Page File Elon Musk might be one of the most personally obnoxious tycoons to emerge from a culture that isn’t bereft of complete shits. Think Larry Ellison, or Steve Jobs.
According to one former employee of his, Musk has “a complete lack of loyalty or human connection”.
Yet he’s also by far the most interesting, and his achievements both dwarf and shame his Silicon Valley contemporaries.
Former Vulture Ashlee Vance, who (full disclosure) I helped recruit to El Reg, and who ran our West Coast bureau, has scored a real coup in the first biography of Musk. He gained Musk’s trust and co-operation yet turned out a “warts and all” portrait.
You’re left in no doubt about Musk’s shortcomings or sometimes stunningly insensitive behaviour. And it’s a riot to read, as it completely eschews the pompous, self-regarding style beloved by American business books.
In fact, it reads just like vintage Ashlee, like he’s explaining a cracking tale to you over a White Russian.
Musk’s two great achievements are as an industrialist: lowering the cost of space transportation, and backing the most promising US car startup since Chrysler 90 years ago, Tesla Motors, which has created the first attractive electric cars.
Musk didn’t have to embark on either mission, and both companies nearly broke him financially, as well as inflicting an enormous personal toll. Many millionaires before Musk have wasted their fortunes on space projects; Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson (the latter desperately coat-tailing onto Musk on the dust jacket) have little to show for their cash.
But SpaceX now launches every month or so and is the go-to contractor for businesses around the world.
Musk’s ventures achieved this by trying to meet impossibly ambitious goals on impossibly small budgets. Some of the rapid-fire iteration Musk picked up in Silicon Valley are applied, and he’s applied some of the service model from software companies to cars. Remarkably, it turns out, most of it is suck-and-see.
Here were a bunch of enthusiastic engineers making it up as they went along. Not surprisingly, then, much of the book is devoted to the agony of failure. Musk’s success in SpaceX and Tesla was very touch and go.
And it almost broke him several times over; Musk was remortgaging, downsizing territory having spent his fortune on SpaceX and Tesla, on products which appeared to be working. Musk appears unable to take “can’t be done” as an answer, and while this is a critical part of his success, there’s a huge casualty rate in the book as talented and loyal staff are dispensed with.
There are plenty of contradictions here, as you’d expect from such a strong personality. Musk both micromanages some parts and totally ignores others, leaving crucial details such as costs to other people, with serious consequences. Tesla’s co-founder was ousted because costs had run out of control: the Roadster elements costing the manufacturer $140,000 in parts (according to Musk) on a sale price of $90,000.
The success forms the smaller, latter part of the book, and when it arrives, it feels like a dream.