Tech mogul Elon Musk is one of the leading lights in the tech industry. His electric vehicle company, Tesla, has revolutionized the automotive industry. And his aerospace firm, SpaceX, and infrastructure corporation, The Boring Company, might do the same in their respective fields.
However, the genius, billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist had what could best be described as an uneven 2018. On the one hand, he found unprecedented success in his professional life but his personal life was filled with bizarre controversies that negatively impacted business interests.
In retrospect, the biggest take away for the tech industry from Musk’s year of triumphs, setbacks, and blunders should be the lessons executives can learn from his behavior.
A Difficult First Quarter
Musk’s 2018 got off to a suitably bombastic start as the Boring Company began selling and quickly sold out of $500 flamethrowers in January. On Feb. 6, Musk’s SpaceX made history by becoming the first private corporation to rocket an object into solar orbit by launching a Tesla Roadster into space. However, the very next day, Musk’s fortunes came crashing back down to Earth.
On February 7, Tesla announced that it had lost $675 million in the fourth quarter of 2017. The company’s underperformance was attributed to its inability to meet its production goals for the Tesla Model 3 sedan. The following month, Tesla’s credit rating was downgraded for the same reason and it was also forced to recall more than 120,000 Model S cars due to a faulty power steering component.
The effect those very public setbacks had on Musk became exceedingly evident in the second quarter of 2018.
A Tumultuous Spring
In April, Musk took to Twitter to air his frustrations. He lashed out at a member of the press for reporting on organizational shifts at Tesla and claimed that he has taken to sleeping at the company’s Freemont, California factory to get Model 3 production on schedule.
In May, Musk anticipated Ariana Grande by responding to an analyst who asked about Tesla’s capital requirements on an earnings call, said “Excuse me. Next. Next. Boring, bonehead questions are not cool. Next?”
Around this time, the media perception of Musk, who was dubbed the “real-life Iron Man” in February, began to shift. He was hammered for criticizing journalists, being hypocritical about worker safety and inspiring a cult of personality.
Public scrutiny of Musk went into overdrive in the summer following some profoundly misguided tweeting and a highly controversial podcast appearance.
A Wild Summer
In July, Musk got involved in the effort to save a youth soccer team and their coach from a cave in Thailand. Musk and his engineers built a miniature submarine to navigate the cave system, but it was ultimately not used in the rescue.
One of the divers who facilitated the rescue, Vern Unsworth, labeled Musk’s involvement as a “PR stunt” and the PayPal co-founded responded by intimating Unsworth was a pedophile. Musk was widely criticized for his comments and Unsworth filed a defamation lawsuit against him in September.
A month later, Musk publicly mused about taking Tesla private. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission reacted by suing him for securities fraud. To settle the suit, Musk and Tesla had to each pay the government $20 million and Musk had to step down as the company’s chairman.
Elon Gets Experienced
On September, Musk hit rock bottom during an appearance on the hugely popular “Joe Rogan Experience” podcast. Over the course of two and a half hours, the pair had a fascinating discussion about artificial intelligence, flying cars, and (you guessed it) flamethrowers.
Musk also opened up to the comedian about the challenges of running Tesla, the physical and psychological toll a 120-hour work week exacts on him, and the irritation of being a regular target for media criticism.
The Tesla CEO also took a few hits off of Rogan’s marijuana and tobacco cigarette, which is legal in California but not under Federal law. Following Musk’s appearance and the departure of two Tesla executives, the electric car maker’s stock dropped by six percent.
A Return to Stability
Although most of Elon Musk’s 2018 was seemingly spent bouncing from one disaster to another, the real-life Tony Stark got his groove back. In November, Tesla announced that it sold 69,925 vehicles in the United States during the third quarter of 2018, which beat Mercedes-Benz sales by almost 4,000 units.
During that quarter, Tesla made more than 55,000 Model 3s, outpacing its production in all previous quarters combined. As a result of better-than-expected performance, Tesla’s stock rose by more than 90 points. And on Dec. 7, Tesla’s stock closed high enough to exceed the conversion price of the near $1 billion debt that the company has to pay in March 2019.
As a result of Musk’s pivot to stability, the media’s coverage of him and his companies has become more favorable. Setbacks like the cancellation of his underground Los Angeles County mass transit system and bizarre incidents like scammers using his name to steal Bitcoins on Twitter haven’t prompted any social media meltdowns. And Musk’s potential game-changing Dugout Loop is on pace for launch on Dec. 18.
Lessons Learned from Elon’s 2018
As 2018 came to an end, Elon Musk looked to end the year on an upswing. It’s clear that there were a few clear lessons executives, especially highly visible executives operating in the tech sector, should observe.
The first and most important of which is to maintain a professional presence on social media. As a single tweet essentially cost Musk $40 million, executives should treat their social media accounts as extensions of the brand. Treating them as platforms for personal expression is a recipe for disaster.
The second is that executives, in particular founders that are the driving forces in the corporations, should learn to delegate. Tesla’s turnaround only began after Musk stepped down as the chairman of the company’s board of directors. Innovation and administration should work hand-in-hand, but should not necessarily be the responsibility of the same individual.
And third, do not, under any circumstances, smoke weed on camera.