Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, with his Falcon 9 rocket. Below, Musk at SpaceX headquarters in Los Angeles.
Entrepreneur Elon Musk is no stranger to corporate success. At 39, he's parlayed his success from co-founding PayPal, the online payment system, into the bustling private rocket company SpaceX and the electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors, both of which have made great leaps in recent months.
But sometimes leading a company – especially one that blasts rockets into the final frontier – can be a rocky road and Musk has had his share of those experiences, too.
As CEO of SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies) and Tesla Motors, Musk has overseen both companies through two major hurdles over the last two months. It caps years of work through what, at times, has been a dismal economy. [Related: 4 Tips for Business Success From Entrepreneur Elon Musk]
But in June, his work with SpaceX and Tesla came to a head. Early that month, Musk watched as SpaceX's first Falcon 9 rocket (upon which rests $1.6 billion in NASA contracts) successfully soared into space on the first try. That was followed June 29 by the Tesla Motors IPO, which raised a reported $226.1 million for the electric car company after selling 13.3 million shares, more than expected.
"It's been a long and difficult road," Musk said.
At the same time, Musk is also weathering a very different storm in the form of a very public divorce that has put his family life and personal finances (and the fact that much of his wealth is non-liquid) in the limelight. He recently spoke out on the matter in the Huffington Post to counter inaccuracies he found in several media reports.
"Hopefully it goes a long way to correcting it," Musk said of his Huffington Post statement. "It was just very difficult on a personal level."
Launching into new frontiers
Musk's success with the recent ventures builds largely on earlier successes on the Internet. He sold his first company Zip2, an Internet software firm he founded with his brother Kimbal, to Compaq in 1999 for $307 million in an all cash transaction.
Musk then co-founded what became PayPal, which was later sold to eBay for $1.5 billion in October 2002, providing the seed money for the launch of SpaceX that same year. He co-founded Tesla Motors in 2003 and also helped create Solar City, a leader in the solar power industry.
"Fortunately, I didn't need to raise money because I just repurposed money that I had from the sale of PayPal to eBay," Musk said of his Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX. "I think it would have been very difficult to raise money. It's not like one can point to a lot of examples of private rocket companies that succeeded. It's super far out of the comfort zone of almost any venture capitalist ."
Investors did eventually come, but only after SpaceX had made some substantial progress, said Musk, who ended up having to design the company's rockets because of difficulties finding willing and capable engineers to sign on.
"Initially, I didn't intend to be the chief designer of the rocket; I kept trying to hire someone to be chief designer of the rockets. But the people who were willing to join early on weren't up to the task and the people that were weren't willing to join," said Musk, who has a physics degree from University of Pennsylvania and a business degree from Wharton. "It was a huge learning curve. I read like crazy and I did a lot of experimentation and we had a great team in their specific disciplines in terms of propulsion navigation and others."
Right people for the right job
That team proved indispensable in getting SpaceX's rockets into orbit after several attempts. Though Musk admits that the company would likely have reached orbit sooner had he more experience on the intricacies of rocket launches and launch sites.
In 2005, SpaceX's first rocket – the Falcon 1 – failed shortly after launching from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands of the Pacific Ocean. Corrosion from the harsh sea water was to blame, though it took three more attempts before the first Falcon 1 successfully reached orbit in 2008.
In those early days, SpaceX's ranks numbered around 120 employees . The company now has around 1,100 workers spread across its launch sites, rocket factory and engine proving ground in Texas.
When the first Falcon 9 launched with a test version of SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft – a cargo ship for the International Space Station – it reached orbit from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on the first launch try.
"I think it's incredibly important to pick the right people. The right team can accomplish miracles," Musk said. "The wrong team, or if a team isn't working together, well that can be a huge problem, as well."
Musk said he looks for signs of exceptional achievement among prospective hires and leans more towards engineering or science skills rather than business acumen. Teamwork among those hires is imperative for any business, be they a small start-up or a big corporation.
