Inside Story

Electric ambition

Elon Musk has cast a spell across global business and investment. Someone needed to

Jock Given Books 25 January 2022 2810 words

Going up: Elon Musk at the construction site of a new Tesla Gigafactory at Gruenheide, near Berlin, in September 2020. Alexander Becher/EPA

Power Play: Elon Musk, Tesla and the Bet of the Century
By Tim Higgins | WH Allen | $35 | 377 pages

Elon Musk and his enterprises make news most days. He asks Twitter users if he should sell a big block of shares in Tesla, where he is the largest shareholder. A spacecraft made by his company SpaceX delivers astronauts to the International Space Station for a five-month stay. A mother gives birth in a Tesla Model 3 set in self-drive by a father who helps with the delivery. Ahead of “local” stalwarts Rio Tinto and Woolworths, Tesla becomes one of the most popular stocks held on the National Australia Bank’s share-trading platform.

A book is a chance to pull fragments like these together and discern a larger story. This one, by Wall Street Journal automotive and technology reporter Tim Higgins, is mainly about Tesla, not Musk’s space and solar energy companies, SpaceX and SolarCity. But Tesla took over SolarCity five years ago (the controversial transaction is described in detail here), and the connections across Musk’s commercial and personal activities mean anyone writing about him needs to deal with them all. “He’s charging after a personal calling,” wrote Ashlee Vance in his 2016 biography, “one that’s intertwined with his soul and injected into the deepest parts of his mind.” Vance dubbed it “the unified field theory of Elon Musk.”

As Higgins was wrapping up the text of Power Play early in 2021, the Economist published a debate between a Tesla bull and a Tesla bear. Sales of the Model 3 were surging and a sixth straight profitable quarter was announced, the first time Tesla had been profitable in each quarter of a calendar year. Its share price had increased eightfold in twelve months.

The Tesla bull declared the share price “will travel in only one direction — up.” It was “a mistake to judge the company by the standards of the firms it will leave in its tracks.” Tesla was not a carmaker, it was a technology firm that would disrupt personal transport, energy, robotics, healthcare and more. Its leader was a visionary with a “genius for turning the future into dollars.”

The bear was just as confident. Tesla’s share price would travel in reverse. It had done an extraordinary job “building a brand swiftly and making electric cars trendy.” Now though, competition was increasing, Tesla was losing market share and missing production targets. The hype about self-driving cars had worn off as their problems became clearer. Musk himself was spread too thinly. “The strains from Tesla’s expansion could again bring out his demons.”

So far, the Tesla bull is winning. In December, Time magazine declared Elon Musk its 2021 Person of the Year. Tesla Common Stock closed the first day of trading on the NASDAQ in 2022 at around $1200, a 64 per cent increase over the year, after the company reported vehicle deliveries in 2021 of 936,000, up from 510,000 in 2020. (Along with other tech stocks, they have fallen a long way since, closing at $930 on 24 January.) At the time of writing, according to Forbes Real Time Billionaires, Musk was comfortably the world’s richest person, his net worth nearly twice that of the fourth-richest person, Bill Gates.

“Elon has all these ideas and I can’t move fast enough,” confided Tesla co-founder and CEO Martin Eberhard in late 2006 as he battled to produce the company’s first cars. By August, the company had a new CEO and Eberhard had moved to a new position as president of technology. Before the end of the year he was gone altogether, although he retained a shareholding.

Incidents like this happen many, many times through Higgins’s flowing account of the rise of the pioneering electric vehicle company. This one, common in the life of high-tech startups, is especially decisive. It’s the moment when “a founder’s skills are exceeded,” writes Higgins. “[Eberhard] knew it, and so did Musk.”

Eberhard and Musk, the largest shareholder and chair of the company, discussed bringing in a chief financial officer and a new CEO. News of the search leaked, embarrassing Eberhard. The start date for production of Tesla’s first cars kept being deferred and their likely cost rising. The company needed money. Musk spoke to Eberhard. A few days later the board approved his “resignation” as CEO and new job title. Later, it got very messy. Eberhard sued Musk, they settled, they sang each other’s praises. In the meantime, the company got an interim CEO, then a new CEO. Eventually Musk took over as CEO himself, a position he has held ever since.

The technology, the cars, the funding dramas, the manufacturing and marketing, the deals, the losses and the profits; these provide the raw data for Higgins’s tale. The current that ripples through it all, though, are the stories like these, about Musk’s handling of people. Higgins’s title captures it perfectly. To do things as big as the ones Musk wants to accomplish you need a lot of people and they need to do remarkable work for you, their very best, long day after exhausting day.

