Photo: Orlando Sentinel
Elon Musk is one of Silicon Valley’s most fabled entrepreneurs, and he credits his hard childhood with giving him the tools he needed to get there.Musk sold his first company, Zip2, for more than $300 million to AltaVIsta in 1999 and used that money to start the company that would become PayPal. When eBay bought PayPal for $1.5 billion a couple years later, Musk embarked on a couple of big, bold projects: SpaceX (commercial space flight) and Tesla Motors (electric vehicles).
But it’s not just him. His entire family is full of entrepreneurs — his brother Kimbal cofounded Zip2 and runs a social search company called OneRiot, and his cousins Peter and Lyndon Rive are the founders of solar energy company SolarCity, where Musk is an investor and chairman of the board.
Last night at an awards ceremony hosted by the Churchill Club, VC Steve Jurvetson (who has invested in Musk’s companies) asked Musk what his family did to create so many entrepreneurs.
“My extended family is quite big, I have a lot of cousins. Only a few of them should be running companies.”
Then he paused for a long time, seemingly deciding how much more he should say.
Finally he let spill: “I had a terrible upbringing. I had a lot of adversity growing up. One thing I worry about with my kids is they don’t face enough adversity.”
He didn’t go into more detail than that, but some parts of his biography are well known: Musk was born in South Africa, and emigrated to Canada when he was 17 — without his parents’ support — to avoid serving in the South African military, whose main duty at the time was enforcing apartheid.
Musk also gave two other useful pieces of advice for would-be entrepreneurs:
- Have a world-changing vision. To keep employees motivated as a company grows beyond its startup roots, you “need to have a goal that’s world-changing,” like commercial space travel or changing the automotive industry. He noted that the three companies he’s most involved in — SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity — now have about 1,500 employees each. Without a big vision, he wouldn’t have been able to recruit as much good talent.
- Don’t work yourself to death to cover your mistakes. When he first arrived in Silicon Valley, he says, “I was vary naive and much stupider than I am now. I wish I could go back and give myself a slap on my face….I was working crazy hours. I would literally sleep under my desk to avoid going home because that’d just take time….I was trying to make up for my mistakes by working really, really hard.” Instead, he says, acknowledge your mistakes, fix them if you can, and move on if you can’t.
NOW WATCH: Tech Insider videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.