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Who is Elon Musk, and what made him big?

Nils Zimmermann
May 27, 2020

How did an awkward, nerdy boy from South Africa become a world-famous American engineering entrepreneur? Elon Musk's story is a lesson in how a few simple principles, applied relentlessly, can yield amazing results.

Elon Musk smiling
Image: picture-alliance/AP/J. Raoux

Born in 1971 in South Africa of a model and dietitian, Maye Musk, and an electromechanical engineer, Errol Musk, whom Elon has described as "a terrible human being," Elon Reeve Musk is the eldest of his parents' three children, and a citizen of three countries: South Africa, Canada, and the US.

Musk spent his childhood with his nose in books and computers. A small, introverted boy, he was ostracized by his schoolmates and regularly beaten up by class bullies, until he became big enough to defend himself after a growth spurt in his teens.

First companies

Musk moved to Silicon Valley in summer 1995. He registered in a PhD program in applied physics at Stanford University – but withdrew after only two days. His brother Kimball Musk, who is 15 months younger than Elon, had just graduated from Queen's University with a business degree and come to join him in California.The early Internet was heating up, and the brothers decided to launch a startup they called Zip2, an online business directory equipped with maps.

In due course, the brothers found angel investors for Zip2 and built it into a successful company. In 1999, the brothers sold Zip2 to computer maker Compaq for $307 million (280 million).

Elon Musk
Tesla CEO Elon Musk speaks at a delivery ceremony for the first Tesla Model 3 cars made at Tesla's Shanghai factory in Shanghai in January 2020Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Chinatopix

Elon then founded an online financial services company, X.com, on his own. Its main rival was a company called Confinity, founded by Peter Thiel and two others just months after X.com, with offices in the same building. The two companies merged in March 2000 and took on the name of their main product, PayPal, a person-to-person online money transfer service.

Ebay, the online auction service, bought PayPal in October 2002 for $1.5 billion worth of Ebay shares. At the age of 31, Elon Musk, who had been the largest shareholder in PayPal with 11.7% of its equity shares, found himself holding $165 million worth of Ebay stock.

Three missions

The companies he has founded, co-founded, and/or led since leaving PayPal – two of which, SpaceX and Tesla Motors, he risked his entire early fortune to build – are all focused on addressing three distinct existential risks to the long-term survival of humanity: Climate risk, single-planet dependency risk, and human species obsolescence risk.

Climate risk

Tesla Motors, SolarCity, and The Boring Company are aimed at addressing climate risk by accelerating the transition to clean electricity and electricity-powered transportation.

Single-planet dependency risk

According to Musk, humanity's long-term survival is at risk if it stays limited to just this one planet. Sooner or later, some disaster — maybe an asteroid, supervolcano, or nuclear war — will end our tenure here. Musk founded Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, in May 2002, to get us off the planet.

Musk taught himself the necessary engineering skills to design rockets, and is chief technology officer as well as CEO of SpaceX. A key hire early on was the 11th employee to join: Gwynne Shotwell, put in charge of business development, soon established herself as Musk's right-hand woman at SpaceX. She has become a legend in the space-tech world, and the company may well have have failed without her.

Human species obsolescence risk

Musk and other thinkers say that artificial general superintelligences (AGSIs) — i.e. machine general intelligences smarter than human beings — will present an enormous existential risk to the future of humanity.

That's why, in December 2015, he co-founded the not-for-profit company OpenAI to develop "friendly AI." OpenAI provides free access to its advanced AI research results; the idea is to disseminate techniques for making AGSI safe, and to prevent powerful groups from monopolizing AGSI.

Tesla driving into tunnel
A modified Tesla Model X drives in the tunnel entrance before an unveiling event for the Boring Co. Hawthorne test tunnel in CaliforniaImage: picture-alliance/AP Images/R. Beck

Missteps, tough times and controversy

Elon Musk is not a perfect, infallible hero. He is a brilliant creator of extraordinary vision and capability, but he is also, according to some former employees, a very hard man to work for. He works 80-hour weeks, and he expects his engineers to work crazy hours, too.

He is often impatient with co-workers, and when he's under stress, he sometimes fires people on the spot for what he considers displays of incompetence, but others might describe as very minor mistakes.

In his public communications, he has made a number of errors in judgment, sometimes sending out incendiary tweets that he later had to apologize for (he tweets a lot).

In May 2020, Musk weathered a storm of controversy over his decision to reopen his Tesla Motors manufacturing facility in Fremont, California, after a two-month closure, in disobedience to an Alameda County administrator who ruled that Tesla was not an "essential business" and should remain closed due to the region's SARS-CoV-2 pandemic lockdown.

Although there have been controversies and ill-considered public remarks, there have been few major errors in core business execution. With Tesla and SpaceX having weathered their fragile early growth years and now well on the way to becoming massive cash cows, there is now little to slow Elon Musk down as he strives to drive his companies "ad astra" – to the stars.