Musk’s motto in life is, “If you aren’t failing, you aren’t innovating enough.” While we can easily measure him now for his plethora of successes, he has had quite a few failures and setbacks along the way.
He has been pushed out of companies that he helped create, and several of the first rockets he attempted to launch exploded. He also survived cerebral malaria and a serious car crash.
At the age of 12, Musk created a video game called “Blastar.” At the time, video games were just beginning to become popular, and he sold the code to his game for $500 to a computer magazine. Way back in the early 1980s, $500 was big money, especially for a 12-year-old kid.
Despite that early success, he did not study computer programming. He began college in South Africa where he was born and raised and finished at the University of Pennsylvania. His degree was in economics and he earned a second degree in physics.
If you were online in the 1990s, you might remember web browser Netscape. In 1995, Musk decided to use his computer savvy to apply to Netscape, and he even went to the company’s office to follow up on his application.
However, he was too shy and nervous about approaching anyone to discuss his application, and he ultimately did not get the job. While this failure may have certainly set him back, he went on to create some Internet companies that eventually became quite successful.
Zip2 was an online business that developed city guides, and Musk co-founded it with his brother. The company worked with newspapers to publish maps, yellow pages, and directions for getting around town. The company became quite successful and had contracts with The Chicago Tribune and The New York Times.
However, his board of directors did not see Musk as CEO material, and they nearly pushed him out entirely. He became the chairman of the company, and when it sold for $307 million to Compaq in 1999, he made $22 million. No small amount, but to be disregarded by the company’s board of directors that you co-founded has got to be disheartening.
In 1999, the same year that Compaq purchased Zip2, Musk used $10 million of his earnings to start the website X.com. X.com enabled secure payments using email accounts, which is commonplace today that we hardly ever think about it.
Yet when X.com launched, it was named one of the 10 worst business ideas. People must have thought that writing checks and mailing them to people who would then go to the bank to cash them was the best way to send people money. But Musk’s idea became a central feature of how we use the Internet in the twenty-first century.
Despite being told that his business idea was laughable, Musk continued working on the money transfers provided by X.com. His efforts finally paid off when it merged with a company called Confinity in 2000. Confinity had a financial side called PayPal, and Musk focused on building up that component.
Have you heard of PayPal? Odds are, you’ve used it in the past month. Two years later, in 2002, eBay bought PayPal for $1.5 billion. Musk took home $165 million from the sale.
Musk was a critical figure in the development of PayPal. We may not have gotten to where we are today with Internet money transfers without the work that he did with X.com and Confinity. But when he became CEO of PayPal, he got into an argument with one of the administrators.
As a result of the argument while he was on his honeymoon in 2000, he got fired from the company he helped create. It was also pretty much for the second time (the first time being when the board of directors at Zip2 refused to let him be the CEO).
Malaria is a disease carried by mosquitoes and is particularly prevalent in tropical locations and Africa. The condition is so severe that in countries where it spreads most prolifically, lifespans are shorter and economies remain underdeveloped.
In 2000, Musk contracted cerebral malaria and nearly died. He spent a full six months recovering from his illness. He must have spent some of that time reflecting on his successes and failures so far because he was about to go on to what could have been the most epic failure of his entire life.
With the massive success of X.com and Confinity, which would soon bring him the most substantial paycheck of his life so far, Musk went on to start a company that seemed to be a mix between science fiction and a foregone conclusion of failure.
To acquire rockets that the company could use to begin envisioning space travel to Mars, Musk traveled to Russia. Not only did the Russian officials that he met with refuse to sell him rockets, one of them spit in his face. So Musk decided if he wanted rockets, he would have to create his own.
Musk’s name is almost synonymous with Tesla nowadays, but he did not found the company. He came in a year after it started and became the chairman of the company’s board of directors. The now-billionaire also helped provide critical early support by overseeing the Round A series of investments.
