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Elon Musk shares the story of his life and dreams.One of the world's most successful and daring entrepreneurs, who is not only trying to redefine transportation on Earth and in space, but is also on the forefront of moving humanity towards a sustainable future.Learn about the history of Tesla, SpaceX, SolarCity, PayPal, OpenAI and more...
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The Early Years
The Meaning of Life
Coming to Canada
Down in the Valley
All Systems are Go!
In the Loop
Falcons and Dragons
Dawn of a New Era
Summoning the Demon
Life on Mars
Things to Come..
The Unauthorized Autobiography
Copyright 2018 J.T. Owens
Dedicated to all our children
Past.. Present.. and Future
The Early Years
Hi I'm Elon Musk, I currently run Tesla, SpaceX, Neuralink, the Boring Company, and I'm co-chairman of OpenAI. I was trying to think what the most useful thing is that I can say to be useful to you in the future. I'm surprised by the whole thing honestly. I certainly didn't expect any of these things to happen, and I often find myself wondering, how did this happen? I guess I'll just tell you the story of how I came to be here, the various things that I did and maybe why I did them. Maybe there are lessons there, and hopefully, that's a bit helpful.
I was born in ’71, in Pretoria, South Africa, and lived in Johannesburg and Durban as well. My father was an engineer, an electromechanical engineer, so I grew up in sort of an engineering household. My mother is a model and nutritionist, and was born in Canada.
I do have some American background, my grandfather actually was an American from Minnesota. In fact a lot of people think my name must be from some exotic location, but I was named after my great grandfather John Elon Haldeman who was from Minneapolis, actually St. Paul I should say. He was like a school superintendent and a part-time sheriff in 1900, so I'm actually from Africa and named after my American ancestor.
My grandfather moved with all his kids and my mom and everyone to South Africa because he wanted to use it as a base of exploration.He was sort of a amateur archaeologist and he liked to explore things. He had this little plane that he liked to fly all over the place, and he flew it all through Africa and Asia. He was the first person to fly from South Africa to Australia. He did this in a plane with no electronic instruments, and in some places they had diesel and some places they had gasoline, so he had to rebuild the engine to whatever fuel they had. It's lucky he survived on that one.
I was able to travel to a few countries growing up, within Africa and around the world. On the first trip that I went out of South Africa, Paris, that was where I went when I was a little kid. My parents brought me there when I was like 6 years old, I've loved Paris ever since.
I was definitely very driven as a kid and very willful. One of the things that I remember from my childhood, I was I think six, or something maybe around that age, so the memory is a little fuzzy at this point. I was just learning to read basically. As I recall I was grounded one afternoon for some reason, I don't know why, and prevented from going to play with my cousins who lived on the other side of town. I felt it was unjust, and I really wanted to go to my cousin's party, who was five - so it was a kid's party. At first I was going to take my bike, and I told my mum this, which was a mistake. She told me some story about how you needed a license for a bike, and the police would stop me. I wasn't 100% sure if that was true or not, but I thought I better walk, just in case. I escaped from my nanny, and just started walking to my cousin's house. I didn't really know the way, I kind of knew the way, and I could barely read the roadsigns. It was 10 or 12 miles away clear across town, it's really quite far. Further than I realized actually. I think it took me about four hours. I was getting to my cousin’s house just as my mum was leaving that party with my brother and sister. She saw me walking along the sidewalk and she freaked out, because she didn't know how I got there. I saw she saw me, so I then sprinted to my cousin's house and I was just about two blocks away and I climbed a tree and refused to come down until they promised that they wouldn't punish me, and I could play with my cousins. I didn't get punished actually, but they didn't let me play with my cousins either.
In retrospect it was obviously a very foolish thing to do, because something terrible could've happened, I could've been kidnapped, or run over or something like that, but I was so determined to go play with my cousins that I basically walked clear across the capital city.
I got bored easily unless I was doing something like reading or playing a video game or watching TV. We had like very lame TV. I mean South Africa had terrible TV, like really bad. I liked watching but there was just not so much of it. We literally in the early days had one channel and it was only on for half a day. Boredom led to a lot of reading.
I read all the comics I could buy or they let me read at the bookstore before chasing me away. I liked obviously, Batman, Superman and stuff, Green Lantern, Iron Man. Better not say Iron Man first, because then people will think... but I did think that was a pretty cool one. Doctor Strange.. if there was a comic on the rack, I read it. I would read everything that I could get my hands on, from when I woke up to when I went to sleep.
I read the encyclopedia about age 9 or 10. Not that I wanted to read the encyclopedia, but I ran out of things to read so in desperation I read the encyclopedia. You can learn things very quickly just reading books, the information is all there. If your data rate of reading books is much faster, you can read information much faster than you can hear it.
I would just be questioning things, maybe it's sort of built in to question things. When I was a little kid I was really scared of the dark, but then I sort of came to understand that dark really means the absence of photons in the visible wavelength, 400 to 700 nanometer. Then I thought it's really silly to be afraid of a lack of photons. I wasn’t afraid of the dark anymore after that. I would always think about something, and whether that thing was really true or not and could something else be true, or is there a better conclusion that one could draw that's more probable. I was doing that when I was in elementary school. It would infuriate my parents by the way, that I just wouldn't believe them when they said something, because I would ask them why, then I would consider if that response makes sense given everything else I know.
