Marker
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No Mercy/No Malice

The Elon Musk Rollercoaster of Volatility

Does Musk’s stake in Twitter herald a new direction for the social network, or is it another pointless distraction for the Tesla CEO?

Backstory

I’ve been taking activist positions in companies (i.e. participated in $800+ million worth of investment and advocated for change at a publicly traded firm) for the better part of two decades. I’ve served on the boards of seven public companies. In December 2019 I took a stake (approx .03% the size of Elon’s ownership) in Twitter and wrote a public letter to the board, highlighting the company’s lack of innovation and weak shareholder returns, and calling on them to replace part-time CEO Jack Dorsey. I received no response. Shocker. Although the chairman’s son tweeted at me that I shouldn’t be so harsh on Sheryl Sandberg. So … there’s that. A few months later, Elliott Management, a large activist fund, called me and said they were signing my letter with a $2 billion pen. They bought a significant stake in the company and secured two board seats in record time, as the directors realized they’d been acting like sycophants vs. actual fiduciaries. Once Elliott had representatives on the board, @jack was gone. It was just a matter of optics and cadence to make it appear as if it was his idea — ego still drives the majority of decisions around corporate governance. (And war.)

The Song Remains the Same

Twitter’s fundamental problems remain, however, and by early this year its shares had retreated back below $40. I began (again) meeting with funds to discuss taking a position and advocating for change. My pitch: Twitter is among the most important products in history (real-time news source, global communications platform), yet it remains a lackluster investment.

What to Do

Twitter should move to a subscription model (#fuckingobvious). Corporate users and users with large followings would pay for a fraction of the value they receive. I have long advocated for this model; by shifting the company’s revenue source from advertisers to users, subscription aligns economic incentives with user experience, rather than user exploitation. This leads to a myriad of benefits, which is why recurring-revenue businesses register greater growth and retention and bigger valuations.

Enter Elon

To be clear, there’s a lot to like here. Elon correctly saw the opportunity and seized it. Twitter was dramatically undervalued and should be better. And the board was smart to embrace him and give him a seat. The easiest way to silence an activist is to make them an insider. Corporate governance is out of fashion in an era of dual-class public stock and a dangerous diminution of government. But Twitter is 2 for 2 in recent months, showing Jack the door and putting a large shareholder on the board.

Glass Half Empty

But…

Wild West

Musk’s call for a Wild West version of Twitter isn’t surprising, as it’s consistent with an emerging Valley ideology I label “takerist.” Takerists view the commonwealth as a hunting ground for personal enrichment and amusement vs. a community invested in mutual prosperity. The great taste of community — roads and charge stations, EV tax credits, air traffic control for Gulfstream 650 ERs, public universities that graduate engineers — with none of the calories — taxes, laws, the basic comity of man.

True to Form

We found out Elon was Twitter’s largest shareholder on Monday morning, because that’s when he disclosed his holdings to the SEC, as required of anyone who acquires more than 5% of a public company. Only Elon filed the wrong form, and he filed it nearly two weeks late. He filed the form for “passive” investors — and if you’ve been talking to the CEO for the past few weeks about joining the board and changing the product, you are not a “passive” investor.

What’s Next?

Whatever we think of Elon’s move, he’s made it, and the future of an increasingly important media company is increasingly up to him. He “only” owns 9%, but his influence far exceeds that. Even on a strong board (vs. one that would tolerate a CEO on permanent safari), a mega-billionaire celebrity will command outsized influence.

Inner Child

20 years ago I joined my first public company board. I was obnoxious, constantly heckling from the cheap seats and more concerned with getting credit for change than increasing stakeholder value. Two decades and seven boards later I’ve finally (I think) embraced what it means to be a fiduciary: to represent the interests of others. Elon is the most brilliant product engineer of this, and likely the last, century. A fraction of that brilliance could transform Twitter. The risk is that his takerism, constant punching down, and cold take on the First Amendment could push Twitter further off course.

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Scott Galloway

Prof Marketing, NYU Stern • Host, CNN+ • Pivot, Prof G Podcasts • Bestselling author, The Four, The Algebra of Happiness, Post Corona • profgalloway.com