(B) I like to say that there are three kinds of people in Silicon Valley. Those who love technology, those who want to make money, and those who want to be celebrities. But there is a fourth category: those who want to change the course of humanity. Obviously, the number of people in that category are a minority, to say the least. And, probably the most famous one of them is Elon Musk. Mr. Musk is deeply passionate about the major challenges for humanity. But while most of us just barely can think about what is right for our civilization, Mr. Musk not only think right but also act flawlessly. And, the challenges that he is undertaking are not small. Who can build a rocket ship when governments cannot? Who can build the next generation of cars in an industry who has never had any new start-ups in ages? Who can help to build a successful energy solar company in an industry that is struggling to find a profitable future? Elon Musk.
Besides Mr. Musk, I only know of two other CEOs who have been running two companies at the same time: Carlos Ghosn who is the CEO of Renault and Nissan, and Steve Jobs when he was CEO of Pixar and interim CEO of Apple.
Very few of us are capable of starting successful companies but Mr. Musk started four: Zip2, PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla Motors – two of them with successful IPOs – or even three of them with successful IPOs if you add SolarCity to the list.
One of the insane strengths of Mr. Musk is his insane obsession and execution of insanely great product design and development. He is the Chief Designer at SpaceX, and Product Architect at Telsa, besides his CEO roles at both companies. That’s four jobs!
Mr. Musk was interviewed last month at the Computer History Museum by Silicon Valley journalist Alison van Diggelen. This is probably one of the best interviews of Mr. Musk. Ms. Diggelen carefully crafted a series of questions to spark Mr. Musk’s thoughts and experience.
Following is the video of the interview and some of my notes:
About his causes:
When Mr. Musk was studying physics as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, he was already passionate about the three areas, that he thought, would most affect the future of humanity: the Internet, sustainable energy, and space exploration. But:
“At the time, I didn’t expect to be personally involved into them”
About being the CEO of two companies:
“I really didn’t want to be CEO of two startups at the same time. It was not appealing. And shouldn’t be appealing by the way, if anyone is thinking that’s a good idea. It’s a terrible idea.”
“Remember that failure is the most likely outcome. Only do it, if you’re compelled to do it and are willing to eat glass and stare into the abyss (quote from one his friend entrepreneur).”
“If you don’t eat glass you are not going to be successful.”
About time management:
Mr. Musk worked seven days a week: Mon (SpaceX), Tue and Wed (Telsa), Thu and Fri (SpaceX), and Sat and Sun (Telsa).
About the United-States:
“The United States is a distillation of the human spirit of exploration.”
About starting Zip2:
Why Mr. Musk left his Ph.D. program in Applied Physics and Materials Science at Stanford after two days?:
“I could either watch it (The Internet) happen or be part of it.”
About starting PayPal:
“A fantastic team…many Internet companies started by ex-PayPal employees: YouTube, Linked In, Yelp, Yammer.”
About starting SpaceX:
“I always thought that we’d make much more progress in space…and it just didn’t happen…it was really disappointing, so I was really quite bothered by it. So when we went to the moon, we were supposed to have a base on the moon, we were supposed to send people to Mars and that stuff just didn’t happen. We went backward. I thought, well maybe it’s a question of there not being enough intention or ‘will’ to do this. This was a wrong assumption. That’s the reason for the greenhouse idea…if there could be a small philanthropic mission to Mars…a small greenhouse with seeds and dehydrated nutrients, you’d have this great shot of a little greenhouse with little green plants on a red background. I thought that would get people excited…you have to imagine the money shot. I thought this would result in a bigger budget for NASA and then we could resume the journey…”
“I came to the conclusion that my initial premise was wrong that in fact that there’s a great deal of will, there’s not such a shortage. But people don’t think there’s a way. And if people thought there was a way or something that wouldn’t break the federal budget, then people would support it…There wasn’t really a good reason for rockets to be so expensive. If one could make them reusable, like airplanes then the cost of rocketry (and space travel) would drop dramatically.”
About starting Telsa Motors:
“The original reason I came to Silicon Valley was to work on electric vehicle energy storage technology. I thought that big car companies would develop electric cars. It was obviously the right move and I thought that was vindicated when General Motors and Toyota announced…General Motors was doing the EV1, Toyota did the electric RAV 4, the original one. And they made these announcements and brought those to market and I thought: well this is great, we’re going to have electric cars, GM is obviously going to do the EV2 and 3 and then just keep getting better. Everything would be cool. And then when California relaxed its regulations on electric cars, GM recalled all of the EV1s and crushed them into little cubes, which seemed kind of nutty. So in fact, the people didn’t want their EV1s recalled…In fact, they tried court orders to stop the cars from being recalled. They held a candlelit vigil, OK in the yard where the cars were crushed…When was the last time you heard about any company… customers holding a candlelight vigil for the demise of their product? I mean what bigger wake-up call do you need? Like hello! The customers are really upset about this. They’d really prefer if it didn’t get recalled. So that kind of blew my mind. So it was like ‘wow.’
