In perhaps one of the stranger interviews ever given by the CEO of a publicly traded company, Tesla’s Elon Musk wants you to know that this has been a very, very, very tough year for him, which is the reason for his somewhat erratic public behavior.
Yes, it’s hard out here for a guy who is worth billions and owns multiple homes and is dating a rapper and is simultaneously involved in the running of three companies. And while that might not immediately elicit your sympathy, Musk granted an interview to a gaggle of New York Times reporters in which he was “struggling to maintain his composure” while telling reporters: “This past year has been the most difficult and painful year of my career. It was excruciating.”
Musk has long been a divisive figure in the tech world, idolized by many for his brashness and daring while dismissed as an egotistical fraud by detractors. Over the past year, Tesla’s problems have become a growing source of concern for investors as the company struggled to meet production goals for its Model 3 and analysts projected it will need to raise billions in additional financing.
This was a self-inflicted wound, as Musk eventually acknowledged, caused by an overreliance on robotic production rather than humans to build the cars. For much of this year, Musk has been scrambling to shift that balance, which has apparently involved him having to work really, really hard:
At multiple points in an hourlong interview with the New York Times, he choked up, noting that he nearly missed his brother’s wedding this summer and spent his birthday holed up in Tesla’s offices as the company raced to meet elusive production targets on a crucial new model.
Asked if the exhaustion was taking a toll on his physical health, Mr. Musk answered: “It’s not been great, actually. I’ve had friends come by who are really concerned.”
This stress was, according to Musk, largely to blame for his insulting an analyst on an earnings call, lashing out journalists who wrote critical stories, fuming at short sellers, and calling a guy involved in trying to rescue that soccer team stuck in a cave a pedophile for dismissing Musk’s intervention. Etc., etc., etc.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Musk recently made the impulsive decision to tweet about his effort to take Tesla private — something he did while driving a Tesla to the airport, according to the New York Times. Although the tweet came during trading hours and there was no internal review and it appears that funding is not secured as he claimed and the SEC appears to have launched an investigation, Musk told the reporters he does not regret the tweets.
What he does regret, however, is that this has all been, like, a total bummer for him personally:
In the interview on Thursday, Mr. Musk alternated between laughter and tears.
He said he had been working up to 120 hours a week recently — echoing the reason he cited in a recent public apology to an analyst whom he had berated. In the interview, Mr. Musk said he had not taken time off of more than a week since 2001, when he was bedridden with malaria.
“There were times when I didn’t leave the factory for three or four days — days when I didn’t go outside,” he said. “This has really come at the expense of seeing my kids. And seeing friends.”
Mr. Musk stopped talking, seemingly overcome by emotion.
He turned 47 on June 28, and he said he spent the full 24 hours of his birthday at work. “All night — no friends, nothing,” he said, struggling to get the words out.
Two days later, he was scheduled to be the best man at the wedding of his brother, Kimbal, in Catalonia. Mr. Musk said he flew directly there from the factory, arriving just two hours before the ceremony. Immediately afterward, he got back on the plane and returned straight to Tesla headquarters, where work on the mass-market Model 3 has been all consuming.
Mr. Musk paused again.
“I thought the worst of it was over — I thought it was,” he said. “The worst is over from a Tesla operational standpoint.” He continued: “But from a personal pain standpoint, the worst is yet to come.”
Even so, the New York Times noted that several parts of his interview did not quite hold up. Musk said there is no search for a COO; sources told the paper that the board is actively looking for one. Musk initially claimed no board members complained about his tweets but then amended that account after the story was published to acknowledge an independent director had contacted him.
He also didn’t do much to clear up the question of whether the Saudi sovereign wealth fund had or had not offered to put up the money to back a $72 billion buyout of Tesla. After Musk made that claim earlier this week, other sources indicated it was not the case.
Finally, Musk has no plans to step away. But he did tell the reporters: “If you have anyone who can do a better job, please let me know. They can have the job. Is there someone who can do the job better? They can have the reins right now.”
Which should reassure the board and investors.