By now you've heard all about Elon Musk's latest sideshow: flamethrowers. The entrepreneur is selling fire-shooting guns with the name of his newest venture, The Boring Company, emblazoned on the side. After putting them on sale on Saturday, he's on pace to sell all $10 million worth of them as soon as Tuesday, presumably to help fund his tunnel-digging project. This comes after he made $1 million selling $20 hats bearing the company's nondescript logo.
It's a pretty brilliant way to raise some capital. Getting 20,000 people in a matter of days to shell out $500 for what is basically a cool-looking blowtorch is something only a handful of entrepreneurs could pull off--it speaks to both Musk's business savvy and his ability to rally people around his ideas.
But now it's time to kill the fun.
I'm not talking about the dangers involved. Granted, as the son of a fireman who wouldn't let me light my own candles until I was college-aged, the idea of random people on the internet now having the ability to expel two-foot flames on a whim is enough to make me subconsciously recite my family's emergency escape plan.
I'm talking about the bigger picture--that Tesla is way behind on its goals, and that there's little sign of that changing anytime soon.
While an extra $10 million is great, Musk's biggest accomplishment here might be in drawing attention away from certain inconvenient facts.
Musk in recent years has attracted a cult following that is loath to criticize him. And it's somewhat understandable why. There are certainly plenty of entrepreneurs who don't dare to dream as big as he does, and who accomplish far less. Others decide to focus on squeezing every last penny from their customers instead of, say, diminishing humanity's dependence on fossil fuels and working on a backup plan in case this whole Earth thing doesn't work out.
What Musk has accomplished so far is legitimately impressive: invent reusable rockets; build America's most successful solar energy company; create an affordable electric car.
But the reality is that Tesla is falling behind. As per the goals Musk laid out last year, the company was supposed to be producing 5,000 cars per week by the end of 2017. As it stands, the company manufactured just 2,425 in the entire fourth quarter. It still has about 400,000 Model 3 pre-orders left to fill--something it said it wanted to accomplish within 12 months of the first vehicle coming off the production line, which happened this past July. Clearly, that's not likely to happen.
Waiting a few extra months to roll out a potentially industry-changing--or even world-changing--vehicle might not seem like a lot to of time to the average consumer. But to investors who help keep the company afloat while it burns through hundreds of millions per quarter and to stockholders that have boosted its market cap to Ford and GM levels based purely on promise, those things could eventually add up to a loss of faith in Musk.
There might be no more likely path to Tesla's demise than that: Shareholders finally get fed up with Musk and stop cutting him slack, and the company runs out of capital to keep pushing its ambitious plans forward. Musk's ability to sell people on his ability to eventually execute is Tesla's lifeblood, a fact that he is well aware of. So while Tesla continues to fall well short, here he comes with a little reminder of what he's capable of when he puts his mind to something--a plan taken from half-joking tweet to execution to millions of dollars in just a few months.
It really is smart. And it has the added benefit of currying favor among average citizens for The Boring Company before it dives fully into the sure-to-be-difficult struggle of earning permission to dig. Public momentum could go a long way if the battle comes down to Musk versus a group of officials who have re-elections to worry about.
So yes: Selling $500 flamethrowers is fun and shrewd, and it shows us all why Elon Musk is one of the most unique entrepreneurs and creative thinkers of his generation.
But don't let it distract you from the reality of his current position. He has some huge plans, but there's still a lot of work to be done.