Interview Ex-Reg man Ashlee Vance has written a warts-and-all bio of Elon Musk. We quizzed him on how he did it – and why.
Reg: This book has an interesting genesis – Musk wouldn’t co-operate, so you decided to do it anyway. Then he agreed to interviews...
Vance: I probably benefited from Elon turning me down, because it totally pissed me off. I spent 18 months tracking down ex-employees, and his worst enemies from the X.com and PayPal days. Originally I wanted to talk him into me being a fly on the wall at SpaceX and Tesla. In retrospect that would have been too easy – that book would have made people vomit. You start to get a few really good stories and think you can do it without any help.
About two thirds of the story is a painful struggle where nothing seems like it will work out. How close was Musk to being cleaned out? His windfall from X.com and PayPal sounds like a lot of money, but it can go quite quickly on space ventures.
Vance: At one point after his wife got the house, he was living at a friend’s house. At Tesla, they were not taking their salaries, and not only that, they were giving money back to the company. Senior people were paying more junior people’s salaries. Then there comes a point at the end of 2008 where he bluffs off the other investors, and uses their greed against them. But there was no earthly reason to put money into Tesla at that point.
The Roadster had been out for some time by then.
Vance: The Roadster was a gimmick, it had lots of problems, and it was expensive. And it was 2008 and all the car companies were in trouble – I mean, why would you invest in a fucking electric car company? (Laughs.) You wouldn’t even invest in a real car company.
He played them off each other by pretending he could fund it himself. And they thought: “Shit, we don’t want to miss out.” Then the NASA deal came through. Half of NASA did not want to fund SpaceX and half of them did, so it could easily have gone the other way. Really it’s luck combined with chicanery.
And there aren’t many big space companies with a lot to show for it, once you go past the amateur space enthusiasts – that can win contracts.
Vance: Andrew Beal is a billionaire who started a space company – it made the test site that SpaceX took over in Texas. He got pretty far with his rocket and NASA just built a competitor to what he was making. NASA makes life difficult for most of these companies.
I’m depressed about millennial so-called entrepreneurs. Part of the reason I wanted to do the book was to shame them.
Well NASA could once, it trusted private companies to build incredible stuff. My favourite is the Lunar Orbiter – so much stuff was invented just to make that work. A whole Internet. Compression algorithms, developing the film on board. Cameras... At one point Musk gets called the craziest monkey in the zoo now for attempting it.
Vance: He was a pretty good interview. He’d answer questions without flinching.
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