When Steve Jobs died in 2011, the tech community and consumers alike were in shock at the loss of one of our generation’s most prolific and recognizable tech visionaries. Steve Jobs launched products that both disrupted existing markets and created new markets alike offering up the sort of visionary genius we so rarely find in the world. Today, our generation of entertainers and technology figureheads are more likely to spout bombastic claims rather than backing it up with a list of ground breaking achievements. In addition to being a visionary, Jobs was an entertainer in his stage presence, conviction and showmanship. The combination of these traits is what Jobs brought to the table and since his passing the tech community at large has continued a search for the next visionary leader. The type of leader people came to see in Jobs is rare but does exist and occasionally, we see glimpses of those qualities in the lesser-known and up and coming names leading industries into innovation and change. When they disappear, or leave us as Jobs did, it seems equally difficult to point a finger at the next big influence who might make the sort of disruptive waves we have come to expect. Elon Musk may be among this generation’s select few visionary leaders.
Last week at the Re/Code Code Conference 2016,the highly regarded head of Tesla and SpaceX took the stage for a one-and-a-half-hour interview to discuss both of his company’s endeavor’s. Musk shared his thoughts on Artificial Intelligence and space colonization to name a few key points. I found myself in awe while listening to Musk answer the many pointed questions hosts Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher threw his way, as they pulled no punches in getting to the point. Part of the allure as a viewer was watching the slow and thoughtful responses Musk delivered, mostly with ease, as questions they chose were clearly on his radar. Through these types of interviews and his ongoing stage appearances, Musk has managed to create quite the name for himself in the tech-sphere in a fairly short time. If you asked someone ten years ago who he was it is unlikely the name Elon Musk would have rung a bell. This stands true today, even though Musk founded the currently well-known Tesla all the way back in 2003. What may be even more surprising is that his other company, SpaceX, was founded nearly a year earlier and continues to be a name that is slowly creeping into the spotlight. Though SpaceX is less commonly known than Tesla to the general public, it is certainly being followed closely by those more adventurous when it comes to seeking out tech news.
Tesla has been a vehicle (no pun intended) which has allowed Musk to define his place in our current realm of technology as an innovative and outspoken figure. He has done so particularly in the space of sustainable and autonomous transportation and more recently garnered much fanfare in disclosing his plans to build a Gigafactory for battery production – a move that will aid the rollout of the recently announced Tesla Model 3 car. He has ignited the internet with talk about space exploration and spent some of his time during the Re/Code interview detailing his thought processes around successful rocket launches and his future ambitions. Somehow, through what is both a combination of his actions, products and personality Musk has captured an audience that stands by his vision of the future. A vision that includes affordable autonomous transport, putting rockets into orbit and someday delivering humans to Mars for colonization.
The tech industry, and those closely following it, haven’t always expressed this fondness for Musk. Early rumblings of Tesla’s aspirations have been met in the past with skepticism as a fairly new entrant in the automotive field offering high priced vehicles. Upon first watching Musk reveal the Model X in 2012 I didn’t see Tesla’s founder in the light of a visionary, rather I saw someone who occasionally stumbled over his words and didn’t seem to have the most compelling stage presence. However, I was quickly won over by his mission statement which was then, and still is, to solve the world’s fuel emissions problem with sustainable electric vehicles. Part of my reaction was based solely on his messaging, prompting questions around what the rest of the industry was doing and why there was no apparent cheerleader for electric vehicles elsewhere. His conviction and timeliness in delivering his mission statement was enough to win me over and has garnered more positive media attention in recent years as a result.
This speaks to the pervasive nature of the ideals Musk and Tesla have put forward. Notable not because Musk wants to sell us all cars, but because he is selling an idea people can align with. The idea is cleaning up our environment, creating sustainable means of transport for everyday people and pushing things forward for humanity at large. There is no better proof that he is onto something than observing the rest of the automotive industry adapt to this change in how we power our vehicles. One could easily argue that the movement in this direction was alive long before Tesla started making big showroom announcements. The 2006 film, “Who Killed the Electric Car” chronicled the release and destruction of the 1996 GM release of EV1, the first consumer electric car. The film was aptly timed at the height of oil prices and helped spark an environmental discussion around gas emissions and pollution. Though the film alone was not a primary driver of change, it reignited questions and curiosity among the public and served as a precursor to conversations that would become ever more common in the coming decades.
While the rest of the industry has lackluster offerings and sub-par sales among the most eco-friendliest of cars, Tesla entered a market far outside the average purchase price and created a brand that was aspirational by most accounts. The messaging and brand was so clear about its mission that Tesla just needed a product that embodied their vision. When they announced the far more affordable Model 3 earlier this year, the response from the public was loud and clear with nearly 400,000 pre-orders to date. The true test going forward will be Tesla executing on the large-scale production of its more affordable vehicle and delivering the goods by late 2017.
In the interim, Musk and Tesla have struck the right balance between speaking to the desires of the potential consumer and vastly rethinking an existing market. Automobiles are not the only place Musk seems anxious to make an impact. Space is the next frontier as Musk expressed he will detail his plans to put humans on Mars later this September. The plan, which he calls the “Architecture for Mars Colonization” will see humans landing on Mars as early as 2025, complete with necessary resources and cargo. Musks’ plans for both companies are ambitious. When you look across the industry there is really only one other man who comes close when it comes to making bold business moves around products and jumping into the uncharted territory of exploration outside of earth’s atmosphere. That man is Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. The similarities between the two men are clear in that they are both entrepreneurs. Similar to Musk, Bezos also has aspirations that include space travel and has a company designed to do just that with his own side project, Blue Origin. The differences between the two however are much more nuanced to the casual onlooker. Where Musk plans a full-on colonization effort on Mars, Bezos looks to the stars to employ new distribution methods for solar power and industry. Bezos is without question the closest leading tech entrepreneur to parallel some of Musk’s vision. Though Bezos has arguably taken a more business-minded approach. Musk differs in that he embodies a position that speaks more to the dreamers out there.
When we think about leaders who have made ground-breaking achievements and done so exercising a personality rich with conviction and showmanship, it is Elon Musk who comes to mind. Musk has managed to capture the attention of both the consumer audience through his automotive products while simultaneously tapping into geek culture and dreamers in the world of tech. This is not to discount Jeff Bezos or any other significant leader of our time, but the media response to Musk’s presence is proof that at least for now, he’s got the spotlight. Musk may one day be considered among the great visionaries or our time as was Jobs. It will be a long road ahead for Musk to prove through his actions if this statement is accurate. Which will only happen through executing his ideas of grandeur with great success in the coming decades. The potential is there; we might very well be witness’ to something special. For Elon Musk, time and execution are the deciding factors.