May 23, 2008 — -- America is brimming with entrepreneurs, young and old, already successful or dreaming of becoming so one day, famous or forgotten. But in my mind there is no more interesting entrepreneur alive today than Elon Musk.
Musk, who will soon be 37, was raised in South Africa (there is still a slight Afrikaans lilt in his voice), but left when he was about to be drafted into the apartheid army, traveling first to Canada, then down to Pennsylvania to attend grad school at Wharton.
Musk first became interested in technology at age 10, when his father gave him an early personal computer. Within two years, he had not only taught himself to program, but had already designed and was selling his first product, a computer game.
As prodigious as these accomplishments were, they are hardly unique in the nonconformist, genius-filled world of great entrepreneurs. Nor is the next part of the story: Accepted to Stanford to study for a doctorate in high energy physics, he lasted exactly two days before dropping out -- or as he told me, "I actually took a leave of absence and just haven't gone back yet." Nor even is the fact that Musk used his newly freed time to start a company, Zip2, an online service for news outlets, which he and his brother then sold to Compaq's AltaVista for $340 million.
There are, after all, numerous college (or grad school) dropouts who have made it big as tech entrepreneurs -- starting, of course, with Bill Gates and Paul Allen of Microsoft.
But here's where Musk begins to diverge from the traditional tech tycoon path.
In 1999, after Zip2, Elon started a financial services company called X.com, which you've probably never heard of. But you have heard of the company X.com turned into: PayPal. And when PayPal was sold to eBay in late 2002, Musk walked away with more than $100 million.
At this point a typical serial entrepreneur/tycoon either goes off to pursue some personal crusade or goes back to starting new companies similar to the ones that made him or her successful.
But not Elon Musk. While still an undergraduate, he decided that there were three great entrepreneurial challenges in the world -- space exploration, solar power and energy conservation. Now, free and with a fortune in the bank, Elon has set out to tackle all three.
What makes Musk the most interesting modern entrepreneur is not that he attempted all of this -- entrepreneurs are nothing if not audacious -- but that he's actually succeeding. His three companies -- Tesla Motors, SpaceX and SolarCity -- are among the hottest startups on the planet, and the subject of intense international scrutiny. Even more amazing is that we're not talking chips, software and Web 2.0 here, but honest to goodness physical things … solar panels, automobiles, rockets.
This makes Musk, despite his comparatively young age, less of the Zuckerberg/Brinn/Williams/Levchin school of Web wizards, and more a throwback to the garage tinkerers of the 1920s and 30s. And if Musk pulls off all that he says he can do -- a successful line of electric cars, putting a man on Mars, etc. -- we may have to go back another half century for an even more amazing comparison: Elon Musk just may turn out to be our Edison.
I had a chance to reconnect with Elon last weekend after not seeing him for a few years. The occasion was TiEcon, the annual convention of The Indus Entrepreneurs. TiE began in Silicon Valley in 1992 as a way for local entrepreneurs of Indian extraction to team together to make investments, start companies and network. It has since grown into an international organization that, I think correctly, bills itself as the largest association of entrepreneurs on the planet. If you'll remember, two years ago, I was on stage at its giant convention (40,000 entrepreneurs!) interviewing uber-venture capitalist John Doerr. This time I was invited back to sit on stage and throw questions at Elon.
I first met Elon Musk six years ago when he visited Oxford University for my annual Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford event. At the time, he was a very different guy: tall, thin, brooding and invariably dressed in black with a long coat -- he moved like a rock star through the worshipful graduate students at the business school. He seemed unaccustomed -- and more than a little uncomfortable -- with all of the attention he was getting … which, of course, made him even more charismatic to the students.
The Elon who showed up at TiEcon was older, wiser and much more comfortable on the public stage. He is, after all, about to be the next Henry Ford and Werner von Braun. He's also now the father of five, which will knock most of the alienation out of you.
So, I wasn't quite as surprised as the audience obviously was when the side door to the big Santa Clara Convention Center opened and Elon drove in with his brand-new Tesla Roadster. Now that was a grand entrance -- something you can't do on a silicon wafer or a Web page. As the cameras flashed, Elon drove across the convention floor, jumped out and joined me on stage, reminding us all why the Tesla, though designed and built in Silicon Valley, has its premiere showroom in Hollywood. Elon knows his market -- if the Tesla is to succeed it must appeal not just to rich nerds but car enthusiasts and status seekers-- and is prepared to play to it.
You can find details of our conversation on the TiE Web site, or soon, on YouTube. There were a few surprises, however, that I'll mention here:
Tad's Tab: With all the light pollution in most major metropolitan areas, it's getting harder to see the night sky. Thankfully, the Internet is there to cure such needs. The 3D Star Map (http://www.stephenbrooks.org/archive/stellar/) is a program that gives you the ability to search the stars. It's simple to use and has a database of almost 4,000 known stars. Using the arrow keys you can navigate around an area equivalent to 80 light years from the sun.
This is the opinion of the columnist, and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michael S. Malone is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury News, as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the best-selling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the ABCNEWS.com "Silicon Insider" columnist since 2000.