Elon Musk and his Fantastic Future

A conversation with Ashlee Vance, author of bestselling biography Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future.

By Vasile Decu (@decuv).

PayPal. Tesla. SpaceX. Dragon docking with the ISS. Tesla Energy and the Gigafactory. That’s one hell of a calling card!!!

And etched on its back are plans for even better endeavours: A new monster rocket. Human crews in Dragon. Internet from space. Hyperloop. A city on Mars!

For almost his entire career so far, the media was in awe about Musk’s success as a businessman, about his shares and transactions and estimated worth. They’re missing the point. Elon Musk is a natural explorer. Not the mountain climbing type— that’s just sport and selfish ego (no, that’s not always a pleonasm, as I explain next). A true explorer is one who takes on seemingly impossible tasks and furthers our knowledge and abilities. And the “we” in his vocabulary means “we, the human species”. Like in the sentences: “I would like to make it cheaper and easier to get to space”; “I would like to make an electric car that’s truly exciting — a game changer”; “I would like to switch the world to renewable energy”; “I would like to provide Internet from space for the entire planet”… Now that is proper ego!

Like many millions of people around the planet, kids and adults alike, I became a big fan of Elon Musk when, after his big payday from PayPal, he decided to invent a most beautiful money shredding machine called Space X which he turned into the first successful private space company. And my admiration and respect grew over the years, with every new success that validated his boldness.


So when Ashlee Vance published his wonderful biography, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, I was, of course, one of the first readers. And then one of its most enthusiastic reviewers, recommending it to every friend or stranger. If you want to learn the often troubled histories of Tesla or SpaceX and to begin to understand the man behind the legend of Elon Musk, Vance’s book is a must-read.

Speaking via Skype from his home in Mountain View, California, Ashlee Vance was kind enough to share his experience and insights in Elon’s world(s), his admiration for the beautiful engineering of Tesla’s Model S or the crazy accomplishments of SpaceX, and our need for such bold figures to inspire us further.

In May, Elon Musk took the stage again and revealed Tesla Energy — home and industrial batteries which not only look extremely cool, but can also help save the world. Does this guy ever stop?!

(Laughs) As his companies have done better and better and he’s gotten more money, it seems that his ambition is just growing instead of kind of getting pared back. I feel it’s exciting and all that, but I also feel like he’s taking on a lot of stuff as well. It’s hard to imagine how he could do all of this stuff.

Your book explains many parts of that… (he laughs) A few years ago you wrote a magazine feature about him and then you decided to do a book on him. You discovered, and then showed us, that this guy is for real! He’s not just hype. I mean… resupplying the ISS is a hell of a validation!

I thought so too. It was really funny. Like you said, I talk about it in the book that I’ve been sort of skeptical about Elon kind of before 2012. It’s pretty funny now, but when I went to pitch the book in New York to the publishers, they had a very different take on him at the time. Nobody knew who Elon was and they thought that… I mean, I was in meetings where you have to sort of describe the book and then, at the end of almost every meeting, they said “Well, when is he gonna do something, you know?!” I just thought they were crazy! I mean he had docked his rocket with the space station and I wanted to say “What have you guys done?!”

And I still get some of these questions today from people who don’t know him very well — “When is he gonna have like a big consumer hit?” or something like that… I just think that, whether you like Elon or not, it is sort of ridiculous to say this kinds of things, because you can’t name another person who’s done the stuff he’s done in different industries, it’s just crazy!

It is crazy, like the trip in Russia to buy missiles! Or the fact that he then starts reading engineering books to start his own rocket company… Your book sometimes reads like a very good fiction…

(Laughs) Yeah, I know what you mean — reading the book and trying to picture this guy in your head… I think it doesn’t make any sense to most people - you just make a lot of money and then you read some textbooks and you decide you’re going to take on the entire Russian aerospace industry. Like, not only do you have to build the rockets and all that (which is borderline impossible not just very, very difficult), but then think at the audacity that this one guy thinks he can take on sort of all this complex industries… There’s a lot that comes with it — you build the rocket, but then you have to fight all the governments and the bureaucracy that accompanies all that. So to picture this guy by the pool in Las Vegas reading these aerospace books and thinking he could do all — this is pretty funny to me.

And that means he has every right to have a big ego when, as you say, your competitors are Russia and China, not just another company making an app. You met the guy — to us he was a big mystery. Is this ego the wrong type of ego? You write that he truly believes the big stuff, like colonising Mars, and he says it without blinking.

Dragon in orbit. January 2015. © SpaceX

First of all, the Mars thing to me… I mean, unless he’s not lying to himself all the time and to his friends and his family, I think he’s very authentic and true and that’s what he truly cares about. And I think that he certainly enjoys the money that he’s made and he enjoys being this kind of celebrity inventor kind of guy (I think anyone would!)

Yeah, he has a big ego and if you are in the room with him I’m sure he thinks that, pretty much any room he walks into, he’s the smartest guy in the room, I think he thinks that but… even today, he does not act like that. I mean, he’s surprisingly normal and down to earth. If he walks into a restaurant, he does not sort of strut in and expect everyone to look at him; he’s totally the opposite, he just walks in and sits down with you.

Almost every other CEO that I interview, from the big companies, at first they have like five people who are handling all of their affairs and then by the time you actually get to sit down with them for an interview there’s at least one or two other people… With Elon, I pretty much like email him and, yeah, maybe his assistant would like set the time for our meeting, but I mean that was it. Otherwise, it was like target Elon, he was showing up and we talked. That’s very different, he’s surprisingly normal (he laughs).

You say that he’s a great guy to party with and at the same time you talked with hundreds of his employees and associates and many of them tell not necessarily horror stories, but story of abuse — I think you can call it abuse, when you compare it to other work environments. But still so many people follow him. Why is that?

I think he is very, very hard on employees, but…

For one, all of his companies have this kind of sense of a mission, a calling that’s quite big and sort of spectacular. Obviously, to colonise Mars or to save the world from global warming… I mean, that’s much more than your usual app company! The employees really believe in it. And then I think that it’s not just the vision. What Elon has shown is that if you are a person who cares about this stuff, if you care about electric cars there is no better place to work than Tesla, because you’re gonna get to make a really cool product that actually gets to people and that has a decent chance at like really having a big impact on people.

I think they ultimately trust that Elon will get them there, so all of this pain and suffering is worth it because the thing that comes at the end is gonna be a good product. I think they trust that Elon will make mostly the right decisions along the way and, when you get to that end product, that he will never sort of compromise on it and so it’s that belief that he can pull it off.

This could be like the engineers or the top executives, like JB Straubel at Tesla or Gwynne Shotwell, the president of SpaceX — they suffered through all these ups and downs with Elon, but to them it’s a serious game. Gwynne wants to get to Mars just as much as Elon does, JB wants to make an electric car just as much as Elon does and they both calculated that there’s no other company on the planet where their odds will be as good as making that real. So it’s a belief in Elon, yeah.

How rare is this mentality in Silicon Valley right now? This strong belief in your project, not just in a 9 to 5 job…

Well, you know, some companies try to pull that of and some can. Silicon Valley is in a kind of weird spot right now, I think; we had about ten or twelve years of boom.

Like when Google started to take over as kind of the dominant company (Google and Apple — but culturally Google is more dominant in Silicon Valley), like a trendsetter for employees, and they made their campus with all the volleyball courts and the pools and the massages and all that stuff — I mean, it changed the culture. People still work very hard today, but it used to be that suffering was part of the job. Now is a much nicer lifestyle at the office, I don’t think people put in the same hours…

There are certainly some companies that have as big of a mission as Tesla and SpaceX, but not many. The number would be quite small. If you’re at Netflix, for example, you’re doing great work, it’s something that’s used by tens of millions of people, but what is the huge calling? That you’re making movies available for everyone? I mean, obviously we all enjoy it, but it can’t be the same sort of emotion that comes with building a rocket, I think…

Now that is sexy! A great body with a smarter brain! © TESLA

From your book, you come out like one of the biggest fans of Tesla. You really love that car.

(Laughs) I do like it, yeah! It’s another validation for him and for Silicon Valley. I think I appreciated it a lot because I was told by the automotive industry for so long that something like that would be basically impossible. I mean, I don’t think they ever thought that it was possible — for Tesla to do that with just its second car and for people in the automotive industry to call it maybe the best car ever built is just as an incredible achievement!

People underestimate how hard it is to build something like that. There are parts in the book where I talk about like the door panels that would be misaligned by just a few millimeters… and to just solve a problem like that on a huge manufacturing floor is really terrible! And Silicon Valley hadn’t had any experience doing anything really like that, so that is a huge achievement.

And the way they push the software for it… I mean, carmakers had been talking about all this stuff for years and years and years and years and then it took like a startup to go and make a lot of it real! It’s a fun car. I don’t have enough money to own one, but to ride in it is pretty exciting… The acceleration is pretty crazy! As luxury goes, there are some thing that are missing in the interior, but like I talk about in the book, it was hard for Tesla to get some of the suppliers of better leather, for example, and stuff like that to kind of take them seriously at first, although I think all that is changing now.

In the pages dedicated to Tesla, you write that Elon was hands on, on everything. He’s a good programmer, he had a success with PayPal, and he’s a really smart guy, but from your book his main attribute comes out that he’s a great leader and builder of teams. Is he one of the greats in that respect?

I think he had to learn how to do this, I don’t think he was born like this. It’s funny, when I went back to report on PayPal, I knew that there had been a coup at PayPal and that he’d been thrown out, but I didn’t realise how much the regular employees did not like Elon back in those days. I mean, he really struggled with being a good leader of people and then it seems he basically got the CEO title stripped away from him at both companies — and that really taught him a lesson.

Then it’s just kind of amazing the jump that he makes from PayPal to SpaceX, because it’s about a year of time but you see a much more effective leader at SpaceX, almost from the beginning. I think he sets expectations hard, but I think he shows he is not afraid to go do stuff himself and he’s quite capable when he has to — and that inspires a lot of respect. And it would be hard to pick another CEO who gets more out of his employees, I can’t really think of anyone that would come as close I think to him.

