Tackling dry subject matter, Elon Musk captivated a massive audience at SxSW by pairing his larger-than-life undertakings with a seemingly understated demeanor that gave nerdy entrepreneurs an ideal role model. But it became clear watching Musk speak that he operates on another wavelength altogether. Is he a genius or a madman?
Musk, the CEO and the chief technical officer at SpaceX, CEO and chief product designer at Tesla, the chairman of Solar City and the father of five children, repeatedly left his on-stage interviewer, former Wired editor Chris Anderson, with nothing to interject but an flummoxed giggle.
Texas is the leading candidate for a future commercial SpaceX launch pad, Musk crowd-pleasingly announced. But locating in the state will require policy changes including granting SpaceX immunity from some lawsuits and exclusive access to beaches that the state requires to be open to the public.
“Nothing major,” Musk said without any irony. He said he expected a decision on the company’s first launch site not on military land this year, with construction to start next year and the first launches within three years.
Musk became a polarizing figure recently when he responded to a less-than-glowing New York Times review of the Tesla S with repeated, aggressive accusations that the reporter had lied. Asked what he might do differently seeing how it all played out, Musk thought quietly for a moment before deciding that he should have published “a rebuttal to the rebuttal.”
Interviewer Anderson tried again, prompting Musk that he’d said elsewhere that he thought it was important to listen to critical feedback.
“I don’t have a problem with critical reviews. I have a problem with false reviews,” Musk reasserted, leaving Anderson nothing to do but chuckle and move on.
Describing space travel as an obvious area of business once one accepts that humans will be a “multiplanet species,” he spoke of the early days launching a company that competes with NASA.
Musk described going to Russia to try to purchase “a couple of the biggest ICBMs.”
“It was definitely an interesting experience. I sort of got the feeling I could have bought the nuke, too, but I didn’t want to go there,” he said. Uncertain if he was kidding, interviewer and audience laughed.
Musk was asked about his offer to help Boeing resolve the trouble with its batteries that had grounded its 787 Dreamliners. Helping Boeing? Musk described it as just trying to be useful, before diving deep into the specifics of the technical solution he’d proposed. Eyes glazed.
“It’s not super complicated,” Musk concluded to more nervous laughter.
But Musk isn’t just bravado. He treated the audience to a short film, completed just a half an hour before, of a SpaceX rocket blasting off, doing a U-turn and returning to earth, using propulsion to slow its descent into a controlled landing.
It was dramatic technological innovation seen within days of its first successful test, the lifeblood for the entrepreneurs who make up SxSW’s core audience.
Of course, there’s another, more prosaic, driver of the cult of technology: money. Musk reportedly has a net worth of $2.7 billion, according to Forbes. But for tech entrepreneurs, it’s even more exciting to lose money and recoop it than it is simply to have it.
Musk put all of the money he’d made as a co-founder of PayPal into his current ventures, he said. And he thought the most likely outcome was that he would fail.
Adrenaline, like the kind you get from gambling, driving fast and watching rockets launch, is the best companion for cash.
“I’d like to take it down just a scootch, honestly,” said Musk of his seemingly impossible accomplishments.
“The last few years have been really great, but there were a couple of years that sucked horribly. I’d like it to be a little bit less intense. I mean, these last few years have been filled with accomplishments but I haven’t had much fun,” he said.
It’s lonely at the top.