If you speak to successful UK entrepreneurs, you hear it over and over again. Elon Musk is many entrepreneur’s hero. Spend time canvassing the views of the UK middle class, and you hear that he little more than a man who sells snake oil.
Entrepreneurs say it often, making money is not their main motivation. Many of them talk about their passion – they have spotted a problem, which they seek to solve. Money comes into it, of course, but rarely do they say it is the main reason why they chose the life of an entrepreneur. Indeed, if you speak to those who advise them, even leading investors in the start-up world, you often hear people say that entrepreneurs whose main focus is making money will fail.
And that brings us to what motivates the super-rich of Silicon Valley. Are either Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos persuaded to get up each morning because they are anxious to make their next billion? These men clearly have all the money they could possibly need, it seems they have a higher motivation – a desire to change the world. Some maybe be critical of this, and say it is hubris – but in so many ways the great and good of the tech world are like the Victorian and early 20th century philanthropists – the likes of Andrew Carnegie and the Cadbury family – and history seems to look back kindly on such people.
And that brings us to Elon Musk. Now here is a man who is trying to change the world, and in the event that this proves not to be possible, wants to create a new one via the colonisation of Mars. No one can accuse Musk of lacking ambition. His efforts may or may not come off, Musk himself has admitted that he may be delusional. He has also said that his efforts to make Tesla a major force gave him a nervous breakdown.
And entrepreneurs get that. They have massive admiration for Musk’s ambition and the way he is seeking to realise it – so much so, that it is possible that advancing an entrepreneurial culture may depend on Musk’s success. If he ultimately succeeds, many entrepreneurs will take him as their role model. If he fails, and if his failure is subjected to media delight, as it may well be, then many a budding entrepreneur may feel disillusioned.
Yet, if you scan the blogosphere, you find a catalogue of critiques, some quite vicious.
The Financial Times recently ran a detailed article on Tesla, read the comments that accompany it, and it is quite shocking.
They reveal a certain British mindset – a mindset that is the enemy of the desire to create a more entrepreneurial UK.
While the entrepreneur has a 'can do' attitude, this other mindset has a 'can’t do' attitude. It delights in coming up with a list of reasons why something may fail.
The Musk dream for Tesla does feel like it is almost impossible. To achieve it, Musk and his team have already had to produce miracles, but they need to produce a few more.
Critics conveniently ignore the extraordinary achievements made by Tesla to date, and just focus on the challenges that lie ahead – which they say cannot be achieved.
What they ignore is it the trajectory and the real business model at Tesla. Look at the cost of a Tesla, how far you can travel between charges, and you can see that it is not there yet – The Tesla is not yet competitive with a mass market car. Other critics point out that all an electric car does is change the point at which you send out carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Generating electricity still creates carbon emissions, it is just that this occurs at some central point, in a power station away from the point of use, unlike an internal combustion engine car, where the pollution effect is more obvious.
Such critiques would be valid if it wasn’t for the trajectory. Electric cars have seen extraordinary advances in recent years, the amount of electricity generated by renewables is growing. Extrapolate forward a few years – not many years, maybe to the end of the decade – and it is not hard to see how the economics and environmental effects of electric cars will be very attractive indeed.
Actually, there is more to Tesla’s business model to selling cars. It is a battery company – and the Tesla car is just a vehicle (in two senses of the word) to make it viable for the company to invest billions in attempting to become the global leader in lithium ion batteries, just at the point when they are likely to have a transformative effect on the global energy business.
Musk has many challenges ahead – he may or may not realise them – but his ambition is extraordinary, and if he succeeds, his positive impact on the world will be immense – this is not something we should delight in knocking.