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How 1 Tweet From Tesla And SpaceX CEO Elon Musk Affected His Companies


I'm Mary Louise Kelly with a story now about a single tweet and the harm it has done to the powerful and very wealthy man who sent it. That man is Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX. And when he sent this tweet over the weekend, Tesla's stock took a hit. Musk has since apologized. The company's stock has since rebounded. But the episode offers lessons about what happens when a company is so closely connected with one person.

Ashlee Vance is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek and author of a book about Elon Musk, and he joins us now to talk about Musk. Ashlee Vance, welcome.

ASHLEE VANCE: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: First set the stage by just telling us what this tweet was and what the context for it was. This came in the aftermath of the rescue of the Thai soccer team from that cave.

VANCE: Yeah, you know, leading up to the rescue or during it, Elon had been furiously tweeting away about a submarine that has engineers at SpaceX were building to possibly help rescue the boys. And as time went on and the rescue continued, it was clear that that sub was not going to be needed. And one of the leads on the project, Vern Unsworth, a diver - he really laid into Elon.

KELLY: Yeah, we actually have a little bit of that tape of what he said. Let's hear it.


VERNON UNSWORTH: And stick his submarine where it hurts - just had absolutely no chance of working. He had no conception of what the cave passage was like - just a PR stunt.

KELLY: All right, so that's that diver Vernon Unsworth. And Elon Musk did not take kindly to these comments.

VANCE: No, he didn't (laughter). Elon hopped on Twitter as he's wont to do these days and basically insinuated that the driver was a pedophile.

KELLY: I mean, as we mentioned, he's since - Elon Musk has since apologized. Do we know anything other than that this rubbed him the wrong way? I mean, was there any basis for this pedophile accusation?

VANCE: (Laughter) Not that I have seen that anybody's reported or dug up yet at all. It just seemed to be that Elon really took umbrage with this guy calling the submarine a PR stunt. And Elon, in his mind, was out there trying to help these kids, and I think that really just ticked him off.

KELLY: Well, you have spent time with Elon Musk as you interviewed him for the purposes of writing your book. To what extent does this episode strike you as being in line with his character, in line with how he has behaved on Twitter in the recent past?

VANCE: You know, it's partly in line with his character. He's going through a really interesting moment over this past year. He's been tweeting almost nonstop, and it's an effective tool for him.

KELLY: He's got a huge audience, we should say. I just checked. He's got, like, 22 million followers.

VANCE: Exactly. And over the past year, though, we've seen Elon go from talking about interesting sci-fi things or his cars and his rockets to getting combative with just about everyone - the press, guys like this in this case, short-sellers of Tesla's stock. And I think it's reflective of a very difficult moment for him. Tesla is in a bit of a crisis where we don't know if they're going to actually make it as a company, if they're ever going to turn a profit. And Elon's - seems to be overtaxing himself, and this is coming out on Twitter. And it's a part of Elon that's always been there. I just don't think the public has ever quite seen this extreme version.

KELLY: Well, this prompts the question, to what extent are Tesla's fortunes intertwined with their founder? I mean, how much of - to what extent is Elon Musk's personality play out in terms of how, you know, the stock does and how the company fares going forward?

VANCE: You cannot separate the two at all. If you look at Tesla's stock price, it makes no sense for a public company that makes no money. It's - this is all tied up in this vision that Elon promotes, and he's become something of a deity in tech circles and beyond. He has this Steve Jobs-like glow to him. And every time Tesla has a rough spot, Elon hops on Twitter and tells about the great future that's coming, and the stock price goes up again. And so this is a big deal that for the first time, even some of Elon's true believers have sort of turned against him. And so, you know, it's a problem.

KELLY: Thanks very much.

VANCE: Thank you.

KELLY: That's reporter Ashlee Vance. He is author of "Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, And The Quest For A Fantastic Future." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.