Whether or not the world needs a lot of books about Elon Musk, we’re certainly getting them. March 2021 saw publication of Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days that Launched SpaceX, a super in-the-weeds narrative by Ars Technica space editor Eric Berger. Now in August, here comes its exhaustive twin from the electric car-making side of Musk’s business life.
Power Play: Tesla, Elon Musk and the Bet of the Century, by Wall Street Journal tech reporter Tim Higgins, daubs a darker layer of paint on our picture of Musk. Yes, the audacious risk-taker from Ashlee Vance’s bestselling biography of 2015, Elon Musk, is still discernible. But also, courtesy of many executives who left and Tesla employees still there, we see a shifty, angry, entitled, and increasingly frayed figure — one who seems to have drunk deep from the Kool-Aid his stans serve up online.
“While Musk’s vision, enthusiasm and determination carry Tesla, his ego, paranoia and pettiness threaten to undo it all,” Higgins writes, in what may be the most succinct summary of the carmaker’s dilemma. Time and again, even before he became addicted to Twitter, Musk was consumed by time-wasting quests of rage and revenge. As Higgins recounts, he stretched the truth many times, pissed off partners and suppliers, did deals to benefit his personal bottom line (such as making Tesla buy Solar City from his brother), and bought mansions while telling divorce courts he was effectively penniless.
As for Tesla itself, the company that emerges is almost heartbreakingly fragile, its world-changing product built atop a house of cards of Musk promises and staggering debts, even now. The company has skidded away from bankruptcy several times — in part thanks to Musk’s P.T. Barnum bluster, in part thanks to lucky timing, but mostly thanks to the hard work of talented true-believer employees who get short shrift from their boss, and leave with alarming regularity. You don’t get the greatest sense that the vaunted CEO knows how to retain talent.
To give you a taste of the Tesla revealed by Power Play, here are the most telling quotes the book attributes to or about Musk:
1. “I’m gonna be a very wealthy board member and investor, that’s all I’m looking for.”
— Elon Musk to Laurie Yoler
In 2004, Yoler, a VC-connected friend of Tesla founder Martin Eberhard, was helping the electric car entrepreneur investigate potential investors for the year-old company. Google’s Sergey Brin had suggested his friend, Elon Musk. Yoler heard that Musk could be difficult, that he had been ousted as CEO of PayPal and still had a chip on his shoulder about it. Would he butt heads with Eberhard and move to take control of the company?
We know now that he would and did, but this is how Musk assured his soon-to-be-colleagues that he would be a mostly inactive chairman. Eberhard was ousted four years later.
2. “We either do this or we die.”
— Elon Musk to Darryl Siry
The 2008 financial crisis almost killed Tesla. Musk ousted three CEOs in a year, then installed himself and cut spending to the bone even as he was desperately filling preorders for Tesla’s first Roadster. Those orders weren’t enough on their own, so Musk hatched a plan to reveal a design for the Model S and take preorders for that too — despite the fact that Tesla had no one even working on a Model S prototype. (Later, when it did, that team was fired and the prototype project restarted from scratch.)
Tesla’s sales head Darryl Siry told Musk it was unethical to take deposits for the Model S without actual plans to build the car. This quote was Musk’s response. The plan worked, of course, and became one he’d employ over and over again. Higgins defines the Musk credo as: “Announce something, then figure out how to make it happen.”
3. “Sales suck. They don’t just suck — sales suck monkey dick.”
— Elon Musk
This colorful phrase was Musk’s summary of what happened in the Roadster’s first two years on the market. Was it anything to do with the fact that Musk wouldn’t allow his sales team to do any advertising or marketing? To quote a meme that could often summarize what goes on in Musk’s head: No, it’s the children who are wrong. The car should be selling itself.
But it didn’t, really. Not until Musk met Apple store veteran George Blankenship and wooed him hard, flying to Florida to meet him a day after they spoke on the phone. Musk always envisaged Tesla as an Apple-like company; Blankenship put that into action with test Tesla stores in Denver and San Jose, surprising himself with double the amount of foot traffic expected. Visitors spread the word-of-mouth Musk so desperately wanted, even if two that Blankenship overheard in San Jose believed Tesla was a “new Italian restaurant.”
4. “Fuck you.”
— Tim Cook, Apple CEO, to Musk
It wasn’t just that Musk envisaged Tesla as an Apple-like company. He also tried to sell the company to Apple, twice (and to his friends at Google once; talks with Google were fairly advanced until Tesla received a cash infusion post-financial crisis). This was Tim Cook’s final word the first time, before he slammed down the phone, according to Musk himself.
What caused Cook, usually a sanguine sort of leader, to drop an F-bomb on Musk? Well, Musk insisted he would have to be CEO if Apple bought the carmaker. That’s fine, Cook said at first; of course we’d want you at the helm of Tesla. No, Musk clarified, I’d have to be CEO of Apple. The level of ego required to tell Cook he’d need to depose himself to do a deal is stunning, not to say self-destructive.
One caveat: Apple won’t confirm the quote on the record, and as Higgins notes, “the story played into Musk’s vision of Tesla becoming on par with Apple.”
5. “I don’t have time for this, I’ve got to launch the fucking rocket!”
– Elon Musk
This was Musk storming out of a meeting, in a SpaceX conference room, that he’d called to determine the language of marketing materials for Tesla’s 2011 IPO. Which tells us three things: Firstly, obviously, Musk was a big multitasker. With three world-changing companies (including Solar City) to help get off the ground at once, he had to be. Secondly, he was overstretching himself, to the point that his chief of staff would spread word in advance of his arrival at one of the companies if Musk was stressed about problems at another.
