Elon Musk was so competitive that he emailed his staff a blunt message about an early business rival: ‘KILL THEM DEAD. DIE. DIE. DIE’.
A new book reveals that Musk, 50, fired off the missive to staff at his online finance startup X.com which was engaged in a bitter fight with Confinity.
The hatred was mutual and at Confinity, co-founded by hedge fund billionaire and former Trump adviser Peter Thiel, they wrote on a staff member’s birthday cake: ‘Die X.com’
The two companies later merged and rebranded as PayPal where the hours and competition were so brutal ‘it would make George R.R. Martin blush’, referring to the creator of the bloody TV series Game of Thrones.
Staff pulled 36 hour shifts and slept under their desks, blasted out Salt ‘N’ Pepa’s hit ‘Push It’ to stay awake and brought their infant children to work – on weekends.
Musk, whose all-consuming work ethic would later drive Tesla and SpaceX to success, had to cancel his honeymoon with his first wife in 2000 because he was so busy.
But when he rescheduled it for the Summer Olympics that September he couldn’t leave work behind – and turned what should have been a romantic vacation into a fundraising trip.
The details are revealed in ‘The Founders: The Story of Paypal and the Entrepreneurs Who Shaped Silicon Valley’, by award-winning author Jimmy Soni.
A new book describes Elon Musk’s early days with his startup X.com, where staff worked 36 hour shifts and slept under their desks. Musk is pictured in 2004
Peter Thiel and Elon Musk were rivals until their two companies later merged and rebranded as PayPal where the hours and competition were brutal
The book details how PayPal rose from an idea in the heads of Musk and Thiel to a flotation on the stock market in 2002 which valued the company at less than $1bn.
Details about Elon Musk are revealed in ‘The Founders: The Story of Paypal and the Entrepreneurs Who Shaped Silicon Valley’, by author Jimmy Soni
Now it is worth $122bn and the rise in its fortunes has been mirrored by that of Musk, now the richest man in the world with a personal fortune of $249bn.
‘The Founders’ gives a peek into a time long before such riches came Musk’s way and describes how in his youth he referred to himself as ‘Nerdmaster 3,000.’
Musk was born in South Africa and emigrated to Canada in the late 1980s before attending the University of Pennsylvania where he studied physics.
He was obsessed with computers and at the age of 13 he sold a coding project, a video game called Blastar in which players destroy an alien spaceship.
Desperate to get a job in Silicon Valley he once lurked around the lobby of Netscape, an early internet browser, but was ‘too shy to talk to anyone.’
Musk said: ‘It was pretty embarrassing. I was just sort of standing there trying to see if there was someone I could talk to and I was too scared to talk to anyone, so then I left.’
Musk founded his own company with his brother Kimbal and rented an office in Palo Alto, California, sleeping at the office and showering at the nearby YMCA.
They called it Zip2 and focused on boosting media companies’ digital assets and building local city guides.
Incredibly in 1999, at the height of the dot com boom, they were bought for $307m by Compaq Computers. Musk took home $21m – he was 27.
But rather than live an easy life, Musk sank much of the money into X.com which he hoped to turn into an online financial services superstore, something which was revolutionary at the time.
Musk instituted a relentless work ethic where he would sleep at the office and drive his staff to do the same.
Over at Confinity, Thiel, now 54, pushed his staff just as hard.
Musk, whose all-consuming work ethic would later drive Tesla and SpaceX to success, had to cancel his 2000 honeymoon with his first wife Justine because he was so busy
The book reveals that Musk fired off aa message to staff at his online finance startup X.com, saying ‘KILL THEM DEAD. DIE. DIE. DIE’, which referred to rival Confinity
‘The Founders’ says that one engineer had so little time outside of the office that he kept driving his car even though he had ruined one tire and was using the spare on another.
Award-winning author Soni writes that competition was so brutal ‘it would make George R.R. Martin blush’, referring to the creator of the bloody TV series Game of Thrones
He drove on for three days before he finally got it fixed.
Soon X.com and Confinity found themselves eyeing each other up as serious rivals
As Musk described it: ‘It was a race to see who could run out of money the fastest’.
During one staff member’s birthday party at Confinity, he got a cake which said on it: ‘Die X.com’
Confinity staff put up a banner which said: ‘Memento Mori’, which is Latin for: ‘Remember you must die’ to focus the attention of employees.
