Executive Insights

Elon Musk turned 47 yesterday — here's the incredible story of how he went from getting bullied in school to the most interesting man in tech

Business Insider US

What can't Elon Musk do?

On Thursday, Musk turned 47 years old, and he's already racked up a long string of victories.

As CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, founder of The Boring Company, and cofounder of OpenAI, Musk seems to be everywhere all at once, pushing all kinds of incredible new technologies. He's said he won't be happy until we've escaped Earth and colonised Mars.

Between space rockets, electric cars, solar batteries, research into killer robots, 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 "Iron Man."

But it wasn't always easy for Musk. Here's how he went from getting bullied in school to small-time entrepreneur to CEO of two major companies that seem like they're straight out of science fiction — and how he almost went broke along the way. 

Elon Musk was born on June 28th, 1971, in Pretoria.

Wikimedia Commons

His father said he's "always been an introvert thinker."

Maye Musk with her son at the 2017 Vanity Fair Oscar Party in Beverly Hills, California.
Bloomberg News, YouTube

"Where a lot of people would go to a great party and have a great time and drink and talk about all sorts of things like rugby or sport, you would find Elon had found the person’s library and was going through their books," Musk's dad, electronics engineer Errol Musk, said.

Musk's mother is a professional dietitian and model.

Maye Musk attends the 'First Monday In May' world premiere during the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival (Getty Images, Mike Coppola)

Maye Musk, a Canadian national, has appeared on boxes of Special K cereal and the cover of Time magazine.

After their parents divorced in 1979, the nine-year-old Musk and his younger brother, Kimbal, decided to live with their father.

YouTube, Bloomberg News

Musk felt sorry for his father, whose three children had gone to live with their mother after the divorce. 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 recent Rolling Stone interview about moving in with his father.

In 1983, at the age of 12, Musk sold a simple game called "Blastar" to a computer magazine.

Musk described it as "a trivial game … but better than Flappy Bird."

Still, Musk's school days weren't easy — he was once hospitalised after being beaten by bullies.


The bullies threw Musk down a set of stairs and beat him until he blacked out, according to Ashlee Vance in his book "Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future."

After graduating from high school, Musk moved to Canada and spent two years studying at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.

Musk at Caltech in 2012, where he gave a commencement speech.
Wikimedia Commons

Musk moved to Canada with his mother Maye, his sister Tosca, and his brother Kimbal.

But he finished his studies at the , taking home 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.

College Hall, University of Pennsylvania. (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Kimbal Musk
Facebook/Stanford University

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 them 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 $341 million (over R4 billion) in cash and stock, earning Musk $22 million (over R301 million).

Musk next started X.com, an online banking company.

He launched the company in 1999 using $10 million (R136 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.

Getty / Drew Angerer

In October 2000, he started a huge fight among the PayPal cofounders by pushing for them to move their 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.

Other problems with holidaying in Australia. (Getty)

"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 $165 million (over R2 Billion) of the $1.5 billion (over R20 billion) price eBay paid. 

Even before the PayPal sale, Musk was dreaming up his next move, including a crazy plan to send mice or plants to Mars.

Wikimedia Commons

A lifelong fan of science fiction, Musk even tried to buy decommissioned Soviet missiles for the purpose. But the Russian sellers wanted $8 million (over R109 million) or more for each, and Musk thought he could build his own for less.

In early 2002, Musk founded the company that would be known as Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, with $100 (over R1 billion) million of the money received from the PayPal sale.


Musk's goal was to make spaceflight cheaper by a factor of ten.

SpaceX's first vehicles were named after Star Wars' Millennium Falcon spaceship.

SpaceX's Falcon 9 on its 16 lift-off in 2017 (Instagram, @spacex)

The rockets were called the Falcon 1 and 9.

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.

Falcon 9 landing in May, 2018, after a succesful lift-off (Instagram, @spacex)

SpaceX won't file for an initial public offering until what Musk calls the "Mars Colonial Transporter" is flying regularly, he said.

Musk has also been keeping plenty busy here on Earth, particularly with Tesla Motors.

Tesla Roadster
Wikimedia Commons

In 2004, Musk made the first of what would be $70 million (R958 million) of total investments in Tesla, an electric car company co-founded by veteran startup exec Martin Eberhard.

Musk took an active product role at Tesla, helping develop its first car, the Roadster.

SolarCity cofounder Lyndon Rive (left) and Musk
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The all-electric Roadster launched in 2006, when Musk was serving as Tesla's chairman. He's now its CEO also. 

As if that wasn't enough, Musk came up with the idea for SolarCity, a solar energy company.

SolarCity workers install solar panels on the roof of a home.

