By Ashlee Vance
A book review by Swen Lorenz
Harper Collins, Available on Amazon, £13.60
Probably the highest accolade and one-sentence summary any book can get consists of “I read it all in one sitting”. Such was the case, for me at least, for the first and only authorised biography about Elon Musk, the multi-billionaire, multi-company entrepreneur who more than anyone else alive is tipped to change the course of humanity.
Often compared to Thomas A. Edison and Howard Hughes, Musk has risen from locally known Internet entrepreneur to being one of America’s most influential industrialists. That is, at least for now. His tendency to go on grand quests for improving the fate of mankind tends to involve such high risks that no one would be surprised if he ended up bankrupt in a few years. He’s had previous brushes with bankruptcy, such as nearly going bust in 2008 and having to sell out to Google, when Tesla required more funding to make it through the start-up phase. The same Elon Musk who had made $22 million by the age of 27 and who had assets worth $1.5 billion by his early thirties, was at risk of losing it all and even had to sell some of his toys to scratch together liquidity for paying salaries.
It took Ashlee Vance more than 18 months of unauthorised research into Musk’s life before the South African-born entrepreneur embraced the idea of having a book written about him. He came to respect Vance’s perseverance and eventually granted her unlimited access to all of his executives, friends and family members. Her account of Musk’s rise, his near-bankruptcy experiences and his vision for growing not just one but several companies into multi-billion dollar global enterprises, makes for a book that is hard to put down.
Musk had arrived in the US virtually penniless and started working odd jobs such as cleaning out the inside of boilers. In the mid-1990s, he latched on to the first wave of growth of Internet companies. The company he founded with his brother, Zip2, was a combination of Google and Yelp. He sold it for $307 million, pocketing $22 million in the process.
Despite buying a $1 million McLaren supercar and embarking on a temporary playboy lifestyle, he ploughed most of his newfound wealth into the idea of creating an online bank, primarily because he believed bankers were “rich and dumb” and could easily be outmanoeuvred in the marketplace. The board of his new company, X.com, eventually ousted him as CEO, in a case study of how boards and ambitious CEOs don’t always gel well with each other. He remained a shareholder and following X.com’s merger with a company called Confinity it eventually became PayPal, the payments provider. In 2002, the sale of PayPal to Ebay made Musk a billionaire.
Next came SpaceX, the rocket builder; Tesla, the electric cars manufacturer; and SolarCity, the renewable energy company. Most recently, Musk added Hyperloop to his set of ambitions, a large-scale pneumatic tube similar to the one used to send office mail around, but aimed at carrying pods with cars and passengers between LA and San Francisco at a speed faster than airplanes. Oh, did I forget to mention Musk’s long-term goal of helping mankind to colonise Mars and become a multi-planetary species? Incidentally, Musk has already decided that Mars is the place where he would like to live out his days.
It’d be easy to dismiss Musk as a megalomaniac dreamer, if he hadn’t actually already achieved a good part of what he set out to do. With a fortune of around $15 billion, he currently ranks among the world’s richest self-made entrepreneurs. Funders are queuing up to back his ventures, and at least for now, he has single-handedly reminded the US and the rest of the world that one determined man can succeed in changing entire industries. He is challenging the US car industry, the aeronautics industry, and even entire countries like China and Russia since they, too, are working on similar plans. Close observers know, however, that Musk’s high risk ventures could still fail. The tremendous scope of his ambitions and the risks he manages have turned Musk into one of the world’s best-known entrepreneurs with entire websites dedicated to following his work.
Even Tesla, which is now firmly established as the world’s hottest car manufacturer, is said to be only ever one botched model launch away from bankruptcy. For now, however, Musk is known as the man who led the first IPO of an American car manufacturer since Ford went public in 1956. He enjoys having such accolades to his name and is known to fight any factual errors reported about his personae tooth and nail, to the point of going to war with anyone who distributes what does not match his own version of the truth.
Master Investor verdict: This 390 page account of America’s most innovative thinker and his outlandish ambitions is a highly recommended read for anyone interested in entrepreneurship, Silicon Valley’s quest for the next big thing, and larger than life characters. In case I hadn’t mentioned it before, it’s hard to put down.