Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Elon Musk, the daring techpreneur

The book "Elon Musk: How the billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is shaping our future" by Ashlee Vance gives  the story of  Musk, the audacious entrepreneur who has dared to disrupt the business of making rockets and cars. Vance has described the journey of Musk in a easily readable, lively and enjoyable way. He has been objective in his portrayal, having talked to his detractors as well as admirers. His narrative is authentic thanks to his personal access to Musk and his colleagues, friends and family. The book brings out vividly Musk's passion, vision, drive and undauntable spirit. Musk is a rare combination of a nerd, businessman, leader and visionary. 

Space shuttles and Cars were the exclusive domain of big governments and companies who could afford billions of dollars and take risks. But Musk had started the two businesses like a Silicon Valley start-up and scaled them up with his ingenious and innovative ways. He had gambled his own money (all of the 200 million dollars he had got from the sale of Paypal) in these risky ventures, playing for all or nothing. Several times, he went through dangerous phases of losing everything and failing. He was the butt of jokes and called as crazy by many. When his rockets went up in flames and when he did not know how he was going to pay the salary of his employees, he rose to the occasions and managed to come out on top with a cool head and pragmatic approach.  When the third launch of Falcon vehicle failed, Musk addressed his employees, saying, " I will never give up and I mean never.if you stick with me, we will win." This was one of those defining moments of Musk's unique leadership and indomitable spirit. 

The best line of the author, is " Musk is more hands on than Hugh Hefner". Ha..ha..ha.. Musk insisted that any expenditure above 10,000 dollars should have his approval, even when the company was spending millions of dollars a day. When an engineer wanted to buy a special equipment called as actuator for 120,000 dollars, Musk told him to find a way to make it himself for just 5000 dollars. The engineer had no alternative but to innovate. He made it for 3900 dollars after nine months of hard work. While the behemoth ULA (United Launch Alliance), a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin charged the US government 380 million dollars per space flight, SpaceX could do it for just 90 million. 

Musk has demolished the myth that outsourcing is the best way to cut costs. While ULA depends on Russian engines, SpaceX equipments are all-American. SpaceX runs mostly with its own software, hardware, new materials, technologies and processes developed in-house by Musk's relentless drive for innovation and cutting costs. Musk has proven to the American manufacturers that it is possible to cut cost of production without going to China or Mexico. 

The way Musk has built and run the two companies is not like a CEO but like a General. Musk is a tough task master who drives his employees crazy with impossible deadlines and fires them fiercely when they don't deliver and meet his very high expectations. Musk's evolution as a tyrannical and dreaded boss stands in total contrast to his school days when he was the the victim of violent bullying by others. 

The success of Musk should be credited to a large extent to the pool of exceptionally talented and committed people who worked for him. He himself interviewed and selected the first thousand of the SpaceX employees. It was Dolly Singh, head of the talent search, who managed to find many of the experts to fit the exacting standards of Musk. On her experience of working with Musk, she says, " The challenge is that he is a machine and the rest of us are not. So if you work for Musk, you have to accept the discomfort. But in that discomfort is the kind of growth you cannot get anywhere else and worth every ounce of blood and sweat". She wrote a blurb in SpaceX job posting," SpaceX is like Special Forces, we take on missions that others have deemed impossible."

One of the distinguishing part of Musk's personality is his fondness for reading and learning. Even as a child he used to ' vacuuming books into his brain'. Except for his extensive reading and skills with video games, Musk did not show any promising signs of exceptional talents or leadership during his school and college days. As an entrepreneur, he learnt from the scientists and engineers by constantly questioning and interacting with them on their domain expertise. When he started the space venture, he read so many text books and research papers on the subject, becoming a formidable rocket expert himself. 

Consumed completely by his passions, Musk has given a poor second place to family life and has gone through three divorces. He also comes out somewhat heartless by his lack of loyalty and empathy for his employees and colleagues, similar to Steve Jobs. Musk has used others, hiring and firing them at will, without consideration for their personal circumstances, even when he shows larger empathy for the mankind. 

Musk is not sitting content with his wealth of billions of dollars and achievements. In any case, his quest is not just for money. He continues to be a techno utopian dreamer with lots of new ideas such as taking people to Mars and making human life multiplanetary. His Tesla electric cars and the Solar City help the world to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and make energy use and generation more sustainable. These will empower the mankind ( literally) by helping us to produce our own solar power from our rooftops and charge our electric cars and make the world cleaner and better.

Musk has become the latest poster boy for the techpreneurs who want to change the world. Even Larry Page, the co-founder of Google finds Musk to be an inspiring example and has invested in Musk's ventures. Musk has become the latest addition to the pantheon of my tech heroes: Bill Gates, Google Guys, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg. My life has been revolutionized and enriched  by the Microsoft products, iPhone, iPad ( in which I read books bought from Kindle), Mac laptop, google search and social media. I am looking forward to more excitement in the future with Musk's electric cars and solar panels and other products he and other techpreneurs might come up with. I feel that the biographies of the techpreneur heroes should be made as text books in schools to ignite young minds. I have undergone tremendous transformation ever since I read the book of Bill Gates, "The Road Ahead " in 1995.


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