I hated going to school when I was a kid, it was torture. I was actually for quite a while the youngest and smallest in the class, and my parents moved a lot so I went to six different schools. You'd make friends the one year then you'd be in the new school the next. I got beaten up a lot at school. Yeah it sucked. For no good reason I think. Mostly I ran, or hide in classrooms during recess. Run or hide, those are the two options really, so I just read a lot of books and try to stay out of peoples way during school. Part of it was probably because I was a bit of a smart ass sometimes. Up until tenth grade I was pretty much the smallest kid in my class, and then I kind of grew after that. Being sort of little book wormy kid smart ass was a recipe for disaster.
The best teacher I ever had was my elementary school principal. Our math teacher quit for some reason, and so he decided to sub in himself for math and accelerate the syllabus by a year. We had to work like the house was on fire for the first half of the lesson and do extra homework, but then we got to hear stories of when he was a soldier in WWII. If you didn't do the work, you didn't get to hear the stories. Everybody did the work.
When I was young we did sort of a variety of things. We went selling chocolate door-to-door, we created a little business plan to create a video arcade. We had this brilliant idea to start a video arcade because we really knew what games were popular. That got shut down by our parents. I think we would've actually made money by the way, because we really understood what games were good.
I loved playing video games. I had one of the first video game consoles, that didn't even have cartridges. You had like four games that you could play, and you had to pick one of the four, that was it. I went from there to the original Atari when I was maybe 6 or 7, and then intellivision and other game consoles. My father brought me on a trip to the United States when I was about 10. I remember it was a really awesome experience, because the hotels all had arcades. My number one thing when we went to a new hotel or motel or whatever it was, was go to the arcades.
I must've been like 9 or 10 or something when I walked into a computer store in South Africa and saw a Commodore VIC-20. That was really super exciting, I thought it was the most awesome thing I had ever seen. An actual computer you could program and write your own video games with. I was like holy crow you can actually have a computer and make your own games. I just thought this was one of the most incredible things possible. I took all of my saved allowance and hounded my father until we got the Commodore VIC-20.
I think on Wikipedia it says that I was inspired by my father in terms of technology. This is actually not true and I think it needs to be corrected. He is somewhat of a Luddite actually in many respects, particularly computers. He didn't want to buy a computer, and refused to use computers because he said they would never amount to anything. He did contribute after I saved up my allowance, but he initially refused to buy a computer for me. I was exposed to technical subjects when I was growing up, it was just that he wasn't much of a technologist.
But that was my first computer, that Commodore VIC-20. I think it had like 8k of memory. It came with this manual how to program in Basic. So I spent all night and a couple of days just sort of absorbing that. I kind of went OCD on the thing, maybe not technically OCD, but I certainly got obsessive, so certainly the O part.
I got some books on how to teach yourself programming and taught myself how to write software. I just started writing software, I really liked computers and programming was fun. I could make my own games, and I also wanted to see how the games worked. Like, how did you create a video game? It was kind of amazing that computers do all those things. You construct a little universe. When you first do it you go like wow this is incredible, you can actually make things happen. You can type these commands and something happens on the screen, that's pretty amazing.
I tried taking some computer classes but I was way ahead of the teacher, so it didn't really help.
I read a lot of computer magazines, and there was a computer magazine that you could sell software to, and they would publish your software and then send you a check. I needed more money to buy a better computer and more video games, so I started programming a space game called “Blastar”, it was just a primitive sort of a space war game. I was maybe about 12 or so. I didn't think they would actually buy the software, but if you don't try then you really have 0% chance. I just mailed it in and they bought it for several hundred dollars. Made a lot of money for a little kid. I don't think they knew I was 12 years old actually. That was cool because I thought, ‘Wow, I got paid money to make a game, that’s great.’ I just started writing software, I really liked computers and programming was fun. I started programming games and then selling games in order to actually buy more games - a bit of a circular thing - more games and better computers and that kind of thing. Basically, I would spend money on better computers and Dungeons & Dragons modules and things like that. Nerdmaster 3000 basically.
The Meaning of Life
I wasn't that much of a loner, at least not willingly. I certainly was quite - I was very bookish, I was reading all the time. Generally, sort of the fantasy and sci-fi genre I found most interesting. I read thousands and thousands of books sort of like The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and that kind of thing. A lot of nonfiction as well, in fact I remember when I was just in elementary school I was reading about ion engines and I thought they were super cool, and now we're launching satellites with ion engines.
I had sort of a dark childhood, it wasn't good. I always had sort of a slight existential crisis, trying to figure out 'what does it all mean?' like, what’s the purpose of things?
