Is Tesla CEO Elon Musk like Zlatan Ibrahimovic or more like Mario Balotelli?
That’s the question I asked myself when I received a push message on my phone saying Tesla turned a profit last quarter.
There’s not a lot that separates Zlatan and Mario.
They’re both gifted players, tall strikers with a good technique, and the ability to score lots of goals.
But their careers are as different as night and day.
Zlatan’s career has gone crescendo. He’s played for clubs like Juventus, Barcelona, AC Milan and Manchester United, finding success at almost all of them.
With Mario everything’s going decrescendo. He started out promising at Inter Milan and Manchester City but never lived up to his big promise.
Elon Musk has built an electric car company with a lot of potential. Like Mario and Zlatan, he’s an eccentric figure making headlines not always for the right reasons.
It’s not a problem to be different as long as it doesn’t affect your performance.
With that in mind, I’ve started wondering whether Musk’s career at Tesla resembles Zlatan’s, meaning it’ll only get better. Or is he a Mario – lots of promise never fulfilled.
The success-crazy scale
There’s an unwritten rule. Call it the success-crazy scale. The crazier you behave, the more successful you need to be.
Eccentric behaviour is tolerated only as long as you do what you’re paid to do.
Zlatan is a loudmouth who, on joining Manchester United, said he’d become “the God of Manchester”.
That’s a little arrogant, but when you score a goal every two games at the age of 35, you get away with it.
Mario is arguably not a worse player. But instead of showing that on the pitch, he only makes headlines for throwing darts at kids or accidentally burning down his own house.
That’s pretty crazy. It means you can’t be just “OK”. You have to be extraordinary or your club is not going to condone that kind of behaviour.
It’s not much different when you run a public company.
For Elon Musk 2018 hasn’t been the best year of his professional life.
Worrying reports emerged about his struggles to run two companies – Tesla and SpaceX – at the same time, resulting in employees finding him sleeping under his desk.
His social media addiction got him embroiled in a widely reported Twitter spat in which he called a British rescue diver a paedophile.
And the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) forced him to step down as Tesla chairman after it came out he had lied about having the funds necessary to take Tesla private.
Tesla shares suffered a lot because Musk’s craziness wasn’t met by extraordinary company figures.
This week Elon Musk shocked the markets in a positive way. His company Tesla turned its third ever quarterly profit.
Musk did announce earlier in the year that he expected Tesla to be in the black by Q3. But this came from a man who also hinted at taking the company private and then decided against it.
How was the market supposed to know he was telling the truth this time?
Tesla shares rebounded and recovered most of the losses the company incurred after Musk got in trouble with the SEC.
Does Musk have Tesla finally back on track or is last quarter’s profit a rare and one-off success?
Mario, in fairness, still shows his brilliance sometimes. He’s doing alright at OGC Nice even though he was destined for bigger things.
And things didn’t always go Zlatan’s way.
He failed to make an impact in his first season at Ajax. His first pay cheque he blew entirely on a Ferrari because he didn’t understand the difference between gross and net pay.
Zlatan has compared himself to a good wine, getting better the older he gets. Will the same be true for Musk and his company Tesla?
Tesla has been around since 2003. It’s not exactly the new kid on the block. Musk has been in charge since 2008 – a full decade.
On the other hand, you have to say that Tesla had to build a new industry from the ground up. It’s a pioneer in the complicated electric car business. Things like that take time.
The biggest question mark has always been whether Musk’s company can build enough cars cheap and fast. Investors clearly saw Tesla’s quarterly figures as a sign it can meet its production targets.
The fact that Tesla overwhelmingly beat Wall Street’s expectations has caused bullish sentiment to return. It also gives more credibility to Musk’s claim that Tesla will become sustainably profitable.
But the company looks very overvalued at $53.7bn. It’s worth more than big car makers like Ford ($35.8bn) and General Motors ($45.1bn), which is entirely based on promise rather than reality.
Technology Profits Confidential editor Sean Keyes doubts Tesla will ever truly threaten established car makers.
“The ability to manufacture complicated machines cheaply and reliably is the definition of a good car company — not technology or branding.
“Tesla has the latter not the former. If it gets all three it could take over the world. But manufacturing is really hard so I don’t think it’s likely.
“More likely I think is that, as soon as Tesla starts to sell a significant number of cars a year, the established car makers will swoop in and crush them. Because they’re much better at manufacturing than Tesla.”
It’s OK to wind up your critics from time to time, but you need to find a way to silence them too.
Last quarter Musk managed to do just that. But it’s still too early to tell if he can make Tesla live up to the sky-high expectations of its investors.