Elon Musk – the new Steve Jobs – insane or genius? (part 3)

I just finished reading Elon Musk and following my two previous posts (part 1 and part 2), here are additional notes.


How does innovation work

It’s really a fascinating book and obviously Elon Musk is too. A really unique and tough character. And obviosuly, very much criticized and hated too. One such harsh critics comes from the MIT Technology Review with Tech’s Enduring Great-Man Myth by Amanda Schaffer. You should read it. I just extract two sentences:
“To put it another way, do we really think that if Jobs and Musk had never come along, there would have been no smartphone revolution, no surge of interest in electric vehicles?” Well, this is a critical question about the source of innovation. Society or individuals. The question is relevant for science too.
– “It’s precisely because we admire Musk and think his contributions are important that we need to get real about where his success actually comes from.” This is a quote from Mariana Mazzucato whom I have often quoted here. her book The Entrepreneurial State is a Must Read. It deals with the role of government in innovation. my stronger and stronger belief with years is that the governement makes things possible (science, technology and invention, innovation) but without exceptional individuals – often geniuses, sometimes to the border of insanity – I am not sure so much happens.

Now let me quote more Ashley Vance because the final chapters are as great as the first ones. These quotes show that despite the high role of the governement, it’s not sufficient to explain how innovation works.

As Tesla turned into a star in modern American industry, its closest rivals were obliterated. Fisker Automotive filed for bankruptcy and was bought by a Chinese auto parts company in 2014. One of its main investors was Ray Lane, a venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Lane had cost Kleiner Perkins a chance to invest in Tesla and then backed Fisker – a disastrous move that tarnished the firm’s brand and Lane’s reputation. Better Place was another start-up that enjoyed more hype than Fisker and Tesla put together and raised close to $1 billion to build electric cars and battery-swapping stations. The company never produced much of anything and declared bankruptcy in 2013.
The guys like Straubel who had been at Tesla since the beginning are quick to remind people that the chance to build an awesome electric car had been there all along. “It’s not really like there was a rush to this idea, and we got there first,” Straubel said. “It’s frequently forgotten in hindsight that people thought this was the shittiest business opportunity on the planet. The venture capitalists were all running for the hills.” What separated Tesla from the competition was the willingness to charge after its vision without compromise, a complete commitment to execute to Musks’s standards.

[Pages 315-16]

During the entire period of SolarCity’s growth, Silicon Valley had dumped huge amounts of money into green technology companies with mostly disastrous results. There was the automotive flubs like Fisker and Better Place, and Solyndra, the solar cell maker that conservatives loved to hold up as a cautionary tale of government spending and cronyism run amok. Some of the most famous venture capitalists in history, like John Doerr and Vinod Khosla, were ripped apart by the local and national press for their failed green investments. The story was almost always the same. People had thrown money at green technology because it seemed like the right thing to do, not because it made business sense. From new kinds of energy storage systems to electric cars and solar panels, the technology never quite lived up to its billing and required too much government funding and too many incentives to create a viable market. Much of this criticism was fair. It’s just that there was this Elon Musk guy hanging around who seemed to have figured something out that everyone else had missed. “We had a blanket rule against investing in clean-tech companies for about a decade,” said Peter Thiel, the PayPal cofounder and venture capitalist and Founders Fund. “On the macro level, we were right because clean tech as a sector was quite bad. But on the micro level, it looks like Elon has the two most successful clean-tech companies in the US. We would rather explain his success as being a fluke. There’s the whole Iron Man thing in which he’s presented as a cartoonish businessman – this very unusual animal at the zoo. But there is now a degree to which you have to ask whether his success is an indictment on the rest of us who have been working on much more incremental things. To the extent that the world still doubts Elon, I think it’s a reflection on the insanity of the world and not on the supposed insanity of Elon.” [Pages 320-21]

Tony Fadell about Musk

Tony Fadell, the former Apple executive, credited with bringing the iPod ad iPhone to market, has characterized the smartphone as representative of a type of super-cycle in which hardware and software have reached a critical point of maturity. Electronics are good and cheap, while software is more reliable and sophisticated. […] Google has its self-driving cars and has acquired dozens of robotics companies as it looks to merge code and machine. […] And a host of start-ups have begun infusing medical devices with powerful software to help people monitor and analyze their bodies and diagnose conditions. […] Zee Aero, a start-up in Mountain View, has a couple of former SpaceX staffers on hand and is working on a secretive new type of transport. A flying car at last? Perhaps. […] For Fadell, Musk’s work sits at the highest of this trend. “Whether it’s Tesla or SpaceX, you are talking about combining the old-world science of manufacturing with low-cost, consumer-grade technology. You put these things together, and they morph into something we have never seen before. All of a sudden there is a wholesale change. It’s a step function.” [Pages 351-52] Doesn’t this remind you of Zero to One by peter thiel.

Larry Page about Musk

Google has invested more than just about any other technology company into’s Musk’s sort of moon-shot projects: self-driving cars, robots, and even a cash prize to get a machine onto the moon cheaply. The company, however, operates under a set of constraints and expectations that come with employing tens of thousands of people and being analyzed constantly by investors. It’s with this in mind that Page sometimes feels a bit envious of Musk, who has managed to make radical ideas the basis of his companies. “If you think about Silicon Valley or corporate leaders in general, they’re not usually lacking in money,” Page said. “If you have all this money, which presumably you’re going to give away and couldn’t even spend it all if you wanted to, why then are you devoting your time to a company that’s not really doing anything good? That’s why I find Elon to be an inspiring example. He said, ‘Well, what should I really do in this world? Solve cars, global warming, and make humans multiplanetary.’ I mean those are pretty compelling goals, and now he has businesses to do that.” [Page 353]

Larry Page about education

This is a very interesting piece [pages 355-56] not linked to Musk: “I don’t think we’re doing a good job as a society deciding what things are really important to do.” Page said. “I think like we’re just not educating people in this kind of general way. You should have a pretty broad engineering and scientific background. You have some leadership training and a bit of MBA training or knowledge of how to run things, organize stuff, and raise money. I don’t think most people are doing that, and it’s a big problem. Engineers are usually trained in a very fixed area. When you’re able to think about all of these disciplines together, you kind of think differently and can dream of much crazier things and how they might work. I think that’s really an important thing for the world. That’s how we make progress.” [Pages 355-56]

Some final words about Musk

It’s funny in a way that Musk spends so much time talking about man’s survival but isn’t willing to address the consequences of what his lifestyle does to his body. “Elon came to the conclusion early in his career that life is short,” Straubel said. “If you really embrace this, it leaves you with the obvious conclusion that you should be working as hard as you can”. Suffering though has always been Musk’s thing. The kids at school tortured him. His father played brutal mind games. Musk then abused himself by working inhumane hours and forever pushing his businesses to the edge. The idea of work-life balance seems meaningless in this context. […] He feels that the suffering helped to make him who he is and gave him extra reserves of strength and will. [Page 356]


As Thiel said, Musk may well have gone so far as to give people hope and to have renewed their faith in what technology can do for mankind. [Page 356]

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