I was reading various books, like most of the philosophers, and religious texts, and those kind of things trying to figure like what's the meaning of life, cause it all seemed quite meaningless. I got quite sad about it when I was a teenager. Puberty I guess - 13 through 15, probably the most traumatic years. Probably partially brought on by reading some of the philosophers and some of the really boring boring awful books if you ask me, like Dostoevsky ahh.. brutal. We also happened to have some books by Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, and that sort of thing in the house, which you should not read at age 14, it's bad, it’s really negative. Most of the philosophers they are awful.. - particularly the Germans. They’re depressing, some of the things they say are good ideas but it’s interspersed with so much rubbish.
Anyway I was in my early teen years trying to figure out the meaning of the universe, and all that, and it was very difficult to come up with something that wasn’t some piece of arbitrary claptrap. I eventually came to the conclusion that nobody has any idea what the meaning of the universe is. Then I read Douglas Adams ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ Douglas Adams is awesome, one of the greatest philosophers of all time, not recognized as such, but he is. I think the most interesting thing he said was: “The question is harder than the answer.” In ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ the Earth turns out to be a giant computer used to answer the question “What is the meaning of life?” and he comes up with the answer I think ’42’ then it’s like “What the hell is 42?” It turns out that it’s the question that’s the hard part, and it takes a bigger computer than Earth to figure it out. It sort of highlighted the point that often the issue is understanding what questions to ask. If you properly frame the question, the answer is the easy part. I think there’s some truth to that, when we ask questions they come along with all of our biases, there are so many things implied in the question that you should really ask “is that the right question?”
I thought things that expand the scope and scale of consciousness, and human knowledge, and allows us to achieve greater enlightenment those are good things. What can we do that's going to most likely lead to that outcome?
I actually didn't really expect to be involved in creating companies when I was in Pretoria Boys' High School or middle school. I was actually going to pursue sort of physics, and a career in physics and science in general, from the standpoint of trying to understand the nature of reality. What is it all about? That was really my main motivation. Sort of gain greater enlightenment over time that seemed like a good goal. If we can improve our understanding of the universe then eventually we can figure out what right questions to ask.
That's not the meaning of life, but it's something.
It's actually kind of funny if you think what is education? You’re basically downloading data and algorithms into your brain, and it's amazingly bad in conventional education. I think just in general conventional education should be massively overhauled, because it shouldn't be like this huge chore. Everyone normally goes through English, math, science and so forth from fifth grade, the six grade, seventh grade and so forth, like it's an assembly line. It shouldn't be that you got like these grades where we have people walking in lockstep. People are not objects on an assembly line, that's a ridiculous notion. People learn and are interested in different things at different paces. You really want to disconnect the whole grade level from the subjects, and allow people to progress at the fastest pace they can or are interested in, in each subject. It seems like a really obvious thing.
A lot of kids are probably just in school puzzled as to why they're there. They don't know why they're there, like why are we learning this stuff? We don't even know why. You’re asked to memorize formulas, but you don't not know why this is the case. You have this cognitive dissonance of it seems irrelevant, but I've been told to remember it, I'll be punished if I don’t remember it.
I think a lot of the things that people learn, probably there's no point in learning them, because they never use them in the future. People I think don’t stand back and say, well, why are we teaching people these things? and we should tell them, probably why we're teaching these things. I think if you can explain the why of things, then that makes a huge difference to people's motivation. Then they understand purpose. I think that's pretty important.
The more you can game-ify the process of learning, the better. Generally you want your education to be as close to a video game as possible, like a good video game. Just make it entertaining.You don't need to tell your kid to play video games. For my kids, I do not have to encourage them to play video games. I have to like pry them from their hands like crack, it’s like “drop that crack needle!” they will play video games on autopilot all day. To the degree that you can make somehow learning like a game, make it interactive and engaging, then you can make education far more compelling and far easier to do. I think that's how it should be.
It's also very important to teach to the problems and not to the tools. You can imagine like if you say, we want to understand how an internal combustion engine works. The best way to do that is to say let's take apart the engine and put it back together again. Now what tools do we need for this? We need a screwdriver, we need a wrench, maybe a winch, and as you take the engine apart you understand the reason for these tools. If on the other hand you have a course on screwdrivers and a course on wrenches, that would be a terrible way to do it, it’s difficult to remember. The way that our mind has evolved is to remember things that are relevant, and to discard information that it thinks has irrelevance, so we must establish relevancy.Tying it to a problem is very powerful for establishing relevance, and getting kids excited about what they're working on, and having the knowledge stick. In the course of solving a problem, taking the engine apart and putting it back together, you learn about the relevance. It's very painful and difficult to remember things if they seem abstract and unimportant. You have to establish the relevancy and importance, and establish the why of things in order for the knowledge to naturally stay in your brain.
It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree -- make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves and details, or there is nothing for them to hang on to.
Frankly, I think most people can learn a lot more than they think they can. They sell themselves short without trying. I think generally peoples thinking processes are too bound by convention or analogy to prior experiences. They'll say we will do that because it was always done that way, or they will not do it because nobody has ever done that before, so it must not be good. That is just a ridiculous way to think. Analogies are very seductive they can sound very compelling, but analogy is just a story. The way we get through daily life is mostly by analogy, or sort of copying things with minor variations. The amount of thinking you need for it is not much, because it is a computational shortcut, which is fine for every day life.
