The “great man myth” of Elon Musk and the weekly roundup in tech and retail

News and commentaries

I came across this article at the MIT Technology Review on the “great man myth” around Tesla and SpaceX’s Elon Musk. It argues that the idea of an individual driving history fails to acknowledge other contributors – in this case, public sector support, timing. Even though I agree that public sector investment can be underestimated at times, I found myself frowning at the article’s overall thesis.

To put it another way, do we really think that if Jobs and Musk had never come along, there would have been no smartphone revolution, no surge of interest in electric vehicles? (MIT Technology Review)

It is precisely the ability of some individuals to harness disparate elements: available technology, human and financial resources that drive the success of certain innovations. Some of those people fade into the background and still build successful companies. And then there are a few who transcend the company that they build and drive a whole industry and shine a light on that industry to people who may not even have understood it to begin with. This is what we have with Elon Musk and Steve Jobs.

I suppose I am a proponent of the “great man” myth. I used to watch basketball because of Michael Jordan; rooted for the Yankees because of Derek Jeter and understood golf because of Tiger Woods. My first MP3 player was the iPod and my first smartphone was the iPhone because I believed in the story that Steve Jobs was telling me – that it was beautiful and that I needed it (even at a time when apps were hardly present and network data was slow).

I used to be interested in space travel but more so now because of Musk’s SpaceX. And I don’t think I’m alone because in the end, the extraordinary stories of individuals resonate with us. We hardly get excited by, and in fact are suspicious of government and companies. Apple is riding high on the great man story of Steve Jobs (and on iPhones, of course) but most people would look at Google with suspicion. It’s not just about the power over information that the company holds but Sergey Brin and Larry Page have largely failed to humanize their company to the masses despite the exciting “moonshots” that Google takes. The co-founders don’t give too many interviews and when they do, they tend to talk a lot about their ideas and not themselves.

So, yes, if Steve Jobs and Elon Musk have not come along (or the idea of a Steve Jobs/Elon Musk) have not come along, I don’t think we would be as excited about smartphones and EVs.

Here are the most relevant news in tech and retail:

In tech:

  1. Yahoo to pay $230M for shopping site Polyvore in bid to attract more users and advertisers
  2. Tesla confirms Model X deliveries to begin on September 30; stock price down with warnings of fewer car deliveries by 5,000 for the year
  3. Data storage company EMC is considering a buyout by own subsidiary, VMWare
  4. Healthcare tech: IBM acquires medical imaging company Merge Healthcare for $1B to add to its Watson Health Service; Tencent leads $90M round of investment for Indian healthcare information provider Practo
  5. Adidas acquires European mobile fitness company Runtastic for $239M

In retail:

  1. Earnings: Coach beats Q4 EPS expectations but sales are still declining; Michael Kors profit falls for the second-straight quarter at 7% decline blaming lack of new handbag styles
  2. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos sells 1M Amazon shares valued at more than $500M as part of a divestment plan, still owns 18% of the company
  3. India’s e-commerce company Snapdeal raises $500M in fresh funding from Alibaba, Foxconn and Softbank; will invest $100M in R&D over the next three years
  4. Target launches Bluetooth beacons in 50 stores as part of pilot program to track customers in stores
  5. Neiman Marcus Group, Inc. files for IPO with fundraising target of $100M
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2 thoughts on “The “great man myth” of Elon Musk and the weekly roundup in tech and retail

  1. Really excellent argument, Leah. I totally agree. Thank you for pointing out something that I hadn’t considered before: that great founders/inventors can humanize the companies they build. You’re right-Google hasn’t done it, and they may go down in history as having missed an opportunity.

    Liked by 1 person

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