“Elon” — his surname has become superfluous — seems simultaneously magnetic and repellent. The magnet seeks, finds and attracts the best and brightest people to do the work he needs them to do. These are not just brilliant young Stanford engineers who have already self-selected for tech jobs at the most interesting and promising Silicon Valley companies. They are experienced auto industry executives and production line workers, people who know how cars are made and how big motor vehicle companies work but are frustrated by their inefficiencies and conservatism. They are marketing people who understand advertising but are prepared to work for a company that doesn’t want to pay for it. They are retailers who understand the behaviour of consumers and might have been surprised by Tesla’s passionate early ones. These were people who wore delays, price rises, defects and breakdowns almost as badges of honour, personal investments in a more sustainable future.

The repellent Musk uses these people up and casts them aside when they are no longer useful, repeatedly behaving in ways that would drop the jaws of human resources (“People and Culture”) professionals. If they have worked at Tesla for at least five years, they will probably have their stock options. A highlight from Vance’s biography: when Musk’s long-serving executive assistant, who worked across all his interests and “gave up her life for Musk for more than a decade,” proposed she should be paid at the same level as other senior executives, Musk suggested she take a two-week vacation. He would do her job himself and decide whether she was still required. She wasn’t, and was given twelve months’ severance pay. “Twelve years is a good run for any job. She’ll do a great job for someone,” Musk told Vance.

Is this just Silicon Valley? America? Capitalism? Or Musk himself?

Higgins stays clear of the amateur psychology, deferring to the detail in Ashlee Vance’s biography. It describes Musk’s tough childhood in a violent place, apartheid South Africa, vicious bullying at school, and prodigious capacity for absorbing, understanding and recalling detail. When their parents separated, Elon and younger brother and sister Kimbal and Tosca lived with their mother; after two years, Elon decided to live with his father Errol, an “ultra-present and very intense” man, according to Kimbal. “There were fun moments,” Elon told Vance. “He is an odd duck… He’s good at making life miserable.”

Vance struggled to get anyone on the record criticising Errol and Erroll himself responded to his request for an interview with an impeccable email praising all his children. “Elon was a very independent and focused child at home with me.” Perhaps when your son is the world’s richest man and is making a fair fist of leading the global auto industry away from fossil fuels you don’t think you have much to apologise for.

Musk the magnet has drawn exceptionally smart, hard-working people to his enterprises to be part of a vision he pitches as gigantic and good. Tesla/SolarCity is saving humanity and the earth by shifting vehicles to electric power and electricity generation to solar. SpaceX is insurance in case it doesn’t work, the chance for human beings to survive somewhere else, most likely on a second planet, Mars. The first part, the power play, is widely supported. The second, making humans a multiplanetary species, is much more contentious. Whatever your view, it adds up to a serious industrial, political and cultural project and Musk pursues it with greater tenacity and purpose than many governments whose job it is to think this big.

Successful companies often claim a central mission, holding clear and steady across the years, a North Star that the whole enterprise steers towards — think “customer-centric” at Amazon, “organising the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful” at Google. The mission disciplines decisions about how and where to grow. But it always iterates with new opportunities, expanding, contracting, clarifying. When Google outgrew its founding mission, it gave birth to a parent company, Alphabet, with a larger one, to make “the world around you” universally accessible and useful. Netflix completely transformed itself from a physical distributor of other people’s movies and TV shows to a digital distributor of its own.

The Tesla Motors that Elon Musk largely funded in 2003 (investing $6.35 million of the $6.5 million startup round) was building an electric sports car, a “Roadster.” It captivated early buyers with the same things sports cars have always oozed, acceleration and good looks. For some, electric power was just a novel way to improve performance on a familiar parameter. Less than two decades later, having acquired SolarCity, Tesla has dropped “Motors” from its name and says its mission, from the start, was “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” The product line-up now includes three batteries designed for home, commercial and utility-scale installations and a rooftop solar energy system, as well as the cars.

The electric vehicle part of the plan was laid out in “The Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan,” Musk’s “laughably simple” three-step business plan: build an expensive sports car to attract attention (the Roadster); then build a luxury sedan to compete against German luxury vehicles (which became the Model S, released in 2012); then build a car for the people (the Model 3, on sale since 2017). Along the way, it added two SUVs, the Model X and the compact Model Y.

Simple in conception, Higgins explains how extraordinarily difficult it was in practice to design, build and sell these different electric vehicles, how much else Tesla has changed about the auto business, and how electric vehicles became part of a larger energy transformation project. Several observations stand out.

First, while Tesla is sometimes perceived as a lone rebel in the automotive landscape, it has crafted some crucial partnerships that enabled it to get products to market more quickly, or at greater scale and lower cost, than would have been possible if it had tried to do everything itself. This was not easy when the company was another Silicon Valley startup with big plans; Musk’s gift was to convince powerful incumbents it was not just another Silicon Valley startup.

