Zip2 to Space X

Yellow pages to rockets and what keeps us from chasing our dreams

In 1995, the heat of the dot com boom, Elon Musk started Zip2 with his brother, Kimbal. He had $2000 dollars in the bank, a car, and a PC. They lived and worked out of their $400/month apartment with just a couple of futons and a dial-up modem to run the site. Zip2 was an early Internet yellow pages site complete with maps and local businesses. Over the next year they raised $3M in funding and Musk was relegated to executive vice president with a more experienced CEO taking the reins. Under the new CEO’s direction, over the next two years Zip2 found itself kowtowing to the newspaper publishers who had invested in the startup and ultimately the company was sold to Compaq for $307M cash. The sale left Elon Musk with $22M.

Over the next 3 years Elon Musk would help build and then sell Paypal. He pocked $165 million.

So what do you do when you’ve suddenly got enough money to do anything you want? Maybe you make really fast cars that run on lithium ion juice. Maybe you build spaceships for NASA that land like Star Wars ships. Maybe you go and chase those dreams of yours.

A lot of people say that money can’t buy happiness. And that’s true. But what a lot of people forget, or fail to articulate, is that money can buy freedom. Money buys freedom from a job you work, but don’t enjoy. Money buys freedom from stress about paying the bills or taking care of your family. Money buys you freedom to fund your own projects even when no one else believes in your vision. Perhaps most of all money buys you time—or perhaps better stated— money buys you the opportunity to spend your time on what you think is most important and interesting.

I have a list of things I’d like to do that more than likely won’t make me any money. My list includes documentaries I want to film, graphic novels I want to publish, that sci-fi book I’ve only written 2 pages of this last year, my app ideas, my animation ambitions and countless art projects. Then there are the projects that might make a considerable amount of capital. These are startup ideas—new techie gadgets and services. Like most startups, they will most likely fail, but building these things are important to me nonetheless.

I think most people have a list of things they’d do if they didn’t feel like they had to stick with their day job. A lot of folks settle for doing something less than what they think is most important and most interesting. And that’s alright… in the short run.

The Long Run

In the long run, however, we need to find our way to doing those things that are most important and interesting to us. Over the last few months of ruminating on this topic I’ve decide there are two ways I could get there from where I am now (specifically Poor Land):

Path #1: Make a bunch of money—this path involves ownership. Owning property, owning a business, owning stocks—some sort of asset that I can rent or whose value will increase and that I can then sell. If I could build my own Zip2-esque startup and sell it for a few $$$ I could sail off into my own little list of adventures without a care in the world.

Path #2: Embrace a more frugal life — this path means just go for it. No matter what it is and how few of the bills it is going to pay, just go for it. Forget about being wealthy enough to buy freedom. Move somewhere cheap, stop shopping at Whole Foods and write that book! This takes guts and sometimes a little recklessness and a lot of tolerance for stress, but it is a valid approach to getting to a place where you’re working on things you love.

I said there were only two ways, but in reality there’s some sort of balanced approach as well. We can all have periods of Zip2 in our lives. I’m pretty sure Elon Musk didn’t always dream of starting an internet yellow pages (he’s said publicly he always talked about electric cars and space travel), but he started Zip2 because he thought it would make him the money he needed to chase another dream later on (perhaps it wasn’t as premeditated as I am painting it, but let’s learn from it nonetheless). Maybe you’ll start something that takes off, but most likely some hard work and saving is going to have to cut it. Here’s the crux: It’s not wrong to spend our time working on things that aren’t quite aligned with our interests, but it’s not right to do it for too long. We’ve all got to have our Zip2s, but we all need a Space X too.

Dedicated to Kory S., Nichole P., and Mikey R. for working hard and then chasing their dreams.