Today’s guest said that rather than fighting the reality of being wrong, he pivoted. Then, when the next idea didn’t work, he had to do it again.
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Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy, home of the ambitious upstart, the place where I interview entrepreneurs about how they built their businesses. What do you do if the first idea for a business that you come up with doesn’t work? Today’s guest said, “Rather than fighting the reality of being wrong, he pivoted; and then when the next idea didn’t work, he did it again.” Ron Mahabir is the founder of Greenlots which makes the stations that recharges all of those electric vehicles that you’re seeing on the road smarter. I invited him here to talk about how he did it and how his business is doing; Ron, welcome.
Ron: Andrew, thank you so much, great to be here.
Andrew: What size revenue are you guys doing?
Ron: Yeah, we started actually 2 companies in the clean tech space combined we’re now over 20 million for 2013. 1 business is in solar, biogas, and renewable energy. And Greenlots, the main business that I’m focused on now and running is in the electric vehicle charging space. So, combined, we have 80+ employees and 20 million in booked revenue for 2013 already.
Andrew: Booked, oh; so, people have already committed that they’re going to be buying from you, because this isn’t the kind of decision that they make at the last minute.
Ron: Yeah, it’s infrastructure, so it is mostly longer term, medium-term projects and contracts.
Andrew: And for Greenlots, the company we will be focusing on in this interview, what percentage or how much of the revenue that you mentioned come from there?
Ron: It’s a much smaller portion of that. It’s still electric vehicles are still an emerging section within clean energy. Transportation as a whole is changing dramatically, so it’s still in the early days; so, it is a minority percentage of that. It’s a much smaller percentage of that number.
Andrew: OK. You know what actually before we start, I asked you if you felt comfortable talking about your revenue and you said, “I’ve listed to you interviews for a long time and of course, Andrew, you actually try to be nice about it. So, I’m going to push a little bit more.” I just want to get an understanding of: is this a company just getting on its feet; is this a company that is profitable or not profitable? Right, where does Greenlots stand?
Ron: It’s seven figures; we’re a privately held company. As a whole both companies we started from scratch in 2007 and 2008. It is from 0, Greenlots is low seven figures.
Andrew: And you started this business because you had a realization. What was that realization which leads you to get into this space?
Ron: Yeah, I’ve been fortunate enough to have some great mentors over the last 15 years since I came out of school and I’ve been very focus on major macro events, given their influence. So, coming out of, it was college, it was dot come day; it was kind of like what you did. I didn’t really think about it from a macro perspective, but a lot of friends were starting companies and so I went into the whole internet space and rode that most of the way up and unfortunately most of the way back down. And then moved out to Asia after the Asian financial crisis and you know we were one of the largest, with the partner mind, for a fund called Colony Capital. We were one of the largest buyers of bad debt. So what’s happening in the US, bad banks and properties. And then in 2002 moved back to the US and saw the same thing going on here. And so we did the same kind of bet against the real estate market. And then in 2006 I really realized, you know, once I had kids that we’ve got 7 billion people on the planet. We’re running out of water, we’re running out of food, we’re running out of energy, we’re running out of oil, you know the environment’s a mess. And so by far the biggest macro event of our lifetime, certainly yours and mine, is all about resources, clean resources and the environment. And so I started this business in 2006 mainly for that reason.
Andrew: I see. And that business that you talked about that you had back, the internet company, must have been on your mind as you were launching Greenlots. What happened there? You guys raised some money and as you said it didn’t turn out the way you expected. How much money did you raise?
Ron: For Greenlots?
Andrew: No, this is the previous company that didn’t go so well.
Ron: Oh, oh, no. So we were actually investing in internet startups.
Ron: We put about $750,000 into three startups, turned it into $30 million plus on paper and then, you know, when a stock goes from 1 dollar to 90 dollars and then it drops to 50 you’re like, hey, you know when you’re 25, 26 years old, you’re like hey it was just at 90 and then it drops to 50, you know like it’s going to go back. It drops to 25 you’re like hey it was just at 50, then it drops to 10 then it drops to 5, and basically we got out. We made money but it wasn’t the 100x or whatever it was, you know, multiple that we started off with. I mean, just as quickly as it went up it went down. So it was a really good lesson from a timing perspective. If you can take stuff off the table, some of your winnings off the table, take it off. Don’t get greedy and you know when you’re young, fortunately it happened when I was young, it’s an important lesson especially as an entrepreneur to realize when you’ve gotten enough.
Andrew: So that’s the big lesson. When it’s time to take money off the table, take it off the table.
Ron: For sure. I think, you know you always want to leave something for the buyer. I mean you don’t want to just squeeze everything out. And you know anytime you have those kinds of multiples in such a short amount of time. I mean at least in my lifetime from a macro perspective that was the fastest creation of wealth that I had seen. And when you go from a dollar to 90 dollars on a share price in two year, I mean, come on, what’s your upside from there, right? Just sell. And certainly we had lockups and things like that, but you know we could have sold it at many multiples higher then what we did.
Andrew: Were you married at the time.
Ron: I was not, I was single.
Andrew: Okay. And then you told us what you did next. And at some point you were married, you are married right now, and had another hardship, right? Where your wife and you rallied and you said we’re going to continue. When was this? At what point in your life was that? Was this as you were running Greenlots?
Ron: Yeah, so in 2006 when I started (?) Clean Tech, which is the parent company of Greenlots, focused on clean energy, basically this was in Asia so it’s an emerging sector in emerging markets and certainly after 2007, 2008 was one of the worst financial environments globally, right? So not a lot of investors were looking at clean energy, clean technology, so, I had to go all in. Basically put in all of my own cash, retirement accounts, sold gold bars. I mean I literally….
Andrew: You owned gold bars?
