The Electric Car

The electric car is going to take over the world.  Soon.  Let me explain.

75% of US consumers and over 85% of US millennials own smartphones.  Perhaps more amazing is that 1/4 of people in the world use a smartphone today.  Ten years ago a prediction that this would be the future would have been met with scorn or laughter. In fact, in 2005 few if any of the futurists would have even been able to imagine the kind of device most of us now depend upon.  Naturally, the release of the iPhone in 2007 changed everything, but it is likely that the smartphone era was inevitable. Steve Jobs just ushered it in a few years early.

In June of 2012 Tesla released the Model S and the results will be equally transformative.   Current predictions of the future of electric cars are as wrong as any predictions about the future of mobile phones made in 2005.  It is likely that electric car penetration, at least in the US, will take off at an exponential rate over the next 5-10 years rendering laughable the paltry predictions of future electric car sales being made today [1].  

These predictions are so wrong because they misunderstand the pertinent forcing function. Their assumption is that electric car sales will slowly increase as the technology gets marginally better, and as more and more customers choose to forsake a better product (the gasoline car) for a worse, yet  “greener” version. This view of the future is, simply, wrong. The reason electric cars will take over our roads is because consumers will DEMAND them.  Electric cars will be better than any alternative, including the loud, inconvenient, gas-powered jalopy. The iPhone demonstrated that smartphones are infinitely better than the feature phones which dominated the world in 2007. The Tesla Model S has demonstrated that a well made, well designed electric car is far superior to anything else on the road. This has changed everything.  

Elon Musk has ushered in the age of the electric car, and whether or not it, too, was inevitable, it has certainly begun. The Tesla Model S has sold so well because, compared to old-fashioned gasoline cars:

  • It’s more fun to drive, with smooth, transmission-less acceleration. For most of us it is the fastest car we have ever owned.
  • It’s quieter at all times and nearly silent at low speeds.
  • It is always “full” every morning one drives it and you never need to go to a gas station.
  • It has a user interface - including, notably, its navigation system - as superior to that of other cars as the iPhone was to earlier phones.
  • It is connected to the Internet.
  • It continuously gets better with automatic updates and software improvements.
  • It’s more roomy and has a trunk in the front (the “frunk”) AND a spacious back.
  • It comes with an app that allows you to manage the car from your phone.
  • It allows you to drive in the carpool lane and to sign up for a cheaper energy usage plan at home (obviously these incentives won’t last, but they will help get us to the tipping point described below).

Apple’s competition eventually figured out that they either join the revolution or lose their business (e.g., Motorola and Nokia) and began to effectively compete with the iPhone. It is not clear how long Tesla’s competitors will take to realize that they are living in the past, but one can assume that some will eventually figure out the score [2]. In the meantime, cheaper Teslas will appear and begin to take more and more market share and soon three trends will drive the exponential increase in electric cars on the road.

  1. All electric cars will become cheaper and cheaper.
  2. The range of these cars will soon match or exceed that of gasoline cars. [3]
  3. Gas stations will start to go out of business as many more electric cars are sold, making gasoline powered vehicles even more inconvenient.

The last of these is actually vitally important to understand.  Gas stations are not massively profitable businesses [4]. When 10% of the vehicles on the road are electric many of them will go out of business.  This will immediately make driving a gasoline powered car more inconvenient.  When that happens even more gasoline car owners will be convinced to switch and so on.  Rapidly a tipping point will be reached, at which point finding a convenient gas station will be nearly impossible [5] and owning a gasoline powered car will positively suck.  Then, there will be a rush to electric cars not seen since, well, the rush to buy smartphones.

It is hard to know just what the timeframe of this change will be, but I bet it happens much faster than pundits are predicting.  Electric cars, unlike other alternative fuels have a built in delivery network.  Objections that our existing grid cannot possibly support the new load they represent [6] do not impress. On the one hand, most charging will be done in the evening when there is plenty of capacity. On the other hand,  the potential exists for a huge rollout of home solar power over the next decade.  The bottom line is that we will have plenty of time to figure this out and solve it.  We will have to because consumers will demand their electric cars.  

The future of automotive transportation is an electric one and you can expect that future to be here soon.

Thanks to Sam Altman for having read an earlier version of this post.

[1] US predicts electric vehicles won't make a dent by 2040

[2] There are already over 20 models of electric cars currently available, from all electric, like the Tesla and the Nissan Leaf, to many hybrids. Here's a list of plug-ins those currently available, but expect it to change rapidly.

[3] The current range of a Model S tops out at about 300 miles. GM is planning to launch a new electric car called the Bolt with a range of  200 miles to effectively compete with Tesla. Battery technology is difficult, but it would be extremely surprising if the available ranges don't double again in 5 years or less.

[4] In 2012, the average net profit margin of privately owned gas stations was 1.6%. This article, which ought to be written tongue in cheek, but isn't, describes how happy gas station owners ought to be since their margins (temporarily) went up to 3% in 2013.

[5] By the way, if I'm right then this implies that over one hundred thousand former gas station locations will be available for cleanup (and I bet this won't be easy or cheap) and redevelopment. This could be an extraordinary business opportunity in of itself.

[6]  See this discussion on Quora. 

