Zach Ware

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance

Jan 2016 - Audiobook Amazon Link

This is one of the better biographies I’ve ever read. Not just because of its subject. It’s well written and very, very interesting. I couldn’t recommend it more and it makes for a great audiobook.

What did I learn from this book?

Elon doesn’t care what people think because he’s so committed to the mission. Culture aligns around the mission and the inevitable satisfaction of getting things done. He sets the pace. He pisses people off, but he does it to move things forward and faster. It’s never personal, always justifiable.

Elon at PayPal and Zip2 was an insecure CEO wannabe. By Tesla an SpaceX he was secure and most importantly articulate. Being able to articulate things clearly is a sign of deep understanding. Even if you don’t understand all of the details, if you understand the principles and the process (or at least the next few steps + big unknown + ultimate realization) the you can have the confidence. But you can still get pissed if people talk down to you.

Read religiously. Understand everything.

Start with a hypothesis. Take time to fully understand every piece of how it becomes reality. Learn everything. Then set about tirelessly to build it. Ask questions along the way.

One great engineer is better than three ok engineers.

If you hire amazing people the company’s job is to get shit out of the way. The company culture of SpaceX is about yelling when something is in your way.

Elon doesn’t write anything down. When giving feedback to Tesla engineers he would have a whole weekend of thoughts in his head. Then he would give the feedback from memory and consistently follow-up on it. He didn’t stress about the process.

“We have to figure out how to make the perfect visor” for the model s. And once when looking at the car he saw a seam in the overhead liner where two pieces met. “Every time I see that seam it pierces my heart.”

He figures out in his head what he thinks the realistic timeline is and holds people to it. It’s always impossible. But he does it.

If he doesn’t think you are doing the best work he’ll remove you and “become CEO of the project” and do the work himself. And every time he does that he always gets it done.

Elon didn’t know anything about rockets when he started SpaceX. He simply believed it made sense to make humans an interplanetary species and to do that he could either a) get unlimited money like Jeff Bezos did or b ) build a business that made the ultimate goal possible, one step at a time.

He is short, to the point. Doesn’t suffer fools. He is without remorse in his business dealings. Personally he may not want to have a conversation about your kids but if one of them is sick he’ll move mountains to help them. He will vigoursly help and defend friends. His wrath is brutal.

Taking the time to obsessively learn everything there is to know about a topic sets you apart.

First principles thinking is taking everything down to the very basics of the elements. Challenging assumptions which you can generally prove wrong. If someone explains a process to you, it’s probably a flawed process.

The power of keeping your eye on the end vision and daily breaking it down to get there is critical.

Understand the numbers better than anyone else.

Elon would take the heads off of military brass. He doesn’t care what your status is. He’ll also call suppliers on the weekends. He’s at Tesla on Sat/Suns. He calls suppliers to show them he’s putting in the work, why aren’t they.

Engineers and line workers work in the same place. They always work with each other.

When a part was broken on the island launch pad, SpaceX found an electronics shop in Minn that was open, someone flew to MN to buy the part, then to the island to get it there faster.

Elon calculated that it cost $100k/day to run SpaceX. So when something cost 90k but shaved a day off of waiting time to get something done, it made fiscal sense.

He challenged an engineer to build an avionics system that usually costs $100k from suppliers for $5k. It was impossible but the engineer did it for $3k.

Never assume component costs are realistic. Everyone else, particularly in the established supply chain, smokes their money.

SpaceX and Tesla make almost everything in-house.

TESLA IS A COMPANY THAT BUILT ITS MISSION WITH NO COMPROMISES. They could have done an electric car with a motor backup like the volt, they modeled it, but it would have been a marginal improvement not a product that aligned with the inevitable state of things.

The door handles - Elon and the designer came up with the idea because the early renderings of the Model S didn’t have door handles so they got used to that. Then they had to add them and didn’t want to. Engineers kept adding them, Elon said what the fuck is this. They made it work.

When they initially displayed the Model S it was a Mercedes chassis, no substance, the hood was stuck on with a magnet. But it worked. They needed that event to keep momentum so they made it work. It’s purpose within the organization was clear. People needed to see it to make deposits.

Elon drives communications and PR himself, often only telling PR people about his press calls minutes before.

His wife and assistant both fit in places in his head. He ejected them when they proved they werent needed.

First published on January 20, 2016