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Elon Musk is more than just a man; he is a fundamentally astonishing phenomenon in every sense. Most ultra-successful businesspeople make their fortune and then migrate to Monte Carlo for a retirement full of caviar truffles and Thai massages. Sometimes they found a charity in their name like Bill Gates or venture into politics and become leader of the free world. The common factor is that, in every case, these people choose, quite understandably, to stop plunging all their resources into making their business empires as enormous as possible and opt instead to concentrate on enjoying their lives.
Not Elon, though. Having revolutionised the entire online banking industry and sold off his business to an international giant for a ridiculous profit, Musk then decided to start several more companies and place himself at the forefront of industrial technological progress. He now heads up four of the most important companies in the world, namely SpaceX, Neuralink, The Boring Company and, of course, Tesla, all at the tender age of 47.
It ought, therefore, to surprise nobody that Musk has been followed around for the duration of his entrepreneurial career by a long line of less successful people waiting for their opportunity to get the better of him. All have failed, of course, since although Elon’s approach to business is wildly unorthodox and his escapades have generated a constant stream of headlines for the flock of bleating seals that is the press, he knows very well what he is doing.
It was reported this week in typically dramatic fashion that Tesla, among other major carmakers, had had its trade secrets ‘stolen’ in a colossal data breach. In reality, of course, this sensationalised story will barely make a dent in Tesla’s raging progress and insistent survival, but it is not the first time a man who looks in the mirror and sees God has thought he could get the better of Elon Musk.
Back in 2016, Todd Katz was just an average international oil tycoon, heading up Quest Integrity and providing services for the likes of BP, Shell, Chevron and ExxonMobil. He was going about his business perfectly reasonably and inconspicuously when, all of a sudden, he was overcome with an all-consuming desire to acquire confidential information from Tesla. So, he created a hilariously unconvincing email account at firstname.lastname@example.org and, on 3 August 2016, fired off the following message to Jason Wheeler, then Chief Financial Officer at Tesla:
'why you so cautious w Q3/4 gm guidance on call? also what are your thoughts on disclosing M3 res#? Pros/cons from ir pov? what is your best guess as to where we actually come in on q3/4 deliverables. honest guess? no bs. thx 4 hard work prepping 4 today - em'
Wheeler, upon receiving the message, replied almost immediately, attaching Tesla’s complete financial history. He also sent every other document in the company’s top secret inventory, detailing all its trade secrets and plans for the future. Katz was then able to use this vast volume of confidential information to blackmail his way into prising Tesla from Elon’s control. He owns and runs it to this day.
Except, of course, for one minor detail: there is no scenario that is even vaguely plausible in which that could ever happen. Wheeler spotted the blatant insincerity of the email the moment it whizzed onto his screen and, rather than replying, launched an investigation into the incident which was inevitably traced back to Katz. This was a cataclysmically naïve attempt at fraud from an otherwise prosperous businessman. How on Earth did he see it playing out?
Fast forward to 3 November 2016: Katz has resigned from his position at his company and is being sued by Tesla for his outrageous bid to get his oily hands on its private documents. His lawyer files an objection to Tesla’s case, alleging that the claim against him is unfounded. Might this be the juncture at which this risible tale returns to reality? Perhaps the email was a scam from elsewhere, or a vengeful employee found their way onto Katz’s computer?
On the contrary; Katz’s legal defence was that his attempt at defrauding Tesla was really, really bad. Having lost his job, ruined his career and been publicly degraded, the bloke used his sole opportunity to recover a smidgen of his dignity to draw attention to the pathetic nature of his attempt at a grand crime. He pointed out that the email was ‘grammatically deficient’ and even called it ‘goofy’ and ‘preposterous’.
His defence, essentially, was that his remarkably clumsy attack never posed any real threat to Tesla because it could never have been perceived as genuine by anybody with more than two and a half brain cells. As his defence put it, ‘nobody who received this preposterous and grammatically deficient email ever believed it really came from Elon Musk’.
One of the key points of Katz’s effort to clear his name was the pathetic way in which the email was written. His legal team claimed that Elon ‘is known to be a stickler for grammar and … would never use such atrocious syntax’, going on to assert that Tesla’s lawsuit was a ‘heavy-handed attempt to intimidate and silence Mr Katz, a Tesla critic.’
Katz even had the courage – or the catastrophic near-sightedness, depending on your perspective – to counter-sue Tesla for allegedly hacking into his private Twitter account, @valuationmattrs, which he uses to hurl criticism at Musk and co, claiming that it caused him ‘loss of earnings and damage to reputation’. The former is very difficult to believe given that the account is private and barely has 250 followers; the latter was comprehensively taken care of by Katz himself.
Epitomising perfectly what everyone must have been thinking at that point, Tesla released a statement that said: ‘The oil executive Todd Katz is perfectly capable of embarrassing himself with no help from Tesla. We did not even know that the Twitter pseudonym in question belonged to Mr Katz.
‘What we are most interested in discovering is what people or organizations collaborated with Mr Katz in his attempt to gain information illegally from Tesla and who or what companies may have paid him to do so. That is of great concern to us and many members of the public.’ Touché. Just over a month later, Katz dropped his counter-suit without explanation and the whole case fizzled away, but its lesson remains: do not mess with Elon Musk.