

Leadership & Management

• With SpaceX, Musk revolutionized the space industry, doing more than his competition,

Strategy
Sales & Marketing
Finance
Human Resources
IT, Production & Logistics
Career & Self-Development
Small Business
Economics & Politics
Industries

succeed, although he profited. X.com merged with PayPal, earning Musk’s fortune.
faster and less expensively.

• Musk’s Tesla electric car led a revolution in the auto industry.
• Musk communicates bluntly, can offend people and can be emotionally distant.
• He succeeds because of his intellectual gifts, and because he risks more and works
harder than other people.

• Musk believes people need to explore space and to move away from fossil fuels for the
good of humanity.

Global Business
Concepts & Trends

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(+41-41-367-5151). getAbstract is an Internet-based knowledge rating service and publisher of book abstracts. getAbstract maintains complete editorial responsibility for all parts of this abstract. getAbstract
acknowledges the copyrights of authors and publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this abstract may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means – electronic, photocopying or otherwise –
without prior written permission of getAbstract Ltd. (Switzerland).

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Relevance

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What You Will Learn
In this summary, you will learn:r1) What factors shape Elon Musk’s personality, actions and way of thinking; 2) How
he has led his companies, including Zip2, X.com, SpaceX and Tesla; and 3) How Musk revolutionized several
industries, including electric cars and space travel.
getabstract
Review
Business writer Ashlee Vance’s biography of Elon Musk proves fascinating because Musk is fascinating. He’s done
amazing things. He’s also highly controversial. Vance tries to include multiple perspectives. He discusses both how
Musk’s career evolved – through his youth, Paypal, Zip2, Tesla and SpaceX – and how public perceptions of Musk’s
actions have shifted over time. Vance’s hypnotic descriptions of Musk make it easy to understand how Musk would
disrupt any industry he chose – and most social contexts as well. With a caveat that those who don’t think the Fword belongs in business biographies should skip this one, getAbstract recommends Vance’s compelling history of
a startling career to those interested in genius, start-ups, technology, innovation or, of course, Elon Musk.
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Summary

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“Musk’s insistences on
explaining the early
origins of his passion
for electric cars, solar
energy and rockets can
come off as insecure.
It feels as if Musk is
trying to shape his life
story in a forced way.”
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“For Musk, the
distinction between
stumbling into
something and having
intent is important.”
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Family Roots
Elon Musk’s family provided a clear precedent for his life of taking risks. His maternal
grandfather Joshua Norman Haldeman thought Canada’s character was declining so he
relocated his family and chiropractic practice from Canada to South Africa.
Elon Musk was born on June 28, 1971. From a young age, he was brilliant and different,
with a tremendous ability to visualize and a photographic memory. He read compulsively,
going through every book in his local and school libraries, as well as two sets of
encyclopedias. Around the time Musk was 9 or 10, his parents’ marriage fell apart. After
their divorce, Musk lived with his mother, Maye, for two years, and then he chose to live
with his father, Errol. Musk’s father was generous, taking young Elon and his brother
Kimbal on trips and giving them books and computers. An engineer, he showed them how
to do plumbing, wiring and brickwork. Emotionally cold and controlling, he made the lives
of the boys and their sister Tosca miserable.
Young Musk
Reserved, intellectual and geeky, Elon Musk was an outsider in a South African culture that
celebrated masculine toughness. In high school, a group of boys beat him, breaking his nose
and sending him to the hospital. Musk focused on reading and video games. He developed a
vision of America as a land of opportunity. He moved to Canada at 17, perhaps as a first step
to the US and perhaps to avoid South African military service. His mother had written to an
uncle in Montreal, but Musk left for Canada before he learned that the uncle had moved to
Minnesota. Musk took a bus 1,900 miles to Swift Current, Saskatchewan, where he lived
with a second cousin for a year, doing odd jobs. Musk’s mother and siblings joined him
in Canada. Musk attended Queen’s University, and while he was a student there, he and
Kimbal picked the names of interesting people out of the newspaper and contacted them.
At Queens, Musk fell for Justine Wilson. She was only moderately interested, but Musk
pursued her persistently, mirroring his father’s many-year courtship of his mother. After

Elon Musk                                                                                                                                                                             getAbstract © 2015

