My breakfast with Elon

On Jan. 1 of 1962, four lads from Liverpool auditioned at Decca Records, but they didn’t get the gig. The Decca executive at the time opted to sign another band: Brian Poole and the Tremeloes. (You remember them, right?)

The Beatles pre-Ringo days.

The Beatles climbed the charts in 1963 and to this day remain the best selling artists of all time.

How would you like to have been that Decca exec? Well, I might be able to lay claim to a similar flub in the tech industry.

About 20 years ago, while working at Sun Microsystems in the JavaSoft group, I received a call. I caught the last name (Musk) but not the first and understood he had a business called Zip2 and he would like to partner with Sun. At the time, my job including running JavaSoft’s developer programs and so I met with dozens, if not hundreds of ISV (independent software vendor) start-ups.

I decided to hear him out. A few weeks later we sat down at a little cafe on California Avenue in Palo Alto. Elon was accompanied by his brother, Kimbal. Elon did all the talking. The South African accent at the time was thick and it didn’t help that he spoke a mile a minute.

I was able to glean that the company was developing online directories for newspapers. The business personally intrigued me; I had not long before that time left a career in journalism and part of my reason for leaving was a frustration that newspapers weren’t moving quickly enough to go digital. I was also able to read between the lines during Elon’s pitch: he was shopping the company.

I do remember my mind wandering during the meeting as to what all of this had to do with naming the company Zip2, which I inferred was some sort of digitized version of the postal code acronym. But I didn’t get a chance to ask the question.

I was accustomed to meeting with bright, young, energetic entrepreneurs. Elon fit the bill, except that the energy level was an order of magnitude above the others.

We parted company after I paid for breakfast, which, as I recall, Elon never touched. I don’t recall what happened next, except that I did not pursue working with the Zip2 team. I might have passed the information along to the Sun hardware group, which was supporting other fledgling startups such as Yahoo by supplying gear and technical support.

It was the last time I spoke with Mr. Musk. He sold the business not long after to Compaq, went on to create Paypal and … well, you know the rest of the story.

I just hope when I turned him down I didn’t make up a lame excuse. According to legend, the Beatles were told that “guitar music was on its way out.”

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