Elon Musk’s Need for Speed Puts Twitter in Peril

Hi, everyone. Life is good because the Phillies are in the World Series! (Disclosure: I’m from Philadelphia.) Uh-oh, they just got no-hit. Booooo!

The Plain View

In May 1998, I visited Steve Jobs at Apple headquarters to hear his plans for reviving Apple. He had been its interim CEO for almost a year, after returning to the company that fired him over a decade earlier. Greeting me in the boardroom of his suite at One Infinite Loop, he went to the whiteboard and began scrawling out his solution to the company’s business woes. He had a new product plan, a new product, and a workforce revitalized by an inspiring ad campaign.

At the time, Jobs had been developing personal computers for 20 years, his entire adult life. He was intimately familiar with the company he was suddenly running because he had founded it and led the team that created its flagship product. In his years away from Apple, he had founded another computer company with a forward-thinking approach to the internet and next-generation operating systems. Plus, he was Steve Jobs. If anyone could quickly turn around the near-bankrupt computer giant, it would be him. Yet it took him months to come up with his plan and years to bring it to fruition. While the colorful iMac he unveiled to me that day in May would help nudge Apple’s bottom line back into the black, it wasn’t until the company’s entry into non-PC devices—like the iPod in 2001 and the iPhone in 2007—that it became a profit machine. And Apple’s post-PC future wasn’t even on Jobs’ road map in 1998.

When Elon Musk took over Twitter last week, he was in a somewhat similar situation to Jobs in 1998. Twitter has been losing money and gotten stuck as a second-tier social network in terms of audience. But what had originally motivated Musk, according to his own tweets and statements, was that he regarded Twitter as the world’s Town Hall. He was going to allow more, freer speech on the platform, and fast. Adding to the urgency was that Musk financed some of his takeover with bank loans and now had to pay off the debt. Musk immediately began making moves to change Twitter’s fortunes, literally and culturally.

If hubris had a hall of fame, Musk would be a first-ballot shoo-in. He believes his Musk-itude will enable him to do what generations of previous Twitter leaders could not even begin to accomplish, swatting away historical precedent like an annoying gnat. Twitter began in 2006 but didn’t take off until almost a year later, when it became a hit at the South by Southwest conference. From then on, it experienced huge growth. A 2009 memo quoted then-CEO Evan Williams saying in a strategy meeting, “If we had a billion users, that will be the pulse of the planet.” At the time, a billion Twitter users seemed plausible, if not inevitable. And Williams believed that with this base, it would be easy to concoct a business plan that made the company wildly profitable. But Twitter never got even half of those billion users, and while it seemed to come up with a good ad-based business model, it has had only two years of profit in its almost 20 years on earth. Every person who has led Twitter has tried to boost user growth and solidify profits. Evan Williams tried. Dick Costolo tried. Jack Dorsey tried, twice. Over and over, smart people who knew the workings of the platform from the inside tried and failed to boost Twitter from an important speech platform to a giant tech power. Musk, a Twitter superuser who is only now learning how Twitter works as a company, is gunning to do it—or at least to figure out how to do it—before he puts up his Christmas tree.

Musk need not look farther than his own successful enterprises to realize the absurdity of his haste. When he took over Tesla in 2008, the company was already five years old. Musk came up with a brilliant plan to turn the company around—but it didn’t post an annual profit until 2020, 17 years after incorporation. Musk deservedly gets a lot of credit for what Tesla has achieved—and for, among other things, his persistence. SpaceX, Musk’s other company, is private and doesn’t report earnings. But making rocket ships is the ultimate test of patience—it takes years to even launch successfully, and cutting corners to go faster can wind up killing people.

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