Elon Musk builds spaceships and electric cars. Crypto rises and falls on his whims. If you truly want to understand him (and he's the subject of my free e-book Elon Musk Has Very Big Plans, by the way), I'd look to a specific nine-word tweet.
It's two years old. It sparked a quick fury but signified nothing, and yet it's emblematic of one of the most important truths that any innovator has to consider in the back of his or her mind.
Ready? Here's the tweet. April 23, 2019. Musk:
"Tesla is going to develop a quiet, electric leafblower."
Maybe you laugh. Maybe you think I'm way off base.
A leaf blower?
To which I can only reply: Clearly, you are not among the roughly 25 percent of Americans who live in the nation's suburbs. (These are 2018 numbers, up from 23 percent in 2000.)
Out here, amid the tree-lined streets and the manicured lawns, near the highway on-ramps and the commuter rail stops, there is no single issue that divides and creates more animosity than the simple conversation starter: "Leaf blowers? Discuss."
I don't want to bog this with the pros and cons too much, so briefly, in my experience:
- The "pros" say leaf blowers are an important tool for keeping lawns neat, and employing the folks who use them
- The "cons" are all about the exhaust and the environment and, yes, the insanely intense noise
How loud? As much as 115 decibels for operators, and a still earsplitting (or at least super-distracting) 78 decibels from 50 feet away.
So, Musk, who knows how to wield a Twitter feed like almost nobody else, spitballed the idea.
Then, a few people accused him of having copied the notion from Rainn Wilson (the actor who played "Dwight" on The Office). The kerfuffle lasted a day or two.
And then? Crickets.
At least within the past year, I can't find anyone revisiting the idea, or even asking the question in any serious way: What happened to the leaf blowers?
It's surprising, given how many people have been working from home, and have had their ability to concentrate interrupted by the sudden (and yet intermittent) sounds of gas-powered leaf blowers.
So, why do I think this Muskian tweet is so important? Because it signals two things, both of which any innovator should be looking for constantly:
- An unanticipated use for new technology
- A ready-made customer market, clamoring for a solution to their problem
In other words, nobody was likely to try to reinvent electric propulsion in order to create quieter leaf blowers. But, now that Tesla and other brands have in fact done some of that in the automobile industry, the opportunity arises.
People are interested. Some towns are already banning the use of gasoline-powered units, or at least restricting their use to certain times of the year.
(I'm aware we already have electric leaf blowers; in fact, I own one myself. But, while they might be quieter than gasoline-powered ones, they're not exactly quiet, the way electric cars could be, except for safety reasons).
Anyway, this is the message to take away. I suspect Musk really did tweet ephemerally about leaf blowers. In other words, the man and his companies are just a little bit busy with other projects.
But someone out there who picks up on the idea of super-quiet leaf blowers -- an idea that has gone basically unnoticed and ignored for 25 months now -- will eventually find a smart new use for novel technology and a ready market.
And, yes, Musk hopes his legacy has to do with turning humanity into an interplanetary species. That's pretty big, true.
But for him -- or anyone, really -- there's something else, and it has to do with the myriad innovators who are inspired by greatness, and who wind up coming up with second- and third-order ideas.
You know, like using Tesla's engine and battery technology to power leaf blowers.
Great leaders don't just inspire followers; they inspire more leaders. Now, if they could only figure out how to get people to clean up after their dogs.