If you want to do something that is fundamentally new or is particularly counterintuitive, then analogies don't work very well. You won't know what's really true, or what's really possible, if you reason by analogy. You have to do a first principles analysis, rather than reasoning by analogy, you boil things down to the most fundamental truths you can imagine, and then you reason up from there. You have to build up the reasoning from the ground up. This is a good way to figure out if something really makes sense, or if it’s just what everybody else is doing. It’s hard to think that way, you can’t think that way about everything. It takes a lot of effort, it requires a lot of thinking. It's rare that people try to think of something on a first principles basis.
First principles is a phrase that is used in physics. Physics has this problem where they are trying to figure out things that are counter intuitive, like quantum mechanics. They had to get a framework for getting there. My main training and mindset is that of a physicist, so I tend to think in a very sort of physics brainwork. I think it is the best brainwork for thinking, and for evaluating technologies at a fundamental level. You look at the fundamentals and construct your reasoning from that, and then see if you have a conclusion that works or doesn't work. It means that you go to the very basic laws of physics, the things which we believe to be extremely well demonstrated. In other words the reason they call it a law is that no one has ever demonstrated an exception to that ever. That's how it qualifies as being a law, but even then laws can be broken, where you find that one case in the very unusual circumstance that will break it. That is the transition from Newtonian to Einsteinian mechanics. Newtonian mechanics are actually extremely predictive of reality, except when you approach the speed of light. Since back in the day, with their primitive instruments, they couldn't detect these tiny little differences, Newtonian mechanics seemed to predict everything perfectly. You take these very fundamental laws and say now let's use those as the ingredients from which we will construct a theory, a conclusion, because we know that base is sound. If we therefore are able to combine those elements in a way that's cogent, that conclusion will be sound, and it may or may not be different from what people have done in the past. That's what I mean with reasoning from first principles, and I think that general approach can be taken in many fields.
I think that physics is usually not taught the right way. The way physics is usually taught is with a series of raw formulas. The wonder and awe of physics is not conveyed in classrooms, the fundamental meaning is not conveyed. Like what do these formulas represent in reality? It's incredible that a formula can actually describe reality, that's amazing.
The very framework of how to think about physics is by far the most helpful. To sort of understand how the first scientists learned anything, how they changed the way they learned things. How they build the framework of analysis overtime, as they learned that one mode was better than another. This is extremely helpful to learn. If people really pay attention to physics 101 that is the most valuable. Physics is true everything else is debatable, and even physics is questionable. Quantum mechanics is really interesting too. It's amazing that quantum mechanics is true, it's still hard to believe.
I do think more people should study engineering and science. Software engineering is probably the single biggest area that people should learn, and I'm always sort of a fan of general economics and critical thinking. We should really teach critical thinking a lot more. That may seem like a simple thing. You just need to tell people this is how you know whether you should believe something or not. Just teaching people these are general types of fallacies, and this is how people generally trick you, and how to avoid being tricked, that would be really great.
A university education is often unnecessary, That's not to say that it is unnecessary for all people. It really depends on what somebody’s goal is. I think you learn the fast majority in the first two years, and most of it is from your classmates. You can always buy the text books and read them.
Unfortunately, I think a lot of teaching today is a lot like vaudeville, and as a result of that not that compelling.You've got someone standing up there kind of lecturing at people. They've done the same lecture 20 years in a row, so they're not necessarily all that engaged doing it, and they're not very excited about it. That lack of enthusiasm is conveyed to the students, so they're not very excited about it. Compare that to let's say “Batman: The Dark Knight” the Chris Nolan movie, it's pretty freaking awesome. You got like incredible special effects, amazing actors, great script, multiple cuts, and great sound. That's amazing, and it's very engaging. Now, imagine if instead you had the same script, so at least it's the same script, and you said instead of having movies, we're going to have that script performed by the local town troupe. In every small town in America, if movies didn't exist, they'd have to recreate “The Dark Knight” with like home-sewn costumes, and like jumping across the stage, and not really getting their lines quite right, and not really looking like the people in the movie, and no special effects. That would not be compelling, I mean that would suck, it would be terrible. That's education.
Coming to Canada
Growing up I was very technology oriented, but I didn't really know what I was going to do when I got older. People kept asking me, so eventually I thought the idea of inventing stuff or creating things would be a cool thing to do. The reason I thought that was because I read a quote from Arthur C. Clark which said: “A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” and that’s really true. I'd say particularly engineering is the closest thing to magic that exists in the real world. Engineering is creating some new device that never existed before, that can do things today that would be considered magic hundreds of years ago. I think it actually goes beyond that, there's many things we take for granted today that weren't even imagined in times past, they weren’t even in the realm of magic, so it goes beyond that. If you go back say 300 years, the things that we take for granted today, you'd be burned at the stake for. Being able to fly that's crazy, being able to see over long distances, being able to communicate, having effectively with the internet a group mind of sorts, having access to all the world’s information instantly from almost anywhere on Earth. It's pretty amazing what we can do, we can create images, we can do holograms and things like that. This is the stuff that really would be considered magic in times past, and all of these things would've gotten you burned at the stake 300 years ago.
