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Home Entrepreneur How Elon Musk Winged It With Twitter, and Everything Else

How Elon Musk Winged It With Twitter, and Everything Else

As Twitter negotiated a sale to Elon Musk last month, the social media company pulled out a corporate takeover playbook.

Mr. Musk, the world’s richest man, did the opposite.

He had no plan for how to finance or manage Twitter, Mr. Musk told a close associate. To push the $44 billion deal through, he turned to a small inner circle, including Jared Birchall, the head of his family office, and Alex Spiro, his personal lawyer. And when Twitter resisted his overtures, Mr. Musk pressured the company with a string of tweets — some mischievous, some barbed and all impulsive.

Tech billionaires such as Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Larry Page often make long-term plans and manage their affairs through a corporate machinery of lawyers, communications professionals and different advisers. Mr. Musk, 50, operates unlike any of them.

To a degree unseen in any other mogul, the entrepreneur acts on whim, fancy and the certainty that he is 100 percent right, according to interviews with more than 30 current and former employees, investors and others who have worked with him. While Mr. Musk has successfully bet on electric cars, space travel and artificial intelligence, he often wings it in the biggest moments, eschews experts and relies almost solely on his own counsel, they said.

To operate this way, Mr. Musk has constructed an insular world of about 10 confidants who mostly agree with him and carry out his bidding. They include his younger brother, Kimbal Musk; Mr. Birchall; Mr. Spiro; and various chiefs of staff. To manage his many ideas, Mr. Musk continuously creates new companies, most of which are structured so that he remains in charge. His trusted lieutenants often work across his far-flung empire of businesses.

Apu Gomes/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Once Mr. Musk has identified each company’s key project — what he calls its “critical path” — he takes over to ensure that his vision is met, controlling the smallest aspects of how the technologies are built and deployed. His brilliance has spawned the world’s most valuable automaker and an innovative rocket company, and it has earned the respect — and fear — of his engineers.

Relying on his small crew and hewing to his own thinking have enabled Mr. Musk to call the shots and conduct himself with few restraints, turning him into a Howard Hughes-like figure of the modern age — even as his seat-of-the-pants methods often create bedlam.

Mr. Musk works in a way that only the “most confident leaders do,” said Tim Draper, a venture capitalist who backed Mr. Musk’s electric automaker, Tesla, and his rocket company, SpaceX. “Think J.F.K., George Washington and Ronald Reagan.”

At a 2018 conference, Mr. Musk explained that he behaved on impulse. It was a lesson he learned more than 25 years ago after founding his first start-up, Zip2, he said.

“I don’t really have a business plan,” he said. “I had a business plan way back in the Zip2 days. But these things are always wrong, so I just didn’t bother with business plans after that.”

How Mr. Musk operates has implications for what he might do with Twitter. The San Francisco company, which the billionaire is set to take ownership of in the next six months, has been in an uproar over the deal. As the takeover drama played out, its new proprietor publicly criticized the platform, took aim at senior Twitter executives who oversee speech rules on the service and needled Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Mr. Gates on the site.

Ryan David Brown for The New York Times

Last week, Parag Agrawal, Twitter’s chief executive, told the company’s more than 7,000 employees that once Mr. Musk takes over, “we don’t know what direction this company will go in.” Twitter declined to comment for this article.

Mr. Musk, who did not respond to requests for comment, is far from ignorant of the chaos that he leaves behind. In emails about a 2018 defamation case stemming from one of his tweets, Mr. Musk called himself an idiot in vulgar terms. In a deposition over a botched effort to take Tesla private that same year, he was rueful, saying, “If I had a hindsight machine, that would be really great.”

Born in Pretoria, South Africa, Mr. Musk became interested in computers and programming languages as a child. After starting college in Canada, he moved to the United States in 1992, graduating with degrees in economics and physics from the University of Pennsylvania and then enrolling as a Ph.D. student in physics at Stanford University.

Almost immediately, Mr. Musk dropped out of Stanford to pursue a career in business. His first start-up, in 1995, a travel guide service called Zip2, was a family affair with his brother, Kimbal. The computer maker Compaq later bought Zip2 for over $300 million.

In 1999, Mr. Musk helped found X.com, an online payments company that eventually became known as PayPal. There, he began publicly making business declarations, even if his employees weren’t prepared.

Paul Sakuma/Associated Press

In a live television appearance that year, Mr. Musk said the company would guarantee transactions on all auctions on eBay, the e-commerce site. It was the first time his engineers had heard about the feature, said a person who worked with him at the time. They had to race to make the feature a reality, the person said.

