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The secrets to Elon Musk's success

Detroit Hosts Annual North American International Auto Show Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Elon Musk is having a great year. Last month his rocket company, SpaceX, made history by reusing a rocket — an achievement that could dramatically reduce the cost of spaceflight in the coming years. Meanwhile, his electric car company, Tesla, has seen its stock price soar. In early April, Tesla’s market value surpassed Ford’s as Wall Street got excited about Tesla’s forthcoming Model 3.

SpaceX and Tesla were far from overnight successes. Tesla repeatedly delayed the introduction of its first car. The first three SpaceX rocket launches all failed. Both companies nearly went bankrupt during the 2008 financial crisis. But Musk persisted, and now both of his companies have competitors running scared.

To learn about the secrets of Musk’s success, I talked to Businessweek’s Ashlee Vance, the author of the excellent biography Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. A South African native, Musk moved to the US during the original dot-com boom and made a fortune as a co-founder of PayPal. Then instead of retiring to a tropical island, he plowed his PayPal fortune into SpaceX and Tesla.

For most people, creating three multibillion-dollar companies in different industries would be a big enough accomplishment for one lifetime. But Musk isn’t close to finished. His long-term goal is to, in his words, “make humans a multiplanetary species.”

It would be easy to dismiss dreams of colonizing Mars if they were coming from anyone else. But Musk doesn’t just have a record of exceeding expectations — he’s also the CEO of a rocket company that really could build a rocket capable of reaching Mars. Though Vance isn’t sure Musk’s Mars colonization plan will succeed, he certainly believes Musk is committed to the goal.

Vance and I spoke by phone on April 6. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Timothy B. Lee

People have been predicting that Elon Musk would fail for a long time, but he keeps exceeding people’s expectations. Why do you think so many people have underestimated him?

Ashlee Vance

It's kind of deserved in some ways because especially during the early SpaceX and Tesla days, he tended to jump into pretty big and complicated things and grossly underestimate the time and cost that would go into it. That cost him a lot because he had these eight years where it seemed like he was not accomplishing anything.

The biggest thing people miss is his level of resolve and commitment. I've interviewed all these people in Silicon Valley, and I just never met anyone like him. For most people, even if they're a really passionate CEO, it's still a job. But for Elon, it's somewhere between a life-or-death struggle and a war. I think he's a hard character for people to peg.

This guy is committed on a level that is insane. He has no life on a lot of levels. He works all the time. He has burned through three marriages. He doesn't get enough time with his kids. He doesn't have anything like a normal existence. It's a sacrifice that no one else would be willing to make.

Timothy B. Lee

Two points of comparison that come to mind are Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos. All three men were extremely driven and ambitious. They all overcame early setbacks in their business careers. How do you think Musk compares to Jobs and Bezos?

Ashlee Vance

There are bits and pieces. You have the psychological bits. Jobs was adopted. In the case of Bezos, his first father abandoned him. Elon's got a lot of similar stuff. He wasn't adopted, but he had a pretty miserable childhood. His parents were not conventional parents by any stretch of the imagination. All three of those guys, you don't have to be a psychologist to know they're out trying to prove themselves to the world.

There's a degree to which Jobs and Bezos sort of had it easier than Elon because their businesses got so much bigger than his did. Steve was almost like an overnight success, and then, yeah, he went through his dark patch. Bezos, there were tons of doubters throughout Amazon, but it hit big throughout the dot-com boom and has kept going and going.

Amazon CEO And Founder Of Blue Origin Jeff Bezos Speaks At Satellite Industry Conference
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos founded Blue Origin, a rocket company that competes with SpaceX.
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

If you look at something like Blue Origin, Bezos’s rocket company, they've never had to have a for-profit business. Elon had “fuck you” money, but he didn't really have rocket money. The only way SpaceX could survive was turning this into an actual for-profit business. That was hard as hell. The company was really lucky to be alive.

Tesla was the same way. Those companies struggled for so long. Only now do they look like successes. And both companies could still go under. So Elon has been teetering on the edge for much longer than those other guys had to.

Elon is not the presenter that Jobs was; I don't think he's the design guru that Jobs was. He does have that attention to detail on the product. He knows every single fucking thing on the rockets and the cars. He makes decisions that are very Jobsian. None of the engineers wanted to do the retractable door handles on the Tesla Model S. Elon insisted, and it became this iconic feature. There were a lot of examples, like on the rockets, where people said, “The stuff you're doing is crazy.”

Timothy B. Lee

Another parallel: Apple, Amazon, Tesla, and SpaceX are all famous for being difficult places to work because their CEOs frequently demanded the impossible from their employees and had no sense of work/life balance. Do you think that kind of management style is necessary to push people to achieve at the highest level in these industries, or would it have been possible for them to be successful without driving their people so hard?

Ashlee Vance

I’ve thought about this a lot. I don't think it's essential, but I think it depends what kind of business you're in.

When you hear people talking about Netflix, you don't hear the same kind of things. You have to work hard, but they have all these perks and they’ve created a culture that's sort of idyllic. You don't usually hear about people suffering in misery there.

But for all three of those guys, it does seem to be an incredibly effective approach. I don't know how long it's sustainable, but for a period of time they get more out of their employees than anyone else.

Apple CEO Jobs Delivers Keynote At Worldwide Developers Conference
Apple’s Steve Jobs was a famously demanding boss.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

When SpaceX and Tesla started, if you were into space or electric vehicles, you'd put up with a lot to work on those companies. Because [Musk] was the only guy on the planet who could make your dreams come true. It was exciting, and you were willing to suffer.