I thought, If I can do some of those things -- if I can advance technology that is like magic, that would be really cool. I wasn't really sure if that meant starting a company, or whether that meant working for a company that made cool stuff.
Whenever I would read about cool technology and great innovation it just seemed like interesting things happened in America almost all the time. Of course within the United States, Silicon Valley is where the heart of things is, although, at the time, I didn't know where Silicon Valley was. When I was growing up, Silicon Valley seemed like some mythical place, like Mount Olympus or something. That’s where I wanted to be, I just wanted to be where technology was being created. I just wanted to be involved with things that were on the cutting edge. That’s what got me excited and I knew I wanted to come to America. I remember thinking and saying that America is where great things are possible, more than any other country in the world. It is true, America is the land of opportunity.
I was trying to figure out how to get to the US, and I tried to convince my parents to move there. My parents were divorced, so if at least one of them could move there I could move there with them, but I wasn't successful in convincing them. At one point I convinced my father but then he reneged, unfortunately. He did say yes, and then he changed his mind. I guess he was fairly established, he was an engineer established in South Africa and didn't want to have to go through that again in another country.
Then I found out my mother was born in Canada. Her father was American, but my mother hadn't gotten her US citizenship before he died, and before certain age restrictions, so that broke the link and I couldn't get my American citizenship unfortunately directly. I walked her through the process of getting her Canadian citizenship which allowed me to get my Canadian citizenship. I applied for her Canadian passport and mine at the same time. I actually filled out the forms for her and got her Canadian passport and me too, and within three weeks of getting my Canadian passport I was in Canada. I couldn't convince my parents to move, so I had to move myself. They tried to convince me not to leave, but being conscripted in the South African army didn't seem like a great way to spend time. So I left by myself against my parents wishes, with almost no financial support. I wouldn't say they were unsupportive, but I can't say they were particularly supportive.
I arrived in North America when I was about 17. I had a relative in Canada and I send letters that I was coming. I didn't get any letter back, but I went anyway. I had a great uncle in Montreal, and when I got to Montreal my mom finally got a letter back that he was in Minnesota for the summer. I just stayed at a student hospital and bought a bus ticket across Canada. I bought a bus ticket from Montreal to Vancouver, and that allowed me to see Canada at least from the highway. Canada is a great country.
I wasn't quite sure how easy it would be to get a job or anything like that. I didn't have a real job as I was only 17, and only did like paper routes and stuff like that. I thought well just in case it takes me a long time to get a job I better make sure that tiny stash of money lasts a long time. I only had a few thousand dollars, so I thought let me see what it takes to live. See if I can live for under a dollar a day, which I was able to do. You can do it, just sort of buy food in bulk at the supermarket. You just buy like hotdogs in bulk and oranges in bulk. Scurvy is bad so you got to have an orange in there, an orange every couple of days will keep scurvy away. You get really tired of hotdogs and oranges after while. Of course stuff like pasta and a green pepper and a big thing of pasta sauce, that can go pretty far too. Just buy stuff in bulk and most of the time you can get under a buck a day. It does get a little monotonous after a while. I was like you know I can live for a dollar a day, at least from a food cost standpoint it's pretty easy to earn like $30 a month, so I'll probably be OK. I supported myself through various odd jobs for several months in various computer related roles, mostly in Toronto.
I wasn't sure if I wanted to go to college before I came. My college education wasn't actually super well planned out. I wasn't sure whether I should go or not. Then I decided that I wanted to go to college because otherwise it was a hard time getting girls, because everybody was much older than I was at the companies that I was working at. It seemed like that I would be missing out on an important social experience, so that was really the deciding factor. I managed to get a student loan and go to college. In Canada colleges are less expensive, it's kind of like maybe a state school or kind of like the university of California or CalState. The tuition is much less then it is in other places.
I was actually considering two possibilities, one was to study computer engineering at the University of Waterloo, and the other one was to go to Queen’s University. I went to Waterloo and I saw there were not many girls there, so I thought like OK that doesn't seem so much fun, so then I went to Queen’s. The big thrill of university was to date girls of my own age. I actually met my first wife there so that worked out.
I had kind of a broad range of subjects in commerce, engineering, and math. I rarely went to class, I just read the text book and show up for the exams.
The first really important person I met was this guy by the name of Peter Nicholson, when I had a summer job. I read this article in the newspaper about this guy and he seemed really smart. I couldn't get to him directly, but then I called the newspaper to talk to the writer, and then the writer connected me with Peter Nicholson. He was the head of strategy for the Bank of Scotia, which is the largest bank in Canada. He later became the chief economic adviser to the prime minister, so he was a really smart guy. I talked to him and I said: if there's any chance of a summer internship that would be great, and he actually ended up giving me a job that summer.