The Magic Thread

Y Combinator just held our 20th demo day. For the first time ever demo day was spread across two days during which 109 companies pitched their ideas to hundreds of investors from Silicon Valley and around the world. The majority of those companies will raise seed capital and, if our track record holds true, many will grow and thrive and a select few will become very big, very successful companies.

The partners at YC spend time with each company during their batch and strive to deliver relevant, vital help at the crucial early stages of the company’s development.   Towards the end of the program we work hard with each founder to help them craft their demo day pitch.
Paul Graham has always had an extraordinary ability to imagine the future of a business with a unique combination of clarity and optimism that is inspirational to founders.  He can take the thread of an idea - amazingly, almost any idea, pull it until it reveals a billion dollar business and then help craft an eloquent take-over-the-world story.

The process of pulling together a YC demo day pitch is really the culmination of a three month effort not just to get every one of our startups on the road to success, but to help our founders clearly see where that road CAN lead.  In PG’s words, to look at their Altair Basic and imagine the Microsoft they can become.  YC partners follow this example and work with our founders to help them find the “magic thread” upon which they can build just that sort of unshakeable belief that their company, despite the odds, will one day be the next extraordinary success.

Entrepreneurship is incredibly hard. The most successful founders are usually the toughest, most determined ones. Above all, they are the ones who believe the most.  They believe so hard that rather than quit you would have to pry their startup from their cold dead fingers.  Elon Musk, in an interview once said he would have to be “dead or severely incapacitated” [1] before ever giving up.  

Investors have a difficult time telling which YC companies will be the huge winners because the founders themselves believe their pitches.  When we help them prepare a pitch we insist that the content be honest and credible and that the delivery be done with passion and intensity.  We help them distill the essence of the company vision and to imagine the extraordinary company for which their startup is the seed. It turns out that this process not only helps reveal the magic thread for a company - but actually helps the entire team believe. It creates a shared understanding of what is necessary for all the founders to take part in the awesome task of taking a tiny startup built around an idea and creating a multi-billion dollar organization.

This leads to a useful recommendation for startups, especially but not exclusively for those preparing an investor pitch.   Founding teams should get together and create the story of their company. It should be tellable in about two minutes. It should be honest yet bold. It should be persuasive to them and to to others. Crucially, it should imagine a story like Bill Gates’s where from modest beginnings a giant enterprise is built.   Successfully pitching to investors is only one small task for founders on the very long road to startup success. But that shared understanding, shared belief and shared vision comprise their magic thread leading to victory.

Thanks to Sam Altman, Aaron Harris, and Paul Graham for making comments on earlier drafts of this post.

[1] Elon Musk on 60 Minutes regarding whether he thought of throwing in the towel after his first three test flights failed to even reach orbit:

Startup Priorities

One of the most difficult tasks for a startup founder is deciding what to do. Where should the tiny number of people working on a brand new company spend their time?  Choosing wisely can place your company on the road to success. Spending too much time on the wrong things can condemn the startup to an early death.  How do you know whether you are making the right decisions in time for your company to not die?

Usually, my answer to founder questions such as “how should I be spending my time?” is spectacularly simple. Choose a key metric to track and focus exclusively on making that metric grow. When deciding what to do, choose the activity that you believe will directly result in increased growth of your chosen metric.

This is simple and sometimes enlightening.  Although making those decisions is still never easy. That is one of the reasons startups are so difficult.  Even choosing which metric on which to focus is often the subject of great debate.  It is best to pick a metric you are pretty sure you know how to increase.  But it is equally important that that metric matter. And by “matter”, I mean its growth will be a good objective measure of how your company is doing, for example by an investor.

There is also a special case where you are trying to decide what to build. Usually you are concerned with metrics around how many users you have and how engaged they are with your product. For simplicity I call the former b for breadth and the latter d for depth. This leads to a rudimentary but surprisingly helpful way to think about how to prioritize product decisions.  If c is the cost of building a feature (in whatever unit, engineer days, time to completion, etc., you like), then you can create a simple ranking with the equation:

(b * d) / c

b tells you how many of your users, current or new, will be impacted by a new feature, d describes how important that feature will be to the average user, and c gives you how hard it is to build the feature.  The application of this simple formula tends to arrive at a blindingly obvious conclusion:  first build the features that affect lots of users as profoundly as possible, and which you can build quickly and cheaply.  It is surprising how profoundly hidden the obvious can be and how enlightening it can be to bring it into focus.

Naturally, it can be difficult or impossible to accurately estimate each of the above variables. However, who cares? This is a startup and most decisions will be made using your gut.  Make your best guesses and when in doubt, talk to your customers.

There is a bit more to say about the breadth and depth of your product. In a company’s earliest days, it is important to place more priority on d in order to ensure that you have product/market fit. It is useless to try to grow or scale before finding 100 users who really love your product.  Only then should you refocus on b and grow your user base in order to get the data you need (from your customers) to determine where to build depth.

None of this is to say a simple formula can replace great common sense and better product sense. It will turn no one into a Steve Jobs. But it does help one think in an organized fashion in the presence of many different possibilities, and can even help resolve impassioned arguments over “what the hell do we do next?!”.

Thanks to Sam Altman and Karen Lien for providing helpful comments on earlier versions of this post.