Ron: Yeah. After, from a macro perspective after the internet boom the biggest opportunity that my partners and I saw was gold. I mean at 300 dollars an ounce given the amount of credit that was being printed globally, you know gold by far was the cheapest asset. And so we went in pretty big, rode that most of the way up, had to sell early given that (?) was still a big component of buying gold and silver right now, but given what’s happening with credit expansion via currency. But yeah, certainly was all in, my wife was all in. We were living with my in-laws for a while, literally lived there for three years. You know at some points we were month to month. I mean I was absolutely all in. Now you know we’ve got revenues, we’ve got profits in one of the businesses. You know we’ve raised a tremendous amount of third party capital. So we’re in good shape. But yeah, I mean, bouncing checks and liquidating all your retirement accounts and going all in is pretty tough. For me I’m okay but once you bring your family into it and once you have kids it’s a whole different story.
Andrew: And that’s so that you can launch this business that you believe in.
Ron: Absolutely. I mean, what am I going to do, right? I mean if you really think about where the world is headed and once you have that realization, and John Dorr of Kleiner Perkins I mean literally, was probably one of the most pivotal moments I think it was 2007 or so. He was at a conference, I forget if it was TED or something like that. But anyway he broke down, he basically was like, look we’re not going to make it and we’ve got too many people and we need more focus on the environment, on food, on water, on energy. And so that’s really when I said, look, how much money do I need, right? I’ve got everything I want. I’ve got food, I’ve got a shelter, I’ve got a great family, friends. What else do I need? I don’t buy anything, I don’t want anything. Yeah, so I wanted to make a greater impact on the planet.
Andrew: Did you ever read the book Confessions of a Stock Operator?
Ron: I haven’t, no.
Andrew: It’s this old boot that I remember the Wall Street Journal years ago suddenly discovered and said, no one knows for sure if it’s fiction or nonfiction, it turns out it was fiction. But it tells the story of an old stock trader and you can see as he learns, and at one point he gets everything right and he bets against the stock and he’s absolutely right and the stocks start to take a hit, but then the government steps in and screws up everything that he planned and basically helps out this company and so he’s hurt because of it. I think I’m telling it right. But essentially the moral of the story is you can get everything right and still be hurt financially. So yes we have to do something. Yes electric vehicles could be the solution, but something could go wrong. Why didn’t you feel, something out of my hands could really screw this up? I can’t put it all in, I’ve got a wife, I’ve got family.
Ron: Yeah, you know you’re absolutely right. This is an emerging sector and it’s kind of like the internet when you were in it. You know a lot of these models busted because the CapEx was just too expensive on the infrastructure side. But what evolved out of that rubble from 2000 to 2004 was Facebook and Skype and Linked In and Wikipedia and all these things, you know now the cost of all this infrastructure is so cheap. And so the same thing happened with clean (?) or is happening rather.
Andrew: So you just felt, I am right. This thing is going to work. I’m right and I’m capable and I can do this thing. It’s worth the risk, I’m betting on myself, everything.
Ron: What else am I going to do? Once you understand where the world is headed. And especially living in Asia, if you go to China or India you see the pollution. You see everyone moving up from shanty towns really in a lot of places to our agricultural lifestyles to owning a condo and a car and a TV, you know the American lifestyle. It’s just not going to work. It’s just, we’re going to hit a wall. And until shit hits the fan you know it’s life as usual. I mean we’ve seen that with the credit crisis. Suddenly in 2008 Lehman and Behr went under and then everyone woke up. So I don’t think I have an option. What else am I going to do? Yeah I can make more money doing something else but I won’t be happy because I know where we need the most effort. And you know, if you can make money doing clean energy and show a commercial model then you’ve been successful. I don’t believe in government subsidies for the long term. And capitalism is still the best system. So if we can make it change through capitalism, which is what I like doing, why not? What’s my downside right? I mean I can always go get a job, so.
Andrew: That’s what Matt McMullen said to me when I asked him why did you such a big risk. He was like, you know what, I could always get a job. Alright, so you see this opportunity the first thing you decide to launch is a car company, right?
Ron: No. So Greenlots in 2007 we brought in the first electric (?).
Andrew: Oh excuse me, right.
Ron: (??) manufacture….
Andrew: Not that you were going to manufacture it but you were going to import it.
Andrew: How do you even know where to get the cars and where to sell the cars? This isn’t a business that you had any experience in.
Ron: Yeah so we looked it, so when you look at the energy picture you’ve got electricity and then you’ve got transportation fields, right? So on the electricity side you’ve got coal, you’ve got oil, you’ve got liquids, you’ve got renewables, you’ve got nuclear. So you’ve got a good mix of feed stocks. On the transportation side you’ve just have oil today. 96% of our transportation is oil. A little bit of natural gas but that’s pretty much it. So we looked at fuel cells, we looked at bio fuels, first generation bio fuels, etcetera. And we realized that electric vehicles have the most promise. Why? Because the infrastructure is mostly there, right? There’s power sockets all around you, right? And if you charge electric vehicles at the right time. So a low curve for your perspective goes like this. In the morning it cranks up, and then in the afternoon it cranks down as you start going to bed.
Andrew: You mean when electricity is used the most?
Ron: When electricity is used the most. And so at night time if you can charge your car when you’re parked anyway, you can help smooth out the load curve. We lose more than 50% of electricity in generation and transmission. So storage for energy is the key. Electric vehicles have been around for a hundred plus years. It just made sense to me. We brought in electric vehicles. And I do have a co-founder, it wasn’t just me. We brought in the first electric vehicles to Singapore, amended laws to allow for electric vehicles. And then we didn’t realize that you need smart charging infrastructure in order to make the grid more efficient.
We never really wanted to sell vehicles. Distribution of any kind of product in Asia is not fun because people will do it for half the price, half the margins that you will. We just wanted to play around with it. We did set up a distribution entity, but that wasn’t our overall objective. It was just to play around with it and see where it could take us.
Andrew: To just launch so that you could understand the business because when you’re studying it from the outside you don’t have nearly as much of an understanding as when you’re actually in the business. That’s your thinking?
Ron: Yes, for sure. In this world today it is a relatively new technology; for me it was. And so we needed to play around with it.
Andrew: But you have very limited money. You can’t just afford to play around, right? So where do you get the cars? How do you make sure you at least get back what you invested in the cars?
