Read Ashlee Vance's new biography of Elon Musk and you’ll learn that this most admired of American CEOs has a car collection that has included a McLaren F1 (sold to keep his empire going), a Porsche 911 Turbo, a 1967 Series 1 Jaguar E-Type and a BMW M5.
These are the cars you buy when you need to get somewhere in a hurry, and Elon Musk — even when he was 12 and marketing a novel video game — has always been in a hurry. No wonder he insisted on the Model S P85D reaching 60 mph in 3.2 seconds. “Relentless” is one word that gets attached to Musk in the book, and it’s apt. “Everything he does is fast,” said former engineer Kevin Brogan. “He pees fast.”
Author Ashlee Vance. He found that persistence paid with Elon. (Photo: Melinda Vance)
At both Tesla Motors and his rocket company, SpaceX (and to a lesser extent SolarCity, where he is the largest shareholder) Musk is insanely focused and maniacally demanding. But he gets away with it because he doesn’t ask more of his employees than he asks of himself. And the work is fantastically challenging.
Vance, the author of "Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future" (Ecco), told me in an interview, “I started to realize that it takes a certain type of person to work for Elon Musk. You have to be OK with going into a meeting and being yelled at and ridiculed in front of your peers if Elon is having a bad day. You shrug it off because you’re working at SpaceX or Tesla and doing work you really care about, and you know that Elon is going to push it to the limits. Some people are willing to do that, and some aren’t.”
The successful SpaceX launch of a Falcon 9 rocket. (Photo: Bill Wilkinson/Flickr)
SpaceX works because it has dramatically reduced the cost of going into space. Musk has turned the old system — complacent military contractors delivering outdated equipment at outlandish prices — on its head. A radio that cost $50,000 to $100,00 is $5,000 in the Tesla version.
Here’s a great story from the book. An engineer named Steve Davis was asked to build “an actuator that would trigger the gimbal action used to steer the upper stage of [the first Tesla rocket] Falcon 1.” So Davis goes to contractors who tell him they can build one ... for $100,000. Musk laughs. “That part is no more complicated than a garage door opener,” he tells Davis. “Your budget is $5,000. Go make it work.” And Davis does, for $3,900.
“I don’t ever set intentionally impossible goals,” Musk says. “But I’ve certainly always been optimistic on time frames.” And that’s a legitimate knock on Musk, that he delivers things late, including the storied Tesla Model X.
In an interview, Vance told me he thinks it’s the notoriously tricky “falcon wing” doors that have held things up.
Elon Musk at the wheel — in a great big hurry. (Photo: KQED Quest/Flickr)
One Musk trick with balking employees is to tell them they can quit, he’ll take on their job (in addition to everything else he does), and deliver the part in question on time and on budget. That would be an idle threat, but Elon actually does it (well, maybe not the on-time part).
The contents are often under pressure. In late 2008, Musk was facing the bankruptcy of both companies — that's when he sold the McLaren — and that wasn’t all. “SpaceX and Tesla were teetering,” Vance told me. “Elon was also getting a divorce, and being talked about on the Internet by his soon-to-be ex-wife. Tesla employees were putting up their own money so the company could make payroll.”
Antonio Gracias, a Musk friend and Tesla and SpaceX investor, says, “What he went through in 2008 would have broken anyone else. He didn’t just survive. He kept working and stayed focused.” When the pressure is on, Gracias said, “Elon gets hyperrational.”
NASA officials watch a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch: Musk believers? (Photo: NASA HQ/Flickr)
Musk isn’t a designer, but he took an early Model S home and came back with a request for 80 changes. Like Steve Jobs, once he thinks a product needs a certain feature — unfolding door handles on the Model S, gullwing doors on the Model X — he’s not going to let it go to meet a deadline or save money. And the result is, well, insanely great.
Is Musk in it for the long haul at Tesla? Maybe not. He has told me more than once that he might move on to other challenges, but the timelines he gave have long passed. Vance told me, “Elon’s ultimate passion is SpaceX. Getting to Mars is his life’s mission, and I think he would choose that over everything else. He’s seen himself as the only guy who can solve certain problems at Tesla, but if the company gets the third-generation car out, the battery factory is moving forward and there’s a clear trajectory, I think he’d be OK stepping away. Elon is searching for a chief operating officer, and hasn’t found the person who’s up to the job yet.”
My guess is that the winning candidate isn’t going to get weekends off. But maybe he or she will get to step on Mars.
Vance’s book is perhaps stronger on SpaceX than it is on Tesla, but it’s a great read and often gripping in its depiction of brinksmanship as an operating principle and a CEO who runs two high-stakes companies at the same time.
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