The Fuse

Ashlee Vance Separates Fact from Fiction on Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX

by Leslie Hayward | November 04, 2015

Ashlee Vance is the author of Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, a biography of the entrepreneur published earlier this year. Vance is a business reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek based in Silicon Valley. He took the time to discuss his book with The Fuse by phone.

Hayward: What was your perception of Musk at the beginning of your story and how did it evolve over the course of your research? What notions did you have about him that changed the most?

Vance: I think it happened in a few stages. Before I started the book I was not really a Musk fanboy by any stretch. I’m a Silicon Valley reporter, I’ve been here for 12 years, and he always seemed like the guy who was promising the moon and failing to deliver on it. I actually chalked him up to kind of a huckster salesman figure. And then in 2012, Tesla came out with the Model S, SpaceX made it to the International Space Station, and Solar City went public. It was actually hard to deny that he was coming through on all this stuff he had done. So I got really into Elon and the companies, and once I visited the Tesla factory and the SpaceX factory, then I was really hooked.

I tend to gravitate to companies that make things rather than the consumer services that are so common in Silicon Valley. My first impression of Elon was that he was a lot more authentic than I expected. He didn’t have any handlers around him, he would answer any question you gave him almost to a fault, and he would give a genuine answer.

I still was not a “fanboy” as such, because he is a bit of a prickly character, but I was still fascinated by the technologies and the companies. Over time, you develop a complicated relationship with such a subject, after spending so much time and getting fairly close to them in a way. I wouldn’t say we were ever friends, but you start seeing a side of people that is different in these kinds of intense situations.

I came out of it all thinking he was the most intense person I’d ever met in my life, on every level.

I actually came out of it all thinking he was the most intense person I’d ever met in my life, on every level. He doesn’t do chit chat when you have a meal, he digs right into the heart of the matter. He treats business kind of like war. If you add up everything, when I came out on the other side of the book, I felt like Elon has a lot of pros and cons, but I ultimately came away with more confidence that he would pull of what he was trying to do than I had at the beginning of the book. I really got this up-close view of how relentless he is, and how he has this really unusual mix of technological savvy, business savvy, marketing savvy, hustle, smarts, all dumped into this one character. I wouldn’t want to compete against him.

Yes, based on reading the book, he definitely comes across as someone you wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of. And speaking of that—what was his reaction to the book? Did he think it was fair? Did he come back at you picking at any details?

He did think it was fair. As I mention in the book, even though he wanted to give feedback and have the opportunity to add his own notes, I wasn’t interested in that because of the need to preserve journalistic integrity. But I also didn’t want him to have to order it on Amazon and speed-read it. So I sent him a copy, after the book had been printed but a few weeks before it came out, and he did this very “Elon” thing… I woke up one morning and there were about 50 emails waiting for me. He had been reading the book and, every few paragraphs, was giving me his take. There were no major gripes, but he was like, “Why do you describe that I eat like that? I don’t eat like that!” and a few similar things. There were some parts where he was initially upset. And then he came back after about a day had passed, and he said, “Look, I think it was well done,” and gave me an accuracy rating of 95 percent, which in Elon terms is pretty good.

I woke up one morning and there were about 50 emails waiting for me. He had been reading the book and, every few paragraphs, was giving me his take.

So that was that, I went back to reporting on Tesla and SpaceX, doing my regular job at Bloomberg, and then the press ended up getting copies of the book and they pulled out some of the juicier quotes. I think that when he saw how people were reacting to some of these things that portrayed him as a very hard boss, he did kind of react badly. And so that’s where we’ve left it. I think on the whole, there’s a few things that are still kind of irking him about the book.