Ron: We’ve raised millions of dollars into our clean energy businesses. I’ve personally invested millions of dollars into these businesses. And so we have the capital to play around. Ultimately we actually got government funding. The Singapore government stepped up. They saw the opportunity, and so they were our first backer.
Andrew: Okay. So before you even imported the cars you already had money, both your own and other peoples’ money?
Ron: For sure. We had actually raised $5 million to go out and raise a $100 million clean energy fund. And then the crisis hit, and ultimately we started using that money for early stage start-ups. That’s how it all started.
Andrew: I’m not following. Early stage start-ups that you guys were going to invest in?
Ron: Yes. The two companies that we started. One is in clean power generation. The other is Greenlots, the electric vehicle charging company.
Andrew: Okay. All right. So you bring the cars in. You realize this, of course, is not going to be the right direction. Is this where the first pivot come in?
Ron: It does. We realize since 90% in people in Singapore live in highrise buildings and condominiums, in Asia most people do. If you don’t have charging infrastructure, it’s the same issue we talked about earlier before in the interview with you living in a condominium. Previously trying to get charging there you need to be able to bill someone. You need to be able to give access control to a charger. You can’t just roll up and start charging. Someone needs to pay for the electricity.
Andrew: Okay. So you realize it doesn’t work. You’re still not giving up on the idea. You’ve just said, “I’ve learned a little. It’s time to adjust.” What’s the next step? Where do you go to?
Ron: We spent about ten months amending laws in Singapore to allow for electric vehicles. The government was great; which is pretty fast I think locally. And then we ultimately started building our own hardware. We looked around, couldn’t find cost-effective, simple, affordable hardware that was networked, which is key, connected to a cloud. And so we just started developing our own solution. The Singapore government stepped up and gave us a $500,000 loan. That was what kicked off our hardware and software solution.
Andrew: You guys were going to create the hardware that would allow anyone who has an electric vehicle to plug in and charge and not bring down the electric grid with the electricity they’re building?
Ron: That’s right.
Andrew: Okay. So what’s the problem with that? It feels like then that works? Actually, no. It doesn’t feel like it works. I’m thinking about it and I realize, “Wait. There aren’t enough cars in Singapore. So you say I’m going to create these charging stations.” Fine. Even if that were to work, where are all the cars you are going to be charge? It’s a chicken and egg issue, isn’t it?
Ron: Sir, you are absolutely right. But the beautiful part of Singapore is that it’s an island. You can’t drive more than say 40 or 50 miles in either direction. It’s flat so electricity is relatively clean. You’ve got natural gas. 85% of Singapore is natural gas. So bringing in electric vehicles makes a lot of sense. You’re never going to run out of charge. But, yes, there are about 400,000 cars in Singapore. So it was a great test bed for us, and we actually won a contract on Singapore government, along with Bosch, and a big German automotive company to provide a five year test bed for charging all the electrical vehicles in Singapore. So we’re probably two years through that already now.
Andrew: It seems like there’s some benefit to being in a smaller country than the U.S. Talk a little bit more about that.
Ron: Singapore’s been great. So we actually became an incubator for Clean Tech companies, early stage Clean Tech companies in Singapore working directly with the government. They’re very pro business. It’s really called Singapore Inc. The government is super friendly to work with, coming from the U.S. growing up here dealing with the government is not necessarily a fun thing, but in Singapore they’re very pro business, so I mean, they don’t have resources. They don’t have a lot of land. So they’ve had to become very aggressive on the capitalist side so now the financial hub of Asia manufacturing at one point for semi conductors and high tech stuff. They were top chemicals, refining, you name it they’ve brought it industry and they had to, so it’s a human resource hub.
Andrew: How do you get in with the government? Just because a government’s friendly doesn’t mean they’re going to be friendly to you. How do you get in?
Ron: We were kind of one of the pioneers in the Clean Tech sector and so government was looking for companies and people to help push that sector so the key sectors in Singapore, that they’re very focused on, are Biotech, Clean Tech, and I. T. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time.
Andrew: I talked to sophomore entrepreneurs who created interesting web apps and I asked them, how did you do it. They had to get a technical co- founder because software, even though it’s been around and it’s fairly easy to do, even high school kids can build it at home, you need an expertise. You need to know enough to do it. You didn’t have an expertise in electricity in setting up these stations. How did you do it?
Ron: Yeah, and honestly it took a while and I think any new sector, other than BioTech, which, unless you’ve really studied it, I think is tough to get into, but any new sector just takes time, right? It took me about 18 months to figure out what a kilowatt hour was and where to make money along the value chain.
Andrew: What happened in those 18 months? What did you do specifically? You learned about electricity and how it worked. What else?
Ron: So we probably looked at 1500 deals in Southeast Asia, China, India, to invest in. Honestly finding kick-ass entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia is tough. Asian educational system is more rigid, I would say as compared to how you and I grew up. And so it is very tough to find new ideas. It’s more a markets to roll out existing technologies so we were very focused on that, not looking at kind of new technologies but how can we roll out existing [??] technologies from the U.S. primarily from Europe in these markets and honestly we couldn’t find any companies to invest in so we started our own. But it’s just a matter of going out, looking at different business models, seeing what works, seeing what doesn’t work, reading a lot.
Andrew: As a potential investor, entrepreneurs tell you about this phase. They teach you about this phase. Right?
Andrew: They teach you what works. They tell you about the past job that they had and why that didn’t work. When you talk to them and you don’t invest and a few months later they come back and they tell you that no one invested the business or someone did and the business failed. You learned that way too, so is that how we figured out. Is that a big part of it?
Ron: Yeah, so look, I mean, even when we’re investing in the internet I’m not a super technical person and you can hire people who are super experts in specific technologies that you’re looking for. Same with energy, I mean, we brought on partners who have been building large scale power plants, etcetera, building some of the first solar-power plants globally, coal fire, on and on, right? So you can hire technical expertise. I think the key is understanding the macro picture. Where are things going to, the way to really make money is to try to look out three to five to seven years, where is the world going to be and where do you want to play along the value chain. So I’ll give you an example. In 2006 we looked at the solar market, right? And solar was so hot then. Everyone was going into production of solar modules. Solar modules had a wait list of six months. You couldn’t even talk to solar panel manufacturers. I mean, it’s just unbelievable, right? They’re gross margins were 40, 50 percent. In manufacturing anytime you have that people start going in, right? So everyone and their mothers started building solar production capabilities, right? So there were all these factories going up, and China, India, US, Europe, etc., and then there was an over-supply and everything collapsed. We saw that coming.
