Elon Musk successfully cosplays as a normal car company CEOOctober 26, 2018
Honestly, who needs reality TV when you have Tesla?
While Elon Musk spent most of Q3 publicly shooting himself in the foot, Tesla managed to get itself to (quarterly) profitability! I love this show! I only wish I saw more of the B plotline about the people who were quietly working behind the scenes to make this happen while Musk beefed with Azealia Banks.
I’m sorry, but the Tesla show is good.
— Joe Weisenthal (@TheStalwart) August 1, 2018
Anyway, Tesla’s last profitable quarter was in 2016, but this quarter Tesla made $6.8 billion in revenue (almost nice), and a $311 million profit, the biggest quarterly profit ever. The company has never had an annual profit, but the Model 3 is now popular enough that we might see profits more often. Tesla will also tap into Chinese and European demand, taking orders (and, one hopes, growing revenue) in those markets by next year, according to the earnings conference call. And the balance sheet shows that Musk was right, at least for now, about not needing to raise capital, since Tesla currently has almost $3 billion in the bank. But he also said on the earnings call that that might change.
Even watching Musk cosplay as a normal CEO on the earnings call was a fine piece of entertainment, like watching trained circus cats jump through hoops. Do you have any idea how hard it is to train a cat? It’s not impossible, but you need a very food-motivated cat.
Okay, it did get a little weird. Musk did say he was getting choked up thinking about the Tesla owners who’d volunteered to help with Model 3 deliveries, for instance. It’s not unusual for Musk to tear up a little, it’s just not normal CEO earnings call behavior! Also I guess I should say I don’t know of any for-profit companies that rely on volunteers to help handle their deliveries. But on the scale of Tesla-related weirdness, this is not very high.
Instead of taking the victory lap I’d expected on the profitable quarter, Musk and Tesla’s other execs talked about pretty much everything else under the sun except the exciting new chair of the board who may or may not be James Murdoch. (Yes, someone did ask; Musk wouldn’t answer.)
There was a little wild talk about vehicle sharing, a plan not unlike GM’s Maven, but which relies on full God-level self-driving autonomy (dorks call this Level 5). Musk mentions this during earnings calls a fair amount as an Uber-Lyft-AirBnB combo platter, but it never does get very concrete. So, normal for Tesla.
This quarter did contain the most-normal-car-executive shit I’ve ever seen out of Musk. First, he announced that the Model Y — that’s the Tesla SUV, for everyone playing along at home — cometh! The final prototype has been approved. There’s also a semi and a new Roadster bopping around in the mix, by which I mean Musk said the company’s is making progress on both. What Musk says he’s most excited about is the Tesla pickup truck. Trucks are very hot right now, actually, in a way that sedans are not. Ford and Fiat are dunzo with sedans and are going in on trucks and SUVs, baby. So the Y and the truck are on-trend. This is… practically normcore.
This quarter’s profit win doesn’t eliminate all risks for Tesla. Among those risks: ramping up the Gigafactory and expenditures around more Gigafactories. Expansion is expensive, and Tesla has done it — so far anyway — through debt. Tesla certainly isn’t the only company that’s taken on a lot of debt, but that’s definitely a thing to watch.
But the major message from the earnings call appeared to be Musk attempting to straighten up and fly right. His antics — “funding secured,” calling a rescue diver a pedo, having some whiskey and hitting a blunt on the Joe Rogan show — have been toned way, way down. He’s not fighting the “erratic” narrative; he’s publicly ignoring it and making a show of being fairly responsible. This is likely to reassure nervous investors, who’ve had a real rollercoaster of a year.
Musk’s good behavior isn’t just limited to his earnings call, either. His Twitter account, which proved in the third quarter to be something of a risk to Tesla, has chilled out. He did get briefly locked out of his account, he said, for tweeting about anime and joking about bitcoin — a tongue-in-cheek reference to scammers who impersonate him on the service. Musk is also soliciting dank memes. Sure, it’s weird for a CEO, but by Musk’s standards, it’s basically normal. How long do you think this plot arc will last?