Is Tesla’s Elon Musk the New Steve Jobs?

Photo credit: WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

Photo credit: WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

As a co-founder of the world’s most valuable company and the driving force behind many of its most successful tech products, there are undoubtedly plenty of entrepreneurs today that wouldn’t mind being compared to Apple’s Steve Jobs. One of these Steve Jobs wannabes is Lei Jun, the CEO of low-cost Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi. Xiaomi is perhaps most famous in the U.S. for its blatant copycat designs of Apple’s products, such as its strangely familiar Mi Pad. However, Xiaomi’s imitation of Apple also extends to the iPhone maker’s legendary CEO. In a profile that The New York Times did of Lei in 2013, the Xiaomi CEO said that he read a book about Jobs in college and decided to model himself after him.  As noted by Tech Crunch, Lei wears a black shirt and jeans at public appearances like Jobs did. Lei even borrowed Apple’s signature “one more thing” line during a media event last year.

Ironically, by carefully aping his hero down to his choice of clothes, Xiaomi’s Lei Jun is actually making himself more dissimilar to Jobs. After all, Jobs is a person who famously swore to wage “thermonuclear war” against Google over some design similarities he saw between Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating system, as noted by Reuters. Unlike Jobs, Lei did not create his company’s distinctive products by enlisting the help of innovative designers like Jony Ive or Hartmut Esslinger. Instead Lei’s company simply copied another company’s products.

While Lei may consider himself to be “China’s Steve Jobs,” as he told Reuters in 2012, the real heir to Jobs’s mantle of innovation may be much closer to Apple’s doorstep. There are several reasons to believe that Elon Musk – CEO of electric carmaker Tesla Motors – is more like Steve Jobs than any other company leader today.  

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The similarities between Musk and Jobs were highlighted in a recent Bloomberg report that noted Tesla had poached at least 150 employees from Apple — more than any other company. Just like Steve Jobs was able to attract the best and brightest talent to Apple under his tenure, it appears that one of the main reasons so many Apple employees have jumped ship to Tesla is because of Musk’s leadership qualities.

Like Xiaomi’s Lei Jun, Musk appears to enjoy being compared to Steve Jobs. According to a former Tesla employee cited by Bloomberg, “Musk is enamored with Apple and relishes comparisons between himself and its co-founder.” However, unlike Lei Jun, Musk invites this comparison because of his innovative ideas and careful attention to design details, rather than a penchant for black shirts and jeans.

The appeal of Tesla’s innovative products appears to have played a large role in some former Apple employees’ decisions to switch jobs. Former VP of Mac hardware engineering Doug Field described his move to Tesla as “an opportunity for me and many others to pursue the dream of building the best cars in the world—while being part of one of the most innovative companies in Silicon Valley,” reported Bloomberg.

Despite the recent appearance of multiple camera-equipped minivans that were traced back to Apple, there is no solid evidence that the iPhone maker is interested in entering Tesla’s automotive territory. On the other hand, Tesla’s electric cars are increasingly encroaching on Apple’s computer territory. With vehicles that are in many ways just large mobile computers on wheels, Tesla employees who have been hired away from Apple will find plenty of areas where their talents can be utilized.According to Tesla’s website, its Model S vehicle features advanced autopilot software that includes automatic parking and traffic awareness. The interior even features an iPad-like touchscreen that controls most of the car’s functions.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Besides the two companies’ overlap in the area of mobile computing technology, Tesla also has many similarities with Apple’s overall approach to product design. “From a design philosophy, [Apple] is relatively closely aligned,” Musk told Bloomberg. And like Jobs was able to do for Apple when he was the company’s CEO, Musk appears to be able to attract talent to his company simply through his natural charisma. “Elon has explained to me that it’s easy for him to hire someone from Apple, because when he does the interview process for a serious software engineer—a big human asset—he’ll meet with the person and geek out with them,” Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas told Bloomberg. “They’ll like talk about nerd software coding stuff.”

In other words, Musk is drawing Apple’s employees to move to Tesla in much the same way that Jobs convinced other companies’ employees to work for him. In an Auburn University commencement speech transcribed by Fast Company, current Apple CEO Tim Cook described how Steve Jobs convinced him to leave his job at Compaq, despite the “purely rational consideration of cost and benefits lined up in Compaq’s favor.” According to Cook, after meeting Jobs and being enthralled by his vision for the future of computers, “I wanted to throw caution and logic to the wind” and “work for the creative genius.”

The evidence for the irrational appeal that Musk inspires in his employees appears to be confirmed by Apple’s own failed attempts to poach Tesla’s workers, reported Bloomberg. According to Musk, despite dangling $250,000 signing bonuses and salary increases of up to 60%, Apple has not managed to lure very many of Tesla’s employees away. Musk’s own annual salary from Tesla is only $1 a year, another similarity that he shares with Apple’s Steve Jobs, as noted by New Republic.

Needless to say, if a significant amount of money and the opportunity to work for the most valuable company in the world isn’t enough to convince a Tesla employee to move to Apple, there is definitely something else besides a love of electric cars keeping the company’s workers loyal. For Tesla’s employees, this “something” appears to be Musk’s Jobs-like leadership.

Follow Nathanael on Twitter @ArnoldEtan_WSCS

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