Humour and nerves of steel.

Recently, one of his rockets exploded, he had another accident, which flamed again the very critical audience that he seems to have watching over every mistake he makes. But your book shows us that this guy didn’t had it easy, he had to struggle from childhood to his adult life with criticism.

Yeah, the explosion of the rocket is really sad, the SpaceX critics will jump all over that, but, yeah, I see your point, I don’t think he’s gonna give up or anything like that. I mean, he seemed to have a miserable, a really bad childhood, from what I could gather. When Elon would talk about some aspects of his childhood, he would be on the verge of tears and really like on a loss of words almost to describe how hard it was.

Elon told me, and he tells people that he’s close with, that all that stuff is kind of what makes possible for him to go through all the ups and downs of the companies.

Lightning strikes just before a SpaceX launch. © SpaceX

Also, it seems that this state of emergency and the stress of high stakes situations are the norm in his companies.

Yeah, it’s like crazy, everyone seems to operate with a gun to their head all the time. I sort of worry for Elon that… it can’t be good for your health to do that. And then it’s really funny too, because even when the companies start to do well, like at Tesla when the model S proved a big hit and they started to have like a profitable quarter and then immediately he does like the Gigafactory and invests and risks billions of dollars. And he talks about it at the end of the book that the Gigafactory has to be pumping out batteries basically at the same time that the Tesla factory starts producing the third generation car, otherwise you have one factory that’s sitting empty and the company will be going bankrupt. So he just bets everything all the time (laughs).

You said that you would have wrote this book with or without him. You started doing it and then he granted you access, you say that he respects anyone who doesn’t take no for an answer. So you had access to him directly, in serial interviews, for several months. You made him sound human. Even though I read that he wasn’t very happy about two quotes, the book makes him look human…. How hard was that, to break the aura of legend that surrounds this guy?

Well, it’s tricky. I think if you meet Elon…if you have like one meeting with him, it could go all kinds of different ways. You could get a guy who just totally ignores you or you could get a guy who is like a little difficult to talk to or you could get a guy who’s really engaged and interested in what you’re saying, but is still very…. There’s not a lot of chitchat; it’s just very intense and focused!

The advantage that I had was that it wasn’t just one meeting — but it still took me a while. Because he knew me, he was a little bit more open, but it took until about the fourth or the fifth meeting and then you could sort of see it on him — I mean, he relaxed a little bit and our conversations changed and I think I got to see a guy who was a little more like the guy who’s with his family and his friends. So I think it wasn’t that hard to make Elon seem “human”. It was just sort of a matter of spending a lot of time with him, because he puts up sort of like a wall when he’s dealing with most people, and so it just takes a little time for it to come down; and when it comes down you see a guy who can be very funny. He can be quite charming when he wants to be. Like we talked about before, he’s not sort of all stuck up and it’s nice to talk to him.

And then I thought his reaction to the book was totally understandable. I mean, you have a guy who invades your life for like two or three years and then writes this humongous thing about you. I think he got upset and then calmed down as well after that. I think he saw exactly what you said, all of these people copying me on Twitter and all these messages from so many people that have said “I’m so inspired, I wanna go out and build something after reading this book”. And so I have to think that he saw some of those messages and changed his mind….

I must say that after reading your book I’m rooting for him way more than before. I’m a big fan of space exploration, so I was a fan of Elon Musk and SpaceX before, but after your book I’m also a fan of him, as a person.

Earth in the rear-view mirror. © SpaceX, 2015

You’ve been in his factories, you saw his businesses at ground level. Would SpaceX or Tesla exist without him to provide this fusion reaction?

I think that right now he is essential to keeping the companies going. I don’t think he would ever leave SpaceX - that’s his baby. Gwynne runs a lot of the day-to-day operations, the company needs her, but it needs Elon to be that force that’s driving it forward.

As for Tesla… I think he would step away from Tesla as the CEO, I think he would maybe take a bit of a lesser role (maybe become Chairman or something like that) if he felt that the company was really sort of moving along smoothly enough. But I think that will be years away and so I think that if you took Elon away from either company it would not be a good idea.

So SpaceX is his baby?

If he could only do one thing, if he had like to sell everything or something would happen, I think he would pick SpaceX, for sure.

Elon Man

As a final (and maybe not so stupid) question, who’s your favourite between Elon Musk and Tony Stark, the Iron Man?

If I had to have a drink, it will be Tony Stark, but if my life depended on the products being made so that the world changed, I would put my money on Elon (laughs).

It’s funny, I think that Tony Stark is a little more… he’s out with the ladies and he’s more charismatic and stuff like that, but I mean Elon is something else… You can argue that in some ways, like the things that he wants to do, he’s even more ambitious than the stuff that we hear from a fictional character like Tony Stark! It’s getting weird, he used to be sort of a joke, but now he’s living up to it.

It’s good for us to have people that inspire us. Whether you like how Elon runs his business or not, I think is good to have someone who shows what humans can achieve and what we can do if we all make the most of our time. It’s good to have people like that!

Dreams © SpaceX
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