Musk oversaw some product development in his early years at Tesla, but he was not involved in the company’s day-to-day operations. Yet Musk was at Tesla to stay, and he would help turn it into the powerhouse of electric automobiles that it is today.
The financial crisis of 2008 hit businesses around the world and Tesla was no exception. The company had to undergo some reorganizing, meaning people got fired. Musk became the CEO of Tesla to replace one of its co-founders, who fell prey to the woes of 2008.
That year, Tesla began selling its first electric car, one that Musk himself had helped develop. The company has since branded itself with its electric vehicles, many of which can be run entirely on solar energy. He has remained at Tesla, and as of 2019, was the longest-serving CEO of any automobile company in the world.
SpaceX may have initially looked more like a chance for Musk to play with boyhood fantasies of building and launching rockets than a successful business venture. He even funded over half of the company by himself because there were simply no investors.
However, in 2006, NASA announced that it would be awarding SpaceX with a contract to develop a spacecraft that could resupply the International Space Station. SpaceX developed the Dragon, which launched successfully and orbited the earth before returning in 2010. In 2012, the Dragon successfully landed on the ISS and returned to earth.
After launching a business that was considered laughable, getting ousted by the company that he helped to found, nearly dying from malaria, getting spit on, and experiencing countless other failures, Musk proved that he was here to stay with the successes of Tesla and SpaceX.
SpaceX became the first private company to land a spacecraft on the ISS successfully, and it delivered tons of food and supplies to crews there. In 2013, the year after the Dragon’s first successful landing on the ISS, Fortune Magazine named Musk Businessperson of the Year.
With his recent business successes and the success of what looked to be business flops such as PayPal, one might be tempted to think that Elon Musk set out to become a successful businessman. But that’s simply not true.
Musk is, first and foremost, a visionary who uses his resources to turn his dreams into reality. Sometimes, those dreams succeed. Furthermore, more often than not, those dreams fail or fail before achieving (as in the case of SpaceX). The important thing is not that he failed or succeeded, but that he never gave up.
Back in the early 2000s when Musk began SpaceX, it looked like something straight out of Isaac Asimov’s science fiction story. And for good reason – Asimov’s novels were part of the inspiration. SpaceX was a dream that was not necessarily destined to become successful. Nevertheless, ultimately it did.
Very few people have the genius and the resources of Musk. But we can all learn something valuable from his life: failures are just as important as successes, and failing is an essential part of ultimately becoming successful. Without all the shortcomings that he had along the way, Musk may have never become the icon that he is today.
Solar City was something that Musk co-founded back in 2006 with two of his cousins, Peter and Lyndon Rive. The company provided solar power to cities across the United States and became the second-largest provider in the country.
In 2016, Tesla acquired Solar City. Together, they are two significant efforts that Musk has been a part of to help combat climate change. Solar City provides the photovoltaic chargers that power Tesla vehicles, and it is also expanding the infrastructure of solar power so that it becomes more accessible. In other words, Musk is dedicating his life to helping us get off of fossil fuels and stop climate change.
Musk did not set out to become immensely wealthy, though he certainly did. He set out to turn his dreams into reality, whether they were failures or successes. In 2015, he launched a nonprofit that would embody his ideas to further research and development of artificial intelligence.
OpenAI seeks to develop artificial intelligence that is safe for humanity, as opposed to the robots-take-over-the-world scenarios of apocalyptic thrillers such as I, Robot and The Matrix. The goal of OpenAI is to “counteract large corporations who may gain too much power by owning super-intelligence systems devoted to profits, as well as governments which may use AI to gain power and even oppress their citizenry.”
The Hyperloop may be the most ambitious of all of Musk’s brainchildren. It is a long-distance train (theoretically, it could span 930 miles) that uses air cushions and low pressure instead of tracks. Instead of sitting in train cars, travelers have their own pods.
This joint project between Tesla and SpaceX may sound even more bizarre than helping colonize Mars, but that may only be because nobody else thought of it first. The proposed route will go from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Musk has already called for developers to begin designing the pods and started work on the tunnel.
