In an interview with the Business Journal, Fisker talked about learning from his failures, securing unique manufacturing deals and shaking up the auto industry.
You were a successful designer for major carmakers. What made you give it up and go the business route?
I felt like I had hit the ceiling in my corporate career. It was sort of a dream at first to be at BMW and design the BMW Z8 and then go to Aston Martin and to get to design a couple of cars there as well. I just felt eager to do something more, something different, and I was also really starting to get interested in the whole sustainability aspect.
What was it like making that transition?
It was actually a lot more difficult than I had thought. Suddenly I found myself alone with a business partner. There was a lot of lessons learned in the first couple of years. And then finally we decided to start Fisker Automotive and make the Fisker Karma, the world’s first super sustainable luxury vehicle, with all the reclaimed materials. I just felt like I really had that urge to go out and do something bigger, something where I had more decision power. Before, when you’re only one part of a company, you don’t necessarily get to make the business decisions, and I really wanted to be partaking in the business decisions as well.
Was it hard watching Fisker Automotive go through bankruptcy?
Of course, it was hard. When your name is on the building, you get blamed for everything, no matter if it’s your fault or not. We had so many investors coming into the company that I wasn’t really able to control it in the end, and I didn’t own much of the company. It was definitely very, very hard to see. I had to leave the company because of a disagreement with investors who were also running the board. I was lucky that we were able to get the brand name back through a lot of complicated dealings, which is why we were able to start Fisker Inc. later.
But you were also able to build an audience off of that first effort, right?
We have a very strong following of the Fisker Karma owners, which helped us. We didn’t have to start a brand from zero, which is obviously tough. But to have that kind of experience of, to a certain extent of failure, is something where you learn a lot. I think you can learn a lot more from failure than success. And when you have something going against you, what I did, I sat down, and I went through it step by step, trying to take as many learnings as I could.
What kinds of challenges did you face with Fisker Automotive?
Some of the things were obviously beyond my control in the sense of we were so early out in those days where you just didn’t have a lot of choice (in suppliers) for lithium-ion batteries. The battery supplier went bankrupt, something that would not happen today because you have now the big conglomerates that make batteries, many of them, so you have more choice. Secondly, we had some disasters where 300 of our cars were lost in Hurricane Sandy. It was one disaster after another, where you really almost felt like the entire world was against you.
What made you try again?
I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t give up. A lot of people were telling me, even close friends, ‘Hey, why don’t you just give up, go on be a designer and contractor design and make a lot of money that way.’ I did that for a while. I went out and did a few projects — motorcycle, boat, some specialty cars. But at the end of the day, I just felt that I have some very unique ideas, specifically around what I believe ultimately could be a range of the world’s most sustainable vehicles, and also some unique design concepts that haven’t really been done before. We also put a business model together that I really think fits into sort of a digital future.
What’s the vision for the new brand?
We really see ourselves as a digital car company. And that’s something that even when we started way back, as well as when Tesla started, it wasn’t really something that I think was on anybody’s mind because we still didn’t have all the buying online and all the digital features which in the meantime have happened. This business model is really around, ‘How does the consumer of the future look? How do we interact with them, and then, of course, how do we create a unique, beautiful sustainable product?’ And with that in mind, we put together a business plan with some really smart people, and we were able to excite a lot of investors around it, and they really believe they have something unique.
How does it work?
The misconception is that we outsource everything, but we actually don’t. We develop a lot of IP in-house around software development, even some of the crash structures that we are doing, so actual vehicle engineering, because we got a team of several hundred people. We do outsource manufacturing, so that’s the assembly. But a lot of development we are doing in-house, and we lead all of it. And even if we develop a part from a supplier, we still own the IP, which is kind of the way most carmakers do it. Carmakers don’t make everything themselves; they just don’t tell consumers that. We see ourselves using the sort of Apple/Foxconn model where Apple also does not make its devices.
What’s working in your favor?
The automotive industry is extremely difficult. I’m probably the only one next to Elon Musk that actually has started a car company and put the car on the road. Don’t forget: All the startups out there, they still haven’t put a car on the road. They’re making the first vehicle, and it’s the first time they’re doing it, and all of them have announced delays during Covid. We at Fisker have not announced any delays due to Covid. We’re still on target to start manufacturing and deliver our vehicle in fourth quarter of next year.
Why do you think that is?
I think the reason we haven’t announced any delays is because we have a team — and I’m leading that team — where we know all the pitfalls, so we’ve already been through the difficulties of being a first-time startup company, and we’re not going through these pitfalls one more time. I think a lot of the sophisticated investors understand that and have put their faith in me and our team. And I think that’s why we are probably standing out as a differentiator from others. And the fact is also we have signed some pretty big deals. One of them was Magna, which is one of the world’s largest automotive suppliers. They don’t sign deals with just anybody.
You and your wife, Geeta Gupta-Fisker, own about a half of Fisker Inc. shares, and she serves as chief operating officer and chief financial officer. What’s that dynamic like?
Geeta likes to be a little more in the background. Her skill set is really around operations and the financial side, and I think she’s a master in that area. I would consider her the best automotive CFO in the world, quite frankly, probably because of her background coming out of the financial sector where she ran a large, multibillion-dollar family office in England. And obviously, as I was in the car industry, she’s picked up a lot of all the automotive side during the years. She wasn’t part of Fisker Automotive at all, but she’s been instrumental in Fisker Inc., and obviously, it’s a very unique relationship. I don’t like if people say, ‘Hey, your wife works in the company.’ I think that’s demeaning. She stands up for herself, she’s a CFO, and I think you can also say her husband works in the company, right?
What are some of the things you hope to accomplish this year?
One of the big milestones this year is presenting the final production vehicle in November at the Los Angeles Auto Show. We’ll reveal a lot of different interesting things in the (Ocean), specifically in the interior, and of course, we also haven’t announced all the details about who’s our battery supplier. We have a second project, which we will keep a lot more secret and confidential.
How much design do you do?
I mean, that’s my passion. I’m in the design studio and working on design every single day.