How did Elon Musk get his ideas

Current start-up dates

Some employees were in their offices around the clock and no one found it the least bit strange that Elon only turned up at 5 p.m. for his second internship. “We brought him in to write machine-level program code,” says Peter Barrett, an Australian engineer who helped get the company off the ground. “He was absolutely imperturbable. I think after a short time nobody gave him any instructions. And in the end he did what he wanted. ”Specifically, Musk was supposed to write the drivers that help joysticks and mice to communicate with different computers and games. Drivers are those annoying little files that you have to install at home whenever you want to connect a printer or camera to your PC - a boring affair.

Elon had taught himself to program. He found himself pretty good at it, so he gave himself more challenging tasks. “Basically, I was thinking about ways to multitask, so how to read videos from a CD and let the game run at the same time,” explains Musk. “Back then, only one of the two was always possible. It took a bit of complicated assembly language programming to change that. ”Complex is just the right word. Elon had to program commands that are aimed directly at the main processor of computers and intervene in the most basic functions of these machines. Bruce Leak, the former senior technician for QuickTime at Apple, approved Elon's internship and was impressed with his ability to work through nights. “He had endless energy. Young people today don't know anything about hardware or how something works, but he was a real PC hacker and wasn't afraid to just go out and figure things out, ”says Leak.

In Silicon Valley, Elon found the opportunities he was looking for and a place that matched his ambitions. He returned there for the next two summers, and after graduating two degrees in Pennsylvania, he moved entirely to the West Coast. Initially, he wanted to get a PhD in materials science and physics from Stanford University and continue the work on supercapacitors that he had started at Pinnacle. But how it can go like this - after two days he stopped again at Stanford because he found the reputation of the Internet irresistible. He persuaded Kimbal to also come to Silicon Valley to conquer the web with him. Elon came across his first ideas for a lucrative internet company during his internship. Once a representative of the Yellow Pages came into the office of one of the start-ups and tried to sell him an online entry as a supplement to the usual listing in the long yellow pages. The agent struggled with his efforts and evidently knew little about what the Internet was or how to find a company on it. The weak sales pitch puzzled Elon and he contacted Kimbal to discuss a new idea: helping companies maintain a presence on the Internet. “'These people don't know what they're talking about. Maybe that would be something for us ‘, Elon said to me,” reports Kimbal. That was in 1995, and soon the brothers founded Global Link Information Network, a start-up they later renamed Zip2.

The idea for Zip2 was brilliant. In 1995, few small businesses understood the importance of the Internet. They knew little about how to be present on the net and saw little value in building their own website or in online business directories. Elon and his brother wanted to convince restaurants, clothing stores, hairdressers, and similar businesses that the time was right for them to attract the attention of the web surfing public. Zip2 should build a searchable directory of companies and embed it in maps. Musk often used pizza to explain the concept: Everyone has the right to get the location of the closest pizzeria and precise directions to get there. Today it might seem obvious - it's a mix of Yelp and Google Maps. Back then, not even die-hard stoners had dreamed of such a service.

Zip2's address was 430 Sherman Avenue in Palo Alto. The Musk brothers rented a one-room office 6 by 9 meters and bought some simple furniture for it. The three-story building had its peculiarities. There was no elevator and the toilets were often clogged. “It was literally a shitty place to work,” says one of the early employees. For a fast internet connection, Elon made a deal with Ray Girouard, an entrepreneur who ran an internet provider on the floor below Zip2. According to Girouard, Elon drilled a hole in the plasterboard ceiling near Zip2's front door, through which he then ran an Ethernet cable to the provider. "They paid late a few times, but they never cheated on me out of my money," says Girouard.

Elon did all of the initial programming for the service himself, while the more sociable kimbal took care of setting up the door-to-door sales. Elon had bought a cheap license to a database of names and addresses for companies in the Bay Area. Next, he turned to Navteq, a company that had spent hundreds of millions of dollars creating digital maps and directions for early GPS navigation devices. The result was very positive: “We called them and they gave us the technology for free,” says Kimbal. Elon merged the two databases and got a rudimentary system up and running. Over time, Zip2 programmers supplemented this initial database with additional maps for areas outside the large metropolitan regions. They also developed their own directions that should look good and display well on normal home computers.

