Jul 14, 2016 · 4 minutes

Four years ago, Elon Musk was one of our very first PandoMonthly speakers.

In an hour long interview, we talked about lots of things: Crashing his brand new and uninsured sports car on highway 280, the nadir of his cash-poor months trying to keep both Tesla and SpaceX afloat, and what else he’d like to build if he wasn’t-- yunno-- running two supremely ambitious companies already.

Ironically, Musk was an hour late to the event having got stuck in traffic -- a long time foe Musk still hopes to vanquish-- but he was well worth the wait. It’s one of our most popular videos we’ve ever produced. It was also one of the first times he publicly talked about the Hyperloop.

With every other concept Musk has come up with, he’s exerted a large amount of control over how it’s built. At PayPal he and (Pando investor) Peter Thiel jockeyed for power, falling out at the time. At Tesla, he tried trusting other CEOs so he could focus on SpaceX. That didn’t end well.

But even Musk knew the odds were low he had another moonshot in him given how much was left to do with Tesla and SpaceX.

I’ve interviewed Musk a few times over the years, and he’s always said running both companies wasn’t sustainable and was “well past the fun part.” But he doesn’t trust anyone else with executing two visions that he believes are important for the world. He deeply wants to lessen our dependence on foreign oil and retire on Mars. Like most founders, he trusts himself more than anyone else to pull off his vision of how to get there.

Even SolarCity a company that he’s comparatively had a more distant relationship with, is potentially coming under Musk’s direct control with a proposed and controversial merger between Tesla and SolarCity. Musk is -- if anything-- taking more control over this trio of ambitious companies he invested in post-PayPal, not less.

So the Hyperloop was a new strategy for Musk. Put the white paper out in the world and let other people do it.

And in doing so, we see perhaps the starkest example of the difference between an idea for a disruptive company and actually building one.

If you wondered whether a team Musk wasn’t on could still pull of something this futuristic, a bizarre lawsuit this week may have given us an answer. Despite the early hope and definite promises that the Hyperloop would for sure be running in just four years, the most high profile company building it, Hyperloop One, is in total disarray. One of the co-founders and top engineers on the project, Brogan BamBrogan, is suing other founders alleging many disturbing improprieties and nepotism, among them that (another Pando investor) Shervin Pishevar was paying his fiancee $40,000 a month to handle the company’s PR. BamBrogan’s internal complaints allegedly prompted Pishevar’s brother to leave a noose on his chair.

We’ll see how the case develops. But no company needs this kind of distraction, or its technical co-founder departing, particularly one that promises to hurtle people at top speeds through a tube.  

The Hyperloop is one of the most ambitious projects I can remember anyone attempting. It makes Uber look like a photosharing app. It requires the ability to raise massive amounts of cash, build cutting edge technology with a deep understanding of physics, work cooperatively with regulators, and build a brand the public will trust.

Money is the easiest of those. It remains to be seen whether this team, which includes investors and networkers, one investor’s brother, and a long time senior executive from Cisco, have the scientific chops and brand building skill to pull the rest of those things off.

Musk gets his fair share of criticism. He was widely criticized recently for the SolarCity and Tesla deal, one that would benefit him as the top shareholder in both companies more than anyone else, some complained. Jokes about how he self-negotiated the deal abounded on Twitter.

My view is that Musk is one of those handful of truly unique CEOs, in a class with Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg. Assuming Uber ever goes public and makes the transition smoothly to self driving cars-- huge ifs -- Travis Kalanick could one day be on that list too.

They may make seemingly crazy moves shareholders don’t agree with-- or self-serving moves, like Zuckerberg’s recent changes in share structure designed to exert more control over the company. But they’ve been successful enough they’ve earned latitude to do things other leaders simply couldn’t get away with. You trust them based on past execution or you don’t. Musk has made clear the Solar City deal is part of his Tesla masterplan. Don’t like it? Sell the shares.

The problem is when founders who aren’t nearly so talented and haven’t proven themselves think most accepted rules of propriety don’t apply to them. Trying to build an idea Elon Musk came up with doesn’t make you Elon Musk.

If Musk couldn’t bear to watch what Martin Eberhard was doing to Tesla, I can’t imagine how he feels watching the drama around Hyperloop One.

In my least favorite movie about tech, The Social Network, the Larry Summers character has a great line to the Winklevosses: “If you were capable of building Facebook, you would have built Facebook.”

For the Hyperloop to exist, it may not need Elon Musk exactly, but it needs someone like him.