‘They just want to rip you apart... it’s kind of fun’

Park­ing his elec­tric trucks on Tesla’s lawn has sent trolls into over­drive, the founder of Nikola tells Olivia Rudgard in San Fran­cisco ‘It doesn’t make sense to build a mil­lion cars you lose money on. It makes sense to build 10,000 you make a lot of mone

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Technology Intelligen­ce -

Trevor Mil­ton is ready for in­ter­net fame. The en­tre­pre­neur is un­fazed by the speed of his rise to on­line no­to­ri­ety, and his hy­dro­gen-pow­ered truck com­pany’s new sta­tus as one of the most valu­able au­tomak­ers in the world.

“It’s been in­cred­i­ble, right? Very few peo­ple in life ever get to ex­pe­ri­ence what we’re go­ing through,” Nikola’s founder and ex­ec­u­tive chair­man says, speak­ing as he pre­pares to open pre-or­ders for the Badger, its pick-up truck.

Founded in 2014 and for years just one among many elec­tric ve­hi­cle star­tups vy­ing for dom­i­nance in a tiny but crowded mar­ket, Nikola came to wider at­ten­tion last month af­ter it went public and al­most im­me­di­ately be­came more valu­able than es­tab­lished au­tomak­ers in­clud­ing Fiat Chrysler and Ford. How­ever, its value has since fallen again to less than $20bn (£16bn). It hasn’t sold a sin­gle ve­hi­cle and doesn’t ex­pect to see any rev­enue un­til next year.

It has also at­tracted at­ten­tion be­cause of Mil­ton’s own an­tics. In the past few weeks, he has threat­ened to sue a Bloomberg jour­nal­ist, posted nu­mer­ous de­tailed Instagram sto­ries show­ing off his com­pany’s tech­nol­ogy in de­fi­ance of “haters” who doubt him, and in­vited some of his mouthi­est Twit­ter crit­ics to come and tour his com­pany’s fa­cil­i­ties. This will feel very fa­mil­iar to any­one who has fol­lowed the elec­tric ve­hi­cle cle world and its most fa­mous pro­tag­o­nist, ist, Elon Musk, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Tesla. a.

Musk is an en­tre­pre­neur repreneur but he’s also a so­cial me­dia ia per­son­al­ity. His memes and jokes, s, such as mock­ing short sell­ers by sell­ing elling red satin shorts, have made e him wildly pop­u­lar but also make him m a tar­get for crit­ics.

Is Mil­ton, 38, de­lib­er­ately fol­low­ing the same play­book ok as his ri­val at Tesla? “It’s just nat­u­ral. at­u­ral. I don’t fol­low Elon. I think nk when you start to in­no­vate and you be­come a true en­tre­pre­neur ntrepreneu­r and you’re push­ing ng the lim­its, your nat­u­ral ral ten­dency is to speak eak a cer­tain way and to deal with crit­i­cism a cer­tain way, and cut through ough all the crap a cer­tain n way.”

Both men see them­selves as rep­re­sen­ta­tives of a new, more ex­cit­ing auto to in­dus­try that has grown up to re­place the fuddy-duddy legacy car brands. Both run com­pa­nies named af­ter the famed Ser­bian-Amer­i­can en­gi­neer Nikola Tesla. Scep­tics see them as ped­dlers of ex­ag­ger­ated prom­ises and ben­e­fi­cia­ries of a bub­ble.

While Tesla’s bat­tery elec­tric ve­hi­cles are owned by hun­dreds of thou­sands al­ready, Nik Nikola’s fleet of hy­dro­gen-pow­ered tru trucks are so far more of a hy­po­thet­i­cal prospect. Hy­dro­gen-pow­ered ve­hi­cles work by us­ing the gas, comb com­bined with oxy­gen, to run an elec elec­tric mo­tor. De­trac­tors who com com­pare them un­favourably with the their bat­tery­pow­ered equiv­a­lents a ar­gue that they are more ex­pen­sive, le less ef­fi­cient and dif­fi­cult to fuel, given the need to de­liver the ex­plo ex­plo­sive gas to keep charg­ing sta­tio sta­tions topped up. Nikola’s sol so­lu­tion is to in­stall electr elec­trol­y­sis plants at the sta­tions to make hy­dro­gen o on-site. It says hy­dro­gen i is the best green al­ter­na­tive to the diesel widely use used in the truck­ing in in­dus­try, and a better solu so­lu­tion than the heavy batt bat­ter­ies which cur­rently limit the range of elec­tric lor­ries to around 30 300 miles. Nikola says its trucks will be able to go up to 750 miles be­tween fuel stops, and has am­bi­tious plans to in­stall hun­dreds of hy­dro­gen charg­ing sta­tions across the US, Europe and the UK. Hav­ing this in­fra­struc­ture will be key to mak­ing the fuel any­thing more than a niche cu­rios­ity, some­thing that com­pa­nies in­clud­ing Gen­eral Mo­tors and BMW have so far failed to do.

