Elon Musk: Is he Steve Jobs, Tony Stark or John De Lorean?


Probably the most recognisable and notorious (for all the wrong reasons most likely) name in the automotive business currently is that of Elon Musk. The founder, owner, CEO and chief cook and bottle washer at Tesla Motors just can’t keep his name out of the news. On the surface he appears to be a pioneering businessman in a closed-shop world, but on the flip side of that coin, is he headed for a disastrous ending because of his heavy-handed business tactics?

Just the name, Elon Musk, invokes visions of comic book character status and the early life of this South African entrepreneur suggests he is playing the role. His first venture into business was with Zip2, an online content publishing system for media organizations. Within 4 years of start-up, he had sold it for over $300million. Next up on the agenda was PayPal, an online and EMail payment company that was eventually bought by eBay for $1.5billion, of which Musk owned 12%. SpaceX followed on from PayPal, which is a privately funded Space exploration and manufacturing technology company. His goal with SpaceX is to reduce the cost of human spaceflight by ten-fold. I doubt anyone’s really sure how far down the line Musk is in that chase, but he’s already won several billion dollar contracts from NASA to build rockets and spacecraft engines. SpaceX will be around for a while.

Let’s move on to Tesla, Musk’s current project of choice. Currently valued at $30billion, the electric car company has done something that no other automaker has done and that is to produce a totally electric car that’s affordable, and that people actually want to buy. One of my pet peeves about the car business right now is the game of charades thats being played by car companies and the US Government. Let’s make electric cars to make it seem like we care about the environment, and while we’re at it, we’ll bag all the tax dollars to go with, whilst down on the ranch, we’re building those expensive boat-anchors called EV’s that consumers won’t buy if you gave them away. Absolutely on the contrary with Musk as his Tesla S is currently beating Mercedes, BMW and Audi in US new sales, and that is all without an established dealer network.

Here’s where the real innovation comes in and also where Musk’s future could crumble as fast as it grew. His goal is to fundamentally change the way we buy cars. He does not want to create a network of dealerships to sell his vehicles. If you want to buy a Tesla right now, you have to call the factory or contact them online. They have a sprinkling of ¬†”galleries” around the country ( I think they have 17 in total right now) where you can “lookee but no drivee”. They will have a Sales Representative call you back to establish contact. He will go through costs, specifications, and determine whether your circumstances are suitable for the electric car. If and when that determination is made, then they ask for a deposit. When they get it, a Product Specialist brings a Tesla to your house for a test drive. If you are still enthusiastic (no-one has yet reneged on the deal), then the car and the home charging system is delivered a couple of months later. Revolutionary is the word for these tactics and I’m referring to the similarity to the word “rebellious”. The car dealers are apoplectic about this whole thing, because it completely eliminates them from any participation in selling the Tesla. As a result, South Carolina has recently¬†threatened that Elon Musk cannot sell any of his cars in that State. I’m sure that’s not the end of the deal yet but it shows the resolve of the automotive establishment

My own personal opinion about Musk is that he is a visionary. Figures like him come around once in a generation and we have been lucky, we’ve seen two and maybe more over the past 10-15 years or so. He belongs, currently, up there with Steve Jobs, and Tony Stark comparisons are only for illustration, but if the technology was there, I’m sure Stark would be named Musk. The burning question is whether Elon Musk can stay on the straight and narrow and retain his resolve through some of what might be dark days ahead.

We all remember John De Lorean don’t we?

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