Growth and Power
Edited by Maija Utriainen
Trajectory of Power - the Rise and Fall of Elon Musk
In this world, everyone knows that money means power - and who could understand that better than Elon Musk, now the richest man in the world? The growth of Tesla and SpaceX as brands associated with visionary thinking and the future has been astronomical. However, Musk as a figure has been highly polarising, and his rise to prominence as CEO of these companies, and now Twitter, shows how closely personal power and branding can be associated with business success, as well as the downfall of his enterprise.
Affluence and innovation were two guiding forces of Musk’s background that realised his potential as an entrepreneur. The Musk family, descendants of wealthy landowners in South Africa, were known for their entrepreneurial endeavours and property development. Elon’s father, Errol Musk, was especially prolific as an electromechanical engineer, pilot, sailor, and consultant, owning and developing properties and locations such as emerald mines. His mother, Maye Musk, in contrast, was a dietician and model. The native wealth of the father may not have guaranteed the son his future, but still helped to shape the lifestyle and expectations of Elon to live up to such lofty results. This familial influence led Elon to design a video game at just twelve years old, leaving for Canada when he was seventeen and initially studying at Queens University, Ontario. Stanford came next - though he dropped out after two days in California to set up an online business directory Zip2 with his younger brother Kimbal in 1995, providing travel guides to newspapers like the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. The pair sold the firm in 1999 for $307 million, with Musk himself receiving $22 million from the deal (H. Sandercock, “Elon Musk”). Next, Musk went into online banking, launching an early version of PayPal with Max Levchin and controversial businessman Peter Thiel, who is known for his staunch stance against ‘political correctness’ and assertions that Silicon Valley has become a ‘one-party state’ in its left-leaning policies. This focus on innovation and business from a young age, specifically on opportunities that were financially successful, highlighted Elon Musk’s shrewdness and strategy, which only grew as he got older.
The idea of a tech genius, someone to save the world from its sins, is compelling. This can be seen in the popular character of Tony Stark in the Marvel films, a genius who initially designs weapons but eventually becomes a global force for good through his technology, and whose qualities many have compared to Musk’s intellectual and visionary prowess. SpaceX and Tesla certainly pushed change that was seen as revolutionary by many, firstly in the theme of space travel, and secondly in the electric car industry. As a result, many have idealised Elon Musk as such a figure, which has led to his profound influence and overarching personal brand.
Indeed, SpaceX was additionally a testament to the personal management style that Musk is famous for cultivating. Starting in early 2002, Musk has had a reputation for this harsh and demanding approach, and has recently fired nine SpaceX employees due to a letter they wrote calling on SpaceX to condemn the “harmful Twitter behaviour” of Musk. However, Jon Edwards, the vice president leading the meeting, had characterised the letter as an extremist act, stating that “SpaceX is Elon and Elon is SpaceX”. This, albeit it being an extremely harmful method of establishing dominance within the company, highlights the undisputed influence that Elon Musk had over making SpaceX a success. His personal label and micromanagement style has led to notable growth and efficiency, though arguably controversial and problematic policies to do with overworking and a lack of empathy.
For this same reason, the Tesla revolution was even more successful - both to do with the innovation of Tesla, as well as Musk’s figure behind the company. This was sold as one of first successful independent automakers, and a pioneer in the electric car market. Tesla was the first to use lithium-ion batteries of the sort found in laptop computers, to finally develop their own innovative battery packs. This new approach gave the Roadster unprecedented range and power, allowing it to go from zero to sixty miles per hour in 3.9 seconds and cover 245 miles on a single charge. This combination made it highly appealing. Indeed, the vision was unique - Musk was selling sleek, stylish cars with zero engine emissions that wouldn’t just appeal to nerds and the ecologically minded, but those seeking a sleek, modern vision of luxury. Style and renewability were an uncommon pairing that reinvented the designing, building and selling of cars. Moreover, Musk built up its own supply chain, enabling the company to custom-build its own electric engines, battery packs and self-driving technology, even its own glass. The exclusivity promoted by the brand is exacerbated by its lack of advertising or use of a dealer network for online customers. These factors, alongside the global vision of a transition to clean energy, proved successful for the business strategy of Tesla. In 2016, Musk opened a “Gigafactory” making battery packs with Japanese-owned Panasonic in Nevada, resulting in Tesla’s own solar power arm, SolarCity, which has become a key part of Tesla Energy. These advancements by Musk made renewability a desirable and viable business - an unlikely outcome that was greatly influenced by Tesla’s business strategies and the idea of Musk behind it as a genius inventor.
