Jeff Bezos Just Took a Shot at Elon Musk on Twitter. It Did Not Go Well
Amazon’s founder pulled on a thread that Musk would open Twitter up to Chinese interference, only to have his argument unravel.
Jeff Bezos, the founder and former CEO of Amazon, and Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and soon-to-be owner of Twitter, don’t strike me as best buds. The two men have competed over the past few years for the title of the world’s richest man, a title Musk holds. They also sort of compete in space, with Bezos’s Blue Origin competing against Musk’s SpaceX.
I say sort of, because, like Musk’s lead in net worth (some $90 billion as I write this), SpaceX is transforming the space industry with its reusable rockets while Blue Origin is mostly seen as a vanity project. That hasn’t stopped the two from trading shots.
For example, last year the two companies fought over a $3 billion NASA contract, with Musk telling New York Times columnist Kara Swisher that “you cannot sue your way to the moon.”
Taking shots is pretty common among competitors. The thing is, it doesn’t always work out the way you expect. Sometimes it doesn’t go well at all, which can lead to a pretty painful lesson.
On Monday, after it was announced that Twitter had accepted Musk’s offer to take the company private, Bezos retweeted a reporter for The New York Times, asking whether Musk’s acquisition of Twitter meant that China would be gaining more influence over what he called “the town square.”
The insinuation was that Musk was, at least in part, beholden to China because of Tesla’s business there. Which, to be fair, isn’t an entirely unreasonable point. China is extremely important to Tesla, with the company building one of its Gigafactories in Shanghai. It’s also the source of many of the important components Tesla needs to build its vehicles.
The problem is that it’s not really a point people care to hear from Bezos. Almost immediately, the tweet was met with replies pointing out the influence China has over Amazon.
I scrolled through a lot of the more than 9,000 replies to Bezos’s tweet. The overwhelming majority were similar to that one–pointing out that Amazon’s own record on China doesn’t exactly give Bezos the high ground.
Take the products you can buy on Amazon, for example. I have no idea what percentage of products made on Amazon.com are made in China, but a quick search for “iPhone charger” revealed page after page of results, almost all of which were manufactured by companies in China. Even the AmazonBasics brand products show a “country of origin” of China.
Then there’s the company’s compliance with a requirement that it disable customer reviews in China after a book published by President Xi Jinping received a poor review. According to Reuters, the move was “part of a deeper, decadelong effort by the company to win favor in Beijing to protect and grow its business in one of the world’s largest marketplaces.”
Amazon certainly isn’t alone in trying to win favor in a country that represents one of the largest markets for almost every tech company. Apple, for example, has reportedly given in to China’s requirement that user iCloud data be stored on servers managed by companies effectively controlled by the government.
Perhaps sensing that he had lost the thread, Bezos replied to his own tweet an hour and a half later. “My own answer to this question is probably not,” Bezos added. “The more likely outcome in this regard is complexity in China for Tesla, rather than censorship at Twitter.”
Bezos makes a point. There is certainly a non-zero possibility that if Twitter does something to upset the Chinese government, or–in a more likely scenario–refuses to do something to appease China, the country could retaliate against Tesla. It’s just that Bezos, who stepped down from CEO of Amazon last year, might not be the best person to make that point.
It turns out that there’s a valuable lesson here for every entrepreneur. Sending a tweet is easy–maybe too easy–especially when the prevailing current of public opinion is running in a direction to your benefit. It’s tempting to see your rival generating negative attention and view it as an opportunity to jump in.
Except, the people who might view Musk’s purchase of Twitter as a bad thing aren’t Jeff Bezos fans. They aren’t just scrolling through Twitter waiting to come across his insightful take on the matter.
Instead, Bezos opened himself up to criticism. Not only that, but he invited scrutiny and criticism not just related to Amazon, but to his other companies as well–one of which is The Washington Post.
Had someone sent the same tweet as Bezos when he purchased the Post, it might have read: “Interesting question. Did the Chinese government just gain a bit of leverage over the paper of record in the seat of the most powerful government in the world?”
The lesson is that emotionally intelligent leaders have the self-awareness to recognize that they might not be viewed as an authoritative voice on a subject and the self-control to let it pass. They don’t take a shot at their competition just because the opportunity is there, but they recognize that sometimes it’s just not worth it.