Now there are lots of rocket companies, lots of interesting car companies. So I’m curious if he can keep it up.

Timothy B. Lee

Tesla and SpaceX have both repeatedly missed their early targets for delivering new products. Early Tesla cars and early SpaceX rockets came out years later than originally forecast. But [Musk] did eventually deliver on his promises.

Now there’s a lot of debate about whether Tesla will be able to deliver the Model 3 by the end of 2017 as he promised. How much do you think it matters if he’s late? As long as Musk eventually delivers a great product, does it matter if he misses his self-imposed deadlines?

Ashlee Vance

Elon uses unrealistic deadlines as a management tool to get the absolute most out of people.

To me, it's already getting kind of problematic. Tesla has this window right now where they can become the iPhone of cars. It's not just that they're electric; they have this amazing software in the car. They have this glow around them, and they have a limited window of opportunity to seize on that.

We've already seen BMW and Audi building electric cars. They have way more expertise. If Tesla delays the Model 3, I think this catches up to them.

SpaceX is similar. SpaceX has rattled the cages, woken competitors up from their slumber. The whole premise is that this company can launch faster and cheaper than anybody else. If they stop being able to prove that, it takes away the mystique.

Timothy B. Lee

Are you sure the window is so short? Maybe the reason Tesla and SpaceX keep blowing through deadlines is that the stuff they’re working on is inherently difficult. Which could mean that competitors will take just as long to catch up.

Ashlee Vance

I think it's true to a degree. You can show the automakers what this is supposed to look like, and they are still going to struggle to build it. They are not wired to move quick enough to make this many changes. They're used to going on two- and four-year cycles. If Elon wants something to appear tomorrow on the screen, it's going to happen tomorrow. Those companies are probably never going to do that. I do think there's a cultural difference there that the upstart has an edge on the incumbent.

Same thing on the rockets. They can see what SpaceX is doing, but to mimic it, they'd have to unwind 50 years of culture and a lot of things about the way they build the rocket and how they contract things out.

So it depends on what kind of window you're talking about. If it's the Model 3 slips by six months, okay. If it's like three or four years, that starts to become an issue. That doesn't look like it's going to happen this time.

Everyone is caught up on the electric car thing, but one of the huge advantages of Tesla is software. The closer something comes to being a computer, the more that Silicon Valley is the place where people succeed.

When I started on the book, Ford had, like, an eight-person Silicon Valley play office out here. Google was hiring all these software guys, Tesla was hiring all these software guys. I think they still underestimate the challenge. It's not easy just to look at the thing and copy it because there's so many layers, from the technology to the manufacturing.

Timothy B. Lee

One of the big themes I noticed throughout your book was the importance of vertical integration for the success of both Tesla and SpaceX. Both companies started out with a plan to contract most of the components out to third parties and just do a few things themselves. But they kept finding that suppliers couldn’t meet their requirements — they delivered components too slowly, charged too much, didn’t have high enough performance, or whatever. And so over time, they built more and more stuff in house. And as a side effect, they were able to iterate a lot faster. How important do you think that has been to Elon Musk’s success?

Ashlee Vance

It's been critical. At the outset, SpaceX didn't want to build much of anything. They saw a lot of bloat and ways to be more efficient just by using the existing suppliers. But they discovered it was never going to happen on the level they wanted. Today the vertical integration at SpaceX is their supreme advantage over everyone else.

You see the United Launch Alliance, the Lockheed/Boeing rocket partnership, brag to Congress about having 1,200 suppliers in different states to make its rockets. It's like this job creation thing. I understand where it comes from, but it's insane. They're never going to get to the price of SpaceX. It's been this huge advantage along the way, and SpaceX has had to invent things along the way.

I talk about a technique called friction stir welding in the book because it's a big fucking deal. It lets them make lighter rockets than anyone else. They had to make the machine to make the machine. For them to be able to make all these changes inside their own factory is absolutely a huge edge, instead of having the idea in California and then shipping it to Alabama and hoping it's implemented right.

Tesla started out the same way. They borrowed a body from Lotus. They didn't want to make their own transmission. But the supply chain became so bad because they were getting the car bodies from England and the batteries from Thailand. The costs were so high. So they had to do more of that themselves. Over time, they had to bring a lot of it in house.

One result: Today, the speed at which those guys test the prototypes is crazy. Their competitors can’t match it.

Timothy B. Lee

Musk has said that his ultimate goal is human colonization of Mars. Obviously that sounds a little bit crazy, but on the other hand he’s exceeded people’s expectations plenty of times before.

Ashlee Vance

When I started on the book, I was not a space geek. This is not like a cause for me. And I thought it was all nuts.

Now I divide it into two questions. Will SpaceX make a rocket that will go to Mars? I'm absolutely sure of that. It's not even an Elon thing; it's the level of talent and commitment on that company. On their computers they have CAD drawings of what this rocket will look like. A rocket will get to Mars, probably later than Elon is saying, but probably not too far off.

The second part is stuff like the habitats and how people would survive the initial days. None of that stuff actually exists yet. When you talk to Elon, he is so smart on this stuff he can buffalo you. You run out of questions to pin him down. Maybe he has it all worked out in his head.

Then you get to the stuff about heating the planet up. He's talked about bombing the poles with nuclear weapons. Nobody knows if that's going to work. That's where I feel like the details really start to fade away and it gets more sketchy.

But he's really going to try to do this. It’s not some PR stunt. And it's not just Elon. This is all these people’s life dream. These guys would not work in the SpaceX environment for all these years if they weren’t serious. There are tons of true believers. The cheers that go off when they land these rockets. You do not see that same sort of response at other companies.

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