Musk is a uniquely popular billionaire. Elon Musk’s stock has risen and risen throughout the last few years. Considered a genius by many, he is the CEO of two prominent corporations, Tesla and SpaceX, leading companies in the automobile and aerospace industries. However, Musk’s rise to power and prominence is controversial. The skeletons in his closet are there for all to see. However, many, including himself, choose not to.
Musk claims to have had to scrimp and save to attend college. He was granted Canadian citizenship through his mother, and he received a degree in both economics and physics from the University of Pennsylvania, before achieving extraordinary success.
He once described his father, Errol Musk, as a “terrible human being”. When well-known technology journalist, Ashlee Vance, interviewed his family, she describes them as beginning to clam up at his very mention. Errol was the owner of one of the largest emerald mines in South Africa under Apartheid. Despite maintaining that he was against the policy, the Musk family made their name in Pretoria, in dubious ethical circumstances. Musk Sr. loaned Elon twenty thousand dollars to help him start his first company, Zip2, a map and local listing company. It was at this stage that Elon Musk’s business vision was laid bare. Planning to merge with CitySearch, Musk’s business partners wanted to see another take the helm.
Musk was outraged. CitySearch wanted to focus on customers and financiers, but Musk laid out his vision very differently. Focussing on general visibility was essential for him. “I want to be on the cover of Rolling Stone”, he said. Musk’s business strategy was clear. His name had to be front and centre of the companies he worked for. The merger fell apart and showed the business world the type of man Musk was. Volatile.
Pocketing a cool $22 million from the sale of Zip2 into his new project, X.com, an online bank. However, much to Musk’s dismay, the board installed Bill Harris as CEO. Musk, however, was unable to take a back seat role. After ousting Harris, he cited “a lack of centralized authority”.
X.com later merged with Confinity, a company owned by another venture capitalist, Peter Thiel. Eventually, they formed PayPal, now one of the most used online banking applications. Despite receiving credit for his role in PayPal’s creation, Thiel's star shone brighter than Musk's.
He still championed X.com instead of PayPal, desperate to be the main man. PayPal eventually replaced X.com, leaving Musk on the ropes. Although he had received praise for the sale, Roelof Botha, a key investor, accused Musk of lying to the board. Petitioning the board to fire Musk, they eventually relented and Musk was shown the door.
After PayPal was sold for over $180 million, Musk already knew the areas of business where he would be able to dominate. Enter SpaceX and Tesla.
Despite being widely credited with founding Tesla, he is nothing of the sort. The actual founders were Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning. However, Musk's business tendencies were now apparent. The company's image and media visibility was the most crucial aspect for Musk. Above all, Musk cared about how it made him look. He portrayed himself as the founding visionary of Tesla and gave a series of interviews claiming to be the driving influencer of company policy.
Throwing Toys out the Pram
Furious at the lack of press coverage, Musk leaked a 'top secret master plan,' outlining his vision of Tesla. Intent on railroading and undermining his colleagues, Musk would stop at nothing to position himself as the top dog of Tesla. Whilst the 'master plan' was in itself innocuous and not dissimilar to Tesla's plans, its release created a whirlwind of corporate infighting.
Following a series of lawsuits, Musk emerged victorious. He could now call himself a co-founder of Tesla.
This was a vital step for Musk's career. Now able to claim creative control of the company, the media and the public saw him as the inventor of a cutting-edge automobile brand, building his portfolio and gaining a reputation with potential investors. Eberhard was yesterday's news and Musk had gained full control of Tesla as its CEO.
The collapse of the US housing market in 2008 left almost all businesses in free-fall, needing urgent stimuli and cash. Tesla was no exception. Musk was desperate and knew that in a depressed market, he would have to rely on a government subsidy. The US department of energy was offering a $25 billion loan for clean energy companies, to reduce carbon emissions. Musk ensued on a media blitz, exaggerating Tesla's capacity to produce automobiles at a consistent rate. Musk had to convince Daimler, the carrier of Mercedes and other famous brands, that they were able to meet demand. Losing the loan was simply not an option Musk could countenance. Before even drafting the paperwork for the loan, he announced that it had been approved, increasing Tesla's stock and by extension, his own. By misleading his investors, he was able to convince Daimler to partner with them.
Musk lied to receive a loan and mislead his investors in the process. The Daimler brand gave him credibility, and he ultimately received the government stimulus.
Under Obama, the US government introduced carbon credits, a tax rebate, contingent on reducing carbon emissions, to incentivize green investment. This was an opportunity too good for Musk to pass up. Realizing that the carbon credits were a precious commodity, Musk included sales of carbon credits in his sales numbers, sometimes even on the same invoice. For all of Musk's insistence that Tesla would be a company leading the fight against climate change, reducing carbon emissions is just a happy accident in his pursuit of capital and power.
Pursuit of Political Power
In 2022, Musk announced that he would support Ron DeSantis should he run for President. DeSantis, a low-tax, ultra-conservative, has promised to curb trade union power and freeze the minimum wage. His acquisition of and subsequent withdrawal from buying twitter has cast more political dispersions on him. Vowing to remove 'bots' and criticizing the removal of Donald Trump from the platform have become his rallying cries and have received support from a plethora of conservatives. Musk's journey from a budding venture capitalist with an over-exuberant streak is slowly but surely, changing. These days, Musk is aware of the power that he has acquired. What he does next could prove pivotal for the world of business and politics.
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