Before he ever tried building electric cars or sending people to Mars, Elon Musk attempted to get a job at Netscape, an early web browser company. But Musk had the wrong credentials for a software startup, and the wrong personality to chat his way into a job. So they didn’t even respond to his job application.
For Netscape, passing on Musk was an obvious mistake in hindsight. He turned out to be one of the most original thinkers of our time. Meantime, Netscape lost Browser Wars, and was acquired by AOL in 1999. Its browser was discontinued in 2008, although it partly lives on in the Firefox browser. For Musk, not getting the job he wanted turned out to be the best thing that could have happened. It should serve as inspiration for every aspiring entrepreneur.
Musk told this story in a 2012 interview with entrepreneur Kevin Rose that was highlighted in 2018 by CNBC. He told Rose that he’d always known he wanted to invent or create things, but not particularly start a company. In fact, Musk had wanted to work at a particle accelerator before the U.S. government pulled the plug on the Superconducting Super Collider.
He first came to Silicon Valley to do graduate studies at Stanford in applied physics and materials science. “In ’95, I kind of thought the internet was something that would change the world in a major way and I wanted to be part of it,” he told Rose. “Actually, what I first tried to do was I tried to get a job at Netscape. I wouldn’t actually try to start a company.”
Fortunately for Musk, that didn’t work out. “I didn’t get any reply,” he said. Musk had degrees in physics and business, but he didn’t have a computer science degree or experience working at a software company, he explained, which may be why Netscape took no interest in him.
He also didn’t have the gift of gab. Musk tried hanging out in the lobby at Netscape to see if he could strike up an acquaintance that would help him get in the door–a strategy that can be very successful. There was just one problem–Musk couldn’t do it. “I was too shy to talk to anyone,” he said. “It was pretty embarrassing. I was just sort of standing there trying to see if there’s someone I could talk to and then I just couldn’t. I was too scared to talk to anyone. So then I left.” More recently, Musk revealed that he has Asperger’s disorder, which often causes social awkwardness and may have made it harder for him to start a conversation.
Startup or Stanford?
But if he couldn’t get in the door at Netscape, Musk still knew what he wanted to do. He spent the rest of the summer writing software but when fall came around, he had to choose–try starting a company or attend Stanford.
“I figured, if I start a company and it doesn’t work, I can always go back to grad school,” he said. “So I talked to the chairman of the department and he let me go on deferment. I said I’ll probably be back in six months and he said he was probably never going to hear from me again. And he was correct. I’ve never spoken to him since.”
Musk went on to co-found Zip2 which developed internet city guides for newspapers. Compaq acquired Zip2 in early 1999. That same year, Musk co-founded X.com which later became PayPal and was sold to eBay for $1.5 billion (eBay spun it off in 2015.) That made Musk a millionaire a hundred times over and gave him the funding, the credibility, and the confidence to pursue his biggest dreams.
It’s odd to think what might have happened, though, if whoever reviewed Musk’s job application had been able to recognize his genius, or if Musk had been better at talking to strangers. We might be living in a world without Teslas, and Netscape Navigator might be our browser of choice.