Power Players

Elon Musk once said starting an electric car company is 'idiocy squared' — now Tesla just hit 1 million cars

Elon Musk, chief executive officer of Tesla Inc., speaks during the Tesla China-Made Model 3 Delivery Ceremony at the company's Gigafactory in Shanghai, China, on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020.
Qilai Shen | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Starting electric car company Tesla was "idiocy squared," according to Elon Musk.

Of course, that didn't stop Musk from getting into the business. And late Monday, the CEO announced via Twitter that Tesla had produced 1 million vehicles. 

The milestone certainly doesn't guarantee Tesla's future success.

However the unlikely journey from crazy idea to the milestone of a million cars is indicative of how Musk says he works — building companies to solve problems based on their importance, not on his likelihood of success. 

"I thought our chances of success [Tesla] were so low that I didn't want to risk anyone's funds in the beginning but my own," Musk wrote in 2016 in his "Master Plan, Part Deux." (Musk released part one, called his "Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan" in 2006, two years after first investing in the then-fledgling Tesla.)

"The list of successful car company startups is short," he wrote. "As of 2016, the number of American car companies that haven't gone bankrupt is a grand total of two: Ford and Tesla."

But Musk was, well, driven by a higher purpose in creating Tesla: helping to achieve a sustainable energy economy devoid of fossil fuels "the faster ... the better," he wrote in his Master Plan.

The journey hasn't been easy.

In 2018 Tesla came within "single-digit weeks" of completely running out of money and closing down, according to Musk. 

And in recent years, Musk has worked as many as 120-hour weeks, sometimes sleeping at the Tesla factory as the company struggled to make the audacious production goals he set for the Model 3. 

VIDEO6:2506:25
Musk: Tesla was near death during Model 3 ramp-up

"I am personally on that line, in that machine, trying to solve problems personally where I can," Musk said in November 2018. "We are working seven days a week to do it. And I have personally been here on zone 2 module line at 2:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning, helping diagnose robot calibration issues."

But Musk says he wants to make the future inspiring.

"The thing that drives me is that I want to be able to think about the future and feel good about that," Musk told the National Governors Association in 2017. "We are doing what we can to have the future be as good as possible, to be inspired by what is likely to happen and to look forward to the next day."

Of course, Tesla has also helped make Musk a very rich man. Musk owns 19% of the company, which has a market cap of $118.8 billion. (Overall Musk is worth $34.6 billion, according to Forbes.) And in 2018, Tesla's board approved a compensation package for Musk that could be worth as much as $55 billion over a decade.

But it's not just with Tesla that Musk has had determination in the face of long odds.

"Creating a rocket company has to be one of the dumbest and hardest ways to 'make money,'" Musk, who founded aerospace company SpaceX help make life interplanetary, tweeted in 2018. "If it was about money, I'd just do another Internet company."

That's because Musk "always" believed SpaceX would fail too. 

"When we started SpaceX, they said, 'Oh, you are going to fail.' And I said, 'Well, I agree. I think we probably will fail,'" Musk said at a 2019 press conference at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida after a successful Falcon 9 rocket test launch.

"They said I would … lose all the money from PayPal, I was, like, 'Well, you are probably right,'" Musk said, referring to his early windfall as co-founder of the online payment company, which helped him fund SpaceX. 

But it "was worth trying anyway," Musk said.

So, said Musk at the launch press conference, "this is … it's all upside."

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Elon Musk remembers the SpaceX of 10 years ago: ‘We couldn’t even reach orbit with little Falcon 1’
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