Elon Musk's funny not funny shareholder meeting
Is this the age of Tesla, or just a Tesla moment?
That question bedeviled investors five years ago, when Tesla was trading around $30 a share and analysts worried about its risk-reward profile. It bedevils them still, only the investors who bought shares back then and have held on since may have adopted a devil-may-care attitude about such concerns.
Tesla's stock reached another record high of $359.65 on Wednesday, and seems destined to scale even higher ground. Tesla, in fact, is up 86 percent in the last six months. The S&P 500, by contrast, is up 9%. Take that, index-fund investors!
One thing hasn't changed. Tesla remains a speculative stock, a money-losing disrupter of a profitable yet aged industry that, unlike many money-losing tech companies, can make a credible claim to future dominance. Get in now or be that guy who passed on Amazon in 1997. I'm not a direct investor, but I've also listened to people argue that Tesla is the next Theranos, and politely smiled.
I wish I could say that Elon Musk settled the argument in Tesla's annual shareholders meeting this week. He certainly had his chance. He didn't. Yes, he said that the Tesla 3 will start production in July (technically a lapse since Musk said it would start on July 1, and now the deadline is July 31) and that new models would start production in coming months.
Very good. That's all incremental stuff. To get Tesla today, though, you need to watch the whole video of the event. And hear not just what Musk said, but how he said it.
Just look at that stage where Musk stands to talk about Tesla – black with red-velvet highlights, which will immediately scratch, uneasily so, the subconscious of anyone who's been watching Twin Peaks: The Return – and begins an investor update. Not just an update, but the kind of stream of consciousness you'd expect to hear had you plugged an Ethernet cable directly into Elon Musk's daydreaming brainfrenzy.
Around the 9-minute mark, Musk strides on stage, wearing the now-standard, just-trying-to-save-the-world-
In other words, exactly what a Tesla speculator would demand. Did I mention Tesla rose another 2% Wednesday?
Here's how Musk began his awkward, shambling monologue. There's nothing wrong with it per se. It's just so, so Musk.
Well, uh, welcome, I'm... glad to see you too! Umm, uh, it's gr– I always these, these, uh, these shareholder meetings. I mean, I mean, I tell, ah, I tell people, like, I'm doing this shareholder meeting, and it's like, man, it always feels like a party and, uh, I-- I love seeing you guys. And it's like, they're like, really? That's not, like, normal shareholder meetings! (Tight laughter). Umm, so.
Such a declaration of gratitude to Tesla's owners. I quote this verbatim not to make fun of Musk – I mean, come one, man, it's Musk, you know? – but to say that Musk violated a cardinal rule of shareholder meetings. And indeed, of the vast majority these tedious, SEC-enforced, hyper-public circuses that demand from CEOs the kinds of terms and conditions normally found on social network sites like Twitter and Facebook – namely, the terms that spell out how everything you say will be preserved in verbal amber forever.
The rule Musk violated is this: Do not try for more laughter than applause. This isn't open mike night at Catch a Rising Star. No, this is an arena where you will be judged by the coldest of gimlet eyes. But if you play the room just right, you can say whatever you want and they will laugh and applaud, as long as your stock is going up. If it's not, well, just remember what happened to Evan Spiegel when he laughed nervously about users who wanted to look like a puppy.
Tesla is no Snap. It's been through the whirlwind of speculation and short selling, again and again, and always came out on the bullish end of that thresher. That means nobody will chide Musk for attempting in Tesla's shareholder meeting the one thing he has failed at – comedy. Recall when he appeared on Late Night with Stephen Colbert and became an unwitting punchline about mega-rich supervillains.
Much safer to try for laughs at the polar opposite of a comedy club: a shareholder gathering. Musk actually wrung a laugh when he joked that Tesla's solar roofs would last so long they could be insured "for infinity, or when your house falls down, whichever comes first.”
Ha! And another when he sold his batteries by illustrating their utility through a grim riddle about power outages. “How do you call 911 when your phone is dead?” he chuckled. “That's very hard.”
Good one, Elon! My least favorite joke, as someone who lives near a California fault line, was this one.
But even here in California, we're overdue for the big one (laughs nervously). It's been saving up. There are going to be earthquakes in California. There are going to be hurricanes in the southeast. There are going to be ice storms in the Northeast. There will be floods. And all kinds of things that cause electricity interruptions.
Buy Tesla! Short humanity! Well, umm, I mean, uh, everything that Musk said is in fact coming our way. Only everyone knows that. Yet most people are talking about how to prevent these calamities, or how to respond to them – not simply how to profit from them. More than a little callous to spell that out to your shareholders, who presumably own a piece of Tesla because they anticipate this dark future.
In other words, spoken like a supervillain, Mr. Musk.
There were maybe a dozen of such comments in the shareholder meeting that drew laughter, but only three that incited applause from his auditorium of shareholders. And Musk's lame sense of humor notwithstanding, these applause-worthy statements say much more about where Tesla is heading.
The first was when Musk said,
Our goal remains to being able to drive autonomously from a parking lot in California to a parking lot New York, without touching a control at any point along the way.
The second came when he mentioned updates to Tesla's semi truck, which will be officially unvieled by the end of September (according to Tesla-time which, like time in a quality beach resort, ticks along a little more slowly than time in the rest of the world -- with no one seeming to care).
It's very exciting. People don't think you can do a heavy-duty, long-range truck that's electric. But we're confident that this can be done. We've shown a prototype to a number of organizations that do heavy-duty trucking and they all love it. (Laughs nervously) They just want to know how many they can buy, and how soon. And that's, like, cool.
The third was Musk slamming a report that an auto-insurance company would raise premiums on Tesla cars because its drivers file more claims than average. Musk disputed this with Tesla statistics and retorted, “There is a simple solution: Find another insurance provider.” You can imagine how the Tesla shareholders ate this up – a cardboard villain guilty of fake news.
Notice the common thread. Investors are less enthused about whether Tesla will meet Musk's aggressive production goals, or even whether he will deliver on his promise to remake the car-manufacturing plant. And they don't seem to care at all about the batteries. They just want to know whether Tesla will dominate in self-driving cars. Were Musk to announce the obvious next step – a service that delivered an autonomous Tesla to your doorstep, chauffeuring you in style wherever you wanted – the applause would be deafening. And rivals like Uber would be trembling.
Instead, we get tepid jokes and nervous laughter. Musk is a capable, even visionary CEO, perhaps a lap behind Jeff Bezos in the long race to be the next Steve Jobs. Like Amazon, the higher Tesla's stock goes up, the more room the CEO has to fail. Unlike Amazon, Tesla's dominance still isn't a sure thing.
And unlike Bezos, Musk has this drive to seek public acclaim. Notably, he remained on President Trump's advisory committees, arguing that “engaging on critical issues will serve the greater good.” When that didn't happen, Musk retreated to comedy, as many of us have done this year. The problem is, he's just as bad at comedy as he is at changing Trump's mind. And that's, like, not really so cool.