Just a few weeks ago, electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors handed over the first of its $35,000, 350-km range vehicles to eager customers. According to media reports, the company has a backlog of half a million orders.
This exciting news is coming out of California. It could have been coming out of Israel if a company called Better Place had fulfilled its dreams of changing the world. In hindsight, every decision Better Place, its management, and its narcissistic founder made was wrong.
In short, Better Place crashed.
Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World by Brian Blum (Blue Pepper Press, August 2017), details the rollercoaster ride of what was possibly the most innovative concept to ever emerge from the Israeli ‘startup nation’.
Unlike Tesla Motors, which powers up its electric cars with a ‘fast charge,’ Better Place championed the concept of battery swap. Teaming up with French car manufacturer Renault, Better Place was “building an all-electric car with a battery meant to be switched. It was something that had never been done before.”
This is the statement of one of the many former Better Place employees interviewed by Blum for his exhaustive study of the rise and fall of the startup and its telegenic founder and visionary, Shai Agassi.
The Better Place story is the Shai Agassi story
Giving up a promising career as President of the Products and Technology Group (PTG) at SAP AG, Agassi apparently saw himself as the next Steve Jobs, the next Jeff Bezos. He was embraced by Shimon Peres, by investors, and by those who shared his vision of cutting the world’s dependency on the oil industry.
Yet, Agassi failed to make his dream come true. Investors lost nearly a billion dollars, and more than a thousand drivers, including the author, were stuck with battery-powered vehicles that could no longer be serviced.
Why did this happen? The question you should be asking is not why Better Place failed, but how could it not fail?
In Totaled, the Better Place story is told by a huge cast of characters and the reader can be excused for not remembering who is who. The narrative is a bit disjointed, but apparently that is the point. The fact that Better Place tried to expand into so many markets simultaneously, without really gaining a foothold anywhere, was undoubtedly one of the reasons it eventually went bankrupt.
Blum sees Totaled as a “compelling case study on the importance of managing change – and what happens when you don’t.” While that may be the focus of the book for entrepreneurs and executives, most readers will find the ups and downs of the Better Place story a fascinating ride!
Brian Blum is a business and technology journalist whose work has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, and Israel21c. A veteran high-tech startup entrepreneur, Blum is a senior analyst for Advanced Interactive Media Group and its “Classified Intelligence Report.”