Opinion | The question of what Elon Musk may really be aiming to achieve4 min read . Updated: 23 Jul 2020, 08:28 PM IST
His critics say he just wants to hog the spotlight but his fans believe he is here to change the world
If this column has a muse, it must be Elon Musk, the serial entrepreneur.
Musk has a way to remain in the spotlight. Some of his detractors say that he works hard at it. His fans, such as this columnist, however, say that he works much harder on changing the world. As his biographer Ashlee Vance put it, “[The question is] whether he is a being sent from the future to save mankind from itself or a slick businessman dragging foolish investors along on grand cash-burning bets?"
Let us explore which one he is, though irrespective of where you stand, it is quite clear that he is perhaps the most polarizing figure the world of business has ever known. Musk was a two-time multi-millionaire even before Tesla and SpaceX. He started and sold Zip2 to Compaq for $300 million, then founded and sold PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion. True to character, he took all the money, and started a rocket company in 2002 for “making humanity a multiplanetary species", calling it SpaceX. Even as the rockets were being made in America’s Nevada desert, he bought into an unknown electric car company called Tesla, to “give birth to a whole new industry" in 2004. Somewhere along the way, he started the pithily named The Boring Company to dig tunnels under Los Angeles and other cities to solve the grinding commutes that irritated him. He conceived the Hyperloop, a completely new form of super-fast inter-city transportation, and “open-sourced" it for entrepreneurs, and started a company called Neuralink, to merge the human brain with computers or the cloud. All in a day’s work.
In his spare time, he also made another audacious bet, investing $5 billion to set up the world’s largest solar cell factory, called Gigafactory, which, at 35 gigawatt hours, offered greater power than 2013’s total global lithium-ion battery production. As Musk claimed in his trademark grandiose style, it was “something comparable to all li-ion production in the world in one factory." He then sought to merge Tesla with another firm he had helped start, called SolarCity, which has become the largest solar energy provider to homes and businesses. That this company was started by his cousin and had several corporate governance issues, and that it was losing hundreds of millions of dollars was not a problem for Musk; he simply pushed the merger through. “The point of all this," he wrote in July 2016, “was, and remains, accelerating the advent of sustainable energy."
If his business life has been hectic and colourful, his personal life and escapades equally dazzling. He has been known to smoke up in public during a radio talk show, sold flamethrowers to ridicule critics saying that his cars inexplicably burst into flames. He famously launched a cherry red Tesla roadster into space on his Falcon Heavy rocket, and he named his son from his third marriage X Æ A-12, and then changed it to X Æ A-Xii when people said they did not know what it meant.
His latest antic has been to sell red silk shorts on the Tesla website, thumbing his nose at the short-sellers who were betting against his company. In many ways, he is having the last laugh. SpaceX is making solid profits, has just carried a human being to the manned space station, and NASA has virtually outsourced the space programme to private players like him. Tesla has had spectacular results, and at $300 billion, is valued more than GM, Ford and Toyota combined. Hyperloop proof of concepts are coming up around the world, including in India, the Boring Company continues to bore, and Musk already has four giga factories, with more coming up.
A lot of analysts and experts try to figure out which business he is in—cars, solar, space, technology, or all of them. There is a school of thought saying that he is actually in the batteries business. The way I look at it (in unabashed admiration, I might add) is that Musk has positioned his efforts in the middle of two colossal industries. If you look at business history, two industries have produced the most wealth and had the biggest impact on the modern era—energy and technology. Musk plays in the intersection of both—his giga factories will be his oil fields of the future, even as technology powers every other business he starts or runs.
In two decades, Musk has changed entire industries and moved swathes of the world to the future. He is not done yet. He is a unique entrepreneur, not focusing on one industry or business, but revolutionizing multiple industries. “I like to be involved in things that change the world," he has said, and has put his money where his mouth is.
Jaspreet Bindra is the author of ‘The Tech Whisperer’, and co-founder of Unqbe