On Tuesday June 22, 2010, 12:45 am EDT
The funny thing about Elon Musk is that he does sort of remind you of Tony Stark. Minus the Iron Man suit.
Like the fictional Mr. Stark, Mr. Musk seems like the kind of guy every Silicon Valley hopeful wants to be. For starters, he’s a rocket scientist. No, really: he helped design the Falcon 9 booster used by NASA. He also helped create Solar City, a leader in solar power. And he helped dream up the Tesla, the electric car that made electric cars sexy. No wonder the film director Jon Favreau modeled his über-capitalist superhero on Mr. Musk.
There is just one small problem: Mr. Musk says he is broke.
Come again? Mr. Musk is a member of the PayPal Mafia — those serial entrepreneurs who, for a time, looked like the Brat Pack of the Valley. He made a fortune as a co-founder of PayPal, the e-commerce payments system. Not so long ago, he had more than $200 million in cash. Not bad for 38.
Now Mr. Musk, who is in the middle of a divorce, says his account is empty. Actually, less than empty. He says he invested his last cent in his businesses and is living off loans from his wealthy friends. He subsists, according to court filings, on $200,000 a month and still flies his private jet.
“About four months ago, I ran out of cash,” Mr. Musk acknowledged in a divorce court filing that was widely circulated among the West Coast digital elite.
It was quite a revelation, one that laid bare an uncomfortable truth in the world of venture capital: high-tech entrepreneurs who look rich are often relatively cash-poor, at least next to their glittering images. Mark Zuckerberg may be a billionaire when, or if, Facebook goes public. Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle, lives like a king. But most of his wealth is tied up in Oracle stock. Mr. Ellison lives in part off loans.
People like Mr. Musk may have redefined what it means to be rich, particularly young and rich. But somehow, many of these seemingly successful people live on the financial edge, waiting, hoping for the next deal to unlock their next fortune.
Mr. Musk’s financial situation is coming to light because he is in the middle of a messy divorce. He ran off with an actress, Talulah Riley — paging Mr. Stark — and his wife, the fantasy novelist Justine Musk, wants the house, alimony, child support and $6 million cash. She also wants a cut of Tesla Motors and a piece of Mr. Musk’s stock in his rocket company, SpaceX.
“Is that what I deserve?” Mrs. Musk wrote on her blog in a post titled “Golddigging.” “I don’t know. Who exactly deserves that kind of wealth? But based on our life and history together, is that reasonable? I think so.”
Mr. Musk told me in an interview that he put his last $35 million into Tesla, which only two years ago was on the edge of bankruptcy. That depleted virtually all his “cash reserves.”
“That was my choice,” he insisted.
Faced with what he characterized as “liquidity issues,” he said: “I could have either done a rushed private stock sale or borrowed money from friends.” He chose to hang onto his stake — a decision that is likely to make him a very wealthy man. In two weeks, Tesla is scheduled to hold an initial public offering of stock that is expected to value the company at about $1.4 billion. Mr. Musk may be broke, but, as he said to me with a laugh, “My assets are huge.”
The revelations about Mr. Musk’s personal financial problems stunned many in the industry. Wall Street spent years courting him. The Energy Department had given Tesla — which has sold its $100,000 electric sports cars to the likes of Larry Page, the Google co-founder, and George Clooney — $465 million in low-interest loans.
The whispering among Mr. Musk’s detractors began almost immediately. If Mr. Musk cannot keep himself solvent, how can he be trusted to run a billion-dollar enterprise? And what about Tesla’s financing, which had long been based on his largess?
In case you are wondering, neither Mr. Musk nor his wife says he is claiming poverty because of the divorce. She characterizes him as a billionaire, “albeit with cash/liquidity issues,” which, she says, “ I would work with him to work around.”
Mr. Musk’s personal fortune is not just a matter of pride. A business is hanging in the balance. Tesla’s loan from the Energy Department requires Mr. Musk to hold at least 65 percent of Tesla. If he cashed out early, that loan would technically go into default.
Tesla, for its part, has tried to quiet the talk of Mr. Musk’s troubles. In an amendment to its I.P.O. filing, the company said: “We do not believe that Mr. Musk’s personal financial situation has any impact on us.”
Tesla went on to say that his divorce — and his postnuptial agreement (he and his wife agreed to a divorce arrangement after they were married that she is contesting) should have no impact on the company. “We also do not believe that Mr. Musk would have to liquidate a significant percentage of his holdings in order to satisfy any settlement reached in connection with such proceedings,” the company said.
An earlier filing might have been a telltale sign about the financial problems to come: Tesla disclosed that it had begun reimbursing Mr. Musk for his use of his private plane, justifying the cost by saying, “By paying only the variable expenses of Mr. Musk’s private airplane, consistent with the reimbursement policy in place, we will recognize a cost saving as compared to the customary practice for an initial public offering road show.” Before this, Mr. Musk paid for the plane himself.
It is quite a comedown — probably only temporary — for Mr. Musk, a South African native who made his first fortune in 1999, when he sold Zip2, a dot-com publishing business he had started with his brother, for more than $300 million. (The New York Times Company was a licensee of Zip2.) From there he went on to X.com, an online payment service that grew into PayPal. PayPal soon got scooped up by eBay for $1.5 billion. Mr. Musk walked away with about $200 million after selling his stock.
In 2002, he started Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, with the none-too-grand visions of making a business out of flying people into outer space. The company also has a contract with NASA worth at least $1.6 billion to take over many of the duties of the space shuttle program, which is being phased out. Just two weeks ago, SpaceX completed a successful launch of its Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral. The company had its third year of profitability in 2009.
Mr. Musk declined to comment on the public offering for Tesla — the company is in a quiet period — but if it goes as planned, he will cash out about $21 million and still own more than 65 percent of Tesla. He can use the money, if only to pay the bill for his divorce and reimburse his friends.
“It is pretty aggravating,” he told me, referring to the rumors floating around about him. Hey, even Tony Stark has bad days.