Elon Musk’s Mark Twain Moment

Mark Twain was the pen name of Samuel Clemens. Clemens was a very clever writer. So it should come as no surprise the very name he chose for himself — Mark Twain — would be steeped in mystery and uncertainty.

Since time immemorial sailors have marked the depth of by throwing a weight in the water at the end of a sounding rope with knots every 6 feet. The second knot was known as the twain, and it marked 12 feet, the minimum amount of water the paddle boats during Twain’s time needed without running aground. So when sailors yelled out ‘mark twain!’ for the captain, it was a moment of uncertainty. Was the boat moving into deeper, safer waters, or was it heading into shallower dangerous waters?

And so when Elon Musk tweets that he is considering taking his automaker Tesla private at $420 a share — a move fraught with risks in its strategy and execution, to say nothing of its announcement — it struck me as Musk’s Mark Twain moment. Are Musk and Tesla headed into shallower and more dangerous water which will yield class action lawsuits, loss of reputation, more short selling and the removal of Musk as the CEO? Or are Musk and Tesla headed into deeper water that will allow the automaker to flourish in the cloistered environment of private ownership?

I believe the “distractions of being a public company” argument, which many CEOs have brought up long before Musk took up the phrase, rings false. Public or private, any company financed by outside capital is answerable to those capital providers. Further, there is no evidence that any given private shareholder — Musk offered up Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund — is going to be any more patient than a gaggle of institutional investors. Arguably, the influence of several investors is diffuse, while the influence of a single investor is perhaps concentrated.

But Musk is so mesmerizing to the investment community, that the financial news media cannot stop talking about this move — literally — even though they believe that the plan is too far fetched to be real or succeed. The media coverage seems to be predicated on the notion that while the plan is impossible, Musk has pulled so many rabbits out of his hat that taking the company public cannot be dismissed out of hand.

There might be some irony in noting that Mark Twain, who was a close friend of Nikola Tesla, lost his fortune backing a fantastical invention at the time called the Paige Typesetting machine that was ahead of its time. It took everything Twain earned from his books and his wife’s inheritance. And maybe this is what shallower waters hold for Musk. Should this happen however, I suspect history will judge him with the same level of affection and admiration that Mark Twain enjoys.

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