Elon Musk is the archetypal serial entrepreneur, with a string of successes before the startups that would make him famous.
Robert Downey Jr turned to Musk for help getting into character as Tony Stark for the 2008 film Iron Man. Musk’s enthusiastic embrace of technology for technology’s sake and his desire to push the limits of what was possible for private enterprise made him a close real-world analogue for Marvel’s billionaire arms dealer.
Born in South Africa in 1971 to an American mother and South African father, he made his first $500 at the age of 12, selling a computer game he had coded to the magazine PC and Office Technology.
In 1989, he moved to Canada and then the US to study at university. While studying at the Pennsylvania University, he paid for his tuition by organising house parties, replete with club-inspired art installations. At the time, he wrote a business plan for an electronic book-scanning service akin to the one Google would launch more than a decade later. Since the eventual launch of Google Books led to a $3bn lawsuit from the Author’s Guild that took eight years to fight, Musk may have been lucky that his plan never got off the ground.
His first break came in 1995, when he and his brother Kimbal started the web software company Global Link Information Network, which created and licensed online guides to cities to newspapers. The company was rebranded as Zip2 and won contracts with the New York Times and Chicago Tribune, before selling to Compaq in 1999 for more than $300m. Musk reinvested those proceeds into X.com, an online financial services and payment company, which became PayPal – customers found the name X.com confusing, and some assumed it was pornographic in nature, according to the firm’s market research.
PayPal grew rapidly, but largely without Musk; he was pushed out as chief executive in 2000, but remained on the board with enough stock to get a windfall of $165m when the company was sold to eBay in 2002.
The period following his time at PayPal was the making of the Musk we know today. In 2001, he started thinking seriously about spaceflight, driven by a desire to send a rocket to Mars. The dream hardened into a genuine goal towards the end of the year, according to an early SpaceX investor, when a back-of-an-envelope calculation on the cost of rockets convinced Musk that the cost of reaching orbit could be slashed tenfold.
In 2004, Musk invested heavily in an electric car company called Tesla Motors, founded a year earlier by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning. Musk’s early investment and active role bought him the right to call himself a co‑founder, and he took over as chief executive in 2008, the same year the firm shipped its first car: the Roadster, a luxury sports car.
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