David again whipped Goliath’s ass.
In this case, David is Jack Sweeney, a college student at the University of Central Florida, and Goliath is Elon Musk, a multi-billionaire.
Sweeney created a Twitter account called ElonJet, which tracks where Elon’s private jet is at any given time. He developed a bot that monitors activity on Elon’s aircraft and cross-references it with another website that posts anonymous FAA flight plans. With this information, he can determine Elon’s location.
It proved popular with people interested in where Elon is.
And Elon doesn’t like it when people have data on him.
In 2006 data science mathematician Clive Humby proclaimed that “data is the new oil.” It took a little longer for the rest of the world to catch on, but in 2017 The Economist agreed that data was more valuable than oil.
This has been proven in the value of companies such as Facebook and Google, which have compiled data on tens of millions of consumers.
It also occasionally gives power to the little guy. Like college students in Florida who can gather data and share it on a very public channel.
Understandably Elon was concerned.
His movements were now accessible to anyone — including stalkers. This presented a security risk to him and his family.
In effect, Sweeney had a version of Find My Phone installed on Elon Musks’ phone and was sharing this with the world.
Elon is an avid user of Twitter, and now the platform was being used against him. He has used Twitter extensively for marketing and business purposes.
It has helped his company, Tesla, which doesn’t need to advertise, relying on Elon’s powerful influence on social media.
In 2019, Hyundai spent $2000 in advertising per vehicle sold. Ford was just under $2000 per car. Tata, GM, and Fiat Chrysler all spent between $1200 and $1500 in advertising per sale.
Tesla spent just 14 cents. Yes, fourteen cents.
Elon has caused massive price movements on crypto and even ran a poll on whether he should Tesla shares.
But this time, the tables had turned — someone else had the power on Twitter.
Now is the part that business leaders and aspiring entrepreneurs can learn from.
Elon wanted the account shut down. How could he make this happen, and what would be needed to make this happen quickly and quietly?
He sent Sweeney a private message.
“Can you take this down? It is a security risk.”
This was a smart first message, playing on Sweeney’s emotions and reminding him of the threat. I would have thrown in a please, but Elon doesn’t mess around.
Sweeney played it cool, even though he admitted Elon was his idol, taking seven hours to reply.
“Yes, I can, but it’ll cost you a Model 3 only joking unless?”
The reply was cheeky but was open-ended, effectively throwing the ball back into Elon’s court. It was implied that he needed to make an offer of some sort.
“I don’t love the idea of being shot by a nutcase. Ok, how about $5K for this account and generally helping make it slightly harder for crazy people to track me.”
Musk is one of the most successful business people in history for a reason. Again he tried to play to Sweeney’s empathy and reinforced the threat. He also made a financial offer. But to me, this is where he miscalculated.
His net worth fluctuates, but it’s just over $241 billion as I write. $5000 is such a paltry amount for him; it had no chance of being accepted.
He also had the power to offer something more valuable than a lump sum of money—an opportunity to boost Sweeney’s career.
If Sweeney was trying to extort Musk or be unreasonable, he could have made an outrageous counter offer. But instead, he asked for $50,000 and an internship.
The marketer and entrepreneur in me see this as the perfect PR opportunity for Elon.
He could have offered to pay for Sweeney’s college fees and give him an internship when he graduated. The media would have loved the story, and there would be a lot of positive coverage globally. On top of the PR benefits, it is evident that Sweeney has some critical skills that could potentially help Tesla or SpaceX in some way.
Instead, after saying that he would consider the offer, Elon ghosted Sweeney and eventually blocked his Twitter account.
This had the opposite outcome for Elon than what he had hoped.
Sweeney publicized their messages. Media lept on the story, and it went viral.
In addition to the messages above, Elon also asked Sweeney how he had managed to capture the data and what could be done. He was actively seeking advice. Again proving that Sweeney had skills that Elon could use.
The worse thing for Elon — who wanted the account shut down, the publicity added almost 300,000 followers to the ElonJet account. Many would never have found the account were it not for the media.
While Sweeney didn’t get a job from Elon, Stratos Jet Charters, a US-based private charter flight firm, offered him a job on its tech development team.
It shows that Twitter can be a valuable tool to get a position, even without antagonizing a CEO. It can even make someone a billionaire.
Ryan Graves was working as an unpaid intern at Foursquare when he saw a tweet from the founder of Uber, Travis Kalanick.
Graves immediately replied to the tweet and recommended the best candidate he knew — himself.
Ryan got the job and became the third full-time employee at the rideshare company. He resigned from Uber in 2017, but he became a billionaire thanks to their IPO in 2019. The 2% ownership Graves received in Uber was valued at $1.6 billion in 2019.
It shows the power of social media in searching for a job.
Elon Musk is incredibly successful, but he can still make poor business decisions.
In this case, he had the opportunity to solve a problem and turn it into a positive outcome. Instead, he lost a simple negotiation against an inexperienced teenager.
In Elon’s defense — a sentence I rarely type — he may have thought Sweeney was extorting him. And that if he paid him off, it would encourage others to try similar methods.
Perhaps that may have occurred, but I still believe it was an opportunity wasted.
In the end, Sweeney has a unique story to add to his resume and LinkedIn bio, and Elon still has to deal with a Twitter account publicizing his movements.
Sweeney 1. Musk 0
Sweeney has also set up Twitter accounts to follow other entrepreneurs and celebrities like Jeff Bezos, Mark Cuban, and Drake. The latter two have come from requests from his growing fan base.
Interestingly none of them have the following of Musk.
Perhaps Bill Gates isn’t as interesting as Elon Musk. Or maybe it’s because Bill hasn’t made a fuss about the account.
It will be interesting to see if any of the other billionaires have more success negotiating with Sweeney or if they are content to let the teenager do his thing.
In the meantime, like any good entrepreneur, Sweeney has made a move to protect his business. He has created a website, Ground Control, that allows him to monetize his service.
It’s a wise move to minimize the risk of Twitter closing his account should any of the billionaires lodge complaints and try to get his accounts closed.
He has successfully leveraged Twitter into a business opportunity. And won a battle against Elon Musk.
Not a bad start to his business career.
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Author: Ash Jurberg