Don't get me wrong, Musk has clearly earned his business chops, but literally hundreds of executives controlling more influential and valuable companies keep a far lower profile. Musk has always cultivated his own cult of personality to help keep his businesses afloat until they can accomplish goals with a longer time horizon than most others care to tolerate.
The internet (Inc.com included) loves to speculate on the secret of Musk's success and how a kind of geeky kid raised in South Africa who tends to stutter and stumble a bit when he speaks manages to attract so much of our attention and imagination.
Obviously, the goals that Musk chooses and the fact that they come from deep in the heart of our most embarrassing science fiction fantasies of the future is the hook that keeps us hanging on his every idea, be it the Hyperloop or going to Mars.
But any wacky billionaire can promise fantastical visions of the future. Rarely are they taken as seriously as Musk's ideas are. How has he managed to establish and maintain credibility, especially during the years when it looked as if both SpaceX and Tesla seemed to be doomed?
The one secret to Musk's marketing success that is often missed is actually no secret at all. It's on full display at all times. I'm talking about his clear and constant efforts to foster the perception of transparency in everything he and his companies do.
Take SpaceX's effort to launch a rocket and then remotely land it on an autonomous barge at sea. This is a key part of the company's long-term goal of making rockets reusable in order to drive down the cost of launches. For over a year now, SpaceX has been announcing its latest attempt at this historic landing, promoting a highly
produced live webcast of the event. Four landing attempts have been tried so far and each one has ended in failure and spectacular explosions at sea.
Rather than spinning into damage-control mode, Musk seems to revel in educating the public about the engineering challenges involved in sticking the landing, via Twitter and just about everywhere else.
Or take the unveiling of the Tesla Model 3 last week, where Musk openly joked about his reputation for missing his own promised delivery dates, even as he was taking orders for a car that will not actually be available for another 18 months.
After the unveiling, Musk took to Twitter, directly answering questions about the Model 3 himself in real-time.
A few years ago, I attended a Musk keynote at South by Southwest. When asked about progress on SpaceX's line of rockets, he launched into an intricately detailed explanation of the Falcon 9's design that must have had any employees from competitors like Boeing in the audience scrambling to take notes.
The result of Musk holding nothing back (he's even talked about the benefits of setting off nuclear explosions on Mars on late night TV) isn't just great for getting clicks on social media and elsewhere. By fostering the appearance of total transparency, Musk also encourages public buy-in for his goals and trust for his companies by giving the impression they have nothing to hide.
This isn't true, of course. Clearly Tesla and SpaceX have plenty of proprietary information under lock, key, and NDA. But that's not the point.
Musk wants to take us to Mars, and he wants to fight climate change by cutting back automotive emissions. These are goals that have typically been left up to the public sector, and as such, the public has always been made to feel part of these team efforts and transparency has usually been mandated.
Musk thinks he has found a way to pursue what were once projects exclusively for the public good and make billions in the process.
Whether motivated by realizing a certain altruistic vision or profits, Musk needs the support of the public to achieve both at the same time. To do this, he's decided the best strategy is to lift the curtain and invite all of us to see exactly how the great and powerful Oz intends to make our dreams come true.
So far, it's a strategy that seems to be working. SpaceX is profitable despite all its crash landings, and hundreds of thousands have already pre-ordered an electric car that we'd be lucky to drive before Christmas... of 2017.
All hail the great and powerful Oz -- or at least retweet him.