Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (2017)
THE TECHNOLOGY INDUSTRY LOVES MESSY FOUNDING TALES. A bit of backstabbing? A hearty helping of deceit? Perfect. And yet, the press has never really dug into the alleged intrigue surrounding Musk’s formation of Zip2, nor have reporters examined the very serious allegations of inconsistencies in Musk’s academic record.
In April 2007, a physicist named John O’Reilly filed a lawsuit alleging that Musk had stolen the idea for Zip2. According to the lawsuit, filed with the Superior Court of California in Santa Clara, O’Reilly first met Musk in October 1995. O’Reilly had started a company called Internet Merchant Channel, or IMC, which planned to let businesses create primitive, information-packed online ads. A restaurant, for example, could build an ad that would display its menu and perhaps even turn-by-turn directions to its location. O’Reilly’s ideas were mostly theoretical, but Zip2 did end up providing a very similar service. O’Reilly alleged that Musk had first heard about this type of technology while trying to get a job working as a salesman for IMC. He and Musk met on at least three occasions, according to the lawsuit, to talk about the job. O’Reilly then went on an overseas trip and struggled to get back in touch with Musk upon his return.
O’Reilly declined to discuss his case against Musk with me. But in the lawsuit, he claimed to have learned about Zip2 through happenstance many years after meeting Musk. While reading a book in 2005 about the Internet economy, O’Reilly stumbled upon a passage that mentioned Musk’s founding of Zip2 and its 1999 sale to Compaq Computer for $307 million in cash. The physicist was blown away as he realized that Zip2 sounded a lot like IMC, which had never amounted to much of a business. O’Reilly’s mind raced back to his encounters with Musk. He began to suspect that Musk had avoided him on purpose and that instead of becoming an IMC salesman, Musk had run off to pursue the same concept on his own. O’Reilly wanted to be compensated for coming up with the original business idea. He spent about two years making his case against Musk. The case file at the court runs hundreds of pages. O’Reilly has affidavits from people that back up parts of his version of events. A judge, however, found that O’Reilly lacked the necessary legal standing to bring this case against Musk due to issues around how his businesses had been dissolved. The judge ordered O’Reilly to shell out $125,000 for Musk’s legal fees in 2010. All these years later, Musk still hasn’t made O’Reilly pay.
While playing detective, O’Reilly unearthed some information about Musk’s past that’s arguably more interesting than the allegations in the lawsuit. He found that the University of Pennsylvania granted Musk’s degrees in 1997—two years later than what Musk has cited. I called Penn’s registrar and verified these findings. Copies of Musk’s records show that he received a dual degree in economics and physics in May 1997. O’Reilly also subpoenaed the registrar’s office at Stanford to verify Musk’s admittance in 1995 for his doctorate work in physics. “Based on the information you provided, we are unable to locate a record in our office for Elon Musk,” wrote the director of graduate admissions. When asked during the case to produce a document verifying Musk’s enrollment at Stanford, Musk’s attorney declined and called the request “unduly burdensome.” I contacted a number of Stanford physics professors who taught in 1995, and they either failed to respond or didn’t remember Musk. Doug Osheroff, a Nobel Prize winner and department chair at the time, said, “I don’t think I knew Elon, and am pretty sure that he was not in the Physics Department.”
In the years that have followed, Musk’s enemies have been quick to bring up the ambiguities around his admission to Stanford. When Martin Eberhard sued Musk, his attorney introduced O’Reilly’s research into the case. And during the course of my interviews, a number of Musk’s detractors from the Zip2, PayPal, and early Tesla days said flat out that they think Musk fibbed about getting into Stanford in a bid to boost his credentials as a fledgling entrepreneur and then had to stick with the story after Zip2 took off.
At first, I, too, felt like there were a lot of oddities surrounding Musk’s academic record, particularly the Stanford days. But, as I dug in, there were solid explanations for all of the inconsistencies and plenty of evidence to undermine the cases of Musk’s detractors.
During the course of my reporting, for example, I found evidence that contradicted O’Reilly’s timeline of events. Peter Nicholson, the banker whom Musk had worked for in Canada, took a stroll with Musk along the boardwalk in Toronto before Musk left for Stanford and chatted about the incarnations of something like Zip2. Musk had already started writing some of the early software to support the idea he’d outlined to Kimbal. “He was agonizing whether to do a PhD at Stanford or take this piece of software he’d made in his spare time and make a business out of it,” Nicholson said. “He called the thing the Virtual City Navigator. I told him there was this crazy Internet thing going on, and that people will pay big money for damn near anything. This software was a golden opportunity. He could do a PhD anytime.” Kimbal and other members of Musk’s family have similar memories.
Musk, speaking at length for the first time on the subject, denied everything alleged by O’Reilly and does not even recall meeting the man. “He’s a total scumbag,” Musk said. “O’Reilly is like a failed physicist who became a serial litigate. And I told the guy, ‘Look, I’m not going to settle an unjust case. So it’s just like don’t even try.’ But he still kept at it. His case was tossed out twice on demur, which means that basically even if all the facts in his case were true, he would still lose.
“He’d tried his best to like torture me through my friends and personally [by filing the lawsuit]. And then we’ve got summary judgment. He lost the summary judgment. He appealed summary judgment, then several months later lost the appeal and I was like, ‘Okay, fuck it. Let’s file for fees.’ And we were awarded fees from when he appealed. And that’s when we sent the sheriff after him and he claimed that he had no money basically. Whether he did or didn’t I don’t know. He certainly claimed he had no money. So we were like either we’ve got to like impound his car or tap his wife’s income. Those didn’t seem like great choices. So, we decided that he doesn’t have to pay back the money he owes me, so long as he doesn’t sue anyone else on frivolous grounds. And, in fact, late last year or early this year , he tried to do just that thing. But, whoever he sued was aware of the nature of my judgment and contacted the lawyer I used, who then told O’Reilly, ‘Look, you need to drop the case against these guys or everyone’s going to ask for the money. It’s kind of pointless to sue them on frivolous grounds because you’re going to have fork over the winnings to Elon.’ It’s like go do something productive with your life.”
As for his academic records, Musk produced a document for me dated June 22, 2009, that came from Judith Haccou, the director of graduate admissions in the office of the registrar at Stanford University. It read, “As per special request from my colleagues in the School of Engineering, I have searched Stanford’s admission data base and acknowledge that you applied and were admitted to the graduate program in Material Science Engineering in 1995. Since you did not enroll, Stanford is not able to issue you an official certification document.”
Musk also had an explanation for the weird timing on his degrees from Penn. “I had a History and an English credit that I agreed with Penn that I would do at Stanford,” he said. “Then I put Stanford on deferment. Later, Penn’s requirements changed so that you don’t need the English and History credit. So then they awarded me the degree in ’97 when it was clear I was not going to go to grad school, and their requirement was no longer there.
“I finished everything that was needed for a Wharton degree in ’94. They’d actually mailed me a Wharton degree. I decided to spend another year and finished the physics degree, but then there was that History and English credit thing. I was only reminded about the History and English thing when I tried to get an H-1B visa and called the school to get a copy of my graduation certificate, and they said I hadn’t graduated. Then they looked into the new requirements, and said it was fine.”