SXSW Interactive Day 1: What Drives Elon Musk?

[11 March 2013]

By Anita Schillhorn van Veen

Elon Musk is an entrepreneur with a mission. SXSW is full of entrepreneurs with a mission, but Elon Musk ups the ante. One of the most anticipated speakers at SXSW this year, he’s the man who put payment on the internet, fuel cells in sports cars, and rockets in orbit. He’s in the business of changing games.

His resume lists him as founder and co-founder of some of the most impressive companies of this century -– PayPal, Tesla Motors, and now SpaceX, the first privately funded space flight company. What would be his biggest disappointment? Not seeing life on Mars in his lifetime.

Musk is a scientist cloaked in entrepreneurship. His presence is serious, even meticulous, and he kicks off his SXSW keynote with a detailed 10-minute description of the complex technology of rocket ships. His desire to see life on Mars was more than a futurist fantasy; he’d researched in depth what it would take for life to exist there, and explained possible scenarios for making it a reality.

He’s driven by big questions like this, and then figures out big solutions. The question that drove him to build a rocket was not the romance of space travel, but a problem – that space shuttles today shed a huge chunk of the hardware that launches them into space. All parts of his rocket are fully reusable. After detaching from the rocket, the launch components return to earth, eliminating expensive waste.

Musk shared a video of his most recent launch, a sneak peek that “only the video editor has seen.” To hear him tell the tales of a rocket launch was one thing, but to watch components peel off a rocket, hover briefly in space, and return faithfully back to their launch pad was breath-taking.

Of his game changing activity into payments, cars, and space he said, “Something needed to be done in these industries in order to make a difference.”

Changing games takes failure, and Musk’s is on an unimaginable scale. “The first three rocket launches we had failed – I spent the first time picking up rocket pieces off the reef,” he told the rapt crowds at SXSW. 

But even for this overachiever, the beyond-big-picture thinking with all its glories and failures takes a toll.

“Last year was the year of great achievement, but I didn’t have that much fun. My new year’s resolution was to have some more fun this year. So here I am at SXSW.”

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