Lynn Bolin

Head of Communications and Media

August 2016

Book review - Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping our Future

You shouldn’t read Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping our Future because it chronicles the very interesting life of a South African who has made good abroad (his net worth is currently estimated by Forbes at just over US$12 billion). Rather, you should read this biography because it provides an outstanding lesson in what one individual can achieve through the application of tremendous persistence and passion in pursuit of his dreams.

The drive behind Tesla

So what are Elon Musk’s dreams? Through Ashlee Vance, a business journalist at Bloomberg, we learn that they are to make electric cars the dominant automobile on the planet in order to help save the environment, and, more importantly for Musk (but farfetched to many others), to make it possible for humans to colonise Mars as a “fallback” in case Earth is no longer a healthy option. Hence, his drive to form Tesla Motors and SpaceX.

Thanks to numerous innovations in engineering and technology, Tesla has successfully brought down the cost and improved the viability of battery-powered cars, while SpaceX has slashed the costs associated with safe space travel. These two businesses have made significant impacts on the automobile, energy and space industries in the short time they have been around, as has SolarCity, the solar power installation company Musk helped to start with his cousins.

 

The power of persistence

How has Musk achieved so much to date? It does take an exceptional individual, and we learn that Musk is highly intelligent and has the physical and mental stamina to work punishing hours (even 100 hours a week!), travelling extensively as well. An unrelenting taskmaster, he expects a similar commitment from his employees, and manages to hire and inspire some of the very best aerospace and automotive engineers on the planet to meet deadlines that to most people would seem impossible. However, he is also seen to possess little empathy for others and to take credit for breakthroughs not his own, leaving some disgruntled ex-employees and managers in his wake.

Controversies and criticisms

Musk’s early career is also not without controversy, in that he has been involved in a few company takeovers and shareholder agreements that have gone wrong, including Zip2 (a web-based information service) and X.com (the precursor to PayPal). In writing this biography, Vance is balanced in his treatment of these controversies and critics, but he is clearly a big admirer of the entrepreneur and understands his companies very well.

It is fascinating to read about this early history, and equally to learn about the development of the SpaceX rockets and Tesla cars as the two companies grow. Vance details their ups and downs, not shirking from the many failures along the way, and the seemingly insane risks taken by Musk and his staff. Musk puts his entire fortune on the line, with both companies nearly running out of cash at several points.

In reading Elon Musk, it is clear why it has been one of the most recommended books by top business leaders and notable publications like the Financial Times, New York Times and London Review of Books. Well written and entertaining, it will leave you wondering why there are seemingly so few other Elon Musks out there to shake things up.

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