How the Tesla and SpaceX chief rose to the top in the business world, in 10 steps
Elon Musk’s journey from South African schoolboy to the world’s richest man, pushing the boundaries of space travel, has been one of the more extraordinary tales in the modern business world. Here’s how he got there.
Musk was born in 1971 in Pretoria, South Africa, to parents who divorced before he was 10. His mother was a model, his father an electromechanical engineer and property developer. Musk had an early interest in computing and taught himself computer programming. He was badly bullied at school and was even admitted to hospital for two weeks after a gang of boys threw him down some stairs. He became obsessed by moving to the US, which he saw as a land of opportunity.
He collected degrees from a host of universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, while holding down internships in Silicon Valley. Eventually he was accepted for the PhD programme at California’s prestigious Stanford University. He dropped out after two days in favour of the booming world of internet startups.
The first of his business ventures began in Palo Alto, California, famed for hosting tech companies such as Apple. His first venture, a software firm called Zip2 founded with his brother Kimbal, took time to succeed. They started it in 1995 and Musk has spoken of sleeping in the office because he couldn’t afford an apartment. He received $22m for his stake when the company was sold to the computing firm Compaq in 1999.
It was PayPal that really launched Musk’s career into the stratosphere. He had founded a digital financial services business called X.com in 1999, which merged with the company that owned the fledgling payments processing business. Despite disagreements over his role and strategic vision, the company became a world leader and eBay paid $1.5bn in stock for it in 2002, a deal that was worth $165m to Musk.
A fascination with space led Musk to invest about $100m of his rapidly-expanding wealth in exploring the cosmos. He founded SpaceX in 2002 and has ambitions to build a colony on Mars within a few decades. In the meantime, he has focused on developing cheap and reusable spacecraft, enjoying considerable success. In 2020, SpaceX became the first private company to put a person into orbit. He has also explored subterranean travel, investing in the same “Hyperloop” concept that Sir Richard Branson is developing.