And thirdly, he was making his stress worse by being what Higgins calls a “nanomanager.” When Musk cared about details, there was no such thing as too in the weeds. In particular he was a keen writer, even arguing with lawyers and bankers about the phrasing of the IPO prospectus, threatening to fire them if it wasn’t more exciting. When Musk compared the early years of Tesla to “eating a glass sandwich every bloody day,” he is surely partly to blame for the size of his workload.
6. “Whatever suspension you need so I can sell a fuck load of cars — that’s the suspension I want.”
— Musk to anonymous engineer on his private jet
Nanomanager or no, it could often be hard to make Musk care about a question of mechanical engineering — in this case, a matter as basic to car building as the suspension. Y’know, just that thing that keeps you in control of your vehicle and ensures you don’t feel every damn pebble in the road.
Other times, Musk himself decided to dream up a feat of engineering, in which case you could not get his claws out of the poor engineering crew responsible. Tell him it can’t be done, and you will get fired, as many are in the book.
“We’d train our people that they would not say no” to Musk, one anonymous Tesla manager told Higgins. Instead, managers were taught to say that they needed to “check on that,” and literally hope that Musk forgot about it. If you think that sounds like White House staffers handling the whims and diktats of their former boss, you’d be right. Musk does come out of this tale looking a tad Trumpy.
7. “Elon, I’ve done this to show you I can, but you shouldn’t do this.”
— Peter Rawlinson
Musk had a complicated relationship with Peter Rawlinson, the British engineering veteran of Jaguar and Lotus (and now the CEO of Tesla rival Lucid). Rawlinson was Musk’s mentor in many ways, educating him on a brand-new way to build cars — using specialist “paratroopers” rather than the usual Detroit “armies” of assembly-line workers. The metaphor clicked. “Paratroopers?” Musk the eternal child’s face lit up. “You mean special forces?”
It was Rawlinson who told Musk that the first Model S crew wasn’t working at all and must be entirely disbanded and reformed. Rawlinson, who took Musk’s only real instruction — “beat [BMW] 5 series” — and turned it into Model S success. The soft-spoken Brit would often say his soul was in the Model S.
And it was Rawlinson in this quote, trying unsuccessfully to tell Musk that the “gullwing” back doors of the Model X should not replace the regular doors preferred by those of us who don’t want DeLoreans. He’d built them anyway, out of a sense of loyalty and professionalism.
When the X was released in 2015, the back doors were undeniably eye-catching, but reviewers derided them as “gimmicky” and “fussy“; a software glitch meant that they sometimes did not open or latch properly for the first year. Rawlinson, his relationship with Musk in tatters, had left the company back in 2012.
8. “[Tell me] who the fuck you are and what the fuck you’re doing to fix my goddamn line.”
— Musk introducing himself to a new engineering team on the Model 3
If Power Play were more playful, it could have been called “Elon Brusque.” There are many eye-opening moments where the impatient CEO verbally whales on his staff or on visitors. He told one manager he would split his skull open and brand his brain with F for failure. “Don’t ever use the word budget with me again, because it means you’ve turned off your brain,” he berated an engineer who wanted to talk about reducing component cost. “Get that guy the fuck out of here!” he screamed at the 70-year-old Bill Wolters, a lobbyist for Texas car dealerships.
So when 50 VPs left Tesla in one 24 month period, it wasn’t just because the Solar City merger caused some staff reduction. People were walking out of the company all the time — including in one case in which the board investigated Musk for following a quitting engineer into the car park, screaming at him that he didn’t want anyone who would quit on him.
Making matters worse, Musk would literally sleep in the factory at crunch time. He would hear workers complain about little things like the fact that they got injured at above the industry average rate, and would like some time off, and he wanted none of it. “I can be on my own private island with naked supermodels drinking mai tais,” Musk yelled at the end of one evening, “but I’m not. I’m in the factory working my ass off, so I don’t want to hear about how hard everyone else in the factory works.”
9. “I’m a fucking idiot.”
—Elon Musk email to a PR consultant
But if he were just a rage monster, there would probably be no one left at Tesla now. Musk’s Jekyll-and-Hyde flip side is that he can be charming, he doesn’t believe in hierarchy (encouraging everyone at Tesla to talk to literally anyone at Tesla, including him, without permission), and has an urgent need to play as hard as he works (campfire parties on the top of the Gigafactory in Nevada, the promise of an electric roller coaster for the Fremont factory). “It’s going to get crazy good,” Musk wrote in an email full of perks designed to stop his workers unionizing.
Sometimes the good side of Musk can be self-aware, as in this email to a PR rep released in court documents. He realized he’d gone too far by emailing a BuzzFeed reporter all kinds of specific allegations about the man he called “pedo guy,” Thai cave rescuer Vernon Unsworth. This realization led Musk to agree to do an interview to quash questions about his state of mind… and promptly showed up on Joe Rogan’s podcast smoking a blunt.
10. “Most, but not all, of what you read in this book is nonsense.”
— Elon Musk
Higgins, who has interviewed Musk in the past, emailed him repeatedly to give him the chance to respond to every allegation he was about to publish. “Without pointing to any specific inaccuracies,” the reporter notes, Musk gave him only the “nonsense” line above. Higgins gives him the benefit of using it as the last word. So, decide for yourself who to believe — extremely well-sourced Wall Street Journal reporter, or a known fabulist and writerly control freak who doesn’t bother to refute a single specific word?
Whomever has the truth of it, the ongoing controversy around Musk’s history ensures that the Elon Musk book industry is just starting up.