The biggest takeaway from technology journalist Ashlee Vance's new biography, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, is clear: The South African-born self-made billionaire's ambition will stop at nothing. But what really makes this tale of drive so interesting is Musk's track record to date. He's the man behind PayPal, Tesla Motors, SpaceX, and SolarCity . Vance's take on Musk gives readers an unbiased glimpse into the entrepreneur's undeniable success in some of the world's toughest industries for start-ups.
Ahead of the book's release on May 19, here are some of the most intriguing excerpts.
The PayPal Mafia
While Musk made his first fortune from an early start-up called Zip2, it was at PayPal that the entrepreneur first showed his ability to challenge a complex industry already set in its ways.
Musk's central role as co-founder of PayPal shouldn't be overlooked. In retrospect, the PayPal history is evidence of Musk's unquestionable genius at rallying talented individuals around a big goal and making things happen.
PayPal also came to represent one of the greatest assemblages of business and engineering talent in Silicon Valley history. Both Musk and [Peter] Thiel had a keen eye for young, brilliant engineers. The founders of start-ups as varied as YouTube, Palantir Technologies, and Yelp all worked at PayPal. Another set of people - including Reid Hoffman, Thiel, and [Roelof] Botha - emerged as some of the technology industry's top investors. PayPal staff pioneered techniques in fighting online fraud that have formed the basis of software used by the CIA and FBI to track terrorists and of software used by the world's largest banks to combat crime. This collection of super-bright employees has become known as the PayPal Mafia - more or less the current ruling class of Silicon Valley - and Musk is its most famous and successful member.
Musk's uncanny ability to build successful organizations hit new levels after PayPal.
"During a time in which clean-tech businesses have gone bankrupt with alarming regularity, Musk has built two of the most successful clean-tech companies in the world, " Vance writes. "The Musk Co. empire of factories, tens of thousands of workers, and industrial might has incumbents on the run and has turned Musk into one of the richest men in the world, with a net worth around $10 billion."
Tesla factory in Fremont, California. Source: Tesla Motors.
Musk's track record suggests his lofty goals are achievable
Vance goes beyond simply laying out Musk's track record. His portrait of Musk shows just how crucial the entrepreneur was to the major achievements behind every start-up he was involved with. Going even further, Vance's report of Musk led him to believe PayPal's achievements might have been limited by a cautious board of directors who had trouble wrapping their minds around Musk's unbridled ambition.
"History has demonstrated that while Musk's goals can sound absurd in the moment, he certainly believes in them and, when given enough time, tends to achieve them, " Vance argues.
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