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getabstract
“Zip2 may have been
a go-go Internet
enterprise aimed at
the Information Age,
but getting it off the
ground required oldfashioned door-to-door
salesmanship.”
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“The PayPal episode
was a mixed bag for
Musk. His reputation as
a leader suffered in the
aftermath of the deal
and the media turned
on him in earnest for
the first time.”
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“All Musk had to do
to dig Tesla out of this
conundrum was lose
his entire fortune and
verge on a nervous
breakdown.”
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“What’s fascinating
is that Musk remains
willing to lose it all.”
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Musk transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, the couple kept up a long-distance
relationship. In 1994, Musk spent part of the summer in two Silicon Valley internships,
one at Pinnacle Research Institute working on ultracapacitors, and one at Rocket Science
Games writing code for video games. There, he saw the start-up culture he wanted to join
and the area where he wanted to live.
Musk started his business activities young. At 12, he published code for the Blastar video
game. He and his siblings sold handmade Easter eggs. As an undergraduate, Musk built
specialized computers for other students, maintained them and sold parts. While at Penn,
he and a friend turned a rented house into an “unlicensed speakeasy” on weekends.
During one of Musk’s internships, someone pitched the firm “an online listing” to
accompany the Yellow Pages. The salesman didn’t really know what he was talking about,
but Musk saw an opportunity. In 1995, he and Kimbal formed Global Link Information
Network, later Zip2, Musk’s first real business. At a time when almost no one understood
the Internet’s implications, he pitched “a searchable database of businesses” that included
maps. Elon wrote the code, and Kimbal did the selling. When they started, their product
didn’t technically exist, but by 1996, they were able to shift from a local to a national focus.
The brothers sold software that let newspapers build online directories. When the venture
capital firm Mohr Davidow put $3 million into Zip2, it replaced Musk as CEO and coder.
In 1999, Compaq bought Zip2 for $307 million.
PayPal
Zip2 fueled Musk’s confidence. Now that he had a lot of money, he searched for an industry
he could disrupt via the Internet. An internship at the Bank of Nova Scotia showed him
banking’s untapped opportunities. He proposed “starting an Internet bank” at a point when
most people weren’t comfortable shopping online. Many experts who knew the industry
and its security risks rejected the idea, but in March 1999, Musk started X.com. Already
having purchased a condo, an airplane that he learned to fly and a $1 million McLaren
sports car that he wrecked a year later – uninsured, Musk invested $12 million of his own
money and set out to revolutionize banking.
Musk teamed two of Zip2’s best engineers and coders with two Canadians who knew
finance. They agreed that banking was out-of-date, but they couldn’t solve its regulatory
issues. Personality clashes inside the team escalated. Five months after X.com started, the
staff staged a rebellion. Only a few Musk loyalists stayed. Musk put X.com back on its feet
and tried radical ideas to draw customers.
He faced competition from Confinity, the company that created PayPal. The companies
competed to conquer the Internet-based payment and money world. The war stopped in
March of 2000, when they tried to merge. But it didn’t work. Musk pushed X.com; most
people preferred PayPal. The Confinity team wanted open-source software; Musk wanted
Microsoft products. X.com faced technical problems and couldn’t keep up with increasing
demand. It was losing money, but Musk re-energized his team and went after all the
company’s mistakes with a vengeance. In time, service improved. PayPal survived the dotcom implosion. Its IPO, a huge success, gave Musk hundreds of millions to invest. In 2002,
eBay bought PayPal for $1.5 billion.
SpaceX
When Musk was 30, he and Justine moved to Los Angeles, a move that presaged Musk’s
next direction: space. He started attending meetings of the Mars Society in 2001. He donated

Elon Musk                                                                                                                                                                             getAbstract © 2015

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getabstract
“Musk would certainly
go on to rely on outside
investors, but he put
major skin in the game
as well.”
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“When Musk
ran through the
calculations concerning
SpaceX and Tesla, it
occurred to him that
only one company
would likely even have
a chance at survival.”
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“If some of the things
that Musk says and
does sound absurd,
that’s because on one
level they very much
are.”
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“As good as a cheap
launch vehicle sounded,
the odds of a private
citizen building one that
worked were beyond
remote.”
getabstract

money and used the society to make contacts in the aerospace industry. People didn’t take
Musk seriously. They did welcome his money and that gave him a voice, even if he radically
underestimated the cost and challenges of exploring Mars. He tried to buy ICBMs from
Russia, but the Russians refused, put off by his youth and direct style.
Musk wanted to build a rocket; most space enthusiasts were skeptical but Musk had Tom
Mueller on his side. Mueller worked for Hughes Aircraft and then for TRW Space and
Electronics, where he was in charge of the TR-106 engine. Mueller enjoyed experimenting
on designs that were too wild for TRW. Musk put him in touch with his aerospace contacts.
During this time, PayPal went public, which gave Musk hundreds of millions to invest.
In June 2002, Musk founded Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX. Seeking to be
the “Southwest Airlines of Space,” SpaceX set out to build better rockets more cheaply
than other companies. It would revolutionize the American space industry. The military
and scientists wanted to send satellites up more quickly than they could at the time. Their
goals aligned with Musk’s ambitious schedule for SpaceX. The company succeeded after
a roller coaster of learning and catastrophes. The most personal catastrophe was the loss
of the Musks’ first child to sudden infant death syndrome. Musk shut down emotionally,
pouring himself into his work. This was good for his company, but bad for his marriage.
Musk’s PayPal earnings let him hire a strong team, including Mary Beth Brown, who
became Musk’s trusted assistant at SpaceX and Tesla. Brown became a bridge between
Musk and the rest of the world, managing the new company’s emerging culture. Brown read
and dealt with Musk’s moods and guided other employees about the best times to approach
him. Once SpaceX had engines to test, it tested them more quickly than anyone else. Its team
often worked around the clock, performing tasks they couldn’t have done at other firms.
As SpaceX grew, Musk sought contractors who could match the SpaceX pace. Sometimes
this meant repurposing materials from outside the aerospace field. SpaceX became an
amazing mix of dedication, energy and ignorance: Many of the people trying to build
their rockets didn’t know how, or if, what they wanted to do was possible. This led
to interdisciplinary learning and to success beyond what outsiders thought was feasible.
After many failures on the launch pad and nearly dying as a business in 2008, SpaceX
is now worth $12 billion. It launches payloads into space for science and industry. Most
aerospace companies outsource most of their parts. SpaceX builds most of its rockets,
making superior equipment at a lower cost. Its launches cost far less than its competitors’
take-offs. The United Launch Alliance – a Boeing and Lockheed Martin partnership –
charged the government $380 million per flight. SpaceX charged $90 million.
Tesla Motors
J.B. Straubel studied engineering and electronics at Stanford. He teamed with Stanford
students to compete in solar car races. They realized that lithium ion battery advancements
made electric cars possible. The students agreed to work on a lithium ion car if Straubel
could find funding. In 2003, Straubel met Musk, who offered him $10,000 in their
first conversation.
Using lithium ion batteries in cars intrigued Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning,
founders of NuvoMedia. Together, they founded Tesla Motors on July 1, 2003, and
approached Musk about investing. Musk suggested including Straubel, who joined them,
bringing his work on batteries. Tesla acted like a Silicon Valley start-up, figuring things out
as it went along. The founders went from building models in their living rooms to opening