And then we had the advent of lithium-ion batteries which really is one of the key things to make electric cars work, but it’s still nothing. And so in 2003, I actually had lunch with one of the other co-founders of the company JB Straubel (now CTO of Tesla Motors) who was actually working on a hydrogen airplane or something. He mentioned to me the tzero car that was done by AC Propulsion.
AC Propulsion is the sort of guys who had actually been on the EV1 program and they took a gasoline sports car, a kit car and outfitted it with lithium ion batteries, consumer grade cells, and they created a car which was essentially the precursor of the Telsa Roster, and had very similar specifications: sub 4 seconds zero to 60 mph, 250 mile range and also a two-seater sports car. But it was quite primitive. It didn’t have a roof for one thing. At all. And none of them had doors. But it didn’t have any safety system at all, no airbags, it wasn’t homologated, so you couldn’t sell it. So in order to sell that car, in order to create a commercial version of that car, there was a fair bit of work that was required.
I kept trying to get AC Propulsion to commercialize the tzero, and I said: ‘Look, I’ll fund the whole effort, we really need to do this.’ But they just refused to do it. They wanted to make an electric Scion. Which in principle sounds good, but in fact, it would have cost $75,000 and nobody wants to buy a $75,000 Scion. The technology was just not ready. So…I told AC Propulsion: ‘If you’re not going to do this, I’m going to create a company to do this.’
And they said well, there’s some other guys (a team consisting of Martin Eberhard, Marc Tarpenning and Ian Wright) who’re also interested in doing that and you guys should combine efforts and create a company. And that’s basically how Tesla came together.”
About starting SolarCity:
Mr. Musk gave the idea of SolarCity to his cousin Lyndon Rive when going to Burning Man. The major problem with solar energy:
“It is not about building solar panels but reroofing.”
About climate change and oil companies:
“I think currently that what we’re doing right now, which is mining and burning trillions of tons of hydrocarbons that used to be buried very deep underground, and now we’re sticking them in the atmosphere and running this crazy chemical experiment on the atmosphere. And then we’ve got the oil and gas companies that have ungodly amounts of money. You can’t expect them to roll over and die. They don’t do that. What they much prefer to do is spend enormous amounts of money lobbying and running bogus ad campaigns to preserve their situation.”
“We’re playing Russian roulette, and as each year goes by we’re loading more rounds in the chamber. It’s not wise. And what makes it super insane is that we’re going to run out of oil anyway. It’s not like there’s some infinite oil supply. We are going to run out of it. We know we have to get to a sustainable means of transportation, no matter what. So why even run the experiment? It’s the world’s dumbest experiment!”
About the role of the government:
“I’m generally a fan of minimal government interference in the economy. The government should be the referee but not the player. And there shouldn’t be too many referees. But there is an exception, which is when there’s an un-priced externality, such as the CO2 capacity of the oceans and atmosphere. So, when you have an un-priced externality, then the normal market mechanisms don’t work and then it’s the government’s role to intervene in a way that’s sensible. The best way to intervene is to assign a proper price to the common good that is being consumed.”
About government regulations:
“I don’t think the government tends to stand in the way of innovation but it can over-regulate industries to the point where innovation becomes very difficult. The auto industry used to be a great hotbed of innovation at the beginning of the 20th Century. But now, there are so many regulations that are intended to protect consumers…I mean the body of regulation for cars could fill this room. It’s just crazy how much regulation there is. Down to what the headlamps are supposed to be like. They even specify some of the elements of the user interface on the dashboard…some of these are completely anachronistic because they’re related back to the days when you had a little light that would illuminate an image.”
“You can actually get these things (those regulations) changed, but it takes ages. Like one of the things we’re trying to get is: why should you have side mirrors if you could have say, tiny video cameras and have them display the image inside the car? But there are all these regulations saying you have to have side mirrors. I went and met with the Secretary of Transport and like, can you change this regulation…? Still, nothing has happened and that was two years ago.”
About the Hyperloop:
“I did promise that I’d do some paper on the Hyperloop (a way of getting people from downtown LA to downtown San Francisco in under half an hour) and things got a little hectic toward the end of last year…”
On flying cars:
“Someone is doing it.”
About going to Mars:
“I was asked by a journalist, ‘Do you want to die on Mars?’ and I said, ‘yes, but wait…not on impact. Just to be clear. That’s one of the possibilities.”
“So I guess I’d like to be able to go to Mars while I’m still able to manage the journey reasonably well. I don’t want to be like 75 and go to Mars…I’d like to get there ideally in my 50′s. That would be kind of cool.
“I aspire to make that happen, and I can see the potential for that happening. I’m not saying it will happen, but I think it can happen…I’ll try to make it happen.”
It is very interesting to watch Mr. Musk in a presentation ten years ago at Stanford University when he was starting SpaceX and compared those two interviews. He is very consistent in both his drive to accomplish and his thoughts about entrepreneurship and the world:
A few articles:
- Wikipedia has a good article about Mr. Musk, although the article has a few mistakes
- 2012 SUCCESS Achiever of the Year: Elon Musk
- Risky Business
Note: The picture above is from Mr. Musk interview
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