However, Musk cuts a controversial figure; some would argue that his handling of the issues of misinformation, specifically on social media and after his acquisition of Twitter, has not been satisfactory. For example, the billionaire has recently scrapped Twitter’s COVID-19 misinformation guidelines. This policy, taking action against those breaching its COVID, previously suspended over 11,000 accounts for misinformation about the disease as of September 2022. (R. Schraer, “Twitter Ends Covid Misinformation Policy”). This took the form of a ‘five-strike system’ monitoring content that could lead to a “significant risk of harm”, with repeat offenders being suspended for a period of time from hours to indefinitely. Though the majority of Twitter’s policies with regards to misinformation remain in place, the end of this policy means that some asserting information with a lack of evidence, such as Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, have been able to return to the website. Ms Greene was suspended on the first of January 2022 due to her false claims around the “extremely high number of coronavirus vaccine deaths” in the United States. (BBC, “Marjorie Taylor Greene”) Moreover, Musk’s mass layoffs at the company and his lack of experience with organisational change are indicative of an imperfect understanding of how social media companies such as Twitter operated - an area where his personal brand and visionary status could not help him. This inevitable downfall came with Musk selling at least $3.95 million worth of Tesla stock ‘to save’ Twitter, which some estimate is going to buy back some of Twitter’s billions in debt, or some of the company’s shares. However, this is only contributing to uncertainty on the part of Tesla’s shareholders, who are concerned about the sixty-one percent drop in the company’s stock price from late 2021. Leo KoGuan, one of Tesla’s biggest individual investors, has asserted on Twitter that Tesla “needs and deserves to have a working full-time CEO”. (M. de la Merced; P. Eavis. “Elon Musk Sells Another Big Chunk of Tesla Stock.”)
Therefore to some, Elon Musk is a visionary - efficient, innovative and determined. To others, he is entitled and brutal - a rich man experimenting to stave off boredom. His intrigue stems from the fact that both interpretations ring true. Though his strict management policies with both Tesla and SpaceX and his recurring personal brand have led to his prolific rise to fame, Musk’s damaging failure with Twitter showcases a lack of awareness and empathy that speaks volumes about his character. Must one be ruthless to thrive? The story of Elon Musk, though it is one that praises innovation and technological skill, certainly seems to say so. The dangers of such ruthlessness and relentlessness, however, lurk close behind; though Musk may have climbed very far, as we have begun to see with Twitter, he has just as far to fall.
H. Sandercock, “Elon Musk: How the Eccentric Entrepreneur Became the Richest Person in the World.”; www.nationalworld.com, 10 Nov. 2022, www.nationalworld.com/news/people/elon-musk-net-worth-tesla-spacex-ceo-money-buy-twitter-3656586.
Schraer, Rachel. “Twitter Ends Covid Misinformation Policy under Musk.” BBC News, 30 Nov. 2022: www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-63796832.
BBC: “Marjorie Taylor Greene: Twitter Bans Congresswoman over Covid Misinformation.” BBC News, 2 Jan. 2022: www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-59854916.
M. de la Merced; P. Eavis. “Elon Musk Sells Another Big Chunk of Tesla Stock.” The New York Times, 15 Dec. 2022: www.nytimes.com/2022/12/15/business/elon-musk-tesla-stock.html. Accessed 2 Jan. 2023.