Editor's note: Inc. Magazine announced its pick for Company of the Year on Tuesday, November 29. It's Riot Games! Here, we spotlight Tesla and SpaceX, contenders for the title in 2016.
And 2016 was no different. In the same year that he unveiled his vision for a massive shift in the country's energy future he also surprised critics by laying out a detailed plan for colonizing Mars. But the most remarkable part was not the size of his ideas--it was how effectively Musk managed to sell the world on them.
To understand how Musk's vision came together in a critical way this year, let's start with Tesla. In July, about 10 years after he first published his Master Tesla Plan, he released his "Master Plan Part Deux." In both parts one and two, he outlines how he wants to build more than just an electric car company. He wants to push the world toward a future more reliant on sustainable energy, namely by tying together electric cars and better solar energy-storing technology for homes.
"The point of all this was, and remains, accelerating the advent of sustainable energy, so that we can imagine far into the future and life is still good. That's what 'sustainable' means. It's not some silly, hippy thing--it matters for everyone," Musk wrote. He envisions a solar-powered home that generates enough energy to also power the fully-autonomous Tesla vehicle in the garage.
To accomplish these ends, Musk said that Tesla--electric car manufacturer and creator of the giant solar rechargable home battery Powerwall--needed to acquire solar energy provider SolarCity. The proposed deal raised a number of red flags for shareholders and analysts who argued that it was simply a bailout of unprofitable SolarCity, not to mention a mess of conflicts of interest. Musk is the primary shareholder in both companies and Musk's cousin Lyndon Rive runs the solar energy company.
Yet on Nov. 17, Musk triumphed. Tesla and SolarCity shareholders overwhelmingly voted in favor of merging the two companies in a $2.6 billion deal. Besides his constant championing of the merger, Musk made a few key moves that likely helped persuade skeptics. In October, he presided over a splashy reveal of the first joint product of Tesla and SolarCity--solar roofs designed to look like regular roofs that can harvest almost as much energy as traditional solar panels. Tesla also announced that it had struck a deal, contingent on the yes-vote, to produce photovoltaic solar cells at Panasonic's Buffalo, New York factory.
While Musk worked out his visions of a solar future at Tesla and SolarCity, he meanwhile revealed SpaceX's own ambitious trajectory. In a presentation in October at the International Astronautical Congress, the entrepreneur said SpaceX is developing one of the most powerful rockets in the world that will be reusable to boot and aims to get humans to Mars by 2023.
"I really think there are two fundamental paths [for humans]: One path is we stay on Earth forever, and some eventual extinction event wipes us out," he said. "The alternative is to become a space-faring civilization and a multi-planet species."
Musk's plan is wildly ambitious and he has a history of setting deadlines he doesn't meet. (At least one astronaut predicts that even if it were possible financially and technologically to build the right ship for such a mission, it won't happen for at least 25 years.) But SpaceX has already taken a massive concrete step toward the goal: the company constructed a prototype fuel tank--the largest ever developed--and successfully tested it at sea in November.
For all of Musk's talk of master plans and Mars trips, it doesn't hide the fact that his companies hit quite a few rough spots this year. His big announcements did little to address the concerns of critics (and some Wall Street analysts), who find many of Musk's proposals too vague. Ashlee Vance, the author of a 2015 biography of the entrepreneur, said in mid-October that Tesla, SpaceX, and SolarCity were in trouble "by any measure." There was the death of a Tesla driver in May who had been using the autopilot mode at the time, prompting questions about the safety of the software, the explosion of a SpaceX rocket in September that also destroyed a satellite from the Mark Zuckerberg-led nonprofit Internet.org, and SolarCity's continuous habit of bleeding money.
"Every time one of his companies stumbles, Musk seems to have another spectacular thing to announce--a new mode of transportation, the space internet, or a Martian colony--to thrill and confuse," Vance writes.
Still, Musk also seems to find a way to pull a rabbit out of his hat when he needs it most. His biggest victory this year may have come at the end of October, when Tesla announced that it had its second profitable quarter in the company's history, shocking analysts who thought that the company would be reporting yet another loss.
Musk called it "definitely one of the best moments ever in Tesla, I think." Just over one week after the earnings call, advisory firm Institutional Shareholder Services came out in favor of the Tesla SolarCity merger, calling it a "a necessary step towards Tesla's goal of being an integrated sustainable energy company," and that Tesla had "taken the requisite steps to reassure its shareholders."
It's unlikely that Musk will ever be able to fully quell the fears of his toughest critics. He's still going to have to deal with lawsuits shareholders filed against the Tesla-SolarCity merger prior to the vote.
Ultimately, history will look back on 2016 as either a tipping point for Musk's audacious ventures--or as the year too many people put their faith in big ideas that never fully came to fruition. In the meantime, he's not going to let naysayers get in his way because he has plans to pursue.