Elon Musk and the art of failing successfully

By Vishrut Shah
June 29, 2016, Updated on : Thu Sep 05 2019 07:26:39 GMT+0000
Elon Musk and the art of failing successfully
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We all know Elon Musk as the brainiac, who also happens to be worth almost $12 billion. But, before being a billionaire, his only assets were his brain and a vision to change the world and humanity.

His ideas, initially termed dreams by many, have turned into realities. He could be regarded as a serial entrepreneur, an entrepreneur who continuously comes up with new ideas and starts new businesses, instead, we have coined a new term for him: ‘parallel entrepreneur’. Someone who has implemented his ideas parallely in more than one industry.

He has not just started these businesses, but revolutionised every industry he has touched: E-cash (PayPal), electric cars (Tesla), rocket technology (SpaceX), and energy services (SolarCity).

YourStory-Elon Musk

But before reaching on top of one of the tallest mountains, Musk had to go through many lows, failures and problems. But he is on top of the mountain because he believed:

If something is important enough you should try, even if the probable outcome is failure.

Here, we dig deep into the lows of this real-life Tony Stark:


Musk was born in South Africa to an engineer father and a model mother. You could call him a nerd, always buried in books and computers. Musk was never much of a social being. He was younger and weaker than other students, making him an easy target for bullies. His childhood was ‘excruciating’ to have lived through. In one incident he was thrown down a staircase and beaten afterwards, so much so that he passed out and had to be hospitalised. He sustained an injury because of which he has trouble breathing even now.

Netscape effort

Not many know this, but Musk had applied for a job at Netscape, however, he did not receive any reply as he had no background in computer science. He had degrees in economics and physics from Wharton School. He even went to their office, but returned as he was too shy to talk to anyone. After this, he decided to pursue his own ideas and hence started Zip2, a web software company, providing business details, something like an online yellow pages. Had he not been shy or had Netscape given him a try, both Musk’s and Netscape’s future could have been different. Although many of you might not consider it as a low point in his life, but keep in mind that Netscape was one of the leading tech-companies at that time, and Musk had missed an opportunity because he was ‘shy’.

Fight over Zip2

Zip2, a company which Musk and his brother had founded, was doing great with Musk as its CEO. The Board of Directors, looking at the long run, removed Musk as the CEO of his own company. The board claimed that Musk did not have the necessary operational responsibilities and because of that couldn’t be the CEO. Another issue they saw was his inexperience and hence appointed another CEO. He kept his shares, and when the company was sold to Compaq, he received $22 million from it.

Ousted from PayPal

Musk founded X.com, an online-payment company which went on to become PayPal. In April 2000, Musk was made the CEO of the company. Soon after, Musk got into an argument with the then CTO over which operating system to go forward with, Windows or Unix. The disagreement eventually resulted into his ousting as CEO from PayPal, while he was on his honeymoon.

Near-death experience

While on a vacation to his native country South Africa, he experienced a near-death experience. He suffered from cerebral malaria, a complication of Plasmodium falciparum malaria, which has a 20 percent mortality rate even if treated. It took him six months to recover and he lost 45 lbs during that period. He has often stated that the ‘near-miss’ gave him a renewed focus and energy. The experience has not affected his spirit, and certainly not his sense of humour. His Google+ profile reads- Bragging rights: Not dead yet. He even jokingly once said,

That’s my lesson for taking a vacation: vacation will kill you.

Son’s sudden death

Seeing your child die is possibly the worst thing that can happen to anyone. Musk had his first son with his long time girlfriend and first wife, Justine Wilson, in May 2002. They named him Nevada Alexander. But he died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) at the age of 10 weeks. By the time paramedics got there, he had been deprived of oxygen for so long that he was brain dead. Musk never speaks about the incident.

Russian debacle

In 2001, Musk conceptualised ‘Mars Oasis’, a project to grow plants on Mars soil. He, along with few others, travelled to Moscow to look for Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) that could send the envisioned payloads into the space. They met a couple of companies who rejected their proposal. After six months, he visited Russia again for the same project. This time, they were offered a deal for $8 million for a rocket, which Musk considered too expensive. On his flight back from Moscow, Musk thought of creating his own company to make affordable rockets. And, thus, SpaceX came into being.

SpaceX crisis

In June 2002, Musk founded SpaceX, with an objective to lower space transportation costs and make Mars colonisation a reality. Musk invested a lot of money which he got from the sale of PayPal into SpaceX. The company’s first three launches failed which sparked scepticism in many investors. They only had enough money for one more launch; they were almost at the verge of bankruptcy. It was a very stressful time for Musk. The fourth launch was a huge success, and as a consequence SpaceX received a contract from NASA for $1.6 billion. SpaceX was sending rockets to space at one third the cost of any other agencies in the business. Musk had gone all out for the SpaceX launch which, fortunately for him, turned out to be a success.

Tesla crisis

Musk founded Tesla Motors in 2003, a company aimed to produce cost-efficient electric cars. The company’s first electric car was Roadster, a high performance vehicle but not very cost-efficient. The launch was delayed and the company also faced severe financial issues, coming very close to shutting down. By his own admission, 2008 was the worst year of his life. The car was costing almost double the predicted price, thereby making the funds insufficient. Musk had to make an important decision then: Either put all his life’s savings into the company or see his company fade away. The latter wasn’t an option for him, so he put everything in. The gamble turned out to be lucky for this parallel-entrepreneur as the car received great reviews for its performance.

Running on empty

After pumping all his money into Tesla and SpaceX, Musk was running dry. Musk was living on personal loans from friends since October 2009. Even the company wasn’t doing very good financially and had to borrow $465 million from The United States Department of Energy. Before this, Tesla had been largely surviving on Musk’s personal investments, which was no longer possible. His divorce settlement with his wife added to his woes. Tesla came to Musk’s rescue, with reimbursing his trips and awarding him 6.7 million stock options.

Musk seems like a go-to-guy to learn how to fail successfully. Failure is probably the least of his worries, rather a necessity. In his own words:

Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.

Musk effectively manages his three companies, five children, and even makes time to think about the future. With a passionate and innovative billionaire like Musk, only time will tell what he has in store for us.