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Tesla’s Once ‘Boring’ Earnings Q&A Opens up to Small Holders (1)

Jan. 30, 2019, 3:48 PMUpdated: Jan. 31, 2019, 12:11 AM

Earnings call questions, once deemed “boring” by Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk, have opened up to smaller shareholders thanks to a startup called Say Inc.

Say, which is building investor communication tools, launched a page on its website that used Tesla’s Jan. 30 earnings call as a test case for letting shareholders submit and vote on questions for company executives.

Tesla opened its call with a few of the more than 300 questions that individual investors with about $60 million in combined shares posted on Say’s site. Musk answered these questions—on topics such as electric vehicle demand and production plans—before taking those posed by Wall Street analysts. Questions on earnings calls are typically limited to analysts.

Say plans to replicate the Q&A system at other companies, which could help democratize the process of communicating financial results to analysts, the media, and institutional investors.

Even with the novelty of the small shareholder questions, Tesla’s Q&A proved to be otherwise routine. The biggest news came at the call’s end, when Musk announced that the company’s chief financial officer is retiring and being replaced internally. Tesla also reported earnings that fell short of analysts’ estimates.

Other companies such as Zillow Group Inc. have taken earnings call questions via social media before, but Say’s platform is the first of its kind because it verifies the questioners’ share ownership. Shareholders who want to submit questions have to sign in through their brokerage accounts.

“We’re building the rails for a direct communications framework between companies and their shareholders,” Say’s co-founder Alexander Lebow said in an interview. The startup is also developing an app for shareholder voting in company elections as part of its goal to encourage more individual involvement in corporate governance.

Say has raised $18 million in financing from backers including hedge fund billionaire Steve Cohen’s venture capital firm Point72 Ventures.

Tesla as Test Case

Tesla has previously included an individual investor on an earnings call. In a call for the first quarter of 2018, CEO Musk dismissed analysts’ questions as “boring” and “dry” and turned to answer questions from Galileo Russell, who owns 66 Tesla shares and hosts a YouTube channel called HyperChange TV.

Russell had tweeted to Musk before the call if he could ask some questions, and Musk agreed to it.

Investors responded to Musk’s handling of the call by driving down Tesla’s stock.

After the call, Say reached out to Russell to help with its question platform. Russell, now an adviser to Say, talked with Tesla’s investor relations team about including shareholder questions on its latest earnings call for the fourth quarter of 2018. One of the Say-submitted questions Musk answered on the Jan. 30 call came from Russell.

“Elon places value on retail investors that have stuck with the company,” Russell said. Maintaining ties to these individual investors has been cited as part of the reason Musk abandoned a short-lived bid to take Tesla private.

Tesla makes sense as a test case for a new approach to earnings calls, said Rebecca Corbin, founder and CEO of Corbin Advisors, which advises public companies on investor relations. But Corbin isn’t expecting a “breakthrough” just yet.

“It takes a long time to change the earnings process,” she said. “We’re still just getting to the point where we’re writing our press releases differently, let alone using this technology.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrea Vittorio in Washington at avittorio@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Roger Yu at ryu@bloomberglaw.com; Seth Stern at sstern@bloomberglaw.com