Elon Musk, the 21st Century Industrialist

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

Elon Musk is a 21st Century Industrialist — Steve Jobs, John D. Rockefeller, and Howard Hughes rolled into one. Even before he started Tesla and SpaceX he was running crazy ventures:

Musk put himself through Penn by throwing massive parties at a house he lived in with Adeo Ressi, another student. Ressi created day-glo artworks to give the house the feel of a club; Musk managed the finances. Ressi remembers Musk converting one of his works of art into a desk. “I’m like, ‘Dude, that’s like installation art in our party house.’ It wasn’t a desk. It was a work of art. The argument about this went on and on, and maybe today in his infinite wisdom he’ll admit that, ‘Adeo, that was art.’?” When asked about this, Musk says, “It was a desk.”

As an undergraduate, Musk wrote business plans for an electronic book-scanning service and an “ultra-capacitor” energy storage venture. He bored dates with monologues on the wonders of electric cars. To get any of his grand projects started, he needed a lot of money. So in 1995 he bailed out of a graduate program in applied physics at Stanford and, with Kimbal, started an Internet map and directory venture called Zip2. Four years later, they sold Zip2 to Compaq Computer for more than $300 million.

Musk took his winnings and plowed them into another startup called X.com. This was basically an online bank and would later become PayPal. Musk was the largest shareholder — and, for a time, CEO — until EBay acquired it for $1.5 billion in 2002. He made $180 million.

Musk poured that fortune into SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity, and funded a data-center software company called Everdream, among other ventures. He palled around with Hollywood types, which is how he got to know Favreau. Musk executive-produced the satirical 2005 movie Thank You for Smoking.

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