The odds are against San Francisco-based electric vehicle battery swapping company Ample. Other companies have tried to build a business on exchanging dead batteries for fresh ones to solve the problem of long EV charge times: Fourteen years ago, Better Place raised nearly a billion dollars to do what Ample’s doing, and it ended up declaring bankruptcy.
But that was more than a decade ago, when EVs weren’t sufficiently advanced —or plentiful — to make the business model work.
That didn’t deter Ample co-founder John de Souza. Born and raised in Ethiopia to a Greek/Ethiopian mother and a Portuguese/Indian father who found ways to send him and his siblings to school despite their poverty, his family relocated to Dubai when the Ethiopian Civil War started in the 1970s. After emigrating, de Souza finished out high school before heading to the United States at 16 to attend university under a full scholarship.
Since then, he has founded multiple companies, including fintech company Smartleaf, internet startup Flash Communications and consumer health platform MedHelp, where his current co-founder, Khaled Hassounah, served as CTO. Both de Souza and Hassounah come from immigrant backgrounds, which de Souza said affords them with that creative entrepreneurial mentality.
Neither co-founder had previous experience in the energy sector, but by 2018, both co-founders saw an opportunity in the EV market. The only problem was that it would be difficult to get people to convert to EVs when the technology, at least from a refueling UX perspective, was much worse than the status quo.
Many investors didn’t last five minutes into an Ample pitch because they could still see the smoldering ruins of Better Place, but de Souza and Hassounah raised upward of $275 million to solve for the limitations of plug-in charging.
Today, Ample has partnered with Sally, an EV rental company that offers ride-hailing, taxi and last-mile deliveries, along with Uber and Eneos, a Japanese petroleum and energy company. The company’s path to market relies on contracts with fleets wherein Ample’s battery chemistry-agnostic modular battery packs can be swapped into and out of any vehicle. Ample already has deployed seven swapping stations in the Bay Area for participating Uber drivers and plans to launch in Europe, starting with Madrid next year. Depending on COVID-19 border restrictions, Ample is also targeting late next year to start building stations in Japan.
We sat down with de Souza to discuss the merits of a B2B go-to-market strategy, how to create a fun and functional company culture and what it takes to go after an idea most people say won’t work.
The following interview, part of an ongoing series with founders who are building transportation companies, has been edited for length and clarity.
You have a track record of founding quite a few companies that span communications, fintech, health tech and now EV battery swapping. A couple of your companies did end up being acquired, so are you planning on sticking it out with Ample? Or are you already thinking about your next startup?
Well, it’s not just me, because I have my co-founder and you need to be in sync about what you’re doing. So firstly, I would recommend to any founder, it’s so much better doing it with somebody else than doing it on your own. And it’s easy to be friends with somebody you’ve worked with, but working with a friend is much harder because you may not be friends for long. But I think as we went into this, we’re not thinking about the exit. You go into it assuming it’s going to be a long journey, then it will be a fun journey.
To create something takes time. You need to go through the process, and as long as you’re creating value, you actually want to see the realization. I feel when you jump into it just to quickly create and sell, it’s not as much fun and it shows in the company culture. People spend so much time at the company that they need to enjoy being there, so if you’re a company where people love Fridays and hate Mondays, then you’re at the wrong company; it’s time to move on.
You don’t seem to have any competition in the EV swapping space. Maybe it’s not such a great idea if no one else is trying to solve the problem in the same way.
My co-founder and I connected on this idea of doing things that are very improbable, but possible. You just need to find a potential path. If everybody says, “Oh yeah, this is gonna happen,” it’s too late for us. We know it’s the right time and it’s possible there’s a path, but most people are saying this will never work. That doesn’t discourage us, because it’s clearly in that sector of low probability, and that’s a sector we’re most comfortable in.
Better Place tried and failed. Why do you think your company will be successful?
We did a lot of research on electric cars before starting this and found electric cars go back a century. One of the reasons people went over from electric to gas was everybody was building specific batteries for each type of car, but gas was possible to use in any car, and that became very convenient. So now with EVs, we’re asking people to go from something very convenient to something that’s exceedingly inconvenient.