Steve Jobs is considered one of the most forward-thinking CEOs of our age. He was behind the birth of Apple in the '70s, the resurgence of Apple in the 2000s, and in his spare time he made Pixar into the first computer-generating movie studio. Any investor who bought into Jobs' companies would have done extremely well. We should always be on the lookout for similar visionary genius.
Today, there's one man who is trying to become the next Steve Jobs, an innovative leader who can turn an idea into a cultural revolution. That man is Elon Musk, and he's taking on three industries by turning conventional wisdom on its head.
Where it all began
Musk's initial public success came when he founded X.com, acquired the company that ran PayPal, and eventually sold the company to eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY) for $1.5 billion. This gave him a fortune of over $100 million and the flexibility to grow his empire. Even before eBay finalized the deal he had already moved on and founded Space Exploration Technologies -- SpaceX.
Upward and onward
SpaceX is the biggest, riskiest, and maybe most forward-thinking of Musk's businesses today. The company develops and builds spacecraft with the intention of bringing cargo and astronauts to space. The company has put satellites into orbit and made the first commercial docking with the International Space Station.
This is just the beginning for SpaceX, though. The company has a contract with NASA for 12 flights to the International Space Station, replacing the iconic Space Shuttle. Eventually, Musk wants to send humans to Mars.
Bringing solar to the masses
Elon Musk is also the chairman and largest shareholder of SolarCity (NASDAQ:SCTY), the residential solar installer. The company has the largest market share in the residential solar market, a growing sector of the energy business, particularly in California.
Musk has led the company through a series of acquisitions that have expanded the company's reach, and now that solar is becoming more economical for home owners, the possibilities seem limitless. SolarCity offers free quotes to homeowners and in some cases a no-money-down solar installation that will reduce their electrical bills.
When SolarCity began in 2006 the plan was a little crazier than it seems today, but with a $1.2 billion valuation, even the stock market seems to think residential solar has a future.
SolarCity has even partnered with Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) to provide solar energy storage to homeowners. This can be used to offset high energy rates, if utilities use time-of-use rate plans, or to guard against power outages.
Reinventing the auto industry
What Musk is probably most known for is his job as CEO and major shareholder of Tesla Motors, the electric car company. Everyone from Nissan to General Motors has tried to build an electric car that could be accepted by consumers, but only Tesla Motors has actually managed to do it.
Musk has taken the approach of building a high-end vehicle for the upper echelon of the car market, then hopes to lower cost down the road to include more consumers. This contrasts with the efforts of Nissan and GM to build cars that had mass appeal but started with a high sticker price.
Tesla even has some big names onboard with its technology. Toyota Motors (NYSE:TM) has hired Tesla to build the drivetrain for the new electric Rav4, a partnership that could be expanded in the future.
If Musk is able to turn the auto industry on its head by creating a financially viable car company that only sells electric vehicles, then it would be the biggest shift in transportation since that envisioned by Henry Ford.
Foolish bottom line
Elon Musk hasn't yet become the iconic entrepreneur and innovator Steve Jobs was, but he has as good a possibility of being mentioned in the same sentence as anyone else out there. He has already built a fortune through his ideas, now one or more of his companies needs to permanently redefine the industries in which they operate.
That's exactly what Jobs did with the PC, then the smartphone, and eventually the tablet. Time will tell if Musk can accomplish the same thing but I wouldn't bet against him.
Fool contributor Travis Hoium manages an account that owns shares of Apple. You can follow Travis on Twitter at @FlushDrawFool, check out his personal stock holdings or follow his CAPS picks at TMFFlushDraw.
The Motley Fool recommends Apple, eBay, General Motors, and Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, eBay, and Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.