Tesla Motors was founded in Silicon Valley by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning in 2003. They were soon joined and funded by Elon Musk, who has served as chairman since 2004. Musk was well- exposed to entrepreneurial endeavors, notably as a co-founder of PayPal, SpaceX, and SolarCity. The company’s initial goal was to produce fully electric sports cars not for ultimate cost, but rather for performance, aesthetics, and sex appeal.4 Early on, Musk took a decisive role in designing and developing the first prototypes of Tesla’s Roadster, which were introduced to the public in July 2006 and achieved an unprecedented range of 245 miles (394 km) on a single charge in company tests.
The market launch was accompanied by intense media attention and backed by celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Jay Leno, and George Clooney, who paid $109,000 in advance to receive one of the first 100 Roadsters, which were scheduled to be delivered in 2007; however, the first Roadster was not delivered until February 2008.5 An internal audit revealed that the cost of building the car had climbed to $140,000, vastly overrunning the projected cost of $65,000. Tesla lost money before a single unit was delivered, and the company faced financial trouble. The board of directors unanimously decided to dismiss Eberhard. Tarpenning, who was vice president of electrical engineering, supervising the development of electronic and software systems for the Roadster, also left the company in 2008. Musk took over as CEO in October 2008.
When Musk took over responsibility, Tesla was selling fewer than 200 Roadsters and filling a niche in an industry that churns out millions of vehicles per year. The parts for the Roadsters were sourced separately and largely assembled one by one, in a garage behind a showroom in Menlo Park, California, based on the Lotus Elise template. The Roadster, however, was simply the launchpad for Musk’s next step to build the more sophisticated Tesla Model S, a stylish four-door sedan. In the summer of 2008, he hired Mazda’s lead North American designer, Franz von Holzhausen, and told him that he wanted a four-door car that seated seven (offering seating for five adults and two children). “That’s an SUV, not a sedan,” von Holzhausen responded, while Musk pointed to an opportunity to design something new.
The Model S
In 2013, Tesla sold 22,477 units of its Model S, thus outperforming all forecasts. The Model S comes with a variety of battery-pack options – 40 kWh, 60 kWh and 85 kWh, with base prices (before tax credit) of $52,400, $62,400, and $72,400, respectively.11 With ranges above 265 miles, the Model S more than doubles the next-best market offer – BMW’s i3 five-door urban car, which allows the driver to cover a distance of 90 miles. The reach of the Model S far exceeds what is demanded by customers, who in 80% of cases have to cover less than 50 miles daily.12 To complement range capabilities for long-distance travel, Tesla offers fast-charging technology at its Supercharger facilities. The fast- charge capability allows Model S owners to replenish 50% of the battery pack in as little as 30 minutes. Moreover, the Model S incorporates a modular battery pack at the floor of the vehicle, which enables it to make use of the battery-swapping technology – to exchange a discharged battery for a fully charged one instead of charging the vehicle's battery – at swapping facilities that will reportedly be installed in the future.
On the Brink of Bankruptcy
When the economic crisis hit in 2008, and financial markets dried up, Tesla’s cash reserves reached a critical level. Despite the continuous improvement of financial figures due to increased production efficiencies and renegotiated supplier contracts, the company was facing “near-death experiences.” 7 Musk was constrained by his second venture, SpaceX, which consumed a large amount of resources, and he could little afford any further investments. At the last possible hour, on Christmas Eve in 2008, Tesla managed to secure financing to keep the business going.
Prospects increased dramatically in 2009. Musk’s strategy to sell battery packs to finance Tesla’s operations paid off when Herbert Kohler, Daimler’s head of advanced engineering signaled interest to come and see what Musk had to offer. In less than six weeks, Jeffrey Straubel, Tesla’s chief technical officer, managed to convert Daimler’s Smart into an electrically powered vehicle. Convinced of the compatibility of the battery packs, Daimler signed a deal buying 1,000 battery sets worth more than
$40 million. In March 2009, von Holzhausen unveiled the prototype of the Model S, which allayed all concerns of Daimler and led to the company’s acquisition of a 9% stake for $50 million. Besides gathering the urgently needed fresh capital, this deal made Tesla worth more than $500 million and gave credibility to what was until then just a bold experiment. It also helped to stage a successful initial public offering, paving the way for Tesla’s subsequent expansion.
Three months after the unveiling of the Model S, the federal government granted Tesla an alternative vehicle loan of $465 million to market the model, which brought the company another step closer to mass production. However, the payout was restricted by the precondition that sufficient production capacities existed. Fortune was on Musk’s side, when just in time Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota, offered up his manufacturing plant in Fremont, California, for sale, after its crisis-shaken partner General Motors withdrew from joint operation. Musk seized the moment, bought these facilities dimensioned for 500,000 vehicles a year,8 and shifted production from Lotus sites in England to Fremont in 2010. Unlike the Roadster, the Model S was developed as a flexible platform allowing multiple variations comparable to most advanced systems such as Volkswagen’s modular production.
When Elon Musk drove to work with his Model S electric car on February 24, 2014, he knew that he was also steering a revolution in the automobile industry. It took Tesla Motors, Inc. only 10 years and 30,000 vehicles to pass the market valuation of car-making giant Fiat and reach half of the value of General Motors – a company that had manufactured 450 million cars over its more than 100 years of existence. Riding on significant tailwinds from bullish analyst reports on Tesla’s visionary business model and its most recent announcements to connect the car to the Internet and build the world’s largest “Gigafactory” for batteries, Tesla’s market capitalization rose to $30 billion. The analyst Adam Jonas from Morgan Stanley recently attested that “Tesla may be in position to disrupt industries well beyond the realm of traditional auto manufacturing,” and noted that “it’s not just cars.”1 Tesla’s once boldly formulated vision to “[c]reate the most compelling car company of the 21st century by driving the world’s transition to electric vehicles”2 (EVs) may these days not even be bold enough anymore.
So far, Tesla’s journey to become one of most admired pioneers in the electric mobility domain has been a jolty one accompanied by liquidity issues, supply uncertainty, and ongoing skepticism about its long-term viability in an immature market and the looming competition of powerful incumbents. In his first company blog post in August 2006, Tesla Chairman Elon Musk revealed the “secret” master plan underlying the firm’s ambitious endeavor: Enter at the high end of the market, where customers are prepared to pay a premium, and then drive down the market as fast as possible to achieve higher unit volume and lower prices with each successive model. Beyond that, Musk revealed that Tesla aims to provide zero-emission power-generation options.3 Since its inception until today, Tesla has taken groundbreaking decisions that deviate from traditional business models in the automobile industry. Thus far, however, profits have been marginal. With the path taken and many decisions lying ahead, Tesla’s business concept may turn out to be a revolution or a big bust. While Tesla’s short history has largely been a story of success, but many issues that must be resolved still remain. Musk and his team face serious challenges and have to answer pressing questions, such as ‘How to configure a viable business model that would defend against powerful incumbents?’ and ‘How to reap arising opportunities in a radically changing business landscape and position the business for future growth?’ These are important questions that require answers.
From Rich Man’s Toy to Mass Market
In January 2010, Tesla Motors announced its filing of a registration statement with the Securities and Exchange Commission for an initial public offering (IPO) – the first American automaker going public since Ford in 1956. Around the same time, Tesla and Toyota formalized an agreement to jointly develop an electric version of the Toyota RAV4. Toyota also announced the purchase of $50 million worth of Tesla stock at the forthcoming IPO.
Six months later, Tesla placed its shares well above the expected range at $17 (Ticker: TSLA); even so, shares surged 41% on the first day of the IPO and closed at $23.89. Despite having accumulated a loss of more than $300 million since its founding, Tesla was valued at $2 billion and managed to raise nearly $230 million of fresh capital. The company continued to run losses that peaked in 2012 when it was $396 million in the red due to massive investments in the factory ramp-up, building new stores across the country, and training workers. In June 2012, Tesla delivered its first Model S after three years of development. The first quarterly profit of $11.2 million was reported in 2013. In total, 4,750 deliveries of Model S were booked in the first quarter of U.S. sales – more than any of the similarly priced gasoline-powered cars from the top three German luxury brands: Mercedes-Benz S-Class, BMW 7 Series, and Audi A8.
Tesla maintains strong ties to SolarCity, a corporation based in San Mateo, California, and chaired by Musk, that designs, installs, and sells solar energy systems. The bulk of SolarCity’s business comes from the leasing business, where SolarCity provides a system for free in exchange for a 20-year lease contract without the usually high upfront costs for customers. Partnering with SolarCity, Tesla aims to deploy its battery know-how to create a complete off-the-grid kit for home solar-power storage. This partnership is somewhat of a family affair, since Musk is the cousin of SolarCity co-founder and COO Peter Rive