Here let me read it to you. Best to listen straight off Spotify though, the browser version is buggy.
When you believe everything you touch turns to gold
I’m not saying Elon Musk is a mad syphilitic emperor whose God complex makes him unleash random idea spasms that will leave a large part of his empire in flames.
However, on his Twitter work, his behaviour is in the same ballpark as that of a mad syphilitic emperor whose God complex … etc.
These are the risks when you get successful and start believing that everything you touch will turn to gold.
Elon’s done some top work over the years. I finally got a Tesla a month ago, and it is a sweet experience. Couldn’t be happier.
(My daughter said “Ew, how could you buy a car from that maniac?”. Try finding a car company founder you’d feel good spending your cash with. Hi Ford drivers! Henry was a virulent racist and anti-Semite, mentioned favourably by Hitler in Mein Kampf. John Delorean? Hatched an unsuccessful plan to sort out his firm’s $17M debt by financing a $24M cocaine smuggling caper. Ferdinand Porsche? A Nazi on good personal terms with Hitler and an enthusiastic part of the Führer supply chain. BMW? Even worse.)
So let’s roll out that classic qualified-praise line: whatever Musk’s drawbacks, he is not any sort of Nazi.
Fucking around with good things just to get a reaction
Few individuals have done more to combat global warming than Musk by proving EVs could work at huge scale. The Tesla Y has now beaten the Toyota Corolla to become the single biggest-selling car in the world, a title the Corolla held since 1997.
His Space-X work is impressive. I don’t know if his Boring Company is going to deliver but it’s a great, visionary idea to ease city congestion. That’s what mad founders are for: huge ideas, which get delivered by get-it-done underlings. Steve Jobs would have been nothing without Jony Ive and his team making the vision into physical reality.
Jobs was smart enough not to fuck around with everything purely to get a reaction.
At this point, Musk seems to be surrounded by fawning palace courtiers who tell him he can do no wrong. His Twitter work, particularly last week’s rebrand to X, has been last days of Emperor Caligula stuff.
I was a big fan of Twitter. Lots of people said it was a sewer of trolls. I found it full of smart, funny people scanning the world’s media and linking me up to endless interesting material. When something big was happening it was like being in a newsroom, the first place stories would break.
Now it feels like some abandoned mining town in the desert: just a handful of diehard old-timers talking largely to themselves on the porch of the boarded-up general store.
Rebrands need a lot of basic housekeeping
I get that Musk’s personal brand is built on not playing by the rules. But you can only bend them so far before the wheels fall off.
I’ve written before of beer packaging done by craft brewers, and the dangers of getting too close to your product. Each craft brewer believes they are a non-conformist outlaw badass. So each chooses a package design appealing to their inner teenage boy.
In the store, it’s a wall of shrieking colour and macho symbology. Hogs, sharks, motorbike parts, lightning bolts. Step back from the craft beer shelf and they all look the same. It’s so … conformist.
In the same theme, what do tech bros like? A nice X, that’s what.
capitalism breeds innovation pic.twitter.com/xG47OPyL3y
— b (@notbalin) July 30, 2023
The basic housekeeping Musk hasn’t done for his whimsical rebrand is astonishing. Does he even own the trademark for X? Turns out, no. Microsoft owns it for X-Box. Meta also has claims on it.
Even if that wasn’t the case, an X is hard to trademark as a graphic design. The shape is too generic. The logo he crowdsourced is someone else’s font. More lawsuits are likely.
Posts are still called Tweets on the platform, and nobody seems to have given much thought to what they’ll be after this. After all the brand work that made tweet part of the language worldwide.
Like all socials, the Twitter platform isn’t the product. The people posting on the platform are the product. User traffic is down 18.7% on last year. Ad revenue is down 59%. If you deliberately drive people away with nonstop chaos, you’re going to burn a supertanker volume of cash.
Brands are not like code, bro
Musk announced X will be an “everything app” that will “add comprehensive communications and the ability to conduct your entire financial world.”
In 2023 can you imagine trusting your entire financial world to a unit as loose as Musk?
After two years of epic wealth destruction by tech grifters who promised the future of finance with made-up tokens and derivatives?
Musk’s thinking is that a brand is like code, and can be changed on impulse overnight.
Brands are not like code, bro. Normal people outside the tech world are wary and hate change. And that’s with products like soap and paper towels, let alone their life savings.
They might dislike their bank, but it doesn’t mean they won’t cling to the security that old-school institutions provide.
Beliefs, trust and meanings are long-game things, and they come from consistency.
When feelpinions beat expertise
Musk’s behaviour is what you get when internet brain takes over management. Experts and specialists can be ignored, because what they say is no more valid than your own off-the-cuff feelpinions.
Musk’s hapless new CEO, Linda Yaccarino, said,
We’ll continue to delight our entire community with new experiences in audio, video, messaging, payments, banking — creating a global marketplace for ideas, goods, services, and opportunities.”
Yeah good luck with that.
Yaccarino has had a stellar career in advertising, and why she took the Twitter CEO job is a mystery. She is now the world’s highest paid maître d, serving customers and media endless platters of shit sandwiches. I hope she gets an enormous amount of money before her inevitable exit on a Musk whim.
Customers understand at a subconscious level that “we do everything” claims mean “in reality, we will be having a crack at a wide range of things and doing none of them well.”
In tech, and every other business, success comes from doing a specific thing really well, and establishing lots of trust before you start bolting on new products.
Success can lead to fatal hubris real fast
You’re thinking, how does this apply to me? Given you’re not about to pay US$43 billion for a social network. Yet these things apply on a far smaller scale.
Success can lead to fatal, or at least harmful, hubris. Real fast.
It really helps to have people around you who can tell you you’re wrong. That you’ve had a bad idea. And that you should not break things until you fully understand why they came to be there in the first place.
(If you like to break things and you haven’t read about Chesterton’s Fence, may I suggest this story.)
Our business is a moderate-sized thing. Yet since COVID ended it’s been going gangbusters. For the first time ever, we were knocking back work, like many in our industry. We simply didn’t have the staff to handle it. Revenue and profit is well up, our decision to keep all our staff through covid has paid off. We’ve hired a lot of extra staff in the past year. It feels great, and also … terrifying.
Because it’s a short step from rapid growth and knocking back work to believing you’re geniuses, that customers should be grateful for your services, that your competitors are useless, and that every new idea is a deadset winner.
On everyone one of those counts, that is very far from the case. Fortunately we have a group of business partners who will tell each other if anyone’s getting a bit too high on our own fumes. I’d hate to be sole owner of a business, you could go to some strange mental places indeed.
Chill out, you don’t have to change the world
Imposter Syndrome gets a bad rap on the LinkedIn chat. And fair enough, in the context of capable women not believing they’re worthy, due to being surrounded by confident blowhards.
But self-doubt is not an inarguably bad thing. It makes you stop and think. It makes you ask for advice. It makes people like you better.
You can still have the confidence that attracts people to get onboard your vision bus. It doesn’t have to be confidence that you’re right about absolutely everything all the time.
There’s so much inspo content out there that says you must set out to change the world, put a dent in the universe and so on. And if that’s what gets you out of bed each day then that’s a win. Yet if you say it often enough, and get a few successes on the board, you can start to believe your own legendhood.
You know what though? You don’t have to be a God-Queen or -King. It’s an honorable goal to offer a good product at a fair price on a moderate scale, delivered by staff who like their work.
Most businesses can’t do that, particularly for a long time. If you manage it, then you are a legend. You’ll change your family’s world.
And that’s enough.
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