Literally, solar prices were about $5 per watt when we started in 2007. Today, because of all that overcapacity, they’re at $0.50 or $0.60 per watt. You’ve had a 10 times drop in price, but it was so easy to see that, if you did your homework.
Not a lot of people want to spend the two or three hours per day reading up on background trends and where things are going. If you can focus on that, however, that’s where we’ve made money historically. Harvard has done a study on that. It’s not who you know, but whether you can foresee macro trends, basic macro trends, then capture that with the right company and management team, that’s the key to success.
Andrew: So you did all that, and still the first and second versions didn’t work out. Let’s find out why now, if you did all that research, why didn’t the second version work out either?
Ron: It turns out that in hardware, there are a lot of great power electronics companies in the world that make hardware. They’re great at it and they’ve been doing it for decades. They’ve got the manufacturing resources, scale and buying power for components and all these things. It’s not a business, in my view, that is not optimal for a start-up unless it has unlimited resources.
Ultimately, over time, we realized the software space is really where we should play. It takes a nimble, creative, flexible and fast-moving team to develop it. Some of these larger companies weren’t necessarily structurally set up to develop creative and cool B to C (?) software. It was a natural evolution.
We’ve sold a lot of hardware and done OK with it, but ultimately where the juice is, in our view, is really the software, system integration, and the whole B to C experience.
Andrew: I see. Do you have an example of a situation that made you say, ‘No more hardware. This just isn’t right.’?
Ron: Oh yeah, I have plenty of examples. We’ve sold systems in 13 countries. Every country has different wireless providers, the weather is different, and consumers are different in different markets. In Asia, consumers will treat hardware with a little more respect, but if you go to other certain markets, they’ll be taking a baseball bat and trying to bat these things.
Andrew: You put your charging station out in a country, and people just said, ‘Hey! Here’s something we can hit with a bat!’ and they just vandalized it?
Ron: Yeah. They’re looking to take it home.
Andrew: And plug it into their own houses so they could charge their cars?
Ron: Exactly. I don’t know what people think. I have a lot of respect for people in hardware.
Andrew: How about on the manufacturing side? I feel like there’s a big movement in hardware right now. Everyone’s thinking that Kickstarter is kicking this off and in the future, just like today entrepreneurs create software, they’ll all be creating hardware in their homes and building hardware companies.
There are some challenges. On the production side, do you have an example of one of the big challenges you had?
Ron: Scaling up, creating 100 to 300 charging stations you can do. Once you get into mass manufacturing of tens of thousands of units, like in China, it’s a rough business. Once hardware gets to that point, the margins are razor thin. You’re targeting 2%, 3%, or 5% gross margins on hardware, which for us is just not exciting. Any kind of managing people to ensure that every product is 100% correct before it gets shipped out is just not in mine or my partner’s background.
Hardware is not for the faint of heart. You’ve got to know what you’re doing.
Andrew: In your background is entrepreneurship. Your dad was from Fiji. Was he an entrepreneur?
Ron: Absolutely, my dad came from nothing and lived the whole American dream. He was a small-time real estate player who built up from nothing as a school teacher.
It’s more of the mentality, though. Back then, we didn’t have the kind of environment for entrepreneurs that has evolved in the last 20 or so years. The mental mindset was, ‘How can do this better? How can I do this differently?’ That’s what I grew up with.
Andrew: That, and fixing toilets. Why did your dad, who was an entrepreneur, who came to this country to make something big, have you fix toilets, and what other things did he have you do?
Ron: Yeah, so I was lucky enough to grow up in the Bay Area, great part of the world. And my parents, my Dad was an entrepreneur and so everything he had he kept rolling into property, which was brilliant at the time, the 1960′s and ’70s and ’80s California property was cheap. It isn’t quite so anymore. But I didn’t appreciate, growing up all my friend’s had all the latest toys and gadgets and all that kind of stuff, and I had one box of toys and was never very happy with that. But you know what? Later on in life I really appreciate that because I think the worst thing you can do to your kids is spoil them, right? So if they’re not hungry, you know if you already have everything when you’re 16 years old, why do you need to work, right? And so for me it was like I had to go out there and get everything myself. So my Dad really instilled that in me, you know we had a bunch of rental properties and so summers and time off I’d be painting, fixing, not necessarily all the toilets but, you know, putting in new toilets. You know those kinds of things, which as a small kid I think is absolutely, I think the best education I can give my two boys, I have two boys a 4 year old and a 7 year old, I’m already exposing them to work. I think that’s the best thing you can do to your kids is, not Harvard, it’s not Stanford, it’s getting your kids starting their own businesses, working with you on your businesses, I think that’s the best education you can have, if someone’s interested in entrepreneurship.
Andrew: I was at a Clearstone Ventures partners party years ago in LA and this guy, I guess he had a few drinks in him so he was really open with me, said Andrew you won’t believe what life is like here. He said I have a live in maid, and I have a nice car and I have this great house and my kids are asking for a second maid and they’re thinking about this beautiful car, car’s that kids shouldn’t even know about, they want us to buy. It just becomes draining and you don’t know what, it’s draining financially, and you don’t know what kind of values kids have. Man, LA I feel breeds that. Working though often can lead to putting your kids in entrepreneurship, what am I trying to transition to? I’m trying to basically transition to the fact that this worked. Your Dad was right. You actually ended up from what Jeremy our producer tells me, you created a branch, a Credit Union branch, when you were a student. How do you do that? What does it mean to open up a branch or create or start a credit union branch?