So speaking of what a tough boss he is, one thing that really struck me is how much of these companies is built on the labor of these very talented and loyal people, and even though they are deeply loyal to him, he isn’t always deeply loyal to them, even though his cult is built on their backs. So you talk about Blue Origin—the SpaceX rip-off—and there’s reports recently of a company called Faraday Future which is trying to do something similar to Tesla, and both of these companies are trying to poach talent from SpaceX and Tesla. Do you see a backlash from these disgruntled employees? Are they likely to jump to these competitors, and will his “tough boss” persona come back to hurt him?

In some ways. It definitely has its limitations. You see at SpaceX and Tesla, some people put in their 5 years, which is like what you need to get your options to vest, and then they leave. Elon doesn’t offer the best pay by any standards, so companies tend to be able to woo people away with better compensation packages. Tesla, which is based in Silicon Valley, really doesn’t offer the same kind of perks as a Google or Facebook. So yeah, he drives everyone so hard, that I think some people walk in the door and six months later they have to leave because it’s just not a good environment for them.

But what I also kept finding was, it seemed like people who were in their 20s and hadn’t started a family… a lot of them just loved it. At both SpaceX and Tesla you can just get a lot done, as one person, in the company. You can take on tough projects. I’m kind of torn on how it plays out over the long term. There are also tons of high-ranking executives that have been there through the 10-12 years that these companies have existed, and they stay very loyal to Elon, and he really wraps these companies up in their missions. If you care about electric cars, and you’re a true believer, there is no other company on Earth where your work is as likely to make it to the mainstream as Tesla. With SpaceX, if you really care about pushing aerospace forward, you’re going to put up with a lot. If you care about getting to Mars, SpaceX is where you want to be. But I do question, over the long term, if enough people will be willing to keep it up.

At the same time, one thing I found myself thinking while reading this book was, “Wow, why don’t I work as hard as these people?” You seem like a very hard working person, but when you were doing your research, did you experience this emotion of being overwhelmed at what an individual can accomplish, and being inspired? Is that a common reaction to this book?

Yeah, in some ways! I definitely came away inspired. There’s also two classes. There’s the staff who work extremely hard, and then there’s Elon. And he is so clear about the goals he has for himself in his life, and while I don’t think I would want to live my life like he does, I definitely took a step back while I was writing the book and thought, “OK, I need to set clearer, crisper priorities for myself and go after them harder, and get rid of some of the frivolous stuff that’s weighing me down.” I think there’s a lot to be said for his clarity of mission.

I mean they’re 23, 24… they studied mechanical engineering in college and maybe they have a masters, they find themselves at this Texas test launch site, and they just have to figure out how to build a rocket engine.

And then some of the SpaceX employees in particular just made me feel really inadequate, like, as a person. I mean they’re 23, 24… they studied mechanical engineering in college and maybe they have a masters, they find themselves at this Texas test launch site, and they just have to figure out how to build a rocket engine. Obviously with some tutelage, but largely on their own, they learn how to machine the parts, and then they have to write the software at night. Some of these people are just so capable. It was a hugely inspirational part of doing this book, you’re reminded how much humans can accomplish.

And I would kind of weep to myself at night, because I can’t do anything with my hands.

Except typing!

That’s kind of what I wanted—for people to read this and feel inspired, and maybe set their sights a little higher.

Haha, yeah. The cool thing about Twitter is that you get an interactive reaction. I would get these tweets like, “I just finished the book… and tomorrow is going to be the best day I’ve ever had!” and they get all energized. That’s kind of what I wanted—for people to read this and feel inspired, and maybe set their sights a little higher.

That’s good. I feel normalized, that I’m not the only one who had a “seize the day” moment.

I get these emails from people who…. I think they’ve had a beer or two? This one guy wrote me, “I was going to be a sports agent, and I was gonna go to law school, and I just read your book and now I think I should go work at SpaceX… but I don’t know what use I could be to them… What should I do with my life?”

Oh my god, so now you’re the therapist for all the Elon wannabes you’ve created.

