Posted on January 03, 2020 by Charles Morris
Elon Musk consistently attracts the kind of media attention usually reserved for royals and rock stars, but in some ways he remains an enigmatic figure. He tends to be wary of the press, and is more likely to address the public directly through his Twitter account or talks at tech forums than to open up to the media.
Above: Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk (Flickr: Steve Jurvetson)
One of the few journalists who has had substantial access to Musk is Bloomberg reporter Ashlee Vance. His 2015 biography of Musk is an excellent read (almost as good as the 2017 tome Tesla), and contains some firsthand details of Musk’s early life that you won’t find anywhere else.
In a new Bloomberg video (scroll below), Vance tries to explain the irresistible appeal of Elon Musk, whom Neil deGrasse Tyson characterizes as “a cross-pollination of Thomas Edison and Tony Stark.” Vance describes Musk as the inspirational successor to Steve Jobs, and as “the biggest risk-taker on the planet.” Whenever one of his companies achieves a big success, his modus operandi is not to rest and consolidate, but to immediately take another, even bigger risk. Elon Musk himself is “this huge brand, even more so than his companies.”
Vance takes us through Musk’s early business successes: Zip2 and PayPal, which Elon walked away from with around $170 million. No private island or yacht for this 31-year-old entrepreneur (he did buy a McLaren, which he later wrecked). Musk poured his fortune into SpaceX, Tesla and SolarCity, which, considering some of SpaceX’s early mishaps, might well be described as “literally lighting your money on fire.”
The rocket-builder and the automaker “remained notorious money pits for over a decade,” but Musk’s goal was not personal wealth. He decided at an early age that space travel, clean energy and electrified transportation were the most pressing issues facing the human race (yes, the idealistic Elon does indeed speak in such terms), and that he would devote his life to making them reality.
In 2008, the world economy went into meltdown, and there was turmoil both in Tesla’s boardroom and Musk’s personal life. “It was the darkest time in [Musk’s] life, without question,” says Vance. Venerable firms in the auto industry were going bankrupt left and right, and the Silicon Valley startup was down to its last few dollars. Money was pouring out and trickling in, and the Roadster had serious problems - Musk was forced to face a roomful of angry customers and tell them that the company needed to raise prices to make ends meet.
The Iron Man did not give up. In what Vance calls “one of the great escape acts in business history,” he saved the company by putting his personal fortune on the line. “Either I took all of the capital that I had left from the sale of PayPal...and invested that in Tesla, or Tesla would die,” said Musk (as recounted in Revenge of the Electric Car). He pulled another $40 million out of his pocket, a ballsy move that impressed the other investors with his all-out commitment. “That incredible braggadocio, confidence, catalyzed a change in people’s opinion,” said VC investor and board member Steve Jurvetson. “He saved the company in its darkest hour with an act of heroism that is hard to describe. There’s nothing like spending your last dollar on a company that you believe in.”
Above: A look into the fascinating story behind Elon Musk relayed by Bloomberg reporter and Musk biographer Ashlee Vance (YouTube: Bloomberg)
And the rest, as they say, is history. In 2012, Tesla produced Model S, which Road & Track called “the most important car in America’s history.” In 2016, to shouts of “You did it!” Tesla unveiled Model 3, the culmination of Musk’s three-stage master plan to develop the world’s first mass-market electric vehicle. But it’s 2019 that may go down in history as the company’s breakout year. With strong sales and growing margins, Tesla seems to have finally convinced investors that it can deliver reasonably regular profits, and the potential of the company's new products in the pipeline is explosive.
Vance doesn’t gloss over Musk’s self-destructive side, which mostly came to light after the publication of his book, during what some have called “the summer of needless drama.” In 2018, Musk impulsively tweeted that he had a plan to take Tesla private at the high price of $420 per share, and when the plan collapsed, Musk was forced to give up his seat as Chairman of Tesla’s board, and to pay a hefty fine. Shortly after this, Musk got into an unseemly public spat with a British cave diver, who had ridiculed Musk’s efforts to help with a cause celebre rescue of some Thai youths. Elon used his Twitter account to personally attack the chap, calling him some highly inflammatory names. This led to a lawsuit for damages, which was settled in Musk’s favor in 2019.
Other Elon escapades that took place around this time - pretending to smoke a joint on video, announcing Tesla’s bankruptcy as an April Fool’s stunt - seem like harmless jokes in retrospect, but at the time, they caused TSLA’s stock price to gyrate, and angered investors.
The excitable stock pundit Jim Cramer, recently transformed from a Tesla skeptic to a true believer, thinks Musk has settled down. “He’s no longer teasing the SEC. He’s no longer trashing the analysts,” Cramer recently wrote. “He runs a good, thorough conference call, gives an occasional speech and is otherwise, I never thought I would say this, not controversial.”
Mr. Vance doesn’t sound convinced. The Iron Man “relishes being in the spotlight” and “seems to enjoy living on the edge at all times,” and Vance seems to fear that more unpredictable behavior may be in store.
Perhaps. The list of eccentric geniuses is a long one - from Henry Ford to Salvador Dalí to Steve Jobs, the movers and shakers of the world have often said things they shouldn’t have, disappointed their supporters, and unnecessarily made enemies. The humble, polite family man surely deserves our affection - but will he be the one to lead mankind to Mars?