Elon Musk is not my favourite person. I have no desire to meet him or buy his shares. But that does not mean I do not admire him. His achievements over the last two decades are nothing short of astounding. We can despise his coarseness and deride his brashness, but we cannot ignore his vision. It takes a special person to take those scrappy notes, jotted on a restaurant napkin, and transform them into an operation that manufactures products that the world’s consumers and businesses want to own.
I have the same respect for Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, Larry Page and Sergey Brin and those other elite masterminds, both past and present, whose foresight and daring have changed the way we manage our lives and business today.
During my long career on the stock market exploring businesses, I have seen countless small and medium sized operations make their way onto the boards of international markets. Ably managed with a decent profit history, all pledged a rich and bountiful future. Yet only a tiny fraction of these acorns have grown into towering oaks. The balance continue life in relative obscurity, existing outside the scrutiny and interest of the investing public.
One of the biggest obstacles of these companies’ promotion into the big league has been management obduracy: the failure to acknowledge that the founders might have reached the end of the road, and that achieving scale for the business from now on would require a team with new sets of skills and knowhow. It hurts to stand aside and hand over a venture that one conceived and nurtured from infancy.
But history proves that only a few gifted managers are blessed with the talent, vision, courage, and determination to transform humble businesses into international titans. Like Jeff Bezos, who in 30 years has turned his electronic bookstore into a $1trillion enterprise, offering everything from shopping and entertainment to data storage. As a market follower, I enjoy the challenge of trying to identify the next batch of companies that might soon challenge the current generation of heavyweights – Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet and Amazon - as the most valuable corporations in the world. For history has demonstrated that large businesses are not infallible, and that having grown into a colossus, overconfidence, arrogance, poor judgement, and the misallocation of resources can bring down even a giant sequoia.
This week and next are peak reporting season for the large US technology companies. Analysts, strategists, and a myriad of commentators are sharpening their axes, ready to take a swing at any misfortunate business that fails to impress, shows signs of losing its competitive edge or has over-spent on an empty project.
Still, have compassion. Two years of the pandemic and a year of unnecessary war have left deep wounds on society and have ruthlessly disrupted business patterns. It will take ages to navigate our way out of this mess. It hasn’t been an easy time, so be patient. And always remember, it’s a lot easier to write a report than wire a data centre.