You could not truly be the chief technology or product officer unless you were the CEO

Sunday, November 26th, 2023

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonFor the first six months of Zip2, Elon Musk and his brother Kimbal slept at the office, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), and showered at the YMCA:

Even after they moved in, Elon spent many nights in the office, crashing under his desk when he was exhausted from coding. “He had no pillow, he had no sleeping bag. I don’t know how he did it,” says Jim Ambras, an early employee. “Once in a while, if we had a customer meeting in the morning, I’d have to tell him to go home and shower.”


Errol Musk, not yet estranged from his sons, visited from South Africa and gave them $ 28,000 plus a beat-up car he bought for $ 500. Their mother, Maye, came from Toronto more often, bringing food and clothes. She gave them $ 10,000 and let them use her credit card because they had not been approved for one.

They got their first break when they visited Navteq, which had a database of maps. The company agreed to license it to the Musks for free until they started making a profit. Elon wrote a program that merged the maps with a listing of businesses in the area. “You could use your cursor and zoom in and move around the map,” says Kimbal. “That stuff is totally normal today, but it was mind-blowing to see that at the time. I think Elon and I were the first humans to see it work on the internet.” They named the company Zip2, as in “Zip to where you want to go.”


They bought a big frame for a computer rack and put one of their small computers inside, so that visitors would think they had a giant server. They named it “The Machine That Goes Ping,” after a Monty Python sketch. “Every time investors would come in, we showed them the tower,” Kimbal says, “and we would laugh because it made them think we were doing hardcore stuff.”

Maye flew from Toronto to help prepare for the meetings with venture capitalists, often staying up all night at Kinko’s to print the presentations. “It was a dollar a page for color, which we could barely afford,” she says. “We would all be exhausted except Elon. He was always up late doing the coding.”


They were soon astounded by an offer from Mohr Davidow Ventures to invest $ 3 million in the company. The final presentation to the firm was scheduled for a Monday, and that weekend Kimbal decided to make a quick trip to Toronto to fix their mother’s computer, which had broken. “We love our mom,” he explains. As he was leaving on Sunday to fly back to San Francisco, he got stopped by U.S. border officials at the airport who looked in his luggage and saw the pitch deck, business cards, and other documents for the company. Because he did not have a U.S. work visa, they wouldn’t let him board the plane. He had a friend pick him up at the airport and drive him across the border, where he told a less vigilant border officer that they were heading down to see the David Letterman show. He managed to catch the late plane from Buffalo to San Francisco, and made it in time for the pitch.

Mohr Davidow loved the presentation and finalized the investment. The firm also found an immigration lawyer to help the two Musks get work visas and gave them each $ 30,000 to purchase cars. Elon bought a 1967 Jaguar E-type. As a kid in South Africa, he had seen a picture of the car in a book on the best convertibles ever made, and he had vowed to buy one if he ever struck it rich. “It was the most beautiful car you could imagine,” he says, “but it broke down at least once a week.”

The venture capitalists soon did what they often do: bring in adult supervision to take over from the young founders. It had happened to Steve Jobs at Apple and to Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Google. Rich Sorkin, who had run business development for an audio equipment company, was made the CEO of Zip2. Elon was moved aside to chief technology officer. At first, he thought the change would suit him; he could focus on building the product. But he learned a lesson. “I never wanted to be a CEO,” he says, “but I learned that you could not truly be the chief technology or product officer unless you were the CEO.”


  1. Jim says:

    So true. Only one man may be king.

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