Elon Musk and Tesla: changing perceptions and realities

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Elon Musk and Tesla: changing perceptions and realities

Should Elon Musk really be compared to the likes of Steve Jobs, Howard Hughes and Henry Ford?

Like Jobs he makes innovative physical things that challenge and disrupt established markets. Like Hughes he’s a mega rich industrialist and aviator who thinks on a huge scale. And like Henry Ford he has come out of nowhere and is shaking the motor industry to its core.

But to get a real sense of what we’re dealing with when trying to comprehend this South African-born billionaire we need to add an Englishman to this heady list of game changing American citizens.

That Englishman is Sir Thomas More. It is 500 years this year since the Renaissance statesman and humanist wrote and published Utopia, his fictional dream of an enlightened future. Finally someone has made a real world start, that someone is Elon Musk.


That’s not to suggest Musk keeps a copy of Utopia under his pillow and is trying to recreate More’s fictional universe of common ownership. What’s similar is the vision of and belief in achievable better future. Like More, Musk can clearly see mankind’s problems and isn’t afraid to face them in real life.

This is what marks out Musk from many of his Silicon Valley peers and rich list industrialist set. Sure he’s a mega successful and aggressive, hard-nosed businessman but his personal mission statement is to steer mankind toward ‘greater collective enlightenment’.

All this in an age where the science fiction or speculative novel genre has a distinctly dystopian agenda, and where most emerging entrepreneurs are looking to make their money in the fast buck virtual world and via an early IPO.

As Ashley Vance points out in his biography ‘Elon Musk’ “Where Mark Zuckerberg wants to help you share baby photos, Musk wants to save the human race from imposed or accidental annihilation…”

So here is a visionary dreamer who builds real stuff in the notoriously difficult and risky ‘cleantech’ arena, who sees, and actively pursues, a bright and meaningful future for mankind and who has accrued a net worth of ten billion dollars in the process.

How do such people emerge?


Picture a nerdy, intense boy who is an avid reader of encyclopedia and comics, with a tendency to trance out for long periods of intense mental/visual experiences. According to his peers he was very critical of his fellow youngsters and was burdened with the kind of social insensitivity that would these days have had him diagnosed somewhere on the autism spectrum. This was kid Elon.

Attributes like this would have ensured a rough ride anywhere for a young boy growing up in the 1970s. In the mega-macho world of Apartheid South Africa this effect was multiplied. Young Elon had a really tough childhood. He was bullied relentlessly and made few friends.

His American-born Grandfather had been an extraordinary aviator. He had been an explorer and was an all-round risk taker all his life. No surprise, then, that the troubled young Musk was drawn there as soon as he got chance to get away from Apartheid-era South Africa.

The rest is Silicon Valley history.

In 1995 the young Elon developed a startup called Zip 2, an early mapping/info site – Compaq bought it and Musk bagged 22 million dollars on the deal.

He took that cash and poured it into his next venture. You may have heard of it. It was called PayPal. He was the largest shareholder and when eBay bought it in 2002 for 1.5 Billion Musk entered the realm of the mega rich.

What he did next marked him out from his Internet millionaire peers. He moved much of his operation out of the Valley and into L.A. Once again he became his own venture capitalist. He stuck a huge chunk of his fortune into three super high-risk manufacturing industries. All playing in entrenched, established and capital-heavy arenas.

The Dollar numbers went like this:

100 million into Space X – a new company that makes disposable rockets.
70 million into Tesla – a startup that makes electric cars
10 million into Solar City – a brand new utility company.

All the above companies are using disruptive tech and ground-up rethinking. They are taking on traditional, long-term players at their own game. And in sectors that are so entrenched that they are virtually monopolised.

And against all the odds Musk and his firms are winning. Tesla stock is trading ridiculously high. The frenzy is similar to the early days of the United States railroad companies.

The how? He’s using Silicon Valley-style flat management and meritocratic structures in what are traditionally management top heavy and bureaucratic industries.

He’s mixing his expertise in software and connectivity with his intuitive knowledge of real-world engineering and cutting-edge materials and design to completely rethink space travel, road transport, and energy production.

Mix all that with a messianic vision for a multi-planetary, clean energy, enlightened future humanity and what do you get? A modern day Thomas More? A real life Tony Stark?

Could be. One thing is certain you sure do get some real nice cars into the bargain.


4 Responses to “Elon Musk and Tesla: changing perceptions and realities”

  1. Ian Noble

    My hero! He also describes himself as ”a fiscally responsible socialist’. If that isn’t challenging politics I don’t know what does – Trump? Give me Musk

  2. Erebus

    Its not even close….Jobs designed pretty things that championed form over function while religiously tethering the customer to the vertical consolidation of the Apple brand….Hughes? A maverick recluse as famous for his wildly superfluous projects like the Spruce Goose as he is for his true innovations….Ford revolutionised factory line production whilst nurturing fascist/capitalist sympathies to the point that he even sold his techniques to the Soviet Union….and then there is Musk….Committed to capitalism and saving the the planet. Designing gorgeous vehicles with revolutionary ‘positively’ disruptive technologies. Upending domestic energy markets by delivering affordable and accessible off-grid power to domestic and commercial consumers alike with the Tesla Powerwall. If all that wasn’t enough he brings the mindset of the capitalist market to Space travel whilst simultaneously delivering Space to the marketplace with reusable rockets…..There have been men like Ford, Jobs, Westinghouse, Edison, Bell, who have changed the world in their particular fields….But you have to go back to the likes of Leonardo and Tesla to find men who have changed the world across such a broad spectrum of human endeavour….men who have changed not only the way the world works but how it thinks, how it ‘is’…..Musk does not stand on the shoulder of giants like Ford, Hughes, and Jobs…his stature is such that he can hold them in the palm of his hand.

  3. Damien Cross

    Musk is great all round. True to his beliefs, not afraid of a challenge, keen to do the right thing… plus when he’d made his first few hundred million $$ he bought a McLaren F1, launched it backwards up an embankment, flew through the air and smashed the suspension on landing. And laughed because he had no insurance. People like this are mad, but they make the world move forward. Imagine if he’d have just decided he couldn’t be bothered to fulfil his potential? It may have been some time before the world caught up with where it is now.

  4. Michael Fordham

    Musk is inspiring – he not only sees the problem with climate change, he acknowledges it and has mustered a huge enterprise to do something about it. We’re not going to drop our love of tech and of cars and of movement in lieu of some imagined dream of a environmentally pristine future. Sure the cars Musk markets still cost energy to produce and to power up – but the Tesla solution is at least addressing the problem. Let’s hope the mainstream motoring industry takes his lead.