Mar 31, 2017

Thoughts on Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future

I just finished up the Elon Musk biography by Ashlee Vance earlier this week. It was a welcome fast read after the slog that was Superintelligence: captivating enough that I finished it in two or three days.

Embarrassingly for someone in my position, I didn't really know that much about Elon's story before reading the book. I knew he'd made his money at PayPal, vaguely remembered he had done a startup before then, and was aware of the broad exploits of Tesla and SpaceX. Despite having lived the history of those last two companies, I really didn't know much beyond the initial success of the Roadster to make electric cool, the ubiquity of the Model S, and the fact that SpaceX was successfully doing rocket launches. For anyone who's currently at a similar level of understanding, I highly recommend giving the book a read. It's a fascinating story and in many ways Elon Musk is the modern Henry Ford; it's a pity to not be more aware of the history he's creating every day.

In large part, I agree with Vance's interpretation: Elon Musk doesn't always make the most inspiring decisions and has been the beneficiary of no shortage of good luck; yet, he has consistently pushed hard tech forward in a way that virtually no one else has in recent history. Musk's work has undoubtedly propelled the world forward and it's ungenerous in the extreme to chalk all of that up to fortune. At the same time, Musk's fans must not ignore some of his missteps (notably being ousted as CEO of PayPal, which most employees at the time agree was the right decision as well as his contributions to the arguably unnecessary delays of the Roadster).

The biography has cemented for me a theme I've identified across other successful founder stories (Steve Jobs, Ben Horowitz, Rockefeller): an unrelenting dedication to making the company successful. In all of these cases, that has occasionally involved the use of amoral tactics (or at least ones that I don't personally agree with). These founders seem to embrace the mindset that the ends justify the means and anything that might interfere with those ends is a roadblock to be removed. This approach leads to the burning of plenty of fertile fields: firing top engineers, tarnishing the company's image in the public's mind, and destroying any semblance of balance in the founders' personal lives. And yet, the companies are successful and these founders have left their mark on the world.

Now, to some extent I could be seeing some survivor bias. Just because these four anecdotes have had hard-charging founders doesn't mean that being a hard-charging founder is a recipe for success (there are undoubtedly tens of thousands of companies in the startup graveyard that had similar founders). But it is interesting that these stories (and other success tales) don't tend to feature protagonists known for their compassion and patience.

Another important takeaway for me is how tenuous the situations of both Tesla and SpaceX looked for quite some time. It's easy now just a few short years later to assume that their success was destined. But throughout their early years there were plenty of times where it looked like failure was imminent.