The belief that Elon Musk is a ‘self-made billionaire’ is a contested one. The Tesla CEO has made headlines for becoming the richest person in the world, with a net worth of more than $200 billion in 2022, but how easy has it been for him to get where he is today?
In our interactive game, you’ll face the same business decisions he has throughout his career to see if you’d earn big like Elon or fall flat.
Spoilers below! Try the game before reading on if you want a challenge.
How Elon Made His Billions
Over the years there have been some pivotal moments in Elon Musk’s career, which have led him to his present-day fortune. Here, we break down some of those key decisions and see how they impacted his bank account.
1995: Co-Founded Zip2
Zip2 was an online version of the yellow pages, launched before Google in 1998. Elon’s father, Errol Musk, offered him $28,000 to co-found the company, his first, with brothers Kimbal and Greg Kouri. Elon agreed to this, and although he was later demoted from CEO to CTO, the company's sale to Compaq Computer Corporation in 1999 earned him $22 million.
1999: Co-Founded X.com
In the same year that he sold Zip2 (1999), Musk invested $10 million of his earnings into co-founding X.com, one of the first online banks that didn't require mail to transfer funds or minimum balances. This venture would ultimately return on his initial investment and then some.
2000: Merged X.com With Confinity
In March 2000, X.com merged with Confinity, one of its biggest competitors, increasing the value of Musk’s shares and thus his net worth. He was again replaced as CEO later that year, this time by Confinity founder Peter Thiel. The merger became PayPal in 2001.
2002: PayPal Sale
After going public in 2002, PayPal was sold to eBay for $1.5 billion. As the largest shareholder with 11.72% of shares, Musk made $180 million from the deal. Today, PayPal is worth $114 billion – if Musk convinced the board not to sell, those same shares would have been worth over $13 billion.
2002: Investment In SpaceX
Musk established spacecraft engineering firm SpaceX in the same year PayPal was sold. There wasn't an immediate return on his $100 million investment, but the company has since grown in reputation with a lucrative Nasa contract and a valuation of more than $125 billion.
2004: Investment In Tesla
Musk wasn’t always at the helm of Tesla. In 2004, an opportunity arose to make a major investment in the company, which was a little-known but ambitious EV manufacturer at the time. Musk invested $6.5 million in Tesla, becoming the company's largest shareholder and chairman. The move became one of the main drivers behind his ever-building wealth.
2006: Investment In SolarCity
Elon had an idea for a solar energy company that he pitched to his cousins, Peter and Lyndon Rive. The idea became SolarCity in 2006, which Musk invested seed money into. It subsequently earned its place as the leading residential installer of solar energy generation systems in the US. In 2016, he acquired SolarCity with $2.6 billion in stock and later rebranded it as Tesla Energy.
2010: Going Public With Tesla
By 2010, despite Tesla’s value increasing, progress was slow. Musk took the considerable risk of taking the company public, making it the first American carmaker to do so since Ford in the ‘50s.
The value of Tesla shares remained steady for a while before they spiked in 2020 and rose to more than $1,000 per share the following year. Much of Musk's mega fortune comes from his Tesla shares and the decision to go public, estimated at around $380 million.
2011: Investment In DeepMind
In 2011, Musk invested $1.65 million into DeepMind. Google then bought the company for $650 million in 2014, earning Musk a $90 million return. This, paired with the growing values of Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity, helped him become a billionaire.
2015: Co-Founding OpenAI
OpenAI was co-founded by Musk as an artificial intelligence research lab, starting with a $1 billion pledge. Although he left the board in 2018, it was evidence of another successful venture for the businessman. The following year, Microsoft made a further $1 billion investment.
2017: Investment In Neuralink
By 2019, Musk had invested $100 million of his money into Neuralink. Despite questions on the project's viability and animal testing, a further $205 million investment came from Google Ventures, Peter Thiel's Founders Fund and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman in 2021. The investment ultimately added billions to Musk’s net worth.
2017: Introduction Of The Tesla Model 3
The same year, Tesla share values topped $50 for the first time, and the company began making real gains over time – largely thanks to the Tesla Model S. However, this luxury saloon was not affordable to the masses.
The introduction of the Tesla Model 3 was a game-changer, bringing more affordable EV motoring to a much wider audience. It would go on to win a host of awards, top sales charts and become the first EV to pass one million global sales. The introduction of the Model 3 led to a huge increase in Tesla’s value and Musk’s net worth along with it.
2021: Hertz Rental Partnership
As the Tesla Model 3 grew in popularity, it became a viable option for renting as well as purchase. Car rental firm Hertz agreed on a deal to take 100,000 Teslas for rentals, taking the manufacturer’s value beyond a staggering $1 trillion.
As the company's value climbed, so too did Musk's bank balance – thanks to his 155 million-plus Tesla shares – adding around $135 billion.
2022: Covid Car Crash
Covid measures in China had a big impact on staff levels and production at Tesla’s Shanghai plant. In mid-2022, Musk announced an order cap to alleviate the pressure, but it wasn’t enough to avoid a hit on his net worth, which dropped by around $61 billion.
2022: A Twitter Buyout Offer Of $44 Billion
Musk became Twitter's largest shareholder and made a buyout offer of $44 billion, which was accepted by the platform’s board of directors. But, only a few months later, he pulled out of the deal claiming Twitter had breached the agreement. The saga had a huge impact on his fortune, which dropped by tens of billions amid the lawsuit brought against him.
There’s since been another U-turn, however, with Musk reportedly closing the deal in late October 2022. In an apparent response, the new head of Twitter tweeted “the bird is freed”.
As you can see from his various decisions and their impact on his net worth, one right or wrong move for Elon Musk can be the difference between huge gains and huge losses. Think you can do a better job? Play our interactive game and see if you can match Musk’s fortune – or walk away with an even bigger bank balance than the world’s richest person.
Tracking the increase in Elon Musk’s wealth over the years, we researched his many business decisions in that time and their relation to his estimated net worth. These milestones make up our interactive game, which tasks players with matching or even exceeding Musk’s wealth.
As figures for Musk’s net worth in the 1990s and 2000s aren’t widely available, we’ve estimated the gradual increase in his wealth up to that point based on the business decisions that happened – such as the founding of his first company, Zip2, or the merger that ultimately became PayPal and earned Musk $180 million personally.
As net worth can change even hour by hour, a line of best fit was applied to fluctuations within the data (as this still tracks the overall increase in Musk’s wealth), for the purpose of the interactive game.
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