"Running a company, it's like if you're running a major league baseball or football team," Musk said. "It's just, 'How good are your players? How good are they working together?' And that will define success."
The growth factor
Knowing the right time to grow and keep your focus are also key skills Musk has drawn on, particularly lately with SpaceX and Tesla Motors.
In 2007, SpaceX, which needed more space to build its Falcon rockets (the two-stage Falcon 9 is 178 feet long), moved its California headquarters from El Segundo to nearby Hawthorne to set up its Falcon rocket shop inside an old Boeing 747 jet fuselage factory.
The building's roof alone is as large as a football stadium and the factory's interior is almost "big enough to have its own weather system," Musk said in 2007 after SpaceX made the move. But deciding when to make such a move – as well as hire more employees – takes preparation and funding, so timing a company's growth is key, he said.
"It's difficult to prepare too far in advance because we just don't have the capital to go ahead and spend a ton of money on just sort of hoping that something will happen," Musk added. "So we kind of just have to grow really fast when it happens."
Staying focused is also vital, especially when a CEO's personal matters encroach into the business area. Musk said that despite the wide media coverage of his divorce this summer, that didn't mean he could take his attention away from SpaceX's vital Falcon 9 launch debut or the Tesla Motors IPO
"Particularly for the last several months, I had to make sure that I got two things right. That the Falcon 9 that I designed with my team that that would get to orbit, and then the other thing was that the Tesla IPO would be successful," he said.
“So I had to just give everything towards those two items. And even though people were saying things that were just untrue and incredibly hurtful, I just couldn't allocate any time to dealing with that,” Musk said.
It was only later, after both hurdles had been successfully navigated, that Musk spoke out publicly on his divorce and subsequent engagement in the “Huffington Post.”
"It's sort of like if somebody's punching you but you're engaged in some critical task and you have to just let them punch you. I was finally able to correct the record in a large part," he said.
Musk's personal life is not the only thing that has drawn critics.
With successful launches of its Falcon 1 and larger Falcon 9 rockets under its belt, SpaceX is one of the leading contenders to meet NASA's needs of commercial spacecraft to ferry supplies to the International Space Station. The company already has a $1.6 billion contract in hand to provide 12 cargo flights using its Falcon 9 rockets and its Dragon spacecraft (the Falcon 1 rocket is used to launch smaller satellites – both rockets are reportedly named after the Millennium Falcon from 'Star Wars').
Musk has said in the past that the gumdrop-shaped Dragon – reportedly named after Puff the Magic Dragon to spite critics – could be ready to launch humans into space within three years after getting the call from NASA to do so.
But despite recent successes, critics have downplayed the company’s successes as part of the debate swirling around NASA's shift to commercial spacecraft like Dragon and the Falcon 9 rocket for its human spaceflight needs.
"Even this modest success is more than a year behind schedule, and the project deadlines of other private space companies continue to slip as well," Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) said in a June 4 statement after Falcon 9's first flight. "This test does not change the fact that commercial space programs are not ready to close the gap in human spaceflight if the space shuttle is retired this year with no proven replacement capability and the Constellation program is simultaneously cancelled as the President proposes."
Musk said that's par for the course.
"Some people will just be die-hard critics. The reality is, we've got the biggest launch contract ever and we're going to be responsible for 12 out of 20 commercial cargo flights to the space station," he added.
The other eight commercial cargo flights to the space station will be provided by Orbital Sciences, a veteran rocket launch provider based in Virginia, under a $1.9 billion with NASA.
And Musk hasn't slowed down. In mid-June, before the Tesla Motors IPO, SpaceX announced an unprecedented launch contract with satellite company Iridium Communications, Inc. The deal is worth $492 million and calls on SpaceX to launch Iridium's new communication satellite constellation, called Iridium NEXT, over a series of liftoffs from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base between 2015 and 2017.
"It's the biggest commercial launch services deal in history," Musk said. "How about that?"
Tariq Malik is Managing Editor of Space.com, a sister site to BusinessNewsDaily.