Elon Musk                                                                                                                                                                             getAbstract © 2015

4 of 5

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a small shop for R&D and going to work. They sought to adapt the power train from an
electric car pioneer, AC Propulsion’s “tzero.” They also worked on combining “hundreds
of lithium ion batteries in parallel.” After a 2005 test showed a risk of fire and explosions,
Musk had a special team seek alternatives. They set up a “blast area,” destroyed thousands
of batteries and solved the problem.
getabstract
“The life that Musk has
created to manage all
of these endeavors is
preposterous.”
getabstract

After two prototypes, the developers grew more confident about moving from producing
just something that ran to producing a superior Tesla-specific car. In July 2006, Tesla
revealed a prototype that it would make in low volume and sell at high prices. Many people
invested and showed up at Tesla asking to buy cars. The Tesla developers tried to move from
prototype to production. The company suffered external struggles with suppliers and the
press. After clashes over vision and personality, many employees left, including Eberhard.
Meanwhile, the Musks had two boys and then triplets. They fought often, in part over Musk
working long hours every day. In 2008, they divorced. Musk soon met Talulah Riley; he
proposed within weeks. She accepted when Tesla and SpaceX were at crisis points.

getabstract
“Musk never relented
in asking his employees
to do more and be
better, whether it
was at the office or
during extracurricular
activities.”
getabstract

getabstract
“He seems to feel for
the human species as a
whole without always
wanting to consider
the wants and needs of
individuals.”
getabstract

Both companies – and Musk – nearly crashed throughout 2008. Tesla was spending $4
million a month. Musk poured millions of his own money into the company, including $15
million from investing in Everdream, a cousin’s start-up. It paid off. NASA gave SpaceX a
contract for 12 flights to the International Space Station, paying $1.6 billion. This powered
SpaceX to success. It also fueled Tesla’s efforts, resulting in stylish, efficient electric cars.
Tesla provided a network of recharging stations throughout the US. Tesla regularly updates
its onboard software, so you might start your Tesla one morning and find it running more
smoothly. Motor Trend magazine named the Tesla Model S Car of the Year a few months
after the company started shipping. Musk and Tesla would face further challenges, but were
unquestionably a revolutionary success.
Genius, Character and Style
Musk has a desire to understand the world. He quizzes new employees to absorb their
specialized knowledge. More than once, when an employee told Musk something could
not be done, Musk fired that person and added his or her responsibilities to his own. Musk
counters financial, physical and technological constraints with ambition: Do X, but do it
using half the weight other companies use and at a fraction of the cost. He sets impossibly
ambitious timelines and develops wildly accelerated schedules, as if everyone were as
competent and focused as he is. He often fails, but by going for impossible deadlines, he
achieves the amazing faster than most people do the ordinary.
Musk is blunt and sometimes offends people. He emphasizes function over feeling. Musk
has remorselessly fired workers who served him faithfully for years. He often clashes with
people over how things should be done. He believes humankind must be spacefaring and
colonize Mars to survive. Looking at the damage fossil fuels do to the environment, Musk
sees an electric car as a fundamental way to make the world a better place.

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About the Author

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Ashlee Vance is one of the most prominent writers on technology today. After spending several years reporting on
Silicon Valley and technology for The New York Times, Vance went to Bloomberg Businessweek, where he has written
dozens of cover and feature stories on topics ranging from cyber espionage to DNA sequencing and space exploration.
Elon Musk                                                                                                                                                                             getAbstract © 2015

5 of 5

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