Elon Musk is described by many as a multifaceted individual. Whether it’s launching rockets into space, then landing them back on Earth, manufacturing electric cars that drive themselves, or vowing to “make life multiplanetary” by establishing a human civilization on Mars, he has conceived and pursued a number of unconventional and ambitious ideas.
As many have said, Musk has a unique ability to, time and time again, dazzle the mind of the public through well-orchestrated publicity stunts, the latest of which being the launch of a Tesla Roadster from his new “Falcon Heavy” rocket. He brings both style and substance to Silicon Valley, which can sometimes be in short supply amongst the numerous billionaires trying to score public backing in their quests to elevate society.
Until recently, Musk was the only major figure in the tech world who had not yet been engulfed in controversy. While The Google Boys, Jack Dorsey, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg, were under the spotlight for various eye-raising decisions, Musk had been able to keep his name out the of bad headlines that have engulfed the tech world. He was seen as humanities savior, a genius who was close to the real-life Tony Stark. However, as the spring of 2018 transitioned into summer, Musk’s world began to spiral.
The first major scandal he got himself wrapped into was amid the crisis involving the soccer team in Thailand getting trapped in a cave. Musk offered to build a “human-sized submarine” to get the players and coach out of their confinement. After the idea was rejected by the Thai government, one of the British divers who had partaken in the rescue mission bashed Musk, calling his idea a “PR stunt.” Musk responded to the criticism, describing the diver as a “pedo guy.” This attack was met with mounting criticism, with many seeing it as baseless. Tesla’s stock then dropped significantly the following day, largely due to his actions.
Jeh Vandrevala (‘21) believes “he’s a visionary, but in the past couple months he hasn’t been his best self . . . He has truly has damaged his image for sure.”
The next scandal to hit Musk’s world was possibly the most damaging to himself as well as to his business. On August 7, 2018, Musk tweeted that he planned to take Tesla private at 420 dollars a share, saying that he had “funding secured.” Within minutes of the tweet, the companies stock price soared to all-time highs, with investors welcoming the move. After Tesla failed to provide any paperwork or evidence of any sort to support his claim, financial watchdogs began to question the accuracy of the claim, becoming concerned as to whether or not investors were misled.
The Securities Exchange Commission (SEC), soon launched an investigation into the matter. “To be honest, I thought that the funding secured tweet was the most irresponsible [scandal], as it directly affected his business,” Vandrevala said. “He had to give up his chairman role, and he lost a bit [of money] so it wasn’t the best decision for him”.
In September, Musk was forced to settle with the SEC, paying 20 million dollars to resolve the legal battle. Though it did erase the cloud that would have hung over Tesla had the investigation continued, it was a forced admission of wrongdoing in an unglamorous manner.
Musk was also engulfed in other relatively smaller scandals in the year, including smoking weed in an interview with Joe Rogan, as well as lashing out at a stock analyst for asking “boring, bonehead questions” during Tesla’s quarter 1 earnings call. Robert De Garza (21) said, “He’s a very intelligent person, and very ambitious, but again he’s not the best when it comes to handling media and public relations.”
The extraordinary amount of stress he has endured, stemming from his troubles, was highlighted in an emotional New York Times interview, where Musk confessed to having been working nearly “120 hours a week” and hardly seeing friends or family. This was during further setbacks in the production of Tesla’s Model 3 sedan. “He needs a COO [Chief Operating Officer] in my view, his remarkable vision needs to be at the forefront. He needs an operating guy, someone who understands the books, someone who’s not allowing him to do the mistakes he’s making,” Vandrevala said.
In recent news, Musk has been able to refocus attention on accomplishments. SpaceX completed numerous successful launches and announced a manned flight around the moon. Tesla, against analyst predictions, reported a surprise profit in the 3rd quarter of the financial year. Musk spoke professionally on the earnings call, sticking to script and defending himself calmly when needed. Tesla’s stock has since bounced on the news, coming close to hitting the price it had sustained before the Musk fiasco.
Though the past months have been, as Musk describes, “one of the hardest years of my life” in the New York Times interview, the recent good news has gotten him back on track to make his wildest fantasies a reality.