The newly revealed story that Elon Musk almost sold off Tesla Motors to Google in 2013 surprised many. Musk is famous for a kind of unflinching optimism and self-confidence, and getting so close to a Google (GOOG) acquisition of Tesla (TSLA) shows he clearly wasn't always so sure he could turn the electric car maker into a success. But it makes a lot more sense when you look at the story in the context of Musk's other company, rocket startup SpaceX. Musk, I suspect, was actually making a decision about whether a struggling Tesla would be worth the effort—and whether he'd rather focus on the company he cares about most, SpaceX.
Musk's career arc generally seems based around picking an idea he likes and doing what it takes to make it succeed, whether it's Tesla's electric cars or SolarCity's solar power services. But SpaceX stands apart from the others. Unlike SolarCity or Tesla, Musk is the sole founder of SpaceX and has been in charge of it from day one. He's talked a lot about how important he thinks space research and manned space flight are to pursue, and it seems like everything SpaceX does gets his personal attention.
While he has certainly gone to great lengths to make his other companies succeed in the face of regulatory snarls or entrenched interests, only SpaceX has actually used economic sanctions by the U.S. against another country to force open a place for it in the market. SpaceX successfully forced its competitor United Launch Alliance to pull out of a long-standing deal to buy Russian rocket engines because it violated the sanctions put in place by the U.S.
It could even be argued that his other companies actually feed into SpaceX. Tesla's work on energy efficient motors and transportation engineering and SolarCity's development of ever better ways to store and transmit solar energy could both make long journeys in space more feasible. Put into that perspective, Musk's one-time wish to sell Tesla to Google—a company run in part by his personal friend Larry Page—might have given him the best of both worlds. He could have negotiated continued access to Tesla's technology while ending its drain on his time and resources. The rumors that he might want to sell Tesla to Apple even fit into the narrative of Musk making everything about SpaceX. It could bring a partnership that might put Apple's engineering and designing expertise to build spaceships usable by people who aren't pilots with decades of experience flying for the military.
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