I've always wanted to be part of something that would radically change the world. In 1995, that was the Internet, which led to PayPal. After it sold, I wanted to create a low-cost Mars mission that would get people excited about space travel. The idea was to land a vehicle with a greenhouse on Mars and establish life there. The problem was finding a rocket. It would have cost about half a trillion dollars for one mission; rockets are not reusable. To make life multiplanetary, you need a transport system that's fully and rapidly reusable. That would lead to a dramatic reduction in costs. In 2002, I started SpaceX to solve those problems.
I run both [electric car company] Tesla (TSLA) and SpaceX myself. It's a heavy workload, and I've never really wanted to run companies. Unfortunately, I came to the conclusion I was better than the CEOs we hired. If I'm not CEO, I can't make the inventions happen in the way they need to happen. Professional managers—MBA CEOs—are not very creative or adaptable, and their skills don't suit a startup. Business is like a multidimensional probabilistic chessboard. The rules aren't set, and the same moves don't always make you win. A lot of people can be really good in a set-piece battle; my biggest differentiating skill is I can invent new pieces.
We're entering the era of commercial space flight, which will advance dramatically faster than in the past. But I made the decision to patent almost nothing: Our competition is the Chinese and Russian governments, against whom patents are unenforceable and can simply be used as a recipe. It's much better for our technology to be trade secrets. I'd rather keep the information to myself. There could be a Chinese spy or a cyber attack, but my CIO is from PayPal, which never got cracked.
People forget the power of inspiration. All of humanity went to the moon with the Apollo missions. The issue was cost. There was no chance to build a base and create frequent flights. That's the problem I would like to solve.