Ron: Yeah, so I went to school in the Bay Area, I went to Berkeley. And I was trying to get into business school so at Berkeley you’ve got to apply after two years. And I was looking at a lot of the business clubs and you meet every week or every month and I don’t know it just didn’t really click with me. You know there was a national organization that was setting up credit unions for students, college students, college campuses rather. So I got involved with that and essentially there was a bank space on campus at Berkeley that wasn’t being used and so we basically put together a credit union branch where students can bank. It’s a not for profit situation so whatever you deposit your interest is paid off with other people’s loan interest, and so. You know I don’t like big banks, I hated them, they don’t like students either. And so it was a great match. I think the credit union’s been around now for almost 20 years. It was just a great experience and I think it was much more meaningful then joining some business club or what else there was at Berkeley.
Andrew: So look at this, this background. Setting you up for success, you do achieve success early on and then you lose it, you’re back up on top and you finally take all this money and you invest in this business and as a result you have to move in with your in-laws as you said. Your kids they go to the nice schools in Singapore, at that time?
Ron: So they did for a while and ultimately you know during the darker days literally I had to pull them out of school. You know honestly just didn’t have cash, I mean I’d rolled everything into the business. After the financial crisis no investors were keying on you know Series B and Series C rounds and so my wife was homeschooling the kids and you know we got out of it. But you know, look, I think as an entrepreneur you’ve got to put everything on the line. And if you’re not willing to do that then yeah I mean maybe it is better to go get a job.
Andrew: You know what? Talk to me about the way you felt. I mean this is really our chance to have a high impact interview. We can just brush over the facts or people can get the facts online anywhere. But the emotion, the way that you felt at that time, I want us to understand. You go from feeling like you’re on top of the world, you know how capable you are. And now not only do you have to suffer a setback but it’s fairly public, your kids have to be impacted by it, you have to bite your pride or your pride takes a hit. What was it like?
Rob: Yeah, it’s a great question.
Andrew: You know, let me ask it more specifically. What was the situation that made you feel like this I can’t take, this is too painful right now.
Ron: Yeah I mean, look you know the drill, right? As an entrepreneur you’ve got great days you come off these great highs and the next day, boom, you can get slammed in the face with someone unexpected and you’re back, you get knocked down, right? But if you’re not focused on where you want to be in three to five years, or where your vision is, you will not make it. And I have a lot of friends after the global financial crisis that said, you know they lost their jobs and they said, oh now’s my chance to be an entrepreneur. And they tried for a while, they had a few setbacks and boom, you know a year or two later when the economy recovered a bit they’re back working. I mean literally every single friend of mine who lost their job went back to work. And being an entrepreneur is brutal and honestly there’s things like your show and other resources out there that kept me going, but again, you just have to have a vision of where you want to go and nothing will stop you.
Andrew: But was there a specific incident? I think that it’s the specifics that we identify, it’s the specifics that we remember. Like I remember for me at one or our low points I felt, I was at an ATM getting some money from the ATM machine and I thought, there’s hardly anything in here. And I promised my people that I was going to show them a better life. That’s why they moved to New York, that’s why they committed and sacrifice hours of their time and I have nothing even in my own account practically. I remember I was with this girl, Crystal who I interviewed here, and I pull out a hundred for expenses and then I give her 40 or some amount of it. And I say, here, if all I have is a hundred then I’m going to give you a portion of it because I felt so guilty that I’d done this to her. And then to go home and live with that and feel like how am I going to live up to that with someone else? How am I going to live up to the fact that now she even knows how little I have. Those are painful points. Was there something like that? Was there a point that made you have to really summon your courage, have to pick yourself back up?
Ron: For sure, I mean, I remember bouncing check, you know fortunately.
Andrew: Give me one, one that’s very painful. One that’s specific, do you remember a specific story?
Ron: Not having money in your bank account is not fun, right, and you got, when you have kids. If it’s just me you can deal with it right? But you know a wife, two small kids, you feel like you’ve let everyone down, right, and like why are you doing this? And you know you certainly have those thoughts for sure. And it puts strain on your relationship, right? And that’s why I think the best time to start a business is when you’re single. And my wife is just an amazing woman. And if you don’t have someone who’s supportive like that there’s no way you’re going to get through that, right? So you know I think the bank account stuff, I had a few months where I was literally month to month which is just the worst feeling in the world, right? And you got to come out of that with positive energy and like you know, I’m going to raise money. I mean we were literally months away on raising capital, and if you don’t raise capital you’ve got to let other people go which is just. I mean I love business. The worst thing in the world is letting people go. And especially if they’ve been performing and they’re honest and all that. If they’re not performing and not honest I don’t have an issue right up, no problems at all. But that’s just, you got other families on the line, you’ve got your own family on the line. You know forget about your reputation it’s just, it’s, yeah that part I just really don’t like. I’m fortunately knock on wood I’ve never had to do that, but, yeah, knowing that you’re close to that, that’s just, that’s tough.
Andrew: So now you’re going into software. What’s the first step you take as a new software company?
Ron: Yeah, so started testing in Asia, rolling out systems there. And you know it’s working with car companies, with utilities, with governments. I mean it’s an exciting space but the number of cars that were being rolled out was just a lot lower then everyone predicted. Because, largely because of the (?). I mean electric cars are still more expensive then normal cars up front. And so, and consumers have this perception of electric vehicles as kind of like a Toyota Prius which is not correct. You go drive a Tesla Model S or a BMW Active and it’s just an amazing experience well behind any petrol car out there on the road. So you know selling software was tough just because there weren’t a lot of cars out there to begin with. So it’s mainly test beds with governments and utilities in their early days.
Andrew: What did your software do?
Ron: So we network charging the stations so we integrate third party hardware from major power electronics companies, you know there are brilliant companies out there that make hardware charging stations. So if you’re at work, if you’re at home, if you’re at a multi family condominium, etcetera, we network all those charging stations. We allow access control so you can use your mobile phone. Show up, open up a charger, start charging, we’ll bill you for it if your workplace charges you, etcetera. And all that helps balance the grid load. So electric people’s are all about energy efficiency. So if you can vary the time and rate of charging that’s the holy grail for the grid. So that’s what we’re primarily focused on. But it’s allowing a site host, whether you’re a high tech company in Silicon Valley that has 38 employees that charge everyday, you need to be able to manage reservations so like Andrew’s in from like 8 a.m. to noon or whatever, and someone else is from noon to 4, what have you. So reservations, billing, access control, grid…
Andrew: Reservation for the actual spot too, where I would charge?