Over at X.com Musk had harsh words for his staff in an email about Confinity: ‘KILL THEM DEAD. DIE. DIE. DIE’.
But the competition didn’t last long and both sides soon realized that they had to merge or they would both die.
Once the agreement was complete they set about creating the company which they named PayPal.
Thiel had earlier rejected alternatives for the company including, Zapio, MoMo, Cachet and the bizarre eMoneyBeam.
At one point the company’s office featured an indicator called the ‘World Domination Index’ to track the day’s users.
There was an ‘industrial-sized’ cache of Tylenol to deal with headaches. Employees felt like they were working on a ‘rocket ship’ and said they felt like ‘veterans of an intense military campaign’, the book says.
PayPal employee Kim-Elisha Proctor recalled seeing sleeping bags under people’s desks as she arrived for an interview.
Once she arrived she did the same. She said: ‘I think I did a 36 hour stint….I actually slept in one of the conference rooms’.
Musk worked until 4am and got a few hours’ sleep before employees who kept slightly more regular hours came in – at 6.30am.
According to ‘The Founders’, the amount of coffee consumed by PayPal staff was ‘legendary’.
During a push to code something on the site they would blast Salt ‘N’ Pepa’s ‘Push It’ to motivate staff.
To keep themselves amused they vaporized potatoes with PVC guns. One male employee brought his eight-month old daughter in to work on Saturdays and Sundays because he feared taking time off.
Fatigue led to ‘heated email exchanges’ and ‘backbiting’ and an atmosphere which ‘The Founders’ likens to Game of Thrones.
During the early days Musk worked until 4am and got a few hours’ sleep before employees who kept slightly more regular hours came in – at 6.30am
The Tesla boss took home $21m after Zip2 was bought by by Compaq Computers. He was 27. But rather than live an easy life, Musk sank much of the money into X.com, which eventually led to him launching Tesla and Space X
Musk is now dating Australian actress Natasha Bassett who plays Elvis Presley’s girlfriend Dixie Locke in the new biopic about The King
Early hires for PayPal were unconventional and included chess champions, puzzle champions and high school dropouts.
But with eccentric personality came eccentric habits and one engineer used to pull up his bare feet on his desk and remove toenail gunk ‘in full view’.
Another hiccup along the way was when Musk flipped his $1m silver McLaren F1 car while Thiel was on board.
Neither of them were wearing seat belts but incredibly they escaped unharmed.
Musk said that the car flipped ‘like a discus’ and people who saw it happen ‘thought we were going to die’.
The car survived but Musk faced a hefty repair bill – as he didn’t bother to get it insured.
Musk’s obsession with work meant that his January 2000 marriage to his longtime girlfriend Justine Wilson got off to a rocky start.
He had canceled his honeymoon due to ‘company drama’ and tried to make up for it by taking her to the Summer Olympics in Sydney that September.
Instead Musk – who is now dating Australian actress Natasha Bassett – decided to take the opportunity to meet with wealthy investors and do check-ins with staff abroad.
Justine Musk told her husband ‘I am your wife, not your employee’. Musk shot back: ‘If you were my employee, I would fire you’.
Musk says in the book: ‘It was meant to be a belated honeymoon and fundraising trip’. Their marriage would, incredibly, last eight years and spawn five sons before they divorced in 2008.
Wilson later said she would tell Musk: ‘I am your wife, not your employee’.
Musk shot back: ‘If you were my employee, I would fire you’.
Musk’s honeymoon provided Thiel and others with the ‘perfect opportunity’ to get rid of him as chief executive because they felt the company was going in the wrong direction.
After getting the votes from the board, Musk was informed and said to staff at the time that it ‘made me so sad that words fail me.’
Two decades later Musk admits it was a ‘well-executed coup’ and claims it was ‘slightly complimentary they would do it when I’m not there.’
He stayed on good terms with Thiel who helped finance the launch of SpaceX to the tune of $20m from his hedge fund.
Yet the episode helps to explain Musk’s aversion to vacations as, to him, they are cursed.
Speaking to Danish TV in 2015, he said that he has only tried to take a week off twice.
The first time his Orbit Sciences rocket exploded and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic rocket exploded in the same week.
The second time one of Musk’s own rockets exploded.
As Musk put it: ‘Vacations will kill you.’