The Roadster was a partnership with Lotus and used the Elise chassis (the marriage was far from perfect). The early batteries were produced by Sanyo and then Panasonic, the latter joining Tesla in a partnership to create a huge battery manufacturing facility in Nevada known as the Gigafactory. Daimler Benz bought parts from Tesla and invested in the company. Tesla bought (and extensively remodelled) its automotive factory in Fremont California from Toyota, which used it from 1984–2009 in a partnership with General Motors, after GM had occupied the site from 1962.

That said, Tesla’s preparedness to build parts and products itself, to bring in-house activities that have been increasingly dispersed across global manufacturing chains, is remarkable. The book is full of examples where the company imagined it could rely on experienced suppliers to design and manufacture parts it needed but was frustrated by their quality and/or cost and eventually chose to build rather than buy. The Gigafactory is the best example: this partnership to massively scale up battery production was designed to give Tesla more control of its own destiny as it pursued ambitious targets for vehicle and solar production.

Third, Tesla’s success in producing things, especially motor cars, has mattered in the United States. In the internet age, American capitalism triumphed in Silicon Valley but collapsed in Detroit. As Tesla was battling to sell its first vehicles and finance its future during the global financial crisis, America’s car companies were going to the wall. (Tesla came close itself.) Many of the great tech successes of recent decades — Google/Alphabet, Facebook, Netflix — sell experiences, not tangible products. Apple sells devices but they are largely produced overseas, a stellar example of the globally dispersed production model. America did not make things anymore, many complained. Tesla does, and the very things that once supplied America with corporate and cultural iconography — Henry Ford, the Chrysler Building, General Motors. Now, there are Stars and Stripes decals on SpaceX’s rockets.

Fourth, Power Play shows how the Musk-led Tesla has changed more about cars than the way they are powered, often against immense opposition. Electric power itself changed more than the carbon footprint of vehicles: a watermelon-sized electric motor, fewer moving parts and a battery pack located under the passenger compartment opened up more space for occupants and luggage. Tesla also changed the way motor cars were sold — direct to customers rather than through franchised dealer networks. (Australian ex-Ford boss Jack Nasser, consulted as part of venture capitalist Kleiner Perkins’s early due diligence on Tesla, warned about direct selling, regarding his own attempt to fight the franchise dealers as one of his “biggest mistakes.”) Tesla changed the way cars are advertised (theirs are not). Along with many others, it hopes to change the way they are all driven (they won’t be).

Companies come and go around the Bay Area: Silicon Valley does not have a problem with failure. “Since organisational death, in and of itself, is not perceived as a finite expression of failure, entrepreneurs are able to entertain what would normally be considered ‘outlandish’ risks,” write Homa Bahrami and Stuart Evans in a chapter on high technology entrepreneurship in Understanding Silicon Valley. Elon Musk takes outlandish risks but he does have a problem with failure. “My mentality is that of a samurai,” he told a venture capitalist (quoted by Vance). “I would rather commit seppuku than fail.”

Musk came to Tesla already a successful tech entrepreneur, having sold the company he founded with his brother Kimbal, Zip2, to Compaq in 1999. He then received around $250 million (before taxes) from his share of PayPal when eBay bought it in 2002. Musk had been CEO at both enterprises, carrying heavy bruises from PayPal, where he was replaced by Peter Thiel in a clandestine manoeuvre undertaken while Musk was on his way to honeymoon at the Sydney Olympics. Ashlee Vance found much acknowledgement of Musk’s contribution at PayPal, where he hired a lot of the top talent, as he had done at Zip2, created a number of the company’s most successful business ideas and served as CEO during a period of rapid expansion from sixty to several hundred employees.

“I’ve just never seen anything like his ability to take pain…,” Tesla and SpaceX investor and Musk friend, Antonio Gracias, told Vance. “Most people who are under that sort of pressure fray. Their decisions go bad. Elon gets hyperrational… The harder it gets, the better he gets.” Musk says he would like to die on Mars. “Just not on impact. Ideally I’d like to go for a visit, come back for a while, and then go there when I’m like seventy or something and then just stay there.”

Business historians and management theorists are trained to look at many factors to explain the growth and evolution of enterprises, to be wary of the biographer’s temptation to personalise it all, to give too much credit to leaders, especially leaders as media-thrilling as Elon Musk. It isn’t hard to forecast a fall ahead for the Tesla and SpaceX leader, or even imagine the likely reasons. The Tesla bears and their shortselling shadows do it every day. But right now, Elon Musk has cast a spell across global business and investment. By the time you read this, it may have broken. If not, watch it closely, for it is an extraordinary thing.

One last thing: Tim Higgins says he gave Elon Musk “numerous opportunities” to respond to the material presented in the book. Musk made no specific comments, but said “Most, but not all, of what you read in this book is nonsense.” •