Elon Musk is in the great tradition of feuding entrepreneurs

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It was with a tone of pained regret that Sam Altman and other OpenAI leaders responded this week to a lawsuit from Elon Musk. “We’re sad that it’s come to this with someone whom we’ve deeply admired, someone who inspired us to aim higher, then told us we would fail, started a competitor and then sued us,” they wrote.

Ooh, so I guess they don’t admire the co-founder of Tesla and SpaceX as deeply anymore. The resentment is mutual, given that Musk last week accused Altman’s crew of “stark betrayal” and “perverting OpenAI’s mission”. This tech bromance has turned decidedly sour.

Elon Musk is always up for a feud. Just last year, he challenged Mark Zuckerberg of Meta to a cage fight, and attacked X’s reluctant advertisers profanely. He warmed up to this one gradually before going public. “I’m just being a fool who is essentially providing free funding to a start-up,” he complained in a 2017 email to OpenAI, threatening to withdraw his financial support.

There spoke the true entrepreneur, prone to agonised self-pity. Founders are often “preoccupied with the threat of subjection to some external control or infringement on their will . . . they live in fear of being victimised”, the psychoanalyst and management academic Manfred Kets de Vries once wrote.

The positive aspects of entrepreneurs — their energy, self-confidence, drive for achievement, and willingness to battle against seemingly insurmountable odds — can come with a dark side. Many are also narcissistic and aggressive when threatened: they are, as Kets de Vries put it, “misfits who need to create their own environment”.

Musk fits the bill in both ways, and joins a long tradition of entrepreneurs who were brilliant disrupters of the status quo and dedicated fighters. Thomas Edison found time between inventions to wage “war of the currents” with George Westinghouse in the late 19th century, publicly traducing his competitor and accusing him of endangering lives with AC technology.

Many fights break out within families. They include the legal battles over Hancock Prospecting in Australia between Gina Rinehart and several children, and the former struggle between Anil and Mukesh Ambani over Reliance Industries. Mukesh emerged as India’s wealthiest man and this week held a celebrity-filled pre-wedding celebration for his son Anant in Gujarat.

These stand-offs can sometimes have productive outcomes. Adi and Rudi Dassler, the brothers who founded Adidas and Puma, divided the Bavarian town of Herzogenaurach with their long rivalry, and were finally buried at opposite ends of its cemetery. It was bad for familial relations, but their determination to outwit one another produced two of the world’s top sportswear brands.

Tension often galvanises entrepreneurs: resentment at being put down or ignored provides fuel for the arduous journey to show that others have underestimated them. Lamborghini might have stuck with producing agricultural machinery were it not for Enzo Ferrari reputedly taunting Ferruccio Lamborghini about not knowing enough to make sports cars.

Steve Jobs was also free with insults about Bill Gates during their rivalry over personal computing. “Bill is basically unimaginative and has never invented anything,” Apple’s co-founder told the biographer Walter Isaacson about his counterpart at Microsoft. The dispute turned on an age-old question among close competitors: who has stolen ideas from the other?

But it was not a zero-sum game. Apple and Microsoft are now the two most valuable companies in the world, and Gates was among the guests at the Ambanis’ event this week. He ended up being phlegmatic: “We spurred each other on, even as competitors,” he once reflected after Job’s death. That is the truth, although it is usually acknowledged after the heat of battle.

It would be nice to think that such leaders distract themselves by arguing and would achieve even more if they remained focused on business. But productivity and aggression are intimately tied together. The qualities that make entrepreneurs successful can also make them insufferable to be around, as well as torturing them mentally.

Musk keeps fighting: his attack on Altman and OpenAI came on the rebound from a beef with Larry Page, co-founder of Google and its parent Alphabet. “The future of AI should not be controlled by Larry,” he declared in 2013 when they argued about the future of artificial intelligence. Musk started funding OpenAI after Alphabet acquired DeepMind, having tried to block the deal.

Whatever his concerns about AI spiralling out of control at a for-profit enterprise, his animus against Page helped OpenAI to outflank Google and be worth billions. He does not like the way it partnered with Microsoft rather than staying within his orbit, but he helped to create it. Had he been less ornery, ChatGPT might not exist.

If Musk can be awkward, immature and rude, so were others whose brands live on. It can be shocking to learn of the flaws of many entrepreneurs but it is not a coincidence. Feuding was in their nature, as surely as the other side.

john.gapper@ft.com

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