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Child Genius, Space Rockets, and $7,093,435,498: Going Inside the Mind of Elon Musk

By Tamara Walsh – Feb 23, 2014 at 11:11AM

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This Silicon Valley entrepreneur is one of the most successful businessmen of the 21st century, but there is more to Elon Musk than meets the eye.

Visionary, calculating, determined, and self-confident are attributes used to describe Elon Musk, the outspoken mastermind behind PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla Motors (TSLA 7.67%). Musk officially took to the world's stage in 2012, following the successful launch of his Falcon 9 rocket. After three failed launch attempts of the Falcon 1 rocket, the first Falcon 9 launch made history as it enabled the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft to later dock with the International Space Station. This made SpaceX the first privately held company to ever dock at the space station. A $1.6 billion contract with NASA followed.

However, privatizing space travel to the International Space Station is just one entry on Musk's laundry list of achievements. In fact, the South African-born entrepreneur hopes to one day make interplanetary travel a reality. "I would like to die on Mars," he said in a Bloomberg interview, "Just not on impact." Musk is confident he can get a spacecraft to the planet in 10-15 years. These ambitious goals make his other plans, such as accelerating the shift to mass-market electric vehicles, seem like child's play. Nevertheless, Musk is leading the charge to widespread EV adoption as the chief executive of Tesla Motors.

But we'll get back to that in a moment. First, let's take a more personal look at Musk the man.

A young risk taker
Elon Musk, who is said to be the model for Robert Downey, Jr.'s portrayal of Tony Stark in the "Iron Man" films, is largely self-taught. Growing up, he was an avid reader who wasn't afraid to speak up when he knew the correct answer. His mother tells a story of when he was a boy and one of the kids said, "Look at the moon, it's a billion miles away." To which Elon responded, "Well, no, it's actually under 250 thousand miles away."

Be it in business or life, Musk is always one step ahead of everyone else. When he was 10 years old, IBM tested him and found that he had one of the highest aptitudes they had ever seen for computer programming, according to a Bloomberg interview with his brother Kimbal Musk. Unfortunately, taking computer programming classes wasn't much help because he already new more than the teachers.

Instead, a young Musk created a space game called Blastar, which he sold for a profit at age 12. This was the first of what would become many profitable ventures for Musk.

A serial entrepreneur
After earning engineering, physics, and business degrees from the University of Pennsylvania Musk was awarded a scholarship to attend Stanford. However, Musk decided he wanted to start an Internet company instead, and decided to put Stanford on hold. Together with his brother Kimbal, Musk wrote the software needed for his first company called Zip2. At the time, very few, if any, local businesses were using the Internet to connect with customers. However, that didn't deter the Musk brothers, and their Zip2 software became the first online city listing. In 1995, the they began pitching their technology to local businesses.

Elon Musk speaking at The Motley Fool in 2011.

In an interview with Bloomberg, Kimbal recalls one instance when a potential customer threw the Yellow Pages at them and yelled, "You think you'll ever replace this?" Just four years later, at age 28, Musk sold Zip2 to Compaq for $307 million in cash and $34 million in stock options.

His next big achievement came in 2002 when eBay (EBAY 4.34%) purchased PayPal, an Internet payment system that Musk co-founded, for $1.5 billion. This proved critical to Musk's later accomplishments, as he used the $165 million or so that he received from the eBay deal to fund his other projects: Tesla Motors and SpaceX.

The Internet, sustainable energy, and making life multi-planetary are the things that Musk thought would most affect humanity. Not surprisingly, he's leaving his mark on all three of those areas today.

Changing the world
As the CEO of both Tesla Motors, and SpaceX, Musk is no stranger to 100-hour workweeks. It's because of this hard work that Musk has accomplished so much. He's currently reenergizing the automotive industry through Tesla, a company that makes and builds all-electric cars. After a messy divorce with his first wife, Justine Musk, he invested his last $35 million in Tesla to help save the company from bankruptcy.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Not only was he able to save the company from near-failure, but also catapult Tesla to success as the world's first luxury EV maker. Tesla went from being the most shorted stock on the Nasdaq in 2011, to one of the best-performing stocks in 2013. During that time, shares climbed in value from around $27 apiece to where they trade today near $200 per share.

"For me it was never about money, but solving problems for the future of humanity," Musk told Smithsonian magazine. Yet that hasn't stopped him from achieving a net worth today that is north of $7 billion. Still, Musk is sticking to his master plan for Tesla, which includes four straightforward steps:

  1. Build a sports car.
  2. Use that money to build an affordable car.
  3. Use that money to build an even more affordable car.
  4. While doing above, also provide zero-emission electric power generation options.

His plan is succeeding, and Tesla is now on track to deliver its "even more affordable car," the Model X, by year's end. However, Tesla is only part of the sustainable energy story. Musk is also heavily involved in SolarCity (SCTY.DL), a company that installs solar panels and helps customers finance them.

Lighting the way
On a road trip to Burning Man in 2005, Musk convinced his cousins Lyndon and Peter Rive to start a solar company. With financial backing from Musk, the Rive brothers launched SolarCity. Today, SolarCity is the leading residential and commercial solar installer in the United States. The company's stock has also appreciated in value, up more than 349% in the last year. That bodes particularly well for Musk, as he's currently a majority shareholder in SolarCity.

Source: Tesla Motors.

Moreover, in addition to Musk's position as chairman of SolarCity's board, he's also working closely with his cousins on a new partnership between SolarCity and Tesla Motors. In December, Tesla agreed to supply lithium-ion batteries for use in SolarCity's new solar-powered-storage system. The technology behind this industrial-grade energy storage is impressive because it helps solar customers save money by automatically using stored energy during peak hours when utility companies charge the highest rates.

Given the nature of Tesla Motors and SolarCity, as well as the family ties, there's a good chance we'll see these companies work together on similar projects in the future. "To get to a sustainable energy future, we must have both sustainable energy creation and consumption, so SolarCity is about sustainable energy creation and Tesla is about sustainable energy consumption," Musk told Bloomberg.

With both companies marching forward and pushing the bounds of innovation today, there are few obstacles Musk has not been able to overcome. Moreover, he is revolutionizing the sustainable energy industry, as well as space exploration, in ways that others once considered impossible. SpaceX, SolarCity, and Tesla Motors all owe their current success to Elon Musk. With Musk leading these businesses forward, it will be interesting to see what the future holds.

Tamara Rutter owns shares of eBay and Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool recommends eBay, SolarCity, and Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of eBay, SolarCity, and Tesla Motors. 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.

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