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While still in his early forties, Elon Musk had established himself as one of the world’s best known entrepreneurs and corporate leaders. He has been considered in the same category as Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, and Thomas Edison. Musk’s extraordinary intellect, vision, and the breadth of his ambition make him symbolic of the future. His rise to fame began in 1999 when he founded, an online payment company that eventually became PayPal, and was later sold to eBay for $1.5 billion in stock. In a few years, Musk invested this large amount of money into three start-up companies.
Musk wanted to start a low-cost Mars mission that would capture the imagination of thousands of people about space travel. To make life interplanetary, Musk reasoned that a transport system was needed that would be completely and rapidly reusable. To meet this need, in 2002, he founded Space Exploration Technologies (or SpaceX). The company has promised NASA and several satellite makers that the reusable rockets he is developing can deliver their payloads at substantially lower costs than competitors. SpaceX has contracts worth $4.2 billion for transporting U.S. astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station.
In 2012, the Dragon spacecraft of SpaceX delivered 500 pounds of provisions and equipment to the International Space Station. Dragon returned nine days later, landed in the Pacific Ocean precisely on target two minutes ahead of schedule and in excellent condition. Yet not all of SpaceX’s launches have proceeded smoothly. In September 2016, a massive fireball and explosion took place at SpaceX’s main launching pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The explosion destroyed a rocket as well as a satellite that Facebook planned to use to widen Internet service to Africa. SpaceX was still scrambling to get back on track with satellite deliveries following a launch accident in 2015.
In his quest to help Earth become less dependent on carbon-generating fuels, Musk cofounded Tesla, the electric car company, and SolarCity, which manufactures and markets solar-energy systems. Musk believes that Tesla is heading the world into a future without gasoline. In 2015, he predicted that in ten years Tesla would equal the market capitalization of Apple, which at the time was the world’s most valuable company. Robots are used extensively in building Tesla cars, often eight at a time. Tesla automobiles are sold directly to consumers, often through two dozen stores or galleries in the United States. Traditional dealers dislike this direct approach to sales because they say it violates state franchise laws.
Musk has also built a battery factory that will supply batteries for both Tesla vehicles and the solar systems built by SolarCity. The batteries will store energy in homes, with larger batteries that store energy for utility and business firms. Musk describes his large batteries as “a fundamental transformation of how the world works.” Musk believes that Powerpacks paired with solar panels could eliminate conventional power plants in some cities.
Musk is a strong believer in simplicity in technical design, in manufacturing, and in running an organization. Tim Mueller, the director of propulsion systems at SpaceX, says that the bureaucracy is much simpler in his company than in an organization such as NASA, which has to satisfy so many constituents. He says: “If you want to change something of fix something, just talk to Elon. It keeps the signal-to-noise ratio high.”
Musk displays a strong belief in his own capabilities and creativity, seen as a sign of hubris by some observers. He believes that he has a design that will allow for the colonization of Mars. Musk has filed for almost no patents because he believes that he is so strongly ahead of the field that nobody else could copy his technology. Musk’s reasoning is that if you move fast enough, nobody can catch you.
Several people who worked for Musk in the past describe him as autocratic and blunt, often to the point of being offensive. Steve Jurveson, a SpaceX board member, said about Musk: “Like Steve Jobs, Elton does not tolerate C or D players. But I’d say he’s nicer than Jobs and a bit more refined than Bill Gates.” In 2013, when three battery-related fires erupted in Tesla cars, Musk responded combatively to critics via his blog. He pointed out that gasoline fires were a greater potential danger than battery fires in an electric vehicle.
Musk is strongly interested in human resource management and selects key employees primarily on their ability to solve complex problems, rather than industry- relevant experience. Musk asks candidates what types of complex problems they have solved before, and presses for details.
Musk is such a fanatic about design that he devotes hours to personally inspecting every Tesla car. He will notice a headlamp misaligned by a few millimeters. He once said that the wrong type of screw in a sun visor, “feels like daggers in my eyes.”
Musk was raised in South Africa and Canada before coming to the United States to complete his college education. He holds undergraduate degrees in physics and business from the University of Pennsylvania. Musk acquired his expertise in aerospace engineering on his own, including being guided by textbooks on subjects such as fundamentals of liquid propellants as well as propulsion elements. Musk has also carefully studied a biography of Albert Einstein.
Sources: Original case based on facts and observations in the following sources: Max Chafkin, “Tunnel Vision: There’s a Huge Hole in Musk’s Trump-Era Business Plan,” Bloomberg Businessweek, February 20–March 5, 2017, pp. 52–55; Rolfe Winkler, “Tesla’s Musk Dream Big About Traffic,” The Wall Street Journal, May 1, 2017, p. B4; Winkler, “Brain Is Musk’s New Frontier,” The Wall Street Journal, March 28, 2017, p. B4; John Lippert, “Will Tesla Make Money?” Bloomberg Markets, April 2015, pp. 34–42; Max Chaflin, “Elon Musk Thinks Bigger,” Fast Company, December 2015–January 2016, pp. 118–116, 139–140; Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Nathan Furr, “ Tesla’s Secret Formula,” Forbes, September 7, 2014, pp. 90–118; Chris Woodyard, “Tesla’s CEO Standing Firm,” USA Today Money, November 20, 2013, p. 5B; Anne Vandermey, “The Shared Genius of Elon Musk and Steve Jobs,” Fortune, December 9, 2013, p. 105; “Explosion at Space X Launch Pad Destroys Rocket, Satellite,”, September 2, 2016, p. 1. Will be turned into TurnitIn
Which roles does Musk appear to occupy as a leader of his companies?