Musk gave his cousins Peter and Lyndon Rive the working capital to get SolarCity off the ground in 2006.

But back at Tesla, all was not well.


With Eberhard as CEO, Tesla was burning way more cash than it was taking in. In 2007, Musk staged a boardroom coup, first ousting Eberhard from his CEO seat and then from the company's board and executive suites entirely.

In 2008, with the financial crisis seriously limiting his options, Musk personally saved Tesla from bankruptcy.

Getty Images

Musk invested $40 million (over R547 million) into Tesla and loaned the company $40 million more. Not coincidentally, he was named the company's CEO the same year.

But between SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity, Musk very 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.

Around the same time, Musk was going through a divorce from Justine Musk, a Canadian author with whom he had six sons.

Jason Merritt / Getty Images

But right around Christmas 2008, things started looking up again.


Musk got two pieces of good news: SpaceX landed a $1.5 billion (over R20 billion) contract with NASA to deliver supplies into space, and Tesla finally found more outside investors.

By 2010, things had seriously turned around, with Tesla holding a successful initial public offering.

Musk (right) with Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. In "Iron Man 2"

Tesla raised $226 million (over R3 billion) in the IPO that June, becoming the first car company to go public since Ford in 1956. To get his finances back on track, Musk sold shares worth about $15 million (R205 million) in the offering.

Musk's extraordinary career was starting to get noticed in other circles, too, most notably in Hollywood.

Talulah Riley (right) with Musk.
Kim Stockton/YouTube

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."

All the while, Musk's personal life has been in continual flux.

Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images

In 2008, Musk started dating actress Talulah Riley. They got married in 2010 and 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.

And in August of 2017, Aquaman actress Amber Heard broke it off with Musk after a year of dating.

Alberto E. Rodriguez/Business Insider

He lamented in a Rolling Stone interview late last year how difficult the breakup was for him. 

Work is going well, though, particularly at SpaceX.

People in Bangladesh watch as the country’s first communications satellite, Bangabandhu-1, is launched by SpaceX on 12 May 2018 (Rehman Asad/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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 water 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 has three reusable boosters.

The Falcon Heavy carried a unique payload: A dummy dubbed "Starman," and Musk's personal cherry red Tesla Roadster, who were launched towards Martian orbit.

Elon Musk/SpaceX via Instagram

Musk can't stop coming up with new ideas, either. Among his latest is the Hyperloop.

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

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, cutting commutes and traffic congestion down exponentially. Recognizing how busy he was running SpaceX and Tesla, among his other projects, Musk is letting other companies build their own versions.

In April, Musk took to Twitter to announce his plans to test a Tesla and SpaceX-branded Hyperloop at half the speed of sound, or 616 km/h.

Musk also recently started another company — The Boring Company, which is more interesting than its name suggests.

Business Insider Australia

Launched in 2016, the Boring Company's mission is to dig a network of tunnels under and around cities for high-speed, no-traffic driving. Now, the Boring Company is starting to dig, with permits for test tunnels in Baltimore and California.

And in late 2015, Musk cofounded OpenAI, a nonprofit dedicated to researching artificial intelligence and ensuring it doesn't destroy humanity.

Musk has expressed concern that the race for better AI could end up sparking a third world war. More recently, Musk announced he was stepping down from the board of OpenAI in February 2018 to avoid any potential conflicts of interest with Tesla, which has made strides into artificial intelligence for its self driving car technology.

At the same time Musk sounds the warning bells over AI, Tesla is investing heavily in autopilot, its self-driving car technology.

Timothy Artman/Tesla

Tesla's "autopilot" system is available on all three of its models, including the new Model 3 — a lower-cost car launched in early 2017 that brings the company closer to its goal of making electric vehicles that are affordable for the masses.

In late 2016, Tesla bought SolarCity in a $2.6 billion deal, bringing one of his extant ideas back home to roost.


The acquisition brought Musk's two big green-tech ideas under one roof.

From a political standpoint, 2017 was a bit rocky for Musk.

Getty Images

Musk joined President Trump's business advisory council, a move which caused a huge public backlash. He initially defended the move, saying he would be able to use his proximity to the White House to effect change. But he quit after Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. 

2018 seems to be looking up for Musk, though: While Model 3 production is still not quite on track, Tesla and SpaceX are both doing well. He's worth about $20 billion (over R207 billion), all told — far from his days of being broke.

Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

In the Spring of 2018, there was a new development in Musk's personal life, too — he and musician Grimes struck up a relationship. They reportedly hit it off after they both made the same nerdy joke about artificial intelligence.

Elon Musk
Neilson Barnard/Getty

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