Some students I met at Queen’s got transferred to Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania, and they gave a very good report. I thought well I'll try to go there. I didn't have any money so in order to go there I needed a scholarship. One of the downsides of coming to a university in North America was that my parents said they would not pay for college - or, my father said he would not pay for college unless it was in South Africa. I could have free college in South Africa or find some way to pay it here. After my second year at Queen’s I applied to UPenn and fortunately I got a scholarship.
I came down to the US to go to college at the University of Pennsylvania and did a dual undergraduate in business and physics there the third year.
Actually the only reason I studied business at all was if I graduated, and I have to work for someone who has a business degree, if they knew special things that I didn't know then I would have a disadvantage. I was mostly afraid of having a boss that I didn't like. I figured if I don't learn the business stuff then somebody else is going to make me do things that I don't want to do, so I better learn the secrets of business.
I finished like my business courses in a year. Then I said well I like physics, I'll study physics for the second year. Then I went into the science and engineering. I’m more an engineer then anything else. Engineering and design is my interest, but you also need to be able to bring a lot of people together to create something. It’s very difficult to create something as an individual if it's a significant technology. I figured in order to do a lot of these things you need to know how the universe works, and you need to know how the economy works, that's why I did the physics degree as well as the Wharton finance degree. The finance that was easy by the way. All my business courses in the final year were not as hard as quantum mechanics.
Graduating from undergrad I had to make a decision. One path would have sort of led to Wall Street and I guess quite a big salary, and the other was to do grad studies and try to figure out a technical problem and I didn't much like the first one.
Down in the Valley
When you're starting out in college, during sort of freshman and sophomore year, you have these sort of philosophical wonderings. At Queens and then also at UPenn I was trying to think of what were the most important areas that could have a significant positive effect on the future of humanity. What are the problems we have to solve? You have these philosophical discussions on a sophomoric level I suppose. I actually talked a lot to friends and my housemates, and dates - which was probably not the best thing. The three areas that I came up with were, the Internet, sustainable energy, both in production and consumption, and space exploration, particularly if humanity becomes a multi-planet species.I thought about these things kind of in the abstract, not from the expectation that I would actually have careers in those arenas. Those were just the areas that I thought would most effect the future, and as it turned out I was fortunate enough to be involved in those areas. That’s the thread that connects them - it's kinda my best guess at what would most likely effect the future in the biggest way, and I wanted to be involved in at least one of them.
At first I thought the best bet was going to be helping with electrification of cars, that‘s how I would start out. Purely from the standpoint of us eventually running out of hydrocarbons to mine and burn. There is obviously a limited supply of oil in the ground, so eventually we would have to transition to something that is sustainable. When we are drawing oil from the ground, we are essentially taking the accumulated solar energy that was bound up in plants and animals that over hundreds of millions of years was turned into oil. That is obviously finite, and if we run out of that and we don't have a good solution then there would be economic collapse, independent of any environmental concern. That's actually what initiated my interest in electric vehicles, before global warming became an issue.
At Penn there was a professor who was chairman of a company in Silicon Valley that was working on advanced capacitors, potentially for use in electric cars. I asked if I could get a summer job, because it was in Silicon Valley and working on technology for electric cars. I thought, this is really awesome, I’ll come out to California to do energy physics at Stanford, that’s pretty much as good as it gets. I just want to go to where the exciting breakthroughs were occurring. Stanford is in Silicon Valley, it's sort of the epicenter, so that's where I wanted to come, near Stanford or Berkeley and Stanford is sort of sunnier, so I liked it.
I got a summer job in Los Gatos actually, doing electrolytic ultra-capacitors. Capacitors are a very common component in circuit boards, and are occasionally used to store limited amounts of energy. The problem is that their energy density does not compare to that of the battery. They have a very high power density, but a low energy density, and there’s the potential to do some very interesting things if you can drive the energy density of a capacitor up high enough. If you could make a capacitor that had anywhere near the energy density of a battery with this incredibly high power density and this quasi-infinite cycle and calendar life, and extremely high charge/discharge rate, really you'd be able to charge your car faster than you can fill it with gasoline. Charging could be done in minutes or seconds technically. You’d have an awesome solution for energy storage in mobile applications. It’s really the ideal solution for electric vehicles.
I actually met a woman I dated briefly in college, who works at Scientific American as a writer, and she related the anecdote that when we went on a date, all I was talking about was electric cars. That was not a winning conversation, she said the first question I asked her was: “do you ever think about electric cars?” she said no, she never did. That wasn't great, but recently it's been more effective.
I was actually working I think two jobs, one was a video company that was ironically called rocket science, and then working on electrolytic ultra capacitors during the day as an intern at a company called Pinnacle Research. They actually were pretty good, they had a pretty high energy density, roughly equivalent to a lead-acid battery, which for a capacitor is huge. As it turns out they're way too expensive. The problem was that they used ruthenium tantalum oxide. There was I think at the time maybe like one or two tons of ruthenium mined per year in the world, so not a very scalable solution, you know, they'd sell it to you by the sort of milligram, that’s a problem.
