Elon Musk is predicted to become the world’s first trillionaire, thanks to SpaceX. Here’s how the dual CEO went from getting bullied as a child to becoming one of the most successful and controversial men in tech.
Elon Musk may already be the world’s richest person. But if one analyst’s prediction comes true, he could become the world’s first trillionaire.
Morgan Stanley Adam Jonas wrote this week that Musk could be the first person to reach trillionaire status, not because of Tesla, the publicly traded company he runs, but because of his private space venture, SpaceX.
But SpaceX is just a piece of the pie for Musk. Over the past five decades, he’s become the CEO of both Tesla and SpaceX, founder of The Boring Company, and cofounder of OpenAI and Neuralink, all while focused on his long-term goal: escaping Earth and colonizing Mars.
In fact, between space rockets, electric cars, solar batteries, and the billions he’s made along the way, Musk is basically a real-life Tony Stark, which is why he served as an inspiration for Marvel’s 2008 “Iron Man” film. But it hasn’t always been a smooth road for Musk – he almost went broke more than once and incited lawsuits and government scrutiny.
Here’s how he became one of the most beloved and controversial figures in the world of business.
This is an update to an article originally published in August 2016. Katie Canales and Matt Weinberger contributed to an earlier version of this story.
Elon Musk was born on June 28, 1971, in Pretoria, South Africa.
Musk’s mother, Maye, is a professional dietitian and model. She has appeared on boxes of Special K cereal and the cover of Time magazine. In 2017, at the age of 69, she landed a contract with CoverGirl.
After their parents divorced in 1979, the 9-year-old Musk and his younger brother, Kimbal, decided to live with their father. It wasn’t until after the move was made that his notoriously troubled relationship with his dad began to emerge. “It was not a good idea,” Musk said in a Rolling Stone interview about moving in with his father.
But he finished his studies at the University of Pennsylvania, earning degrees in physics and economics.
While studying at the University of Pennsylvania, Musk and a classmate rented out a 10-bedroom frat house and turned it into a nightclub. The move, which Musk undertook with Adeo Ressi, was one of his first entrepreneurial experiments.
After graduation, Musk traveled to Stanford University to study for his PhD – but he barely started the program before leaving it. He deferred his admission after only two days in California, deciding to test his luck in the dot-com boom that was just getting underway. He never returned to finish his studies at Stanford.
With his brother, Kimbal, Musk launched Zip2. A cluster of Silicon Valley investors helped to fund the company, which provided city travel guides to newspapers like The New York Times and Chicago Tribune.
While Zip2 got off the ground, Musk literally lived in the office and showered at a local YMCA. The hard work paid off when Compaq bought Zip2 in a deal worth $US341 ($AU457) million in cash and stock, earning Musk $US22 ($AU29) million.
Musk next started X.com, an online banking company. He launched the company in 1999 using $US10 ($AU13) million of the money he got from the Zip2 sale. About a year later, X.com merged with Confinity, a financial startup cofounded by Peter Thiel, to form PayPal.
Musk was named the CEO of the newly minted PayPal – but it wouldn’t last long. In October 2000, he started a huge fight among the PayPal cofounders by pushing for them to move its servers from the free Unix operating system to Microsoft Windows. PayPal cofounder and then CTO Max Levchin pushed back, hard.
While Musk was en route to Australia for a much-needed vacation, PayPal’s board fired him and made Thiel the new CEO. “That’s the problem with vacations,” Musk told Fortune years later about his ill-fated trip in late 2000.
But things worked out for Musk – he made another windfall when eBay bought PayPal in late 2002. As PayPal’s single biggest shareholder, he netted $US1.5 ($AU2) ($AU221) million of the $US1.5 ($AU2) billion price eBay paid.
Even before the PayPal sale, Musk was dreaming up his next move, including a wild plan to send mice or plants to Mars. In early 2002, Musk founded the company that would be known as Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, with $US100 ($AU134) million of the money received from the PayPal sale. Musk’s goal was to make spaceflight cheaper by a factor of 10.
Another early vehicle was named after the song “Puff the Magic Dragon.” The name of the spacecraft, the Dragon, was Musk’s jab at skeptics who told him SpaceX would never be able to put vehicles into space.
SpaceX’s long-term goal is to make colonizing Mars affordable. Musk has said that SpaceX won’t file for an initial public offering until what Musk calls the “Mars Colonial Transporter” is flying regularly.
Musk has also been keeping plenty busy here on Earth, particularly with Tesla Motors. In 2004, Musk made the first of what would be $US70 ($AU94) million of total investments in Tesla, an electric car company cofounded by veteran startup exec Martin Eberhard.
As if that wasn’t enough, Musk came up with the idea for SolarCity, a solar energy company. Musk gave his cousins Peter and Lyndon Rive the working capital to get SolarCity off the ground in 2006. (In late 2016, Tesla bought SolarCity in a $US2.6 ($AU3) billion deal.)
In 2008, with the financial crisis seriously limiting his options, Musk personally saved Tesla from bankruptcy. Musk invested $US40 ($AU54) million in Tesla and loaned the company $US40 ($AU54) million more. Not coincidentally, he was named the company’s CEO the same year.
