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Data Sheet—Why Elon Musk’s Visionary Leadership Falls Short

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Elon Musk has founded an interesting variety of companies since dropping out of the physics PhD program at Stanford. In the 1990s, he was among the first to see how the Internet could be used to distribute useful information (at Zip2) and pay for online sales (at PayPal). By the turn of the century, his vision was expanding and he founded SpaceX and Tesla, seeing a future with commercial spaceflights and electric cars. It’s been a long and not always smooth journey for those two companies.

Musk’s vision is undeniably critical, but sometimes the detailed work of building two vastly complicated companies has suffered. Look no further than Tesla’s struggles manufacturing its Model 3, in part owing to an over-reliance on robots–at Musk’s behest. “Humans are underrated,” the CEO was forced to admit this spring. His shoot-from-the-hip communications style, particularly on Twitter, has also been a source of distraction, or worse. And it’s thanks to some tweets that hadn’t, shall we say, secured the truth, that Musk had to step down as chairman of Tesla’s board this week. He remains CEO, despite joking recently that he’d give up all his titles and become “the Nothing of Tesla.”

Rumors were that it would be another visionary executive guy taking over the chairmanship: James Murdoch. But Tesla has gone in a very different direction. Instead, it named four-year board member Robyn Denholm, currently the CFO and head of strategy of Australian telecom carrier Telstra, as chair. Denholm was one of the first woman named to Tesla’s board and has had a long and varied career focused on what the folks at Harvard Business School like to call business process re-engineering. Before Telstra, she spent nine years at Juniper Networks, helping broaden the company’s focus from telecom to the cloud. Earlier, she headed strategic planning at Sun Microsystems and oversaw various financial functions at Toyota Motor’s Australian unit.

A nuts and bolts operations expert with a keen eye for finance, and even a little experience with traditional automotive manufacturing? Sounds nothing like Elon Musk. But it also sounds like a perfect complement to Elon Musk, if the pair can form a strong working bond à la Steve Jobs and Tim Cook (who was also brought in to help a voluble and visionary boss get his production lines in order). Yes, the regulators made him do it, but this may be yet another brilliant move by Musk to see what’s needed.

(This story was updated on Nov. 9 to correct that Robyn Denholm was not the first female board member of Tesla.)

Aaron Pressman


Days of Future Past. Like a throwback to decades past, Amazon says it will mail out a paper catalog of toys to millions of households before the holiday shopping season. Items listed in the catalog will have accompanying QR codes allowing modern little girls and boys (or their parents) to whip out their smartphones and jump to the proper page of Amazon’s web site to purchase the goods.

Days of Future Yet to Come. Phones with big screens take up a lot of space in the pocket or purse. Samsung has a new idea to put even bigger screens on its phones without enlarging the device: foldable displays. Dubbed the “Infinity Flex Display,” Samsung’s new book-like folding phone debuted on Wednesday during the company’s annual developer conference in San Francisco, Calif. In other dreamy future product news, Comcast is testing voice-controlled smart home features in its X1 video box. The pilot seems consistent with the cable giant’s smart home plans announced back at CES.

Out of Time. Forget about Amazon’s HQ2. Now Google says it wants to add a massive expansion in New York City. The company is close to buying or leasing 1.3 million square feet of additional space at St. John’s Terminal in the West Village, the Wall Street Journal reports. The addition could house another 12,000 workers, sending Google’s total NYC workforce close to 20,000. I just hope none of these people need to take the L train.

Days of Future Present. Are there so many scooter startups that you’re losing track? Thankfully, consolidation of the field may be upon us. Ford is buying electric scooter service Spin for a reported $100 million, according to Axios. The acquisition likely expands Ford’s nascent Jelly service kicking off at Purdue University.

Days of Future Tense. It was a fine day overall on Wall Street for tech stocks on Wednesday, as leaders like Amazon jumped 7% and Netflix gained 5%. But after the market closed, earnings reports curtailed the party. Square said its adjusted third quarter revenue rose 68% to $431 million and adjusted earnings per share of 13 cents reversed a loss from last year. But Square’s fourth quarter forecast fell short and the stock was down 5% in premarket trading on Thursday.

Likewise, Roku showed strong overall growth but spooked investors with a lower profit margin and slowing hardware sales. Total net revenue increased 39% to $173 million and the number of active accounts increased 43% to 23.8 million. But Roku’s gross margin on its set top boxes, which had climbed for three straight quarters, dropped to 11.5%, half what it had been in the second quarter. Roku shares were off 12% in premarket trading. And back among the big boys, shares of Qualcomm fell 7% after it reported revenue fell 2% to $5.8 billion and would total only $4.5 billion to $5.3 billion in the upcoming quarter, less than analysts expected.

(Headline reference explainer, for those who can’t remember when 2013 seemed like a time in the far future.)


Forget the influence of television network news, or even 24-hour cable news networks. The kids these days get their news from place like YouTube. In surveys by Pew Research, the percentage of YouTube viewers relying on the site for news jumped to 53% this year from just 20% in 2013. This year, Pew also did additional research to understand the workings of YouTube’s controversial video recommendation engine, which offers a new video to watch after an initial choice finishes playing. The center conducted over 174,000 random journeys through almost 700,000 different videos presented by the recommendation engine.

A key finding of this analysis is that the YouTube recommendation system encourages users to watch progressively longer and more popular content. The videos selected in the first step of these random walks averaged 9 minutes, 31 seconds in length. The first recommended video tied to this initial choice ran, on average, nearly three minutes longer. By the fifth and final step in these walks, the site recommended videos that averaged nearly 15 minutes in length.

The recommendation engine similarly recommends ever-more-popular videos. The initial starting videos in these random walks averaged just over 8 million views. But the first videos recommended by the site average nearly 30 million views. And by the final step, these videos have an average of more than 40 million views.

This study of YouTube’s recommendation algorithm also reinforces the survey findings about the prominence of children’s content on YouTube. All told, 134 unique videos were recommended more than 100 times during this analysis. And of the 50 individual videos that were encountered most frequently, 11 of them—or about a fifth of the most-recommended videos – were determined by researchers to be oriented toward children, based on their content. Indeed, an animated video for children was the single most recommended video in this analysis.


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Speaking of comic books, DC Comics just published the final paperback compilation volume in the story of Batman and Catwoman’s wedding. In addition to completing the whole story line, the publisher added pages of the finale drawn by an assortment of some of the best artists ever to pen the Batman, like Neal Adams, Jim Lee, and, of course, Frank Miller. It’s a welcome trip down memory lane.

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman. Find past issues, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters.