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Tesla's brilliant madness: Bruce Philp

More than "cars"

(Photo: Teslamotors.com)

(Photo: Teslamotors.com)

If you’re going to work in Silicon Valley, you’d better watch what you drive. They don’t like crass displays of wealth there, and flashy cars are the crassest. After all, this is the place where legend has it that Google employees were warned prior to their IPO that showing up at work in a fancy car after the big day would likely get them a broken window, and where a Facebook employee once told The New York Times that if anyone working there bought such a car and posted a picture of it online, they could expect to be “ridiculed and berated.” The Valley prefers its conspicuous consumption be done in private, and that most definitely includes one’s choice of automobile. Unless, perhaps, you happen to choose a Tesla.

Not that it’s entirely surprising Tesla sightings are common there. The company was created by one of the Valley’s own, Elon Musk, a co-founder of Pay-Pal among other clever things, and it’s based in Palo Alto. And, of course, Northern California is culturally a pretty friendly environment for green transportation, being the place where Toyota’s Prius, now the world’s bestselling hybrid, first earned its cred with the cool kids. It’s also true that Tesla’s sleek sedan is built nearby, at an abandoned GM-Toyota plant in Fremont. But none of that changes the fact that the Tesla is a pretty expensive ride. Yet when you see one glide by on the 101, your reaction is more likely to be fascination than opprobrium. And that, I think, is because when you see that brand, you don’t see excess. You see audacity.

I miss audacity. It used to define the heroes of business, back in the age of sweat and steel. There is something kind of gutless about venture capitalism in the digital era. Yes, of course, there is still money at risk, and that takes a sort of nerve. But the business models of most VCs resemble those of Hollywood movie studios, wherein a thousand projects get optioned in the hope of lucking into a single blockbuster. It’s a very hedged approach to business that only works because nobody has to put a shovel in the ground or get their hands dirty.

That’s what makes Tesla such a flat-out awesome story. Musk is building a thing. A big, complicated, expensive, federally regulated thing with thousands of intricate parts in it. A thing that people will proudly spend Sunday afternoons polishing, and the first of its kind to take a run at the U.S. car market in more than a century, damn the torpedoes. Nor does it end at the car. The sheer loony guts it takes to build an infrastructure of charging and battery-swapping stations on the nation’s highways—you know, where the gas stations are—is breathtaking. The madness of the whole venture is something just short of building a railway from ocean to ocean, or connecting every kitchen in the land with copper wires.

I don’t know whether the Tesla is a good car, but I hope so. Furthermore, I hope they sell like hotcakes. There isn’t enough audacity these days. We certainly can’t expect it from our governments; despite our nostalgia for grand visions like universal health care or landing on the moon, they have become the road to political suicide today. That just leaves the capitalists. And while it’s clear that building the 21st-century economy is inevitably about spinning the digital roulette wheel a lot of the time, we can’t forget that capitalism isn’t just a casino. We can’t forget that inventing things and then making them is still where it all begins. In a 2006 blog post, Musk wrote, “The overarching purpose of Tesla Motors (and the reason I am funding the company) is to help expedite the move from a mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy towards a solar electric economy.” Agree or don’t, but that’s a bold mission.

Progress will always depend on people who take big risks to do impossible things, and who have attention spans equal to the task. That’s the kind of capitalism that lights up factories, creates meaningful work, and keeps money circulating in communities. And if that’s becoming a fashionable idea at the centre of the digital universe, then there’s hope for us all.

Bruce Philp is a brand strategy consultant and author of Consumer Republic, winner of the 2012 National Business Book Award.