February 26, 2018

ANDY KESSLER: Elon Musk’s Uncontested 3-Pointers: What does the Tesla and SpaceX founder have in common with Stephen Curry?

Mr. Curry often takes shots from several feet behind the 3-point line. Defenders, figuring no one would be stupid enough to shoot from that far away, leave him open. And he makes baskets with surprising accuracy. At one point in 2016, he made 35 out of 52 shots from between 28 and 50 feet. Uncontested indeed.

Elon Musk’s business strategy isn’t so different: Go far enough into the future that there are no other competitors. Mr. Musk’s first success was X.com, an email payment company. It merged with Peter Thiel’s Confinity to form PayPal —and avoid competition. They had the market to themselves for a long time because fraud, especially from Eastern Europe, was so rampant on early internet payment platforms. They solved the fraud problem and enjoyed an uncontested market, eventually selling for $1.5 billion to eBay .

Then Mr. Musk headed further into the future. He took the nine-figure payout from PayPal and pushed ahead with SpaceX, Tesla and Solar City. Literally his last $20 million went to Tesla in 2008. “I was tapped out. I had to borrow money for rent after that,” he later recalled. Private space launches, electric cars and rooftop-solar financing were all huge Muskian pushes into the future, where no one else dared play. Today, Tesla is worth around $60 billion. SpaceX raised money last summer at a $21 billion valuation. Mr. Musk is no longer borrowing to pay his rent.

Quite impressive, even though I find all the handouts offensive. When I see someone driving a Tesla I greet him with, “You’re welcome.” When he inevitably asks for what, I roll out the long list of subsidies: a $465 million Energy Department loan in 2009, a $7,500-a-car income-tax credit from the feds, $1.3 billion in incentives from Nevada for a factory, and more. Removing competition by racing to the future is one thing. Seeking special treatment to boost your advantage is cheating.

Mr. Musk still pushes the boundaries. Some ideas will work and some will go up in flames, maybe literally. Work is progressing on the sonic-speed Hyperloop transportation system. The Boring Co., which Mr. Musk founded in 2016 to undertake the project, proposes to dig tunnels under cities fast—and to reduce costs by a factor of 10. For some reason, the Boring Company recently presold 20,000 flamethrowers at $500 each, complimentary fire extinguisher included. The entrepreneur is even funding a “neural lace,” a still theoretical brain-to-computer interface. Is a holodeck next? All these ideas are far-fetched, but they’re mostly uncontested.

In his 2014 book, “Zero to One,” Mr. Thiel badmouths competition. “ Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina by observing: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Business is the opposite. All happy companies are different: each one earns a monopoly by solving a unique problem. All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition.” Google founder Larry Page agrees. “If you’re not doing some things that are crazy, then you’re doing the wrong things.” I agree, as long as there are market forces to allow competition from anyone who dares.

Well, that’s the thing, isn’t it? The problem with Silicon Valley is that the big winners get cozy with government and competition somehow falls by the wayside. Stricter antitrust enforcement would help.

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