Yeah, I wrote back to him, “I’m not sure if I’m the one who should be telling you what to do, but if you’re passionate and energetic and that’s really what you want to do….  That’s what they’re looking for! Go interview!” And I see other people on Twitter who write, “I was getting my MBA, but now I’ve quit and I’m getting my engineering degree!” and I’m like, “Yes! More people building stuff is good.”

On a similar note, I felt in the book that Elon Musk and his achievements seem to have come at a pivotal time for the U.S., when, as you mention, everyone had given up on revolutionizing the automotive sector. Meanwhile, in aerospace, NASA is being gutted and we’re paying the Russians to send Americans into space. And then Elon comes along and is not only very innovative, but is producing and building everything from scratch in California and Texas. Do you think that other companies are learning from what Musk has been accomplishing, and are they making bigger changes and rethinking their ability to do more here in the U.S.?

All these people that would have been physicists and chemists in years past are getting their computer science degrees and going to work at Facebook or Google, where they spend literally every day trying to get people to click on ads.

I want that to happen! I’m not sure it is yet. If you accept the idea that Elon is the new Steve Jobs, which in Silicon Valley is kind of the predominant thinking, if you accept that he is the new role model, then there should be some knock-on effects, like inspiring the guy who was about to get his MBA to become an engineer. But the tricky thing is that, especially in Silicon Valley, the environment is tilted so far towards consumer services and entertainment apps—all these people that would have been physicists and chemists in years past are getting their computer science degrees and going to work at Facebook or Google, where they spend literally every day trying to get people to click on ads. So that’s another reason I wrote the book, I’m worried about where the majority of our best and brightest are spending their time.

There is this whole mentality that we can’t make things in America anymore, that it’s too expensive. And yet SpaceX has its factory in the middle of Los Angeles, and Tesla has its factory on the outskirts of Silicon Valley, two of the most expensive places in the world. And even if Tesla doesn’t become an auto company the size of BMW, they have pushed the industry forward as a whole. Not just in terms of the cars, but also the software, which is just as big a deal as the electric drivetrain.

There is this whole mentality that we can’t make things in America anymore, that it’s too expensive. And yet SpaceX has its factory in the middle of Los Angeles, and Tesla has its factory on the outskirts of Silicon Valley, two of the most expensive places in the world.

So yes, I think he’s definitely shown that it can be done, that these staid industries can be revamped, and that this can play into all of the U.S.’s strengths. We were hopelessly behind in mobile technology until the iPhone came out. Silicon Valley still has so much more software talent than the rest of the world, so it plays to our strengths when you can combine the bits and the atoms together. I do hope there is a big knock-on effect, and that the U.S. does start to rethink some of this stuff.

So I’m going to pivot really quickly to the opposite end of that. Because in this book, Elon talks quite a bit about his commitment to expanding human consciousness, and how he wants to usher in a new era of human ingenuity. But at the same time, he talks about how concerned he is about a reality that resembles the movie Idiocracy, and how he needs to have as many children as he can to counterbalance all the uninformed and unintelligent people. I think if we look at the state of political discourse, and our education system, there’s also a lot of writing on the wall that people just aren’t keeping up intellectually. Does he ever think about this—about what species he is trying to save? Or, perhaps, does he consider that there are bigger cultural and intellectual problems that spaceships and electric cars can’t fix?

He stops short of saying, “Some people should not reproduce,” but he does think that smart people should have tons of babies.

Definitely. I think he tends to stop a little short of fully answering some of these questions, because I think he has somewhat controversial views. I flick at some of this in the book, where he stops short of saying, “Some people should not reproduce,” but he does think that smart people should have tons of babies. And I think, if you put a couple beers in him, you would get the really extreme version of those views. So he does definitely think about these things. When he talks about setting up a colony on Mars, he never says that’s the backup plan for all the smart people—he doesn’t go that far. But I think he is extremely worried about the things you mention.

The other thing keeping him up at night is all the artificial intelligence stuff. But I don’t know, I’m personally a little more optimistic.

