An unmatched pioneer
“The one major important distinction that sets him apart is his inability to consider failure. It simply is not even in his thought process. He cannot conceive of failure – and that is truly remarkable. It doesn’t matter if it’s going up against the banking system (Paypal), going up against the entire aerospace industry (SpaceX) or going up against the US auto industry (Tesla). He can’t imagine not succeeding and that is a very critical trait that leads him ultimately to success.”
The inimitable Elon Musk, CEO and product architect of Tesla Motors, founder, CEO and CTO of SpaceX, chairman of SolarCity, and original founder of PayPal is a South African Native, born in Pretoria, and now one of the United States richest men, worth US$13.6 billion according to Forbes.
Perhaps the most famous entrepreneurs ever to come out of South Africa, Musk has been one of the generation’s foremost tech wizards in his pursuit of a better future for the planet and its conscious inhabitants and is also generally believed to be the inspiration for Jean Favreau’s Iron Man.
Musk is quoted as explaining the ‘why’ behind what he does thus: “my interest in the future of humanity is as a function of reading a lot of sci-fi and philosophy as a kid and just thinking – okay what’s important? Why do anything – what’s the meaning of life? And I came to the conclusion that what we really need to do is make sure that life continues into the future and particularly conscious life.”
Musk believes that in order to facilitate his personal goals he must centre them on three technologies that he believes will have the greatest impact: “one was the internet, one was clean energy and one was space.”
Born in 1971 to Maye Musk, a well-known Canadian-English Model and Errol Musk, a South-African electrical and mechanical engineer and huge inspiration to him in his early years, Musk used his mother’s Canadian citizenship to move there at just 17 as a gateway to living in the United States – a country he believed to represent a “distillation of the human spirit of exploration” and a place where he could see his dreams being realised.
He also escaped South Africa’s compulsory military service at a time when Apartheid was still the system in place. Musk is famously quoted as saying of this decision: “I don’t have an issue with serving in the military per se, but serving in the South African army suppressing black people just didn’t seem like a really good way to spend time.”
After transferring his undergraduate studies to Pennsylvania after two years of studying at Queen’s university in Kingston, Musk completed two Bachelor of Science degrees, in physics and economics, and was accepted on to an Applied Physics PhD at Stanford in Silicon Valley.
After just two days of his PhD, Musk dropped out of Stanford in 1995 to pursue being an entrepreneur instead. He cofounded Zip2 Corporation, a software and services provider, which he later sold to Compaq in 1999 for US$307 million in cash, making himself a fortune at just 28.
“I didn’t really expect to make any money,” Musk says of this first venture. “If I could make enough to cover the rent and buy some food that would be fine. As it turns out, it turned out to be quite valuable in the end.”
For most people, becoming a multi-millionaire in your 20’s would spell out a life of relaxation – no need to work anymore with hundreds of millions in the bank – but not Musk. The driven entrepreneur jumped straight into his next venture, PayPal, which was not only later sold to eBay for a huge US$1.5 billion, but completely changed the way we do financial transactions.
As “a man who doesn’t just talk about impacting the future of humanity, a man who does things.” Musk did not stop at revolutionising areas of the internet industry. Following the sale of PayPal, the entrepreneur turned his attention to space and founded the company Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) to produce space launch vehicles at a lower cost to what was previously available.
The first launch vehicles developed by SpaceX were the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets and the Dragon Spacecraft – funded with US$100 million of his own money, almost all of his early fortune.
In 2008, SpaceX became one of the few companies able to say they are a supplier to NASA after winning a US$1.6 billion contract to resupply the International Space Station (ISS), carrying out supply missions to the now retired facility and has made history as the first commercial company to carry out this directive.
This achievement becomes all the more incredible when you consider the fact that in order to achieve his dream with SpaceX, Musk took just two years to teach himself rocket science, just by reading books and believing without a doubt that he could achieve what he set out to.
Alongside these continuing achievements with SpaceX, Musk is enjoying the soaring stock of Tesla Motors, the luxury electric carmaker he founded 10 years ago and has recently embarked on his mission to contribute to a clean energy future with the release of the Powerwall home battery earlier this month.
Musk’s life and work is one of the best real life examples that anything is achievable – if you set your mind to it. He has managed to not only do what he set out to do – but to do it spectacularly.