Tesla's Trailblazer: Here's why Elon Musk is such an iconoclast

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes Tesla [NASDAQ: TSLA] CEO Elon Musk such an iconoclast in business. Can anyone shed light on Elon Musk's superhero-like abilities? One insider with unprecedented access to Musk is Ashlee Vance. Vance wrote Musk's biography, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. He had a direct line into Musk — including his family, friends, co-workers, and business associates — as he interviewed close to 300 people to tell the tumultuous tales of Musk’s world-changing companies: PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity. It's been a few years since the biography came out so Vox* sat down with Vance to get his latest POV on what really makes Elon Musk so uber-successful. 


Above: Tesla CEO Elon Musk (Instagram: elonmusk)

Vance emphasizes that, "The biggest thing people miss is [Elon's] level of resolve and commitment. I've interviewed all these people in Silicon Valley, and I just never met anyone like him. For most people, even if they're a really passionate CEO, it's still a job. But for Elon, it's somewhere between a life-or-death struggle and a war. I think he's a hard character for people to peg. This guy is committed on a level that is insane. He has no life on a lot of levels. He works all the time. He has burned through three marriages. He doesn't get enough time with his kids. He doesn't have anything like a normal existence. It's a sacrifice that no one else would be willing to make." That said, Musk finally appears to be relaxing (at least a little bit, see below) with his new girlfriend in Australia.


Above: This week, Elon Musk was seen out on the town with Hollywood actress Amber Heard (Instagram: elonmusk; amberheard)

So can we compare Elon Musk to Steve Jobs? Vance explains, "Elon is not the presenter that Jobs was; I don't think he's the design guru that Jobs was. He does have that attention to detail on the product. He knows every single f***ing thing on the rockets and the cars. He makes decisions that are very Jobsian. None of the engineers wanted to do the retractable door handles on the Tesla Model S. Elon insisted, and it became this iconic feature." Vance also reminds us that, like Jobs: "Elon uses unrealistic deadlines as a management tool to get the absolute most out of people."


Above: Musk gets right back to business after his visit with girlfriend Amber Heard in Australia as he just met with Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang in Beijing yesterday (Twitter: @XHNews)

Vance points to the inherent Silicon Valley edge Musk has versus Big Auto's top execs. He explains, "Everyone is caught up on the electric car thing, but one of the huge advantages of Tesla is software. The closer something comes to being a computer, the more that Silicon Valley is the place where people succeed... When I started on the book, Ford had, like, an eight-person Silicon Valley play office out here. Google was hiring all these software guys, Tesla was hiring all these software guys. I think they [legacy automakers] still underestimate the challenge."


Above: Chelsea Sexton, producer of Who Killed the Electric Car, had also interviewed Musk's biographer, Ashlee Vance, at the Tesla Motors Club Connect conference (Youtube: Tesla Motors Club)

So why can't top execs at century-old car companies just shift gears in order to keep up with Tesla? Vance thinks that, "It's not easy just to look at the [Tesla] thing and copy it because there's so many layers, from the technology to the manufacturing... you can show the automakers what this is supposed to look like, and they are still going to struggle to build it. They are not wired to move quick enough to make this many changes. They're used to going on two- and four-year cycles. If Elon wants something to appear tomorrow on the screen, it's going to happen tomorrow."


*Source: Vox