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At the time, it seemed that Musk had dished out the Hyperloop proposal just to make the public and legislators rethink the high-speed train. He didn’t actually intend to build the thing. It was more that he wanted to show people that more creative ideas were out there for things that might actually solve problems and push the state forward. With any luck, the high-speed rail would be canceled. Musk said as much to me during a series of e-mails and phone calls leading up to the announcement. “Down the road, I might fund or advise on a Hyperloop project, but right now I can’t take my eye off the ball at either SpaceX or Tesla,” he wrote.

Musk’s tune, however, started to change after he released the paper detailing the Hyperloop. Bloomberg Businessweek had the first story on it, and the magazine’s Web server began melting down as people stormed the website to read about the invention. Twitter went nuts as well. About an hour after Musk released the information, he held a conference call to talk about the Hyperloop, and somewhere in between our numerous earlier chats and that moment, he’d decided to build the thing, telling reporters that he would consider making at least a prototype to prove that the technology could work. Some people had their fun with all of this. “Billionaire unveils imaginary space train,” teased Valleywag. “We love Elon Musk’s nutso determination—there was certainly a time when electric cars and private space flight seemed silly, too. But what’s sillier is treating this as anything other than a very rich man’s wild imagination.” Unlike its early Tesla-bashing days, Valleywag was now the minority voice. People seemed mainly to believe Musk could do it. The depth to which people believed it, I think, surprised Musk and forced him to commit to the prototype. In a weird life-imitating-art moment, Musk really had become the closest thing the world had to Tony Stark, and he could not let his adoring public down.

Shortly after the release of the Hyperloop plans, Shervin Pishevar, an investor and friend of Musk’s, brought the detailed specifications for the technology with him during a ninety-minute meeting with President Obama at the White House. “The president fell in love with the idea,” Pishevar said. The president’s staff studied the documents and arranged a one-on-one with Musk and Obama in April 2014. Since then, Pishevar, Kevin Brogan, and others, have formed a company called Hyperloop Technologies Inc. with the hopes of building the first leg of the Hyperloop between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. In theory, people would be able to hop between the two cities in about ten minutes. Nevada senator Harry Reid has been briefed on the idea as well, and efforts are under way to buy the land rights alongside Interstate 15 that would make the high-speed transport possible.

For employees like Gwynne Shotwell and J. B. Straubel, working with Musk means helping develop these sorts of wonderful technologies in relative obscurity. They’re the steady hands that will forever be expected to stay in the shadows. Shotwell has been a consistent presence at SpaceX almost since day one, pushing the company forward and suppressing her ego to ensure that Musk gets all the attention he desires. If you’re Shotwell and truly believe in the cause of sending people to Mars, then the mission takes precedence over personal desires. Straubel, likewise, has been the constant at Tesla—a go-between whom other employees could rely on to carry messages to Musk, and the guy who knows everything about the cars. Despite his stature at the company, Straubel was one of several longtime employees who confessed they were nervous to speak with me on the record. Musk likes to be the guy talking on his companies’ behalf and comes down hard on even his most loyal executives if they say something deemed to be out of line with Musk’s views or with what he wants the public to think. Straubel has dedicated himself to making electric cars and didn’t want some dumb reporter wrecking his life’s work. “I try really hard to back away and put my ego aside,” Straubel said. “Elon is incredibly difficult to work for, but it’s mostly because he’s so passionate. He can be impatient and say, ‘God damn it! This is what we have to do!’ and some people will get shell-shocked and catatonic. It seems like people can get afraid of him and paralyzed in a weird way. I try to help everyone to understand what his goals and visions are, and then I have a bunch of my own goals, too, and make sure we’re in synch. Then, I try and go back and make sure the company is aligned. Ultimately, Elon is the boss. He has driven this thing with his blood, sweat, and tears. He has risked more than anyone else. I respect the hell out of what he has done. It just could not work without Elon. In my view, he has earned the right to be the front person for this thing.”

The rank-and-file employees tend to describe Musk in more mixed ways. They revere his drive and respect how demanding he can be. They also think he can be hard to the point of mean and come off as capricious. The employees want to be close to Musk, but they also fear that he’ll suddenly change his mind about something and that every interaction with him is an opportunity to be fired. “Elon’s worst trait by far, in my opinion, is a complete lack of loyalty or human connection,” said one former employee. “Many of us worked tirelessly for him for years and were tossed to the curb like a piece of litter without a second thought. Maybe it was calculated to keep the rest of the workforce on their toes and scared; maybe he was just able to detach from human connection to a remarkable degree. What was clear is that people who worked for him were like ammunition: used for a specific purpose until exhausted and discarded.”

The communications departments of SpaceX and Tesla have witnessed the latter forms of behavior more than any other group of employees. Musk has burned through public relations staffers with comical efficiency. He tends to take on a lot of the communications work himself, writing news releases and contacting the press as he sees fit. Quite often, Musk does not let his communications staff in on his agenda. Ahead of the Hyperloop announcement, for example, his representatives were sending me e-mails to find out the time and date for the press conference. On other occasions, reporters have received an alert about a teleconference with Musk just minutes before it started. This was not a function of the PR people being incompetent in getting word of the event out. The truth was that Musk had only let them know about his plans a couple of minutes in advance, and they were scrambling to catch up to his whims. When Musk does delegate work to the communications staff, they’re expected to jump in without missing a beat and to execute at the highest level. Some of this staff, operating under this mix of pressure and surprise, only lasted between a few weeks and a few months. A few others have hung on for a couple of years before burning out or being fired.

The granddaddy example of Musk’s seemingly callous interoffice style occurred in early 2014 when he fired Mary Beth Brown. To describe her as a loyal executive assistant would be grossly inadequate. Brown often felt like an extension of Musk—the one being who crossed over into all of his worlds. For more than a decade, she gave up her life for Musk, traipsing back and forth between Los Angeles and Silicon Valley every week, while working late into the night and on weekends. Brown went to Musk and asked that she be compensated on par with SpaceX’s top executives, since she was handling so much of Musk’s scheduling across two companies, doing public relations work and often making business decisions. Musk replied that Brown should take a couple of weeks off, and he would take on her duties and gauge how hard they were. When Brown returned, Musk let her know that he didn’t need her anymore, and he asked Shotwell’s assistant to begin scheduling his meetings. Brown, still loyal and hurt, didn’t want to discuss any of this with me. Musk said that she had become too comfortable speaking on his behalf and that, frankly, she needed a life. Other people grumbled that Brown and Riley clashed and that this was the root cause of Brown’s ouster.[80] (Brown declined to be interviewed for this book, despite several requests.)



As Musk recalled, “I told her, ‘Look, I think you’re very valuable. Maybe that compensation is right. You need to take two weeks’ vacation, and I’m going to assess whether that’s true our not.’ Before this came up, I had offered her multiple all-expenses-paid vacations. I really wanted her to take a vacation. When she got back, my conclusion was just that the relationship was not going to work anymore. Twelve years is a good run for any job. She’ll do a great job for someone.” According to Musk, he offered Brown another position at the company. She declined the offer by never showing up at the office again. Musk gave her twelve months’ severance and has not spoken to her since.