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Elon Musk Is Not Jeff Bezos (or Steve Jobs)

Douglas A. McIntyre

Artist Andy Warhol once said, "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes." Elon Musk has had that 15 minutes and then some. However, it is time for him to fade back into anonymity and stay there, at least for a very long time.

Musk's actual primary claim to fame is that he was a founder of PayPal, which eBay Inc. (EBAY) bought for $1.5 billion. That was a lot of money then, and less now in a world in which companies with little revenue, like Twitter, are worth more than $10 billion. Musk also has founded Tesla Motors Inc. (TSLA), which only builds and sells a few thousand cars a year, and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). The latter was in the headlines in May 2012, when its Dragon spacecraft reached the International Space Station, where it exchanged cargo payloads, and then came back to Earth. That feat is immensely impressive, but its practical applications are modest, given the size of the Space Station and its need for cargo.

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Musk has been compared to fictional character Tony Stark, whose Iron Man alter-ego has saved the world several times over. Musk has not. Musk does encourage the comparison,though. No wonder, given Iron Man's history.

Musk's latest brilliant idea is the Hyperloop, a high-speed train of sorts that can travel between cities at impossible speeds. In theory, it would cut the time to travel between San Francisco to Los Angeles to minutes. Many experts have deemed the project impractical. The regulatory approval of all the little cities in between would take decades, if the approvals could be had at all. So far, his plans for the Hyperloop are little more than a blog post. However, the press has treated it as the "Second Coming."

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If SpaceX is Musk's contribution to a future in which it will have little practical value, Tesla is his current contribution. The vehicle has been an extraordinary hit with the automotive press. However, only 5,150 where sold last quarter. Revenue was only $562 million, on which Tesla made $11 million in GAAP net income. The most Tesla could say about its near-term prospects was "If demonstrated demand in North America and Europe is matched by similar demand in Asia, annualized sales for Model S could exceed 40,000 units per year by late 2014." That is about the number of Chevy Silverado pickups sold in the United States in July.

The first person Musk is not is Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Inc. (AAPL). There is no reason to explain why that comparison is absurd. The next comparison often made by the press is to Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN), who has been on the front pages nearly as much recently as Musk, because he bought the floundering Washington Post for $250 million. Beyond that, all Bezos has done is create the world's largest e-commerce company, which likely will have $80 billion in its current fiscal year. Amazon's employee base has reached nearly 100,000 people. Bezos also has invented a number of other products, like the Kindle, the effects of which have eclipsed, and will continue to eclipse, a high-priced electric car.

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Elon Musk will not save the world, although he would say he has done much more than that. His 15 minutes almost over, Musk has done for the world all that he can.

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