In 2000, X.com’s board and the executive Peter Thiel ousted Mr. Musk over disagreements about the company’s direction. It was a painful exit for Mr. Musk, who soon embraced the idea that he — and he alone — should be in charge of future ventures.

As Mr. Musk built new businesses — he founded SpaceX in 2002 and invested in Tesla in 2004 — he ensured he could exert his will at each company. He poured more than $100 million of his own money into SpaceX in its early years and has majority control of the firm. At Tesla, Mr. Musk owns a 16 percent stake and stocked the board with friendly faces, including his brother and Antonio Gracias, a longtime friend and investor.

“It’s OK to have your eggs in one basket as long as you control what happens to that basket,” he told Inc. Magazine in 2007.

Kimbal Musk and Mr. Gracias, who left Tesla’s board last year and serves as a SpaceX director, declined to comment for this article.

Today, Mr. Musk oversees or is associated with at least a dozen companies, including public ones, private ones and holding companies such as Wyoming Steel, which he uses to manage real estate. His net worth stands at about $250 billion.

As Mr. Musk established more companies, he collected associates he could deploy across many of the endeavors.

One was Mary Beth Brown, who was hired in 2002 to essentially be Mr. Musk’s executive assistant. Known as M.B., she soon became a kind of chief of staff, handling media requests and some financial matters for SpaceX and Tesla, as well as helping to manage Mr. Musk’s personal life, said Ashlee Vance, the author of “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future.”

That same year, Mr. Musk hired Gwynne Shotwell as SpaceX’s seventh employee. As the rocket maker’s president and chief operating officer, Ms. Shotwell has overseen the company’s growth, becoming one of Mr. Musk’s longest-lasting employees.

At a conference in 2018, Ms. Shotwell explained how she managed Mr. Musk.

Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

“When Elon says something, you have to pause and not immediately blurt out, ‘Well, that’s impossible,’ or, ‘There’s no way we’re going to do that. I don’t know how,’” she said. “So you zip it, and you think about it. And you find ways to get that done.”

Ms. Brown, who no longer works for Mr. Musk, couldn’t be reached for comment. Ms. Shotwell didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Musk also began treating his portfolio of companies as a single organization.

In 2015, he and Sam Altman, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and a group of researchers founded OpenAI, a lab developing artificial intelligence to benefit humanity. Within months, Mr. Musk enlisted several OpenAI researchers to help with Tesla’s assisted driving system, Autopilot, two people with knowledge of the work said. He later appointed an OpenAI researcher, Andrej Karpathy, as Tesla’s senior director of artificial intelligence.

Seven months after starting OpenAI, Mr. Musk founded Neuralink, a company that aims to build a computer interface for the brain. OpenAI and Neuralink moved into the same building in San Francisco’s Mission district. For a while, the companies held group lunches together with the idea that they would collaborate.

Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Around that time, Mr. Musk brought in Mr. Birchall, a former Morgan Stanley banker, as the head of his family office. When Neuralink was established, Mr. Birchall was listed as the chief executive, chief financial officer and president, according to corporate filings. His name appeared on correspondence with San Francisco city officials when the company sought permission to do research on animals.

Mr. Birchall has since become Mr. Musk’s personal fixer, heading up the billionaire’s philanthropic efforts and registering companies for him, including Pravda Corp., an idea for a website that would publicly rate news outlets and journalists. Mr. Birchall did not respond to requests for comment.

By 2016, Mr. Musk’s business empire was sprawling. In pressure-filled situations, the billionaire sometimes showed an ugly side of his management style.

In June 2016, Tesla was dealing with the fatal crash of Joshua Brown, who had used Autopilot technology when his car plowed into a tractor-trailer crossing a highway. In a call between Tesla and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that month, Paul Hemmersbaugh, then the general counsel for the regulator, explained it was opening a formal investigation into Autopilot.

Mr. Musk erupted, four people with knowledge of the incident said. Screaming into the phone, he threatened to sue the regulator if the investigation went forward, they said. (Mr. Musk backed down the next day, and the agency proceeded with the investigation.)

Mr. Musk’s seat-of-the-pants decisions often tormented his employees. In September 2016, he traveled to Guadalajara, Mexico, to make an announcement at the International Astronautical Congress about SpaceX’s plan to transport humans to Mars. But up until he stepped onstage, some of his executives, who had to brief NASA and other partners, had no idea what he planned to say, a senior official said.

Todd Anderson for The New York Times

Mr. Musk then gave a casual hourlong presentation, suggesting there was a “quite high” probability that people would die on the first trip to Mars.

At Tesla, engineers working on Autopilot were taken aback by Mr. Musk’s tweet in 2016 announcing when Tesla would unveil a new version of the system. In 2017, they were surprised by another tweet from their boss saying that a more advanced version of Autopilot, called Full Self Driving, was six months away, former employees said. (Full Self Driving, which is in beta testing, is not widely available.)

A defining year for Mr. Musk was 2018, when his solo, impetuous style came back to bite him.

At Tesla, Mr. Musk pushed to ramp up manufacturing of the company’s Model 3 sedan. Believing only he could get the task done, he fired the executive in charge of manufacturing and decided to revamp the entire assembly line of the company’s factory in Fremont, Calif., himself. Often, he slept in a conference room at the factory.

“There were times when I didn’t leave the factory for three or four days — days when I didn’t go outside,” Mr. Musk told The New York Times in 2018. (Tesla eventually said it had hit its production targets.)

Mr. Musk was sometimes joined at the factory by Sam Teller, a de facto chief of staff, who had a sleeping bag there, a person who visited said. Mr. Teller juggled duties with Shivon Zilis, a former venture capitalist, with both holding titles at multiple Musk-run companies.

Mr. Teller, who left Mr. Musk’s employment in 2019, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Ms. Zilis, who still works for the billionaire, declined to comment.

Alexandra Wyman/WireImage via Getty Images

After the Model 3 overhaul, Mr. Musk decided he was tired of Tesla’s navigating the pressures of the public market. On Aug. 2, 2018, he drafted an email to the company’s board with the subject line: “Offer to Take Tesla Private at $420.” It contained few details about how the offer would be funded.

Mr. Musk’s inner circle was elated. “I think Tesla being private would be awesome!” Kimbal Musk, a Tesla board member, texted his brother. The messages were included in court filings that were made public last month.

On Aug. 7, Mr. Musk announced the idea, tweeting: “Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.”

“Way to just light the torch paper!” James Murdoch, the media mogul who sits on Tesla’s board, texted Mr. Musk.

“Everything’s better with fire,” Mr. Musk replied.

Despite the cheerleading from insiders, Mr. Musk’s effort failed. The funding he had counted on to take Tesla private didn’t materialize. Tesla shareholders sued him for securities fraud in August 2018. A month later, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged Mr. Musk with securities fraud.

Stephen Lam

“Elon’s approach of doing business is minimum level of documentation,” Deepak Ahuja, Tesla’s then-chief financial officer, said in a 2018 deposition. “He really does do business based on a verbal commitment and a handshake.”

Mr. Musk settled with the S.E.C. that year and was fined $20 million. The shareholder lawsuit is ongoing.

At the same time, Mr. Musk became embroiled in a defamation case with Vernon Unsworth, a British cave explorer. Mr. Unsworth had criticized Mr. Musk for unnecessarily building a submarine for a 2018 rescue of boys trapped in a cave in Thailand. In response, Mr. Musk called Mr. Unsworth a “pedo guy” on Twitter, prompting a defamation suit.

Behind the scenes, Mr. Birchall hired someone who posed as a private investigator to dig up information on Mr. Unsworth because he had “an instinct to protect” his boss, according to court documents and depositions. Mr. Musk sent some of those details on Mr. Unsworth to a reporter. The private eye ended up being a fraud with bogus information.

In emails sent to a public relations consultant released ahead of the trial, Mr. Musk said sending information to a reporter was “one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done.” (The reporter now works at The Times.)

Mr. Musk hired Mr. Spiro, a celebrity lawyer whose clients include Jay-Z, to lead his defense. In December 2019, Mr. Musk was found not liable for defamation after Mr. Spiro argued that his client’s tweet had been a joke. The two have been close since.

Throughout many ups and downs, Mr. Musk had one constant: Twitter.

He typically tweets a dozen times or more in a day to his more than 90 million followers, shooting barbs at Tesla short sellers, sharing memes and ruminating on the pandemic, politics and Dogecoin. In 2020, he eliminated Tesla’s communications department, partly because he felt he could go directly to fans and customers through Twitter, three former employees said.

Mr. Musk’s love for the social media company moved him to buy it. To do the deal last month, he had Mr. Birchall handle logistics and communications from Twitter, according to financial documents. Mr. Spiro talked to the news media. Mr. Musk also created three new companies named X Holdings I, II and III, which were involved in financing the Twitter transaction, according to securities filings.

After winning Twitter last week and celebrating with a tweet showing heart and rocket emojis, Mr. Musk turned up in Boca Chica, Texas, to discuss a new SpaceX rocket engine with an engineering team. On Wednesday, he wrote, “Let’s make Twitter maximum fun!”

Jack Ewing and Lauren Hirsch contributed reporting.

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