Five months ago, Detroit hosted one of its biggest events of the year, the North American International Auto Show. Because there were so many out-of-towners staying in the Detroit area that week, I thought it would be a good opportunity to cash in on, uber-wise. I planned my schedule so that I could uber in downtown Detroit almost every early morning that week, from 4am-9am, before my day at DRAW got going.
On the second day of the show, I got a call from a rider at the Crown Plaza Hotel...a hotel just walking distance from the NAIAS. (Uber hint: if you hang out around popular hotels, you're more likely to get rides quicker, since out-of-towners are more likely to need rides). I picked up Paul, a good looking, silver haired fellow, likely in his late 40's, who directed me to take him to Livonia.
Paul hopped in the car, Starbucks coffee in hand, and said a warm hello. It was 6:30am, so it was fairly obvious that Paul was a morning person. After our hellos, Paul admitted that, like most people staying in Detroit, he was in town for the NAIAS. He explained that he was with Elio motors, and as we drove under the Cobo Center on the Jefferson Ave tunnel, he pointed to the window where his display was set up for the week. "Have you heard of us?", he asked. "Nah," I replied. "I'm not a huge car guy."
So I asked the obvious question that monopolized the rest of our 30 min ride together: "So what is Elio Motors?" I thought I'd get a description of a car, or stats about its performance; instead, I got a pretty incredible story.
In 2006, Paul was a family man, a wife and two kids, and a guy with an entrepreneurial spirit. He had come up with a patent for a new kind of car, and started investing a lot of his own money, as well as recruiting outside investors, into his new project. If you remember recent economic history, you'll remember that 2006-2009 was not the easiest time to find investors for anything, as the US economy took a major tumble. For Paul, his investors dried up, as did his own cash flow. In the midst of a pretty rough financial patch, Paul's wife asked for a divorce. He was at a pretty dark moment.
In survival mode, Paul started looking for a job. He put out over 1000 resumes in a couple months, and couldn't get so much as an interview. From the backseat, Paul recalled "I wasn't too proud for anything at that time. I was near desparate...I would have been fine saying, 'do you want fries with that?'" Finally, living in Arizona in 2008, there was a serious hail storm in his town. As luck would have it, Paul's college buddy was in town that next day, and Paul met him for lunch. His college buddy made him an offer: "I run a company that does home repairs after hail storms like the one that just hit here in town last night. If you'll run my Arizona operation, I'll give you the flexibiliy to continue to recruit investors for your auto project." It was a win-win for a Paul at crossroads in life that he would've settled for just a win. So, for 15 months, Paul ran a roof repair company in Arizona.
Over that time, the economy and the auto industry, very slowly, started to turn around. People started buying cars again, and more importantly to Paul's project, people started investing in projects again. One by one, Paul found companies and investors willing to take a chance on his vision. At one point in 2010, Paul was able to recruit a big investor, another entrepeneur by the name of Stu, that really gave his project a boost. By 2012, Paul's company, Elio motors, had purchased a 400,000 sq. ft manufacturing plant in Louisiana, where Elio motors would manufacture it's vehicles. Paul touted the fact that the car would be more than 90% North American made, and that his car would provide jobs for thousands of blue collar workers.
"So, what kind of car is it?", I asked, obviously playing right into his elevator pitch. He gave me two numbers that still stick out to me months later:
- The car would get 84 mpg
- The starting price of the car is $6800
I was in disbelief. Paul was spouting stats (he had his numbers down pat) about societal mobility, carbon emissions, and economic class oppression. The car, to Paul, wasn't just about making something. It was about changing something. He wanted to make it easy/affordable for low income families to be able to get to work, even if the commute was longer.
The final pieces of the puzzle in the car's story are it's capacity and makeup. The car is a 2 seater, but not a bench 2 seater...a "single file" two seater, one passenger behind the driver. It's also a 3 wheel vehicle, with the front axle the same size as a Ford Taurus.
As we pulled into Paul's stop in Livonia, Paul mentioned that his biggest sense of pride was that they would start production on the vehicles this upcoming December, and the company already had over 50,000 reservations/down payments from consumers. The dream was actually becoming a reality.
As an uber driver, it was pretty remarkable to get to meet 2016 Paul Elio, and hear the story of how he got to this point. His story is incredibly exciting. But I gotta wonder how many 2008 Paul Elios I meet every day, people who have incredible visions of how their efforts can make a change in the world around them, but, at this current moment, all they see are obstacles. Maybe their personal life is in a rough patch. Maybe it seems like no one is investing in them. Maybe it seems like they gotta change their dreams to make it all work. But success happens when you seize opportunities that don't look like opportunities. Time may seem like your enemy, but really may become your friend. If I took anything from my Crown Plaza-to-Livonia trip with Paul Elio in January, it's the simple equation: