Tag Archives: Elon Musk

The Tesla Index, the new Innovation metric

There is no doubt about it, and as the summer begins smoothly, I allow myself an article somewhat less serious than usual, which confirms the thesis of my previous article, The University-based Startup Porsche Principle. Or is it the Tesla Principle?

Innovation is a complex topic but this does not prevent the desire to measure it. The Global Innovation Index with its 83 parameters is the best illustration of this. But cann’t we make it simpler? I propose the simpler Tesla Index which measures the number of Tesla linked to the institution which innovation is to be measured. It shows a certain financial success combined with a curiosity for novelty. We can always bring it back to the size of the entity if necessary …

At EPFL, the Tesla index according to my measures is 4 as of June 26, 2017 …

A Tesla, being charged on the EPFL campus on June 26, 2017…

on June 15, 2017

on June 13, 2017

on May 10, 2017

then the index goes up to 5, on July 4, 2017

then the index goes up to 7, on July 14, 2017 (I am not sure the red one is not the one I found first above). Thanks, Aurélien!

Elon Musk and the Secret Sauce of Entrepreneurship (according to Tim Urban)

A student of mine (thanks 🙂 ) just sent me a link to amazingly great blog articles about Elon Musk. I had never of heard of the author, Tim Urban, and his blog Wait But Why but I will certainly follow his work from now on.

Tim Urban has written four articles about “the world’s most remarkable living entrepreneur.”
Part 1: Elon Musk: The World’s Raddest Man.
Part 2: How Tesla Will Change the World.
Part 3: How (and Why) SpaceX Will Colonize Mars.
Part 4: The Chef and the Cook: Musk’s Secret Sauce.
These 4 posts represent hundreds of pages if you print them. No kidding. I’ve read part 4 and it was a real (positive) shock. Tim Urban explains Musk’s entrepreneurial strengths. I just give some extracts but if must read it all (if you find the time).

“I think generally people’s thinking process is too bound by convention or analogy to prior experiences. It’s rare that people try to think of something on a first principles basis. They’ll say, “We’ll do that because it’s always been done that way.” Or they’ll not do it because “Well, nobody’s ever done that, so it must not be good.” But that’s just a ridiculous way to think. You have to build up the reasoning from the ground up —“from the first principles” is the phrase that’s used in physics. You look at the fundamentals and construct your reasoning from that, and then you see if you have a conclusion that works or doesn’t work, and it may or may not be different from what people have done in the past.” […] Musk is an impressive chef for sure, but what makes him such an extreme standout isn’t that he’s impressive — it’s that most of us aren’t chefs at all. […] “When I was a little kid, I was really scared of the dark. But then I came to understand, dark just means the absence of photons in the visible wavelength—400 to 700 nanometers. Then I thought, well it’s really silly to be afraid of a lack of photons. Then I wasn’t afraid of the dark anymore after that.” That’s just a kid chef assessing the actual facts of a situation and deciding that his fear was misplaced. As an adult, Musk said this: “Sometimes people fear starting a company too much. Really, what’s the worst that could go wrong? You’re not gonna starve to death, you’re not gonna die of exposure—what’s the worst that could go wrong?” Same quote, right? […] That’s Elon Musk’s secret sauce. Which is why the real story here isn’t Musk. It’s us. […] People believe thinking outside the box takes intelligence and creativity, but it’s mostly about independence. When you simply ignore the box and build your reasoning from scratch, whether you’re brilliant or not, you end up with a unique conclusion—one that may or may not fall within the box.


Then Tim Urban quotes Steve Jobs from his famous speech at Stanford in 2005 (I think): “When you grow up, you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact. And that is: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”


And all this reminds me about an essay I mentioned in the conclusion of my book, an essay by Wilhelm Reich, the great psychoanalyst, who he wrote in 1945: “Listen, Little Man”. A small essay by the number of pages, a big one in the impact it creates. “I want to tell you something, Little Man; you lost the meaning of what is best inside yourself. You strangled it. You kill it wherever you find it inside others, inside your children, inside your wife, inside your husband, inside your father and inside your mother. You are little and you want to remain little.” The Little Man, it’s you, it’s me. The Little Man is afraid, he only dreams of normality; it is inside all of us. We hide under the umbrella of authority and do not see our freedom anymore. Nothing comes without effort, without risk, without failure sometimes. “You look for happiness, but you prefer security, even at the cost of your spinal cord, even at the cost of your life”.

Tim Urban is absolutely right and you need to read his piece about dogma and tribes. He made me think again of my readings of the great French philosopher Cynthia Fleury and how we need to balance the individuals and the groups and why democracy is a fragile jewel of societies…

PS: I totally forgot to mention a video that a colleague of mine (thanks to her now 🙂 ) mentioned a few days ago. BY one of these nice coincidences of life, it is precisely one of the arguments of Tim Urban about why some people are “cooks” (followers or incremental innovators) and others “chefs” (disruptive innovators). Enjoy!

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]

Elon Musk – the new Steve Jobs (part 2)

After reading chapters 8 & 9 of Elon Musk and after my recent post about the Tesla and SpaceX leader, I am now fully convinced Elon Musk is much more than Steve Jobs. He has brought back optimism to Silicon Valley, to the USA and maybe to the world. He has also brought back hardware and engineering in a world that was thinking everything was virtual and online. Mea culpa, I felt the same; I felt that software and intelligence was what was driving the world. Elon Musk has shown that tinkering, experimenting coupled with an ambitious vision could change the world.


“When the launch was successful [SpaceX 4th launch but the 1st to be successful], everyone burst into tears”, Kimbal said. “It was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve had.” Musk left the control room and walked out of the factory floor, where he received a rock’s star welcome. “Well, that was freaking awesome,“ he said. “There are a lot of people who thought we couldn’t do it – a lot actually – but as the saying goes, ‘the fourth time is the charm’, right? There are only a handful of countries on Earth that have done this. It’s normally a country thing, not a company thing…. [Page 203]

But the reader should not forget the tough reality: For Gracias, the Tesla and SpaceX investor and Musk’s friend, the 2008 period told him everything he would ever need to know about Musk’s character. He saw a man who arrived in the United States with nothing, who had lost a child, who was being pilloried in the press by reporters and his ex-wife and who verged on having his life’s work destroyed. “He has the ability to work harder and endure more stress than anyone I’ve met”, Gracias said. “What he went through in 2008 would have broken anyone else. He didn’t just survive. He kept working and stayed focused.” That ability to stay focused in the midst of a crisis stands as one of Musk’s main advantages over other executives and competitors. “Most people who are under that sort of pressure fray,” Gracias said. “their decisions go bad. Elon gets hyperrational. He’s still able to make very clear, long-term decisions. The harder it gets, the better he gets. Anyone who saw what he went through firsthand came away with more respect for the guy. I’ve just never seen anything like his ability to take pain”. [Page 211]

Again, Musk is not afraid of risk-taking. As 2008 came to an end, Musk had run out of money […] The couple had to start borrowing hundreds of thousands of dollars from Musk’s friend Skoll and Riley’s parents offered to remortgage their house. Musk no longer flew his jet back and forth between Los Angeles and Silicon Valley. He took Southwest. [Pages 206-207] He manage to save Tesla, The deal ended up closing on Christmas Eve, hours before Tesla would have gone bankrupt. Musk had just a few hundred thousand dollars left and could not have made payroll the next day. […] On December 23, 2008, however, SpaceX received a shock. People inside NASA had backed SpaceX to become a supplier for the ISS. The company received $1.6 billion as payment for twelve flights to the Space Station. [Page 210]

It is also interesting to mention Musk’s hiring methods! The SpaceX hiring model places some emphasis on getting top marks at top schools. But most of the attention goes toward spotting engineers who have exhibited type A personality traits over the course of their lives. The company’s recruiters look for people who might excel at robot-building competitions or who are car-racing hobbyists who have built unusual vehicles. The object is to find individuals who ooze passion, can work well as part of a team, and have real-world experience bending metal. “Even if you’re someone who writes code for your job you need to understand how mechanical things work. We were looking for people that had been building things since they were little.” [Page 220] Interviews are tough with puzzles, code writing and Musk interviewed the first 1’000 employees de SpaceX.

I am far from finished but needs to end up for now with my usual cap. tables for Musk’s ventures: 1-Paypal, 2-Tesla Motors, 3-SolarCity which he did not found but backed from the early days and the two founders are his cousins, 4-finally a tentative cap. table based on what SpaceX announced.


2-Tesla Motors




Elon Musk – the new Steve Jobs

Elon Musk is probably the new Steve Jobs. He might be much more even. His early life, his private life has not been simple and easy. He is probably as tough with a similar distorted perception of reality as the Apple hero. But as an entrepreneur, he may have a broader vision and ambition. He began small and simple with Zip2, an early Internet yellow pages start-up, which he still sold for $307M, followed by X.com which had the ambition to change the banking system before it merged with Confinity to become Paypal. Both were just experiments! He learnt and developed his “grandes oeuvres”: Tesla and SpaceX.

Ashlee Vance has just written a remarkable and fascinating book Elon Musk, Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for A Fantastic Future about his life and achievements.


Zip2 – 1995 – 3 co-founders (Elon and Kimbal Musk, Greg Kouri) $3M with MDV – sold to Compaq / AltaVista for $307M on April 1, 1999 after more than $50M additional funding. Elon made $22M, Kimbal $15M, MDV 22x its money.

X.com – 1999 – 4 co-founders (Ed Ho, Harris Fricker, Christopher Payne, Elon Musk) and early employee, Scott Anderson. Bill Harris, CEO in Dec. 99. Merges with Confinity in March 2000. Musk netted $250M from the sale to eBay or $180M after taxes.

All told, Musk invested $12M into X.com, leaving him, after taxes, with $4M or so for personal use. “That’s part of what separates Elon from mere mortals,” said Ed Ho, the former Zip2 executive, who went to cofound X.com. “He’s willing to take an insane amount of personal risk. When you do a deal like that, it either pays off or you end up in a bus shelter somewhere.” [Page 80]

Musk was replaced as CEO while on honeymoon. But when it became clear that the company had already moved on, Musk relented. “I talked to Moritz [from Sequoia] and a few others,” Musk said. “It wasn’t so much that I wanted to be CEO but more like ‘Hey, I think there are some pretty important things that need to happen, and if I’m not CEO, I’m not sure they are going to happen.’ But then I talked to Max [Levchin] and Peter [Thiel], and it seemed they would make these things happen. So then, I mean, it’s not the end of the world. […] Throughout this ordeal, however, he showed incredible restraint. He embraced the role of being an advisor to the company and kept investing in it, increasing his take as PayPal’s largest shareholder. “You would expect someone in Elon’s position to be bitter and vindictive, but he wasn’t”, said Botha [from Sequoia], “He supported Peter. He was a prince.” [Pages 88-89]

Musk is direct and tough but “He comes from the school of thought in the public relations world that you let no inaccuracy go uncorrected” [page 91]. An example of toughness in his private life: “He was constantly remarking on the ways he found me lacking. ‘I am your wife,’ I told him repeatedly, ‘not your employee’. ‘If you were my employee,’ he said just as often, ‘I would fire you.’” [Page 94]. He married and divorced 3 times, first with Justine Wilson, with whom Musk had 1 baby who died after 10 weeks, then 2 twins, then 3 triplets, then twice with Talulah Riley.

Chapters 6 and 7 are a MUST READ. They show the drive, craziness, vision, obsession that Musk put into building rockets and electric cars, combining the chaos of start-ups and the structure needed for manufacturing.

SpaceX – Space Exploration Technologies Corp. – 2002 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SpaceX. The [PayPal] deal gave Musk some liquidity and supplied him with more than $100M to throw at SpaceX.

Tesla Motors – founded on July 1st 2003 by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning who had sold a previous start-ups for $187M in 2000. In parallel Musk helped J. B. Straubel, a passionate Stanford student, who had seen batteries had reached efficiency possibly useful to electric cars. Musk invested $6.5M in Tesla and Straubel joined in May 2004. On January 27, 2005, the 18 Tesla employees had built the first prototype. Musk invested another $9M in a $13M round. In May 2006 Tesla had 100 employees. Musk invested another $12M together with DFJ, Larry Page, Sergey Brin and others for a new $40M round. In the middle of 2007, tesla had grown to 260 employees. [page 165]

There is an interesting section about Detroit and how different its culture is from Silicon Valley [Page 164¡: Every time Tesla interacted with Detroit it received a reminder of how the once-great city had been separated from its own can-do culture. Tesla tried to lease a small office in Detroit. The costs were incredibly low compared with Space in Silicon Valley, but the city’s bureaucracy made getting just a basic office an ordeal. The building’s owner wanted to see seven years of audited financial from Tesla, which was still a private company. Then the building owner wanted two years’ worth of advanced rent. Tesla had about $50 million in the bank and could have bought the building outright. “In Silicon Valley, you say you’re backed by a venture capitalist, and that’s the end of the negotiation.” Tarpenning said. “But everything was like that in Detroit. We’d get FedEx boxes, and they couldn’t even decide who should sign for the packages”.

Then fights began between Musk and Eberhard: The engineers credited Eberhard with making quick, crisp decisions. […] Musk wanted changes that started to delay the Roadster, Musk kept pushing the car to be more comfortable. […] Eberhard groused that these features were slowing the company down. […] The company as a whole was sympathetic to Martin [Page 165]. Many issues began to appear, technical problems such as the transmission, overall costs issues and finally delays in delivering the Roadster to customers who had prepaid for it.

In August 2007, Tesla’s board demoted Eberhard to president of technology. Most of the employees were tired; Tesla was running out of money after $140M spent. In the meantime, SpaceX failed with its first two rocked launches. And musk filed for divorce. When the 2008 crisis burst out, Musk was in personal and business troubles with his two companies.

More to come if I love as chapters 8-11.

PS – a short reminder about previous posts about Elon Musk:
– June 3, 2010: What makes a good technology company? A mastery of fear and envy.
– March 8, 2010: Tesla Motors and Paypal, a tale of two founders