Features & Columns

Silicon Valley's Man of Mystery

If anyone can reinvent the universe as we know it, Elon Musk can
GROUND CONTROL: Sometimes boastful, but usually serious and a bit shy, Elon Musk shared his thoughts about his life and business ventures at SXSW in 2013. Photograph by Dan Pulcrano

Just as the world was growing weary of the endless paeans to Steve Jobs as our times' defining entrepreneur, along comes a figure who seems to be even more audacious, complex and transformational—while just getting started. His steely resolve makes Jobs look like a cultural romantic. Elon Musk combines a disciplined scientific mind with a dash of John DeLorean recklessness. The vastness of his ambition and formidable track record suggests the past and present—Paypal, Tesla, SolarCity, SpaceX—is but prologue, and bigger things are yet to come. For starters: hyperloop mass transit between the two Californias, battery-powered homes, self-driving cars, a mission to Mars.

The elusive Musk keeps writers at a distance. Undeterred by his subject's refusal to cooperate, technology journalist Ashlee Vance, who like Musk is South African-born, began researching what became "Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future." After digging for 18 months, Musk contacted Vance and met him for dinner at The Sea in Mountain View. Musk agreed to grant access without conditioning it on an advance reading, resulting in this groundbreaking biography.

Published three months ago, it quickly became a best seller. Metro is pleased to present this excerpt from one of the year's better Silicon Valley reads.—Dan Pulcrano

From Cars to Mars

September 2, 2015 by Ashlee Vance

In 2000, San Francisco had been overtaken by the boom of all booms and consumed by avarice. It was a wonderful time to be alive with just about the entire populace giving in to a fantasy— a get-rich-quick, Internet madness. The pulses of energy from this shared delusion were palpable, producing a constant buzz that vibrated across the city. Then, the implosion of the get-rich-quick Internet fantasy left San Francisco and Silicon Valley in a deep depression. The endless parties ended. The technology industry had no idea what to do with itself.

The dumb venture capitalists who had been taken during the bubble didn't want to look any dumber, so they stopped funding new ventures altogether. Entrepreneurs' big ideas were replaced by the smallest of notions. It was as if Silicon Valley had entered rehab en masse. A populace of millions of clever people came to believe that they were inventing the future. Then . . . poof! Playing it safe suddenly became the fashionable thing to do.

Elon Musk should have been part of the malaise. He jumped right into dotcom mania in 1995, when, fresh out of college, he founded a company called Zip2— a primitive Google Maps meets Yelp. That first venture ended up a big, quick hit. Compaq bought Zip2 in 1999 for $307 million. Musk made $22 million from the deal and poured almost all of it into his next venture, a startup that would morph into PayPal. As the largest shareholder in PayPal, Musk became fantastically well-to-do when eBay acquired the company for $1.5 billion in 2002... continue reading