Andrew: So that’s why I saw on your site. I get an iPhone app which hardware manufacturers, it doesn’t seem to me like they’re excited about making those iPhone apps, but you are. I as an electric vehicle owner would get an iPhone app. I would tell it, I’m looking to leave the office or looking to leave my house at this point, it would know when to charge, it would help me get. It would know when to charge and the reason as I’m understanding you is that it needs to know when to charge is because if I’m getting to the office with a hundred other people we can’t all be charging at the same time or else we’ll bring down the electricity of the building. It’s not like plugging in an iPhone where I can plug it in whenever I want.
Ron: That’s right. So we’ll take workplace, an example of a workplace. I mean typically there’s not one charger, Andrew doesn’t have his own parking spot and on charger all day long, right? That’s expensive, so, you know you share a charger right? So Andrew’s got it in the morning and someone else has it in the afternoon and someone else maybe in the evening. So it’s reservations, it’s billing, so tech company may for tax reasons may have to bill you for the electricity that you use rather than giving some senior executive some additional perks and tax consequences, etcetera. You know there’s billing, there’s access control. You don’t want anyone off the street coming and stealing your electricity, so things like that.
And the other beautiful thing that we’re adding now is really telematic. So the state of charge, so basically how much fuel you’ll have in your battery is critical so we’re integrating major car companies telematics platform so we can look into your Chevy Volt and see that you’re 60% full and maybe your colleague’s only 20% full and therefore he should charge before you, things like that. So it’s all about intelligent charging solutions.
Andrew: So how do you know what to build here? It’s not like you can just survey people, can you?
Ron: Yeah, it’s going out, it’s talking to people, it’s driving it yourself, I drive an electric vehicle. I don’t have charging at home intentionally so I charge at only public locations which is a little inconvenient sometimes and my wife hates me for it. But you learn a lot about that. I’ll give you an example. I was at the Stanford Mall and there was two charging spots and I had a meeting there and I needed to get back to the Bay Area of San Francisco and I needed to charge. And literally every ten, fifteen minutes I was going out to see if someone had left, right? And if I had queuing, which is a feature now that we have, you know, Andrew shows up he’s the third guy in line, you can place yourself in the queue so when someone leaves it will ping you and say, hey Andrew you’ve got ten minutes to move your car and start charging. Things like that. So I think….
Andrew: And you know that because you’ve experienced the pain first hand.
Ron: Exactly. So living it, driving it, and then just talking to as many customers as you can.
Andrew: What’s your process for, let’s suppose you come up with this frustration, hey I had to go to a meeting and then come right back where there wasn’t a charging station, I had to keep searching for one, let’s build this. You can’t just build it because you have your experience. How do you take this experience out and see if other people share it and if it’s a big enough frustration for them. Or maybe other people don’t have it.
Ron: Yeah, and I’m an extreme case, that’s a great point, so I’m an extreme case. I only charge outside of my house, I don’t have charging at all. Most people are parked at home for 8 – 10 hours a night so you’re full in the morning when you leave. So charging outside of the home is much less of an issue, right? So you need to test that, right? You need to validate that with customers and say, hey, is this something that you have an issue with? Is this a pain point or not? Just because we like it doesn’t necessarily mean the rest of the market will like it. There is a lot of that. It is a very new sector. I mean transportation, you’ve probably seen it in San Francisco, I mean, transportation as a whole is just changing the most that we’ve seen in the last hundred years. You can have your car present taxi and give people rides. There’s all kinds of new models, Zipcar started a lot of these car B&B type models for cars. Things like that. You can rent Andrew’s car for $5 an hour, whatever. You can rent your parking space, and on and on, there’s just all kinds of models happening. So it’s a little bit of testing out and that’s why we’ve had to pivot three times in the last four years as well.
Andrew: When it comes to software like this would you just call up other customers and see if they also have the problem? Would you survey them? Would you do something else to just do a check to see if what you’re about to build is needed? Or would you just build it and see if people use it?
Ron: We go through a process. We have distributors, so we’re still a 12 person company. So we sell primarily through channel partners. So surveying them, they’re probably a great pulse as well. If you get six out of seven groups saying “We like that feature.” It’s worthwhile trying out. Not everything works out, of course, it is very big, but for the most part we’ve been fortunate with that.
Andrew: What didn’t work out?
Ron: I think our biggest mistake was really following the government utility tenders which was the market up until about a year ago. Commercial side was just starting and has only started recently. But governments and utilities were funding a lot of this. So we built these Rolls Royce solutions like $5,000, $6,000 charters with color screen. The electronics were incredible.
The reality is on the commercial side you’re not going to pay for that. If you buy a Tezzle you’re not going to spend $6,000, $7,000 for charges. You want to spend $800 or $1,000. That was probably our biggest mistake over the last three, four years. We started off with a very commercial charge, it was governments and utilities tenders that required all this stuff. So we ended up scaling up and now we’re going back to where we started.
But hindsight is easy to see where the mistakes are.
Andrew: Jeremy asked you about what you learned from all of this. One thing that you learned was sales strategies- Or actually what your biggest challenges were. We’ll get to what you learned. One of your biggest challenges is you built the sales- Actually I’ll let you tell it. How does sales strategies get impacted by the fact that you have to pivot three times?
Ron: Hugely different. So we started off as we talked about with distribution of vehicles, so that was more of a really direct B to C play. Exhibiting at malls, doing test rides, things like that. Very, very consumer focused. Getting into the papers. Things like that. A showroom, we had a vehicle showroom. Just very different model of selling.
Then we went into hardware and software and it was mostly government tenders and RFPs. So we needed to monitor that process and you need to deal with government requirements in terms of capitalization, insurance, and all these different types of things.
