Elon Musk and Tesla: changing perceptions and realities

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Elon Musk and Tesla: changing perceptions and realities

Should Elon Musk really be compared to the likes of Steve Jobs, Howard Hughes and Henry Ford?

Like Jobs he makes innovative physical things that challenge and disrupt established markets. Like Hughes he’s a mega rich industrialist and aviator who thinks on a huge scale. And like Henry Ford he has come out of nowhere and is shaking the motor industry to its core.

But to get a real sense of what we’re dealing with when trying to comprehend this South African-born billionaire we need to add an Englishman to this heady list of game changing American citizens.

That Englishman is Sir Thomas More. It is 500 years this year since the Renaissance statesman and humanist wrote and published Utopia, his fictional dream of an enlightened future. Finally someone has made a real world start, that someone is Elon Musk.

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That’s not to suggest Musk keeps a copy of Utopia under his pillow and is trying to recreate More’s fictional universe of common ownership. What’s similar is the vision of and belief in achievable better future. Like More, Musk can clearly see mankind’s problems and isn’t afraid to face them in real life.

This is what marks out Musk from many of his Silicon Valley peers and rich list industrialist set. Sure he’s a mega successful and aggressive, hard-nosed businessman but his personal mission statement is to steer mankind toward ‘greater collective enlightenment’.

All this in an age where the science fiction or speculative novel genre has a distinctly dystopian agenda, and where most emerging entrepreneurs are looking to make their money in the fast buck virtual world and via an early IPO.

As Ashley Vance points out in his biography ‘Elon Musk’ “Where Mark Zuckerberg wants to help you share baby photos, Musk wants to save the human race from imposed or accidental annihilation…”

So here is a visionary dreamer who builds real stuff in the notoriously difficult and risky ‘cleantech’ arena, who sees, and actively pursues, a bright and meaningful future for mankind and who has accrued a net worth of ten billion dollars in the process.

How do such people emerge?

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Picture a nerdy, intense boy who is an avid reader of encyclopedia and comics, with a tendency to trance out for long periods of intense mental/visual experiences. According to his peers he was very critical of his fellow youngsters and was burdened with the kind of social insensitivity that would these days have had him diagnosed somewhere on the autism spectrum. This was kid Elon.

Attributes like this would have ensured a rough ride anywhere for a young boy growing up in the 1970s. In the mega-macho world of Apartheid South Africa this effect was multiplied. Young Elon had a really tough childhood. He was bullied relentlessly and made few friends.

His American-born Grandfather had been an extraordinary aviator. He had been an explorer and was an all-round risk taker all his life. No surprise, then, that the troubled young Musk was drawn there as soon as he got chance to get away from Apartheid-era South Africa.

The rest is Silicon Valley history.

In 1995 the young Elon developed a startup called Zip 2, an early mapping/info site – Compaq bought it and Musk bagged 22 million dollars on the deal.

He took that cash and poured it into his next venture. You may have heard of it. It was called PayPal. He was the largest shareholder and when eBay bought it in 2002 for 1.5 Billion Musk entered the realm of the mega rich.

What he did next marked him out from his Internet millionaire peers. He moved much of his operation out of the Valley and into L.A. Once again he became his own venture capitalist. He stuck a huge chunk of his fortune into three super high-risk manufacturing industries. All playing in entrenched, established and capital-heavy arenas.

The Dollar numbers went like this:

100 million into Space X – a new company that makes disposable rockets.
70 million into Tesla – a startup that makes electric cars
10 million into Solar City – a brand new utility company.

All the above companies are using disruptive tech and ground-up rethinking. They are taking on traditional, long-term players at their own game. And in sectors that are so entrenched that they are virtually monopolised.

And against all the odds Musk and his firms are winning. Tesla stock is trading ridiculously high. The frenzy is similar to the early days of the United States railroad companies.

The how? He’s using Silicon Valley-style flat management and meritocratic structures in what are traditionally management top heavy and bureaucratic industries.

He’s mixing his expertise in software and connectivity with his intuitive knowledge of real-world engineering and cutting-edge materials and design to completely rethink space travel, road transport, and energy production.

Mix all that with a messianic vision for a multi-planetary, clean energy, enlightened future humanity and what do you get? A modern day Thomas More? A real life Tony Stark?

Could be. One thing is certain you sure do get some real nice cars into the bargain.

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