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This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Elon Musk" by Ashlee Vance. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance about? What aspects of Musk’s life does Vance cover?

Elon Musk went from a bullied schoolboy in South Africa, to an entrepreneur during the dot com bubble, to the richest man on Earth. In Musk’s biography, author Ashlee Vance discusses the personal life, business ventures, and management styles of the billionaire.

Continue reading to learn more about Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance.

The Biography of Elon Musk

In Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance, technology journalist Ashlee Vance describes the life and career of entrepreneur, innovator, and billionaire Elon Musk, the CEO of both SpaceX and Tesla. He describes an entrepreneur who is driven by big goals and personal interests, not trends or get-rich-quick schemes. Despite facing challenges and public doubt, Musk changed three major industries and became a billionaire in the process. 

After spending almost 50 hours interviewing Musk, Vance presents unique insight into the life of one of this generation’s most innovative entrepreneurs, as well as the difficult process of building multiple successful companies. Published in 2015, this biography will interest anyone who wants to learn about Musk, his entrepreneurial mindsets, or industries with the potential to change the future. 

Vance breaks down Musk’s process of creating Zip2, (later known as PayPal), SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity. First, we’ll discuss Musk’s childhood in South Africa. Then, we’ll describe how he built each of his companies and some of the major milestones each business met. Finally, we’ll explore Vance’s reflections on how Musk’s traits and management style helped him succeed. 

Early Life and Challenges

Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance first introduces Elon’s childhood. Elon Musk was born in South Africa in 1971. Vance describes two main challenges Musk faced as he grew up:

1) Being bullied: Musk’s bookishness and know-it-all reputation set him apart from his peers, and he was beaten and bullied by a group of boys for several years. Musk noted that this was one of the most difficult experiences of his childhood. The bullying finally stopped when he switched to a different high school with a more peaceful environment.

2) Living with his father: Vance notes that Musk wouldn’t go into great detail about his father, but he acknowledged that Errol was a difficult person to be around, inflicted a level of psychological torture on him, made his life miserable, and dismissed Musk’s dream of moving to America (which Musk eventually did after graduating high school—despite his father’s discouragement). 


Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance describes Musk’s first business venture. In 1995, after leaving South Africa and graduating from college, Musk moved to Silicon Valley with his brother Kimbal to try to start a dot-com company. They founded Zip2, a searchable online directory that linked to a map. Vance explains that Musk thought of the idea during one of his internships after a salesman gave a weak pitch for an online Yellow Pages. Musk saw a business opportunity: selling a way for companies to advertise online. (Later, PayPal)

With money from the Zip2 deal and insight on how to manage a team, Musk was ready to move on to his next venture. In March 1999, Musk incorporated his financial service site, which he named He put $12 million into, making him the biggest shareholder of his new company. Vance explains that Musk’s personal investment was different from most entrepreneurs at the time, who would make a lot of money, and then use their new wealthy status to convince other people to invest in their next venture instead of making a large personal investment themselves. Musk began hiring engineers and seeking venture capital to bring to life.


Following the success of PayPal, Musk set his sights on a new industry for his next venture: space exploration, which was an industry he believed had become stagnant. Vance explains that Musk was disappointed that NASA no longer seemed driven to get to Mars or other planets. Vance explains that Musk wanted to reinvigorate America’s interest in space exploration by advancing current technologies and showing the public that space travel was still evolving, particularly since he believes space colonization is imperative to human survival.


Around the time he started SpaceX, Musk met with an engineer working on battery technology and two engineers who had incorporated Tesla and were working on electric car technology. He suggested that these engineers all work together, and he invested in their venture. They all shared the vision of creating a great car and ending America’s reliance on gasoline. They also decided to build a luxury electric car, rather than a more affordable one that appealed only to environmentalists. 


Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance mostly focuses on PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla, although Vance does bring up SolarCity. Musk had always believed clean energy is the key to human survival and a sustainable future, so in 2005 when his cousins asked for business suggestions, Musk suggested he do something with solar power. Thanks to Musk’s recommendation, his cousins started SolarCity, with Musk as the largest shareholder. Vance explains that the company made improvements on existing solar panels, offered installation packages, and gave consumers an understanding of how solar power would affect their individual homes. Eventually, the company expanded to big businesses like Intel and Wal-Mart. By 2014, SolarCity was worth $7 billion.  

What Helped Musk Succeed?

Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance ends with Musk’s personality traits and management style. Vance While Musk has many traits and management methods that he used to build his companies, Vance discusses five important factors that helped Musk succeed. Through a combination of being motivated by the future, having a high risk tolerance, hiring exceptional employees, maintaining control of his companies, and setting extreme deadlines, Musk’s businesses have achieved impressive results.

Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance: Book Overview

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Ashlee Vance's "Elon Musk" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Elon Musk summary :

  • A look into Elon Musk’s childhood and early companies
  • Musk's roles in SpaceX and Tesla, and later, in SolarCity
  • The traits and management methods that helped Musk succeed

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