Russ: [00:00:01] Thanks for downloading the 22nd in our series of episodes of the csuite podcast that we’re recording in partnership with the European PR Agency Tyto and their Own Without Borders podcast, where we are interviewing leaders of unicorn companies to find out about the key issues, pain points and challenges that start-ups face and how they can address them with a strategic approach to marketing and communications. My name is Russell Goldsmith and my co-host for this series of interviews is Tyto’s founder, Brendon Craigie, and today we are thrilled to be joined online from Detroit, by James Taylor, chief executive officer and co-founder of Electric Last Mile Solutions, a company focused on redefining the last mile with efficient, connected and customizable solutions. The company went public in June 2021 via a special purpose acquisition company or SPAC, and now has a market cap in excess of $1 billion. Welcome to the show, James. We should probably start by you giving us a quick overview to ELMS.
James: [00:00:55] Well, thank you, Russell. The intro you already read there covered a lot of the material, but I’ll go over it a little bit. For the short form of ELMS, Electric, that’s pretty self-explanatory. It’s all-electric, not hybrid, so that’s the propulsion system of the vehicles that we will be producing. Last mile is the focus, the particular entries that we have, we’re calling urban delivery, urban utility and really purpose-built and singularly purposed on short distance deliveries. The last delivery or even service calls and things that have quite short ranges and short duty cycles. That’s where the electric last-mile comes in, and then the last part of solutions because these are focused only in the commercial market, not in the passenger market. Then a business-to-business exchange from our standpoint, requires solutions for their very specific use case that they’re going to have and these are tools in their toolbox. These are part of their business or their efficiency, part of them making money. So, we have to adapt these vehicles both on the digital hardware software side as well as the hardware side to customise them to exactly what they’re going to use these vehicles for.
Brendon: [00:01:59] James, you’ve been the CEO of Hummer, the President of Cadillac, I’m guessing you’ve owned some nice cars along the way. Why did you decide to found Electric Last Mile Solutions? What was your inspiration behind the company?
James: [00:02:12] Well, I’ll spin backwards, as you said, it was a tremendous sort of finale, let’s call it that, at General Motors, running those two brands, two great brands. Unfortunately, the Hummer brand didn’t survive, it’s coming back in another reincarnation right now in a different form. But after that, I left General Motors kind of around the bankruptcy timeframe, and since then, for the last, I guess, 10 or 12 years, I’ve been working my way through various start-ups in this electric vehicle space, and we can talk about that in a second. But Electric Last Mile and any start-up, I refer to it as cracking a code or kind of a Rubik’s Cube, to be honest, and so I’m walking through numerous different aspects of the electric vehicle industry. We landed on this concept, this business proposition, this business model Electric Last Mile, and we feel it enters a very unique niche. It has a unique business plan to execute our strategy and has, you know, never guaranteed start-ups, to be honest, as you know, have the odds mostly against them. But we think the whole business formula that we put together has a very high probability of success in this – what I call a tsunami of new electric vehicles that are coming to the market. So quite a different market, these aren’t exotic luxury cars. They’re not for individuals. They’re not for Hollywood movie stars. As I said in the introduction, these are just sort of the meat and potatoes tools of any business trade that allows commerce to occur every day.
Brendon: [00:03:36] Which is obviously very important, those meat and potatoes vehicles, and you mentioned that after General Motors, you got involved in a few