Neuralink is a company that aims to integrate human intelligence with artificial intelligence. The concept is undoubtedly impressive, but is it viable? Elon Musk thinks so.
The Boring Company is less dull than it sounds. The concept began when Musk was stuck in traffic and sent a Tweet about building a boring machine and digging tunnels. Furthermore, that’s precisely what he did. The Boring Company has been working with regulatory bodies to use its technology to dig tunnels, such as the tunnels for Hyperloop.
Musk has some well-developed political views, and he considers himself to be half-Democrat, half-Republican. Seeing as he is trying to facilitate colonization of Mars, he has already developed a plan for its government – a direct democracy in which the people have a direct say in the goings-on of their government.
He initially expressed criticism of Donald Trump, due to what he saw as a flawed character that lacked the integrity necessary to lead the country on a global stage. Nevertheless, he softened his stance and later became a member of two councils that advised the president.
The Paris Climate Agreement is an international treaty in which countries agree to plans that will prevent the world from heating up by more than two degrees Celsius. The goal is to slow down climate change and hopefully begin to reverse it.
When President Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, Musk left the two advisory councils that he served on. He insists that climate change is real, and addressing it needs to be a foremost concern for any government in the world today. Many of his business ventures are designed to move society away from fossil fuels to help reverse climate change.
NASA and SpaceX have been partnering to use greener fuels with fewer emissions and less toxicity to power people and rockets into space. This achievement is certainly noteworthy, but also a point of criticism for Musk, an ardent advocate for reversing our dependence on fossil fuels.
Many of SpaceX’s rockets have used kerosene, a by-product of oil processing, as fuel, and even the cleaner fuels still have emissions that are dangerous for the environment. Some people think that if Musk is going to follow through on his commitment to the environment, he has to develop fuels that are emission-free.
Tesla, what looked like a small-town start-up back in 2003, is now one of the most successful companies in the world. Its emissions-free cars have become so popular that factories are operating around the clock to keep up with orders. In 2017, the company was inducted into Fortune 500.
However, with this immense success comes the criticism that the working conditions at Tesla factories are unsafe. Workers are forced to work long hours without taking enough breaks, and at one point, Musk admitted that he was sleeping on the floor in his office.
In 2017, Musk announced that he wanted to take Tesla private, which would mean a massive restructuring of the company. Some shareholders complained that he was making misleading claims to increase the share price, and the Securities And Exchange Commission got involved. Tesla remains a publicly-traded company.
Following his role in the rescue attempt of a group of boys who became trapped in a cave in Thailand, lawsuits were filed against Musk for defamation. Specifically, he made a Tweet accusing one of the rescuers of being a pedophile. The accusation was false, and Musk later deleted the Tweets.
Though Musk has been the CEO of Tesla since 2008 and is the longest-serving CEO of an automobile company, the Securities And Exchange Commission requested that Musk not be allowed to serve as CEO in a publicly-traded company. This action is due to some public comments that Musk made about Tesla. A board now oversees him and his communications.
Maybe his dreaming works best when he is beset by failures and setbacks and has to muster up the courage to continue pursuing what he loves. Visionaries don’t work for financial success, and acquiring a vast fortune has turned previous visionaries into business people.
Musk’s dreams have become a reality, from launching an internet payment service to building rockets because he got spit on by a Russian official. From helping to develop concept electric cars to imagining something called a Hyperloop. All of these have taken society far into the future.
He has mainstreamed the possibility of using technology not requiring fossil fuels and developing infrastructure that supports renewable energy. He encourages progress that does not harm the environment and create additional climate change, making him a man of his century.
“A Timeline of Elon Musk’s Achievements!” V12 Society.
“Elon Musk.” Wikipedia.
“Elon Musk’s Failure Timeline Shows a History of Overcoming Setbacks.” Inverse. May 18, 2018.