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Zombie Apocalypses, Tesla Time Warp and the Visionary Elon Musk

03/04/2014 13:53 BST | Updated 02/06/2014 10:59 BST

The world needs its engineers. They build what the human mind conceptualizes, they create things that did not exist before, and they advance human civilization, sometimes in neat and tidy increments, and sometimes in quantum jumps that seem out of this world.

The best example we have currently going around in the quantum jump category would be Elon Musk--the heart, soul, and brains behind paradigm shifting innovations like PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX. Like Steve Jobs, whose mantle he seems to have unofficially inherited, Musk never trained as an engineer (He has degrees in business and physics from UPenn), but like the Apple visionary he seems to have an engineer's desire to solve complex problems.

And he's ready to embrace failure.

Specialist in Failure

In a candid and revealing journey through his achievements chronicled by Scott Pelley's 60 Minutes, not only does one hear Musk describe himself with great self awareness as an engineer, but also we hear from both his family and him, the unique motivation that has driven him to fail, and then go on to succeed.

In fact, let's turn that around, it takes a very special person to succeed--in a phenomenal exit Musk sold payments powerhouse PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002--and then simultaneously plunge into not one but two ventures that have failure almost guaranteed.

We know those ventures today as automotive startup Tesla and commercial space travel upstart SpaceX. Folks may ooh and aah about the sleek "range-anxiety defying" Model S today but anxiety was what defined Musk's mental makeup in the early years thanks to a warehouse of defective cars at Tesla, and three back-to-back failed rocket launches at SpaceX. This was 2008, an annus horribilis, for the American economy, and for Musk personally in more than ways than one. His first marriage ended in divorce the same year.

Perseverance though seems to be as much a hall mark as pathbreaking thoughts for the 42-year old from Pretoria, South Africa. His is yet another immigrant success story for which America can take credit, and as his frequent pop culture references to "Zombie Apocalypses" and American comics reveals, he was "Americanized" much before he took an oath as a naturalized American.

While the Steve Jobs parallels seem overdone there are two other innovators with whom Musk shares an uncanny kindred spirit. The first is Henry Ford. Much like the master auto maker before him Musk seems to get manufacturing. The massive $5 billion factory for batteries that Tesla is setting up promises to change the fortunes of the electric car maker, much like assembly line manufacturing had done for Ford.

Why do it? To drive down cost and improve affordability. Which is precisely what SpaceX is also trying to do with commercial space travel. While the company currently makes money off a $1.6 billion NASA contract to send payloads to the International Space Station (ISS), commercial space travel is really the holy grail Musk is after. If Herb Kelleher could transform air travel with Southwest Airlines, then Musk has shown that he has the DNA and the smarts to keep costs down with innovations like a reusable rocket. Flying high like Southwest, SpaceX has cornered the market on commercial space exploitation with $5 billion in contracts and is already profitable.

While Musk may dream big, the striking thing is that his innovations have a pragmatic, functional, and utilitarian end-benefit for his customers. A Tesla Model S may seem a glitzy on the outside but it's the promise of free fuel through solar charged batteries that will really drive its success. SpaceX may initially appeal to space aficionados and adrenaline junkies, but sending a school excursion to Mars so kids fall in love with STEM subjects will be the real payoff.

Turbulence Ahead

Entrepreneurial journeys though can never be a smooth ride, and huge challenges face Musk. The Garden State aka New Jersey has announced it won't be allowing Tesla to sell its cars directly to customers, one of the pillars of its business model. Governor Chris Christie may be in political trouble for causing traffic jams, but if the populist precedent by him gets adopted by other states sitting on the fence like Colorado and Georgia, Musk could be stuck for a while.

In interviews Musk has stated that he would rather fight one big battle at the federal level to clear up the issue of dealerships versus direct selling once and for all, so expect him to be doing more trips to Washington as he navigates Beltway politics.

Washington should be a second home to Musk now, he's been lobbying aggressively on the Hill to break-up the monopoly Boeing and Lockheed Martin have on huge DoD contracts. In a climate of fiscal meltdown he may have a killer argument--he's offering to launch satellites for $100 million, when his two established rivals have been charging $1 billion a year to do the same job.

It is all about the money though when it comes to playing the political game. Car dealerships have poured in more than $130 million dollars in state and political funding since 2003, Tesla's put up a paltry $500,000 in comparison.

Musk, like many gifted founder-CEOs also tends to get prickly rather fast when one of his babies gets attacked in the media. A spat with the New York Times over the performance reviews of the Model S snowballed into more of a PR accident rather than any real negative impact on sales--in Germany folks are ready to wait 5-6 months to get delivery of their electronic wonder ride.

With Tesla valued at $30 billion and the SpaceX IPO eagerly anticipated by starry-eyed investors who conservatively value the company between $4-$6 billion the engineer that sold his first venture Zip2 for $307 million aged 27 has come a long way in the last 15 years.

The next 15 years promise to be electric as well.