CEO Daily: The Best in Business Reading
Space has long exerted an almost primal hold on America’s imagination and its self-image. Whether it was acute national anxiety after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in the 1950s, or excitement and ultimately pride when the U.S. set it sights on, and eventually stepped onto, the moon in 1969, millions of Americans felt it personally. They grieved when the Challenger exploded and exulted at the triumphs. In recent years, after a period in which the government canceled the space shuttle program and receded from leadership, popular excitement has been rekindled with the entry of ambitious private entities such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. The former, in particular, has enchanted space fans with some audacious successes, including landing a used rocket booster on a platform in the ocean.
That’s the back drop for a compelling, surprising tale of a clash of upstart vs. incumbent sprinkled with politics, foreign conflict, and history. “The Great Rocket Race,” by Clay Dillow, in Fortune examines the efforts by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, to fend off SpaceX and Blue Origin to maintain what was long a monopoly on rocket launches to transport satellites and the like to orbit. Not only is ULA undercut by SpaceX on price (it’ll cost you $164-$350 million for a ULA Atlas V launch vs. $62 million for SpaceX’s Falcon 9), but ULA is hamstrung by something I found flabbergasting: Its rockets, a quintessential national-security technology, have been dependent on…Russian engines. That’s a product of a brief period of warm relations (and cheap Russian technology) after the Cold War ended. But now that relations are chilling again, Congress is putting an end to it. The result is an unexpected (and well-told) story of an entrenched company trying to preserve its monopoly as circumstances change. It even includes a ULA CEO who acknowledges the company’s challenges and has a side passion studying the medieval Knights Templar. He offers this quote comparing his future to that of the chief knight: “I don’t want to be burned at the stake.”
Elon Musk, part 2
I have to admit I was one of many people who was highly skeptical of SpaceX at the outset—a billionaire's folly!—only to see myself proven wrong. SpaceX's success then undercut my instinctive skepticism of Musk’s so-called hyperloop idea, which he floated in 2013. The notion involves sending a train whooshing at incredible speed through what is essentially a pneumatic tube. The idea would be laughable…if anyone other than Musk were proposing it. Three years later, New York has weighed in (I'm actually a week late on this one) with an astute dissection of the troubles at one of the companies, unaffiliated with Musk, that is trying to turn the bold idea into a reality. It’s called “A Kink in the Hyperloop: The dream of zipping from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 35 minutes has run into a few speed bumps.” It's a fascinating examination not only of the massive technical challenge, but also of some very Silicon Valley-esque hubris. The story lays out some very sophomoric (to put it charitably) goings-on inside the company. And if you haven't been following the exploits of Shervin Pishevar, an investor and company founder whose social media feed features everything from "samples of poetry he wrote when he was 21 to Valley aphorisms and earnest affirmations to photos of him with Justin Bieber and the Dalai Lama," and chief engineer Brogan BamBrogan (a real name), you're going to want to catch up.
Trump's Secret Weapon
Bloomberg BusinessWeek has a fascinating article that examines a largely unknown San Antonio marketing figure, Brad Parscale, who has become crucial to Trump’s social media campaign and may hold the keys to the candidate’s political influence well after the election. It’s entitled “Inside the Trump Bunker With 12 Days Left to Go: Win or lose, the Republican candidate and his inner circle have built a direct marketing operation that could power a TV network—or finish off the GOP.” The article covers a lot of ground, offering insights on everything from direct marketing to politics. It describes Trump campaign efforts to suppress turnout among voters seen as likely Clinton supporters and reveals that poll results known to the Trump campaign match those published in the outside world. You'll glean a sense of a potential long-term strategy: The article offers rare access to campaign chairman Steve Bannon (on leave from his role as chief of Breitbart News) and quotes him saying, “I wouldn’t have come aboard, even for Trump, if I hadn’t known they were building this massive Facebook and data engine. Facebook is what propelled Breitbart to a massive audience. We know its power.” Parscale chimes in with similar comments regarding the campaign’s social media toolkit: “We knew how valuable this would be from the outset. We own the future of the Republican Party.”
Historical hat-tip: A year ago, Bloomberg BusinessWeek was well ahead of the mainstream-media curve with a prescient profile of Bannon:
Donald, the Landlord
Speaking of Bloomberg and Trump…what building has been home to, at various times, Michael Jackson, Johnny Carson, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Liberace—and men convicted or accused, variously, of murder, tax evasion, cocaine trafficking, Ponzi schemes, and loan-sharking? Bloomberg answers the question in an entertaining romp entitled “Inside Trump Tower: The Skyscraper Where Trump Is Already King.” We all knew celebrities, glitz, and marble abounded in the skyscraper, but the reality turns out to be considerably more colorful. According to one tenant quoted in the article, describing landlord Trump, “Renting space has nothing to do with color or race—or indictment.” For his part, the presidential candidate has defended his rental standards in the past, claiming that he refused to rent years ago to convicted insider trader Ivan Boesky. “I’ve always been blessed with a kind of intuition about people,” Trump once wrote, “that allows me to sense who the sleazy guys are, and I stay far away.”
A Story to Die For?
Business after the crime: Realtor.com has an unusual feature perfectly encapsulated by its headline: “A Place To Die For: Why People Buy Homes Where Brutal Murders Occur.” Okay, it’s not a narrative and I'll admit I am not a regular visitor to this website (I happened upon an endorsement on Twitter). But if you’re curious what happened to the mansion where “where 39 Nike-shod members of the Heaven’s Gate cult killed themselves in 1997 in order to reach what they believed was an alien spacecraft,” you’ll lap these details up. The article describes the fates of properties linked to the cases of Nicole Brown Simpson, JonBenet Ramsey and Jeffrey Dahmer, among others. Yes, it’s morbid—and if you're anything like me, you'll be curious, and that curiosity will be rewarded.