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Shai Agassi

Date
24 January 2012
Shai Agassi

Shai Agassi, Founder and CEO, Better Place, speaks to us about debunking doubts on electric vehicles, the importance of providing leadership and inspiration for others to follow, and how he will realize the company vision of the world's top selling cars being electric.

  • How would you describe your leadership style?

I’m an engineer by training and an imagineer by soul. I try to imagine the future the way it can be - not from the perspective of the constraints of today, but from the perspective of the individual customer and stakeholder. And once that imagination takes over, I use the engineering skills to engineer towards that future.

Then I instill that galvanizing vision into my team and let them do what they do better than me, which is build the solution and execute it on the ground. 

  • What kind of corporate culture do you try to foster?

No fear. We’ve embarked on a goal that is difficult. Most people, when we started, said we had no chance of actually executing on it. So I allow people to fail, as long as they fail forward. Our original plan developed in the form of a white paper, written back in 2006. In effect, that white paper laid out the roadmap that we’ve followed ever since. And if you read that white paper five years later, it’s almost uncanny how closely we’ve followed the original plan. So we had a single galvanizing vision we were working towards, correcting what didn’t work along the way.

  • What were your biggest hesitations in taking Better Place from an idea to a reality?

I was on a fast track career in the IT industry. [My position at] SAP was something that I was comfortable with. I knew exactly how to manage in that environment, and so the level of uncertainty was very, very low. So it was like leaping off a tall building. And in that sense, I didn’t even have my wings yet. I didn’t have any of the tools that would allow me to execute on my vision. I didn’t have any capital. And I still didn’t have the car. All I had was the white paper and the promise of the President [Shimon Peres] that we could do it. And so we were jumping into a fairly big unknown.

  • What good advice have you received?

I try to listen to everybody and their inputs. And some inputs are extremely valuable. For example, [when I explained my idea to him] President Clinton basically told me: “You can’t go into the market with cars that are $40,000 and expect people to buy it. It’s just not going to happen. You have to go way below that if you want to have any impact.” At that time, our plan was finished and everything was ready. But he was right, and so I went back to the drawing board and decided that I needed to figure out a way to make our car cheaper for the consumer than a gasoline car.

Another good piece of advice I got from President Peres was: “Don’t do this as a government project.” In a sense, you can’t prove a solution that doesn’t work yet, if you are at the mercy of the government. If you look at the turmoil in the markets around the world, I don’t think that there is a single government that hasn’t undergone a budget change in the last few years.

But one thing that has always stuck with me throughout has been: “When someone tells you something won’t work, but they don’t have a good reason: ignore them.” 

  • Some people doubt that Better Place will work. Do you ever have doubts?
We always have doubts. We always question ourselves. We question our role as an organization. We’ve had lots of debates on our business model, on the market, on the model of switching the batteries. But people forget that we didn’t start with a solution. We started with a very big question. The idea that we are stuck to one solution because that’s the solution we brought to market is absolutely wrong. I tried to go down the route of hydrogen. I tried to go down the route of biofuels and hybrids. But when we looked at all these models, we found that they don’t work.

That’s one of the fundamental advantages that Better Place has. We started earlier than a lot of other people. We started back in 2005 and failed on paper ten different times. And with each one of those failures, we changed course, and we changed again. So today we don’t have many doubts because we’ve been working through this for six years and now we are seeing the demand materialize. 

  • Can you elaborate on how it is working?

In Israel, many companies have already committed to begin converting their fleets as soon as the electric cars available. Those fleets alone represent more than 80,000 cars. And we’ve got 8,000 consumers who have expressed an interest in our subscription plan. So that’s almost 100,000 cars just from current commitments. Israel is a country where people buy 200,000 cars a year. If 100,000 cars materialize in the next three to four years, Israel will be the first country in the world where the top selling car in the market is not a gasoline car - it’s an electric car. If you can prove that you can get the number one selling car in a country to be electric, that changes the rules for the rest of the world.

  • What needs to happen for that vision to be realized?

Israel needs to work in the first year. The first year is critical for us. We’re in Israel, Denmark and Australia. Once we prove our model in those countries, we need more OEMs and more governments to understand that this is probably the only solution for sustainable private transportation in the long haul. Then we will be a model for other people trying to solve some of the world’s problems. So it’s not just that we see ourselves coming this far. We see ourselves providing inspiration and a template for others to follow.

Read the Better Place Clean Revolution case study.


Biography

Shai Agassi is the founder and chief executive of Better Place, which he founded in 2007. In 2008, Israel became the first country—and Renault the first car maker—to embrace the Better Place model of building an open network infrastructure to enable mass adoption of electric vehicles, and deliver transportation as a sustainable service. Denmark, Australia, California, Hawaii, and Ontario have all followed in its tracks since.

His visionary leadership with the Better Place model has been recognized widely. TIME Magazine spotlighted him in 2009 TIME 100, as one of the world’s 100 most influential people, as well as one of TIME’s 'Heroes of the Environment 2008'. Fast Company also placed him third on its '100 Most Creative People in Business' list. Even more recently, Scientific American Magazine ranked him in the 2009 Scientific American 10 and Foreign Policy Magazine included him in its annual 'Top 100 Global Thinkers' list.

Before founding Better Place, Shai Agassi was president of the Products and Technology Group at SAP AG, and a member of the software company’s executive board. He led global development of SAP’s product line and portfolio of industry-specific solutions.

Agassi remains an active member of the Forum of Young Global Leaders of the World Economic Forum, where he focuses on climate change, transportation and other key issues.

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