I remember reading the initial Wired article about Better Place and thinking, this could be amazing if they can pull it off and that’s a big if. $1 billion and a meager 1,400 cars later, it pretty much exemplifies startups gone wrong.
The caution seems especially important in a culture that increasingly celebrates startups, threatening to confuse their mythmaking with reality. Agassi made great Kool-Aid and then drank it all himself.
“Everything we needed to go right went wrong,” says one former employee. “Every cost on our spreadsheet wound up being double, every time factor took twice as long.” There was profligacy, marketing problems, hiring problems, problems with every conceivable part of the business. There was questionable oversight by the company’s board of directors. There was bad luck. And there was hubris. “There was nothing normal about Better Place,” says Pross. “It was spectacular. Shai always said, ‘If we go down, we’ll make a lot of noise.'”
Agassi’s startup lived fast and died young, and left almost nothing behind beyond the car that Pross and I are sitting in. Better Place sold fewer than 1,500 vehicles. Its swap stations, located next to gas stations and near highway on-ramps, closed last year. Their once-gleaming white walls, inspired by Apple’s design, are increasingly caked in dirt.
Better Place is a tragicomic case study of the limits of innovation, the difficulties of getting consumers to embrace new technology, and the perils of believing your own bullshit. What follows is the story of how that happened: a step-by-step guide to the most spectacularly failed technology startup of the 21st century.