Errol Musk gave his sons $ 28,000 to help get them started, but after paying for the office, software licenses, and some tech, they were more or less broke. The brothers lived in their office for the first three months of Zip2's existence. They had a small closet in which they kept their clothes, and they went to a youth hostel to shower. "Sometimes we ate at Jack In The Box four times a day," says Kimbal. “They were open 24 hours a day, which was a good fit for our work style. I got a smoothie once and there was something in it. I just took it out and kept drinking. I haven't been able to eat there since then, but I still know the menu by heart. ”The brothers next rented a two-bedroom apartment - they didn't have the money or interest in furniture, so there were only a few mattresses on the ground.

Somehow Elon persuaded a young South Korean programmer to start as an intern at Zip2 in exchange for board and lodging. “The poor boy thought he was getting a job in a big company,” says Kimbal. “Instead, he lived with us and had no idea what he was getting into.” One day the intern was about to drive to work in the battered BMW 320i when his bike jumped off. At the intersection of Page Mill Road and El Camino Real, the axle dug into the ground. The groove she made could still be seen there years later. Zip2 may have been a trendy internet company for the information age, but to get it up and running, it took old-fashioned sales handles. Companies had to be convinced of the advantages of the web and charmingly made to pay for something unknown.

At the end of 1995, the Musk brothers hired their first employees and built up a motley sales team. One of the first employees was Jeff Heilman, a free spirited 20-year-old who wasn't quite sure what to do with his life. One evening he and his father had watched a television commercial that had a web address at the bottom of the screen. “He was for,” remembers Heilman. “I remember sitting there and asking my father what that was supposed to be. He said he didn't know either. It was then that I realized that I had to go out to find out something about the Internet. ”For a few weeks Heilman tried to find people who could explain the Internet to him. Then he saw a small Zip2 job advertisement in the San Jose Mercury News. “Advertise internet salespeople here!” It said and Heilman got the job.

Elon never seemed to leave the office. Not unlike a dog, he slept on a crumple sack next to his desk. "I came to the office at 7:30 or 8 a.m. almost every day and then I saw him sleeping there on the sack," says Heilman. “Maybe he showered on the weekend. I don't know. ”Elon asked the first Zip2 employees to give him a quick kick when they came; then he woke up and went back to work. While Elon programmed obsessively, Kimbal became the rousing sales director. “Kimbal was the eternal optimist and very, very motivating. I had never met someone like him, ”says Heilman. Kimbal sent him to the fancy Stanford mall and University Avenue, Palo Alto's main attraction, to persuade the local business owners to sign a deal with Zip2 - a paid entry, Heilman kept saying, guaranteed the company a listing the top of search results.

The problem with that, of course, was that nobody took a bite. Week after week Heilman knocked on doors and came back to the office without being able to report much good things. The nicest responses were from people who said that advertising on the Internet was the stupidest thing they'd ever heard of. Most of the time, however, the owners just told Heilman to leave and leave them alone. Around noon, the Musks reached into the cigar box in which they kept some money, invited Heilman to dinner and received the depressing status report on his sales efforts. Another early employee, Craig Mohr, left his job as a real estate seller to offer Zip2's services. He decided to try his luck at car dealerships because they usually spend a lot of money on advertising. He told them about Zip2's main website - - and tried to convince them that there was strong demand for entries.

The service didn't always work when Mohr wanted to demonstrate it, or the pages loaded very slowly, as was customary at the time. This forced him to use warm words to convince customers of Zip2's potential. “I came back once with about $ 900 in checks,” he says. “I went to the office and asked the guys what to do with the money. Elon stopped pounding on his keyboard, looked out from behind his monitor and said, 'You have money - it can't be!' “What kept the optimism of the employees alive was Elon's constant improvements to the Zip2- Software. From a purely conceptual study, he had developed the service into a real product that could actually be used and demonstrated. As a nifty marketing ploy, the Musk brothers tried to make their web service look more significant by giving it an imposing physical appearance. Elon built a huge case around a normal PC and mounted it on a frame with wheels.

Then, when potential investors came by, Elon made a show of rolling in this seemingly huge machine. He gave the impression that Zip2 was running on a mini supercomputer. “Investors thought that was impressive,” says Kimbal. Heilman also noted that they appreciated Elon's slavish devotion to the company. "Even back when he was basically a college boy with pimples, Elon had this drive that this thing - whatever it was - had to be done and that if he didn't do it, he would miss the boat." , he says. “I think the venture capitalists recognized that - that he was willing to gamble his existence on building this platform.” Much the same thing Musk said to an investor himself: “I have a samurai mentality. I'd rather commit suicide than fail. "

So it went on with Zip2

In 1999, the then hardware giant Compaq bought the start-up Zip2 for $ 307 million. This was the largest amount ever paid for an internet company to date. Elon's stake was worth $ 22 million, after all.