Now with software it’s more of a commercial model. So selling to high tech companies. ED Fleets, fleets of electric vehicles, things like that. So it’s a very commercial B to B type sale. Long sales, leads, sales time, and so forth. So very, very different sales channels and strategies over the last four years.
Andrew: So you would just scrap the old system, maybe even let go of some people, and then put together a new sales process every time you pivot?
Ron: Well, fortunately we’re very picky on hiring super critical. So all of the time has pretty much stuck with us an been able to evolve and had fun with it. It is a very cool space, we’re working with amazing car companies. We’ve worked with the Singapore, US, German government. Major, $40 billion utilities. It’s an exciting space. But the sales cycle, the sales channels, all these things have evolved quite rapidly. So you need to be able to adapt. It’s not for the faint hearted.
You look at Better Place, these guys [??], he raised $800 million for Better Place now they’re laying off car companies, electric vehicle car companies, they’re laying off on and on. Any new space you’re going to have failures. So you’ve got to be light, you’ve got to watch your cash flow. I think we’ve been very, very cautious on overspending which is why we’re small and we outsource a lot of what we are doing. It’s only going to get more exciting as more and more companies go under. It’s a marathon, we don’t need to finish first we just need to finish. So, it’s a very different space. Where you’ve got interest or any of these companies getting millions of users over three months or six months. This is just slow and steady, singles and doubles, don’t go crazy, be consistent, keep showing up, save cash, and hire the right people. Pretty solid infrastructure play.
Andrew: You’ve had a challenge with this. How do you get your investors to let you keep moving from one business to the other? Investors who invest in one kind of company now have to be told “no, you are getting a different kind of a company because we believe this is better.” How do you do that?
Ron: That has been a lot of heartburn. They’ve been great, fortunately, we have investors who understand this is early stage, this is clean technology, clean transportation. But, that’s been a lot of heartburn to be honest. Because pivoting in the space of 12 months or 18 months is tough, not just one time but, multiple times. The view is like: “oh, no, not again. Please don’t do this.” But, at the end of the day it’s confidence. We have to make the call right as the management team work close with . . .
Andrew: How do you get them on board?
Ron: It’s a process. We have to show that we’ve done our homework with customers, with partners on the market side. There’s no guaranteed results, it’s not a established business. It has only been around the last two or three years in terms of vehicle. You need to build that confidence over years. But, still, it’s not fun anytime you go back and go “hey, look, we’re starting fresh again.” For any investor, that’s just not fun. But, the best investors understand that. You can’t pivot too much but, if you don’t pivot you’re just not going to survive in an early stage space and early sector.
Andrew: Now, onto what you’ve learned from all this. One big area that you learned about is how to manage people. What did you learn?
Ron: Managing people is really an art. I have learned a lot over the last 10 years to 15 years managing people. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made as always kind of self talking myself into giving people the benefit of the doubt. I don’t like letting people go. But, honestly, if you have any doubt and if someone is not performing it is very tough. Amazing managers are able to change that. I am not going to be able to take a C player and make him a B player or a B player and make him an A player. It’s just not me.
Andrew: Give me an example of someone who just wasn’t fitting in but, it took you too long. Obviously, don’t give their name but, we can learn from the experience.
Ron: Trust is critical. I trust our guys. If you don’t that person shouldn’t be involved. I’ll give you an example, we had a great sales pipeline, it looked really strong, the board bought into it. Ultimately, it wasn’t as strong as we thought. I don’t think it was dishonesty, I think it was just lack of commercial reality, bad business judgment, to be frank. You’ve got to trust your people but, we probably let that go too long, that was a mistake.
Andrew: In that situation, can’t you say “hey, look, we’re all learning about this space. I can see that you thought that all these customers were going to materialize faster than they actually will. Let’s go through this pipeline and understand why they didn’t go to the end.” Can’t you spend some time training them at that point or just showing them how the industry works? Or, did you do that and it still didn’t get the results you were looking for?
Ron: Far off, we tried doing that, there was a lot of resistance, defensiveness, and ultimately, we were right but, it just took a lot longer. You are right, there are ways to get around that. But, I think, if there’s any doubt, don’t hire someone. If someone is not performing deal with it as quickly as possible and just move on. It’s better for that person, it’s better for the business organization. It’s tough to be like that but, I think, the most effective managers are like that. Yet again, I think the best managers, I’ve learned a lot from my partner was able to spend many years at GE. And GE does a phenomenal job of, as a big organization, taking [??] players and, kind of, building them up and weeding out the bottom part, the bottom five percent every year. You know, it takes a lot of patience, it takes a lot of time. I’m best with the players who all perform. I don’t have to micro-manage and you know, they all step in line. But it’s hard to hire only [??] players with limited resources its very, very tough especially when hire tech is booming and you got clean tech imploding. People are like, “Why would I go join a clean tech company? Why don’t I just go work for Pinterest or Facebook?”
Andrew: What do you say to someone who says, who asks that question?
Ron: Why work in a clean tech company?
Andrew: Yeah. Why work in a clean tech company when I can go work for Pinterest where things are moving quickly, where my family is going to understand what I do?
Ron: No, look for a lot of people in the valley right now. You know, engineers are tough to find. We were lucky enough to find an engineer who had more vision, in terms of where the world is heading and wanted to have more of an impact. And he’s got kids. So we’re able to bring somebody in from Blackberry. But, you know, its tough. People, again, I mean, i think the bay area is unique. More and more people here are interested in clean energy, clean technology and having an impact for [??] place in the world. But in the same token, I’m in an incubator here at Rocket Space with 150 tech companies that are probably 98 percent focused on mobile and internet type technologies. So it is tough. You need to find people with longer term vision and interest.
Andrew: Alright, is there anything that I missed? What else? If we could leave entrepreneurs who are listening to this with one message, what would it be based on your experiences?
