Elon Musk's greatest strength as a business visionary may be his ability to distract the media and investors from what he's doing and focus on what he will do someday.
Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) is arguably entering the most important 12-month stretch in its history with the launch of the Model 3, but you wouldn't know it by Musk's public comments. Right now, he spends more time talking about Tesla DJ and colonizing Mars on his Twitter feed than the Model 3. At the last earnings conference call and Tesla's shareholder meeting Musk sounded more excited about the Model Y, a crossover still on the drawing board, and a future semi and pickup truck, than the Model 3. Moving the goalpost forward isn't a bad thing for Tesla and its stock, it's Musk's most brilliant strategy in business.
The art of distraction
Tesla has a long history of missing its own projections for launch and production projections. The Model S and Model X were both launched late, quarterly production misses guidance more often than not, and quality problems plagued the Model X. Given the Model 3's scale and mass market appeal, the stakes for this product launch are higher than for the Model S or Model X. But Musk is lowering expectations by waving the shiny idea of new products that won't be here for years.
The distraction of new products takes the pressure off the performance of the Model 3 at launch. If it's a few weeks or months late and there are some quality hiccups it won't be the end of the world because attention is elsewhere. And if Tesla needs more money to complete its production buildout or any future expansion, the rising stock price will give ample opportunity for a capital raise.
Raise expectations by lowering them
Tesla's stock has nearly doubled so far in 2017 and it isn't because Tesla has had more deposits for the Model 3, reported a profit, or grown the solar business acquired from SolarCity last year (solar installations are down sharply since Tesla took over). The stock is up because the market has bought into Musk's vision of a future where electric vehicles, Tesla's electric vehicles, in particular, will change the world.
The higher expectations go for future products -- like the Model Y, the Tesla semi, a pickup, or the solar roof -- the less pressure there is on the Model 3. Raise expectations in 2020 and beyond and there's less pressure on the Model 3 launch in 2017.
Model 3 should be make or break, but it isn't
What I've described may sound like Musk is pulling one over on investors. And if you're someone who watches the fundamentals (like me) Musk moving the ball and rarely hitting his own guidance may drive you nuts. But he's really doing what's best for Tesla as a company in the long run.
Musk knows that Tesla will need billions of more dollars in capital to finish the Gigafactory, build a factory in China, build a factory for the Model Y, build a semi or pickup truck, and anything else he's working on. Therefore, to bring about the change he wants to make in the world he needs to keep confidence, and the stock price, high so he can extract capital from Wall Street without diluting himself and current shareholders too much.
The fact that Musk has been able to get investors to look past the missed deadlines and guidance by Tesla and seemingly look beyond the launch of its most important product ever is brilliant. Eventually, Tesla will have to start making money like other manufacturers or the market will lose its patience. But the longer Musk can put off that day of reckoning the bigger empire he can build, increasing his chance that he may be able to complete his vision for Tesla's disruption of the world.