Tesla's newest product is a T-shirt emblazoned with an image of the broken Cybertruck window from the vehicle's launch event that went spectacularly awry. As you likely know, Tesla design chief Franz von Holzhausen threw metal balls at the Cybertruck's windows onstage. They were supposed to bounce off, but the windows broke instead. Selling T-shirts to commemorate the moment is a classic Elon Musk move.
What did you do the last time you had a huge and humiliating public failure? I'll bet whatever it was, it didn't involve printing up thousands of T-shirts with a picture of that failure front and center. That's what makes Musk so delightfully different from you and me.
When I first started learning about, and writing columns about, Musk, I quipped that Tesla was less a company than it was a cult of personality. I still think that's true, but over time I've become a willing member of the cult, and things like that broken-window T-shirt are a good illustration of why. Here's what that new product tells us (not that we didn't already know) about the company's quirky leader.
1. He doesn't follow corporate norms.
I think it's safe to say that no corporate public relations professional in the world would recommend selling T-shirts to remind people of a badly botched product launch. Especially when it's nearly two months later and everyone's attention is mostly focused on the good news of a record high share price and increased production.
But the fact that he pretty much never does what a corporate PR person would advise is one of the most appealing things about Musk. Good or bad, he seems to say or tweet exactly what he's thinking, even when it's to lament to The New York Times that he's overwhelmed by his responsibilities at Tesla or to get himself and his company into terrible legal trouble by tweeting "funding secured" when he shouldn't have.
2. He doesn't take himself too seriously.
Musk's mission is nothing less than to save humanity by drastically reducing carbon emissions and thus slowing climate change, not to mention colonizing Mars, the nearest planet that offers any hope at all as a home for humans. Most people trying to save humanity, especially from climate change, tend to be very serious and solemn. Musk is tackling the same crisis with the same very high stakes. But he's perfectly willing to be silly while doing it.
3. He makes you feel like you're a member of a special club.
I've always thought this was part of the appeal of Tesla, and of things like the Boring Company flamethrower. Either you're an insider or you aren't. Either you "get" Musk or you don't. And the people who do get him are fiercely passionate about him, something I and my Inc.com colleagues are reminded of every time we post something negative about Musk or his companies.
The broken-glass T-shirt taps into this sentiment perfectly. It has no text on it, just the broken window on the front (if you don't know that a metal ball made the hole, you might assume it was a bullet hole). On the back, there's a partially filled in triangle that roughly suggests the shape of the oh-so-angular Cybertruck, along with the word "Cybertruck" in the same illegible graffiti that was used at the launch event. If you've seen images of the launch, you'll get it immediately. If you haven't, it'll just be one more of the many cryptic T-shirts we all see around us every day.
4. He actually does celebrate failure.
We've all heard it over and over: Embrace failure. Fail fast. Celebrate failure. Talking about failure as a positive thing is very common but actually treating it that way is very, very rare. Just try to imagine Samsung selling T-shirts to celebrate the embarrassing launch of the Galaxy Fold, or Peloton distributing posters to remind people of its widely mocked holiday commercial.
Musk is that rarity, a CEO who's perfectly comfortable with a completely public failure. When it happened, his first reaction was a bit of astonished profanity, followed almost immediately by the more philosophical comment, "Room for improvement." The very next day, he posted an explanation to Twitter, saying that during the demo the truck was hit with a sledgehammer, which cracked the window, which was why it could no longer withstand the metal ball. Next time, he added, they'd do the metal balls first and then the sledgehammer.
I'll never forget his SpaceX presentation back in 2017 when he was showing video of the company's new extra-strong cryogenic oxygen tank. Just as he was describing its features and successful testing, the tank on the screen burst and went sailing into the air. The audience gasped and laughed, but Musk calmly explained, "We wanted to see where it would break, and we found out."
There are many important lessons we all can learn from Musk. Learning to see a big public screwup as something to remember with fondness? That just might be the most important.