“We ver­ti­cally in­te­grated the en­tire sup­ply chain. It’s very sim­i­lar to Ama­zon,” Mil­ton said ear­lier this year when ex­plain­ing how the com­pany could even­tu­ally reach a $100bn val­u­a­tion.

The two mar­kets that Nikola is go­ing af­ter – con­sumer pick-up trucks and com­mer­cial lor­ries – are po­ten­tially huge but have not yet been bro­ken by elec­tric au­to­mo­tive man­u­fac­tur­ers. Mil­ton, who like Musk is a col­lege dropout and a se­rial en­tre­pre­neur, sees his on­line per­son­al­ity as key to get­ting peo­ple in­ter­ested in his com­pany.

“That is what sets you apart from th­ese big legacy com­pa­nies like Ford, GM or Volk­swa­gen. They’re bor­ing. It’s very dif­fi­cult to get ex­cited about their brands.

“They have re­ally cool cars, but you don’t know who the CEO is. You have no re­la­tion­ship. You don’t know what their fam­ily is like, you don’t know what they’re do­ing on the week­end.” What about the drama and crit­i­cism that come along with that level of promi­nence?

Mil­ton has al­ready be­come an on­line tar­get for Tesla’s most ded­i­cated su­per-fans, a com­mu­nity well-known for its un­spar­ing treat­ment of any­one it be­lieves might pose a threat to the com­pany.

He’s even ac­cused his de­trac­tors of be­ing paid an­tag­o­nists de­lib­er­ately stok­ing fear.

“It’s hard to be vul­ner­a­ble and talk to peo­ple about the things that are dif­fi­cult be­cause then you get th­ese peo­ple who just at­tack you with it,” he said in a re­cent Instagram story. “They just want to rip you apart.”

But in our in­ter­view, Mil­ton in­sists that he’s en­joy­ing it. “It’s kind of fun. It makes peo­ple love you more. The more they at­tack you, the more they love you.”

Nikola, pri­mar­ily an HGV com­pany, might have been re­garded as no threat to Tesla, which makes and sells high-end elec­tric cars, but for Mil­ton’s re­cent de­ci­sion to stray on to Muskian turf with the Nikola Badger, a pick-up truck for the con­sumer mar­ket which opened for pre-or­ders last week.

The Badger is a more tra­di­tion­al­look­ing ve­hi­cle than Tesla’s own pick-up, the Cy­bertruck, which is huge and an­gu­lar and made from stain­less steel. Both com­pa­nies are try­ing to steal the crown of Amer­ica’s dom­i­nant pick-up truck, the Ford F150. The Detroit gi­ant sold al­most a mil­lion trucks last year.

“There’s no money in build­ing cars. There’s a lot of money in build­ing Ford F150s,” says Mil­ton.

“The Ford F150 mar­ket has al­ways been prof­itable through ev­ery down­turn, and so if we can take that crown from them, we’ve man­aged to touch the con­sumer, the av­er­age in­vestor, cre­ate peo­ple that love us and still be prof­itable.”

Profit, not growth, is the most im­por­tant met­ric, ar­gues Mil­ton: “It doesn’t make sense to go and build a mil­lion cars you lose money on. It makes a lot of sense to go and build 10,000 cars that you make a lot of money on. You can’t be en­vi­ron­men­tally sus­tain­able if you’re not fi­nan­cially sus­tain­able, be­cause even­tu­ally you’ll fail.

“You will even­tu­ally run out of money, the mar­kets will stop giv­ing you money and all of a sud­den you’re fir­ing 40,000 em­ploy­ees and their fam­i­lies that have mort­gages, and those 40,000 fam­i­lies are go­ing to hate you, hate ev­ery­thing about clean en­ergy; they’re go­ing to tell you that you lied to them.”

Trevor Mil­ton, the ex­ec­u­tive chair­man of Nikola, is pin­ning his hopes on the newly launched Badger pick-up truck, above

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