Ron: Yeah, its been a great ride. I think, you know, finding the right space at the right time, is something that for start-ups that is just so critical, right? I think for example right now, I think, we just talked about early stage social networking. The model of ITs is changing again right now. And I think, we have the nuclear winner of internet companies from 2000-2004. It was very different. It was very focused on [??] now, and how there is real revenues, with 2 billion people on a fast connection, with mobile apps that people are paying for, and real value creation apps, and services. But, I think, you need to be very, very selective about what kind of company you’re starting, when in the cycle. Because right now, for example, clean technology is just, it’s going through the 2000-2004 pyramid of internet companies. No investor wants to touch clean technology. But if you look at the companies that are going to come out of this, they are going to be the Facebooks, the Skypes, the LinkedIns of the world. So timing has a lot to do with value creation as an entrepreneur. And I think right now there is no better sector than looking at water, energy, food and the environment. So I strongly encourage entrepreneurs to look at this space. I think it’s well over-looked.
Andrew: There’s one thing I’m scratching, literally scratching my head about. This company is still trying to, it’s still trying to, it’s still in the early days. It’s still trying to get on its feet. You’re not, you haven’t, figured it out fully yet, right? But there’s fifteen million in revenue. This, this portion of the business isn’t accounting for a big portion of it. This portion of the business is still trying to, I don’t know, trying to find its mojo. It’s the other part. What’s the other part, and why didn’t we do an interview on the other part?
Ron: Yeah, I have a partner in Thailand. He runs, its a business called Annex Tower Phenomenal. I think we started with basically nothing and now, this year did close to ten million. Next year we’re under contract for 20 plus million in revenue. So, an amazing entrepreneur. Focus on the bottom line, knows how to sell. He’s gone through the financial crisis, high political crisis, flooding in Thailand. I mean, just an amazing entrepreneur. Yeah…
Andrew: It’s a business that you don’t own as big a share of, as Greenlots [SP], and you’re not running, right?
Ron: No, we’re majority investor in both companies. We co-founded both companies. It was the first company we started. It certainly got more attraction. It’s focused on infra-structure. So, we build large-scale solar, bio-gas plants, etc. So, it’s an existing sector and existing business. It’s certainly challenging. I’m not going to underestimate my part in running it, it’s [??] an amazing, an incredible entrepreneur. But yeah, no, it’s certainly had it’s challenges.
You’re right. We need to break out. I think everyone in the electric vehicle space still needs to break out. It’s still an emerging sector, but that’s the exciting part of it, and that’s the challenge of it, I think.
Our infrastructure business is an incredible story, but it’s more kind of just steady growth infrastructure. So, yeah. No, he’s an amazing entrepreneur. I’m happy to introduce you to him, as well.
Andrew: OK. All right. See, the thing, actually, that I’m realizing here, and I’ve got to be open with the audience, is I thought this was a $15 million business that was already going strong. As we broke down the revenues in the beginning, I realized, “Oh, wait a minute, this, Greenlots, is probably a little too early for a Mixergy interview.”
Ron: It’s not. I mean, I think, from a selfish standpoint, I think we’ve got to get more electric vehicles on the road. I think, and I want you, on air, promising that you’ll come down here and try a couple of electric vehicles. Once you’re in it, once you get people in the car, it’s life- changing, seriously. It’s just like probably your first mobile phone or your first access to the Internet. Transportation is changing drastically.
Yeah, we don’t have the revenues maybe some of the other companies you’ve interviewed, but certainly, in terms of traction and working with governments, utilities, big hardware companies, et cetera, it is quite an exciting space and something that, definitely, you should keep an eye on.
Andrew: All right. I’ll take you up on that offer. I know you’re just a couple of blocks away from my office, and you told me where the electric vehicles are that I can try out. Right? At the. . . Can I say where it is? Moscone Center. No big secret there, right?
Andrew: We’ll walk over, we’ll take a ride. I know that you’ll be able to do it, even though you have kids, because apparently you’re up to 4:00 a.m., or up at 4:00 a.m., working until 11:00 p.m. That’s the kind of workaholic ways that you still have?
Ron: I just wake up early. I don’t know what it is, but yeah, with kids, I like to be up in the morning and have breakfast with them and start my day early. But, [??], no, absolutely. Anytime, Andrew.
Andrew: 4:00 a.m. is impressive. All right. What you’ve done here is impressive. Company is Greenlots, and thank you for doing this interview.
Wait, before we go, before we say thank you completely — Joe, don’t edit this out — How do you feel about that last question? I see that maybe I, maybe you were a little deflated by the fact that I asked that question.
Ron: Yeah. I mean, what we’ve gone through has just been. . . I mean, that’s all the gray hair, and that’s all the loss of hair. It’s just been. . . This is my seventh startup that I’ve been involved with, and by far the most challenging, by far the most interesting. I think we’ve accomplished a lot, but, yeah, the revenue probably doesn’t reflect what we’ve gone through, for sure. I would agree with that. I’m not, you know, we’ve got to be realistic on where we are.
I think now, with the software model that we have, I think we’re going to scale up. Leveraging all these other hardware companies that are out selling charging stations, I think finally we’ve found the pivot that will take us to the promised land.
Andrew: Right. Thank you, and I know you are also a fan. You’ve been listening for years to Mixergy interviews. What do you get out of listening to them?
Ron: Oh, it’s been amazing, especially being out in Singapore, where I guess there’s a smaller entrepreneurial community, I just feel this great connection. We’re three blocks away, but you get the same feeling being in Singapore. It feels like. . . Yeah, you can share stories. 10 years ago, when I started out doing more entrepreneurial ventures, there wasn’t a community. I wasn’t part of YPO, or anything like that. This is the best connection, just learning from other people’s mistakes, sharing their pain, sharing their up side. I just think it’s a phenomenal program, that’s why I’m on here, as well.
Andrew: Well, thank you. Thank you for doing this. I didn’t mean that question to be an insult to the company in any way. I’m a big admirer of what you’ve done. We wouldn’t have had you on here after doing all this research unless we thought that it was a phenomenal story and a phenomenal company. I appreciate you being as open about the tough times here and also about the accomplishments of the business.
Ron: No worries, Andrew. Thanks so much.
Andrew: Hi, Ron. Thank you for doing this interview. I’m looking forward to meeting you in person and hearing how this company continues to grow. Thank you all for being a part of it. Bye, guys.