But between SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity, Musk nearly went broke. He describes 2008 as “the worst year of my life.” Tesla kept losing money, and SpaceX was having trouble launching its Falcon 1 rocket. By 2009, Musk was living off personal loans just to survive.
Musk’s personal life was in upheaval too: Musk and his wife Justine, a Canadian author, got divorced in 2008. The couple got married in 2000 – their first son, Nevada, died of SIDS at 10 weeks old (the Musks later went on to have twin and triplet boys).
Musk started dating actress Talulah Riley later that year. They went on to get married in 2010, then divorced in 2012. In July 2013, they remarried. In December 2014, Musk filed for a divorce but withdrew the paperwork. In March 2016, Riley filed for divorce; that divorce was finalized in October.
Right around Christmas 2008, Musk got two pieces of good news: SpaceX had landed a $US1.5 ($AU2) billion contract with NASA to deliver supplies into space, and Tesla finally found more outside investors.
By June 2010, Tesla held a successful initial public offering. The company raised $US2.6 ($AU3) million in the IPO, becoming the first car company to go public since Ford in 1956. To get his finances back on track, Musk sold shares worth about $US15 ($AU20) million in the offering.
Musk’s extraordinary career was starting to get noticed in other circles, too, most notably in Hollywood. Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark in the “Iron Man” movies is at least partially based on Musk. Musk even had a cameo in “Iron Man 2.”
By the end of 2015, SpaceX had made 24 launches on assignments like resupplying the International Space Station, setting lots of records along the way. In 2016, the SpaceX Falcon 9 made the first successful ocean landing of a reusable orbital rocket.
The Falcon Heavy, the successor to the Falcon 9 and the most powerful rocket SpaceX has built to date, completed a successful maiden launch in February 2018. The Falcon Heavy carried a unique payload: a dummy dubbed “Starman,” and Musk’s personal cherry red Tesla Roadster, which were launched toward Martian orbit.
Musk can’t stop coming up with new ideas, either, like the Hyperloop. A super-high-speed train that travels in a vacuum tube, the Hyperloop could theoretically transport passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes.
And in late 2015, Musk cofounded OpenAI, a nonprofit dedicated to researching artificial intelligence and ensuring it doesn’t destroy humanity. He later announced that he would step down from the board to avoid any potential conflicts of interest with Tesla, which has made strides into artificial intelligence for its self-driving car technology.
The year was a bit rocky from a political standpoint as well. Musk joined President Trump’s business advisory council, a move which caused a huge public backlash. He initially defended the move, but he quit after Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Musk said he tried to convince Trump not to withdraw.
In the spring of 2018, there was a new development in Musk’s personal life – he and the musician Grimes struck up a relationship. They reportedly hit it off after they both made the same nerdy joke about artificial intelligence.
Musk ran into some trouble in 2018 when he sent a tweet declaring he was considering taking Tesla private at $US420 ($AU563) per share and had already secured funding. Just a few days later, the SEC sent Tesla subpoenas about the company’s plans to go private and Musk’s comments.
By September, the SEC had formally filed a lawsuit against Musk, accusing him of making “false and misleading statements.” Musk settled with the SEC, which resulted in both him and Tesla paying a $US20 ($AU27) million fine and Musk agreeing to step down as chairman of Tesla’s board. Additionally, Tesla was required to appoint a committee to oversee Musk’s communications.
In November 2019, Musk debuted a new Tesla vehicle: the Cybertruck, Tesla’s first – and very highly anticipated – pickup truck. Since the unveiling, Musk has been spotted a few times cruising around in the truck, including on a night out to dinner at Nobu with Grimes.
One month later, Musk won a victory in court when a jury ruled he was not guilty of defaming the British diver Vernon Unsworth. Unsworth had filed a defamation lawsuit in 2018 after Musk called him a “pedo guy” on Twitter.
Musk has been outspoken about the coronavirus crisis in the US since early March 2020 when he first tweeted that panic over the virus was “dumb.” Since then, he’s tweeted misinformation about the virus and called US shelter-in-place orders “fascist.”
Despite having a substantial real estate portfolio, Musk recently said that he “will own no house” and would sell almost all of his physical possessions. He has since reportedly sold several of his California properties.
SpaceX had two major milestones in 2020: First, in May, SpaceX partnered with NASA to complete its first launch of astronauts into space. Then, in November, SpaceX completed its first “operational” human spaceflight by sending four astronauts to the International Space Station for a six-month stay.
In late 2020, Musk announced that he had moved to Texas over a spat with the state of California over coronavirus lockdowns. He’s since said he wants to create a city around SpaceX’s launch facilities known as “Starbase.”
Over the past few months, Musk’s longtime spat with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has reached new heights as SpaceX and Bezos’ rival company, Blue Origin, have bickered over NASA contracts and their competing satellite projects. When Musk surpassed Bezos to become the world’s richest person, he taunted Bezos with the silver-medal emoji.