Oh yeah, that part was fascinating, where he was saying that Larry Page is such a nice guy that he’s too kind, or even too naïve, to understand the negative implications of artificial intelligence.

Yeah…. He and Larry Page are really good friends, and I think he’s expressed concern that Google is building these really powerful machines and artificial intelligence systems. And Elon grew up reading every science fiction book on the planet, so I think he has all these concerns rumbling about in his head about the dark side of where this technology might go.

Something else that jumped out at me is that, while he’s extremely invested in both Tesla and SpaceX, as a child, his passion from the beginning always seemed to be space—space exploration and science fiction. Electric vehicles have come in later as a pet project. So with the time that he spends managing both companies, combined with the fact that he could have sold Tesla to Google in 2012, why do you think he remains so committed to Tesla even though SpaceX was his baby, it was the first priority.

I think you’re exactly right, that SpaceX is his baby, and that’s where he would spend all his time in a hypothetical perfect world. The Tesla thing is kind of funny… he’s always believed philosophically in EVs, and even as an undergrad in college he was working on batteries. I think it was in his head until he was approached with the plan for the Tesla Roadster in 2001, and nobody else would fund it so he does, and winds up getting pulled into the company…

…Right… and it was so dysfunctional… he came in to fix it, but he didn’t just fix it, he totally took over…

…Right. That’s the thing. He just kept getting pulled deeper and deeper. With the Roadster, it was kind of a proof of concept. The idea was to build an electric car that people would actually desire and wasn’t just some kind of compromise with poor functionality: The sexiest car out there which just happened to be electric. I think he just liked that idea, and then the breakdown of the company forced him to take it over, but I think the Model S has been much more successful than he imagined.

To be totally frank, I think he kind of revels in the idea that he’s the only guy on the planet who can run two companies of this size.

But honestly, to be totally frank, I think he kind of revels in the idea that he’s the only guy on the planet who can run two companies of this size, and Tesla has way more mainstream visibility than SpaceX. His celebrity has totally risen on the back of Tesla, and I think he really enjoys that success. Regarding the fact that Google wanted to buy the company… he wanted to hang on as CEO, he was structuring the deal to have all these guarantees that they would see through the third generation affordable car.

On a very deep level I think he feels like he has to make that car to see this thing through. I think, if he got to the point where Tesla was knocking those out at a pretty steady clip, and Tesla wasn’t facing any existential threats, maybe he would step back. At SpaceX, there’s this woman called Gwynne Shotwell, who basically runs the day to day operations of the company and he totally has complete faith in her. I don’t think he’s found the same person for Tesla, but if he did, he might step away from Tesla and just do SpaceX.

It’s been a few months since your book came out, and you’ve gotten a wide range of reactions, including people dropping out of their MBA programs to become engineers, which is fantastic. But now that you’ve gotten a sense of reactions, do you think people who read your book drew a fair opinion of Elon Musk based on your portrayal, and do you think what people got out of it is fair?

In terms of reactions, it was funny, the Financial Times thought I was too hard on him, the New York Times thought I was too easy on him, and the Wall Street Journal was in the middle and said it was nicely balanced.

I think so… It’s a little hard to tell. I can’t help reading the reviews in the Times and the Journal, and I do, horror of horrors, read the Amazon reviews. I read a lot of those and I shouldn’t. I would say 20 percent of the people think I was too easy on him, 20 percent of the people thought I was too hard on him, and this chunk in the middle had the same takeaways that I did, which is that he’s this very complex character, but on the whole he is a good dude. He’s not an evil person, he has some tough sides to him and people pick up on that, but people are really impressed by the technology and like that he’s advancing it. But in terms of reactions, it was funny, the Financial Times thought I was too hard on him, the New York Times thought I was too easy on him, and the Wall Street Journal was in the middle and said it was nicely balanced. I feel like it was right about in the middle, which is what I wanted to do when I started out.

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