I thought there could be some solid-state solution, like just using chip-making equipment. That was going to be the basic idea when I came out to get a PhD at Stanford. The area I was going to be researching and was going to be doing my grad studies on was the material science and physics of high energy density capacitors. Very applied, almost really engineering, sort of the intersection between applied physics and material science. I was going to try to work on that and try to leverage the equipment that was developed for advanced chip making and photonics to create ultra-precise capacitors at sort of the molecular level. I think there's potential for a significant breakthrough in that area and to have an energy storage mechanism that's better than batteries.
I didn't really care about the degree actually. I just really needed their labs. I knew I could get sort of free labs if I was a student, so that was why I did the grad program.
Just towards the end of my undergrad I was thinking that the Internet would be a pretty huge thing. Once it became clear that the Internet was going to become widespread, that everyone would have access to it, that's when it occurred to me that this was going to fundamentally change the nature of humanity, that became clear around the 94 timeframe. I had been on the Internet a few years before that since I had been in the physics arena. In the sciences people were using the Internet as early as the 70s. It was difficult to use, it was text based, and it was very difficult to get access to it. You had to be either in the government or in some academic institution.
I just couldn't figure out how to make enough money to feed myself. If I couldn't make money then I'd run out of food and die. That was not good. If I was a student, then I could be a teaching assistant and do various things and do research on electric vehicle technologies - that was my default plan.
I wasn't entirely certain that the technology I'd be working on would actually succeed. And generally if you want to embark on something-- it's desirable to figure out if success is at least one of the possibilities. For sure failure is one of the possibilities, but, ideally, you want to try to bracket it and say success is in the envelope of outcomes. I wasn't sure what I was working on would actually be useful. I mean it could be academically useful but not practically useful. Like it could result in a PhD, and adding some leaf to the tree of knowledge, but then discovering that it's not really gonna matter. Is it going to be a good enough thing that is actually going to be used in an electric vehicle? you can get a doctorate on many things that ultimately do not have practical bearing on the world. I think success on an academic level would have been quite likely, because you can publish some useless paper-- and most papers are pretty useless-- I mean, how many PhD papers are actually used by someone ever? percentage wise it's not good, and so it could have been one of those outcomes where you add some leaves to the tree of knowledge, and that leaf is, nope, it's not possible.
That was one path, and I was prepared to do that, but then things like the superconducting supercollider got canceled. I thought well what if I am stuck in some situation like that, and then some act of government basically stops things, then all of it would be a waste. I could not actually bracket the uncertainty on that.
I also thought that if I did a PhD then I would spend several years watching the Internet go through this incredibly rapid growth phase, and that would be really difficult to handle, because there does seem to be a time for particular technologies when they're at a steep point in the inflection curve.
It was a tough decision actually, this was before Netscape even went public. I was like, OK, the Internet, I'm pretty sure success is one of the outcomes, and it seemed like I could either spend five years in a graduate program and discover that the answer is that there is no way to make a capacitor work and watch the Internet happen, or I can work on building elements of the Internet, participate and help build it in some fashion. This was in 1995, so nobody had actually made any money on the Internet.
It got to the start of the quarter for Stanford and I had to make a decision. I was just working on some Internet software that summer. In that summer it became clear that the Internet was going to become something very significant. It was one of those things that came along once in a very long while, and I wanted to be a part of it. I just couldn’t stand the idea of watching it happen, so I decided to drop out.
I thought 'I'm going to be involved in the internet, I can help build a few things there and than get back to electric cars later' which is what happened. I decided to go on deferment. I figured if it doesn't work then I can always go back to grad school. Since I already had my undergraduate I could then get the H1B visa, the H1B visa requires a degree. If your goal is to start a company there's no point in finishing college. In my case I had to otherwise I would get kicked out of the country.
I didn't even go to class I called the chairman of the department and said: “I would like to start this Internet company, it probably won't succeed and so when it fails I want to make sure I still can come back.” He let me go on deferment and I said I'd probably be back in 6 months, I thought I'd give it a couple of quarters. If it didn't workout, which I though it probably wouldn't, then I'd come back at this school. Actually, I talked to my professor and I told him this and he said, well, I don't think you'll be coming back, and that was the last conversation I had with him.
The Internet is like the world acquiring a nervous system. Before the Internet, and particularly before the telegraph, telephone, and advanced telecommunications, communication was incredibly slow. It would have to go from one person literally to another. Maybe at best that person could carry a note from another person, but it's still literally person to person. Unless one person bumps into another person they are pretty much not going to communicate. You had to like basically physically connect with somebody to communicate, like a letter, like you would send letters... on paper.
People were sort of like isolated cells if you will, they would communicate information almost by osmosis relative to how the Internet works. With the Internet suddenly all the worlds information, all of humanity's knowledge is instantly available to any person. That is just like one cell in your body having access to all the information about the rest of your body. In the same way that when we just had multicellular creatures without nervous systems, they would just communicate via osmosis. Imagine a simple multi-cellular creature that would communicate via quite slow chemical signals, there was really no way that one cell had access to the collective consciousness. Now if you have a nervous system any part of the human collective can know about any other part instantly. I think it has literally gone from a situation where people would communicate almost like via osmosis, to any part of humanity knows what every other part of humanity is immediately, it's pretty incredible.
Humanity is effectively becoming a super organism and qualitatively different than what it had been before. I think we have effectively created a kind of a super organism. It is evolution on a new plane. It's really quite a remarkable transformation. In the past, if you wanted access to a lot of information you had to go to libraries here and there, and you would have to talk to people, you had to be near to a big library or something - like the great Bodleian library - but that would be the only way to gain access to information. Unless you were physically where the books were, you didn't have access to the information. Now with the Internet, with everything online, you can be somewhere in the jungles of South America and if you've got access to an Internet connection, you've got access to essentially all the world's information, with a tremendous amount of analytical power behind that. It's some sort of ‘human machine collective intelligence.’ With everything digitized you can be anywhere with an Internet connection and have access to the accumulative knowledge of humanity. You have access to more information than the Library of Congress through your iPhone.
Having a super computer in your pocket is something that people would not have predicted. You have basically superpowers with your computer, and your phone, and the applications that are there. You have more power than the President of the United States had 20 years ago. You can answer any question, you can video conference anywhere with anyone, you can send a message to millions of people instantly.
I do think that the Internet is a great equalizer of access to information. Access to information is incredible, anyone with $100 device has access to all the worlds information. Which is an incredible thing. This is maybe not talked about as much as it should be but you can learn anything if you have a $100 Internet device. You can just learn anything. Which is amazing compared to the past. You don't need to have access to a library. In principle you can just learn everything you want for free really. I think that is a pretty great part of the future we are in right now.
The only way to get involved in the internet in '95, that I could think of, was to start a company. There weren't a lot of companies to go and work for, apart from Netscape maybe one or two others, and I couldn't get a job at any of them.
What I first started to do, was I tried to get a job at Netscape at the time, but they didn't respond to me, I didn't get any reply. I guess because I didn't have a computer science degree or several years working at a software company. I mean I had a physics and economics degree, or physics and business degree from Wharton, and I was doing grad studies applied physics and materials science. For whatever reason, I didn't get a reply from Netscape. I actually tried hanging out in the lobby, but I was too shy to talk to anyone, so I'm just like standing in the lobby, it was pretty embarrassing. I was just sort of standing there trying to see if there was someone I can talk to but I just couldn’t, I was too scared to talk to anyone, so then I left.
I was writing software during that summer, and trying to make useful things happen on the internet. I wanted to be part of putting a small brick in the construction of that edifice. It wasn't really with the thought of being wealthy. I got nothing against being wealthy, but it was from a standpoint of wanting to be a part of the Internet.
It really seemed like things were going to take off, although nobody had made any money in Internet at the time. Really, no-one was making any money on the Internet. It wasn't at all clear that the Internet was going to be a big commercial thing.
I thought I guess I'm going to start a company, because I can't get a job anywhere.
I figured if we could make enough money to just get by that would be OK. Initially it was just about making money to pay the rent. Really my perspective was hopefully I can make enough money to pay the rent and buy food otherwise I would have to do my graduate program at Stanford. In America it is pretty easy to keep yourself alive, and my threshold for existing is pretty low, I figured I could be in some dingy apartment with my computer and be OK and not starve.
My brother was in Canada at the time and I said: "look I think we should try to create an Internet company" I always wanted to do something with my brother, and he always wanted to do something with me. I think Kimball is one of the nicest people I know in the world I've never in all my life see Kimball intentionally do a mean thing, so I admire him a great deal. I convinced my brother to come down from Canada, so he came down and joined me.
The Internet was also helpful because anything that has to do with software is a low capital endeavor. Software you can just write yourself. You don't need a lot of tools and equipment, so it's not capital intensive. The ability to build a company that’s software related it's much much easier. I didn't have any money. I just had a bunch of student debt. I had about $3000 and a computer, and then my brother came and joined and he had about I think $5000, and then Greg Kouri, a friend of my Mom's, came and he had $6000.
The three of us created Zip2 in the summer of 95 before Netscape had gone public.
Funny name, we thought, we don't know anything about names, so we'll get some ad agencies to suggest a bunch of options, and then Zip2 seemed kind of speedy. I don't know why the hell we chose that stupid name, and it has a digit in it. Why would you chose - it could be ZipTo, it could be ZipTwo, it could be ZipToo, so people literally spelt the name every variation - which is bad if you've got a url and you don't have the other ones. We were just incredibly stupid at the time, I think. That's the main reason for that name.
Things were pretty tough in the early going. I didn't have any money. In fact, I had negative money. I had huge student debts. I though we got to make something that's going to return money very, very quickly. There was no advertising revenue on the Internet at the time. The initial idea was to create software that could help bring the media companies online, we thought that the media industry would need help converting its content from a print media to electronic. They clearly have money, so if we could find a way to help them move their media to the internet that would be an obvious way of generating revenue. That was really the basis of Zip2.
I still had my core programming skills, so I was able to write the software needed.
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