Electric sports cars. Solar power. Space travel. Finally, an entrepreneur who's not afraid to think really, really big.
SpaceX, El Segundo, California: Founded: 2002; Employees: 370; Musk's Investment: $100 million; Cost Per Launch: $7.1 million to $35 million; Launches Booked: 14; Size of Falcon 9 Rocket: 178 feet high by 12 feet wide
Tesla Motors, San Carlos, California: Founded: 2003; Employees: 300; Musk's Investment: $37 million; Cars Sold: 600; Price: $98,000; Zero to 60: Four seconds
Watching Elon Musk at work is an exercise in controlling your urge to buy a man a drink. Make that several drinks. Musk is 36 years old, wicked smart, worth several hundred million dollars, and built like a tight end--thickset through the middle and well over 6 feet tall. Yet he never looks quite comfortable. Sitting in front of the oversize computer screen on his desk, he rolls back and forth in his chair, slouches and unslouches, rubs his temples, raps his fingers, and plays with his wedding ring. When he sighs, which he does frequently, his chest heaves, and his eyes widen, like someone confronted with news of his own death. He generally speaks in complete, precise sentences, rarely telling a joke or even cracking a smile.
It's not that Musk is an unpleasant guy. He just happens to be really, really busy. Musk is CEO, majority owner, and head rocket designer at SpaceX, an aerospace start-up in El Segundo, California, that by 2011 plans to be hauling astronauts to and from the International Space Station. And that's just his day job. Musk has two more wildly ambitious start-ups in play--the electric-car maker Tesla Motors and the solar panel installer SolarCity; in both cases, he serves as chairman and controlling shareholder. In fact, the South African native has been building big, ambitious companies for more than a decade. He co-founded PayPal, the online payment processor that eBay bought in 2002 for $1.5 billion, as well as Zip2, a dot-com media company that was sold for $307 million when he was just 27.
Meanwhile, Musk's wife, Justine, a novelist, gave birth to triplets last year. That means Musk now has five children under the age of 4, in addition to three companies to run. Perhaps that explains why it's so rare to see Musk talk to someone on the phone without simultaneously doing something else: pecking out an e-mail, scanning invoices, mulling over a spreadsheet, shopping for computer equipment, fiddling with his BlackBerry. He often does several of these things at once. The only tasks that seem to command the entirety of his attention are technical discussions related to SpaceX's soon-to-be-launched rocket, the Falcon 1, and job interviews. (Musk personally
vets all of SpaceX's employees, and he's in the midst of a frantic--but so far fruitless--search for a CEO for Tesla.)
To get through the day, Musk relies on two stimulants: caffeine and a desire to help humanity colonize Mars. Until he recently started cutting back on the former, Musk consumed eight cans of Diet Coke a day, as well as several large cups of coffee. "I got so freaking jacked that I seriously started to feel like I was losing my peripheral vision," he says. If he realizes how crazy this sounds, he doesn't let on. "Now, the office has caffeine-free Diet Coke." Even so, Musk frequently gets so caught up in his multitasking that it sometimes takes two or three tries at his name, uttered at full volume, to get a response.
The goal of putting people on Mars is no joke. Musk believes that over the four-and-a-half-billion-year history of planet Earth, a dozen or so events have truly mattered. Edging forward in his chair, he ticks off a few: "There was the advent of single-celled life, multicelled life, the development of plants, then animals," he says. "On this time scale, I'd put the extension of life to another planet slightly above the transition from life in the oceans to life on land." If there's something insane about a CEO who thinks his company's mission is more important than any accomplishment in all of human history--indeed, in all of fish history--there's also something irresistible. "One of Elon's greatest skills is the ability to pass off his vision as a mandate from heaven," says Max Levchin, who co-founded PayPal with Musk. "He is very much the person who, when someone says it's impossible, shrugs and says, 'I think I can do it."
You've probably heard the one about the recklessly ambitious technology entrepreneur from Silicon Valley: the maverick-iconoclast-innovator with the big idea who becomes fantastically rich and changes the world. The problem with this story is that it's generally not true. Although companies like Netscape and Google are almost always presented as radically innovative start-ups, out to change the world from day one, the fact is, they began as incremental improvements, executed at opportune moments. Netscape had a slightly better version of Mosaic, a Web browser built at the University of Illinois. Today, Google is acknowledged as one of the world's most powerful and innovative companies. But when it launched, in 1998, it was simply a slightly better way to search the Web.
Perhaps for this reason, many people who invest in start-ups tend to favor companies that are based on small, executable ideas over grand strategies like Martian colonization or the resurrection of the electric car. Small ideas, the thinking goes, have a shot at growing into the next Google. And if they don't, there's a chance that today's Google may simply acquire them for a tidy sum. "Many of the companies we back start out as little features," says Roloef Botha, a partner with Sequoia Capital who led the company's investment in YouTube, which Google bought for $1.65 billion last year. Botha, whom Musk hired in 2000 and who served as PayPal's CFO for three years, says that he gravitates to "nuggets," small ideas that play into big market trends.
Elon Musk is not a nugget kind of guy. He has distinguished himself by attempting things that most people who care about avoiding personal bankruptcy would not even consider. Yet his bets seem to be paying off. In March, SpaceX, into which Musk has poured $100 million, launched a rocket 180 miles above Earth. That was farther than any privately developed rocket in recent history and almost three times as far as Burt Rutan's famed SpaceShipOne flight of 2004. (Of course, Rutan's rocket had a pilot at the controls, while Musk's was unmanned.) Meanwhile, Tesla Motors has gone from a half-baked idea about a battery-powered sports car to a rare bright spot in the otherwise troubled American auto industry. This month, Tesla is to begin delivery of its first production vehicle, the Roadster, having already sold 600 at $98,000 each. Finally, SolarCity, a mere 12 months after its founding, is one of the country's largest installers of home solar panels, making the often-cumbersome process of switching to renewable energy as easy as buying a Dell.
Senior contributing writer Max Chafkin has profiled companies such as Yelp, Zappos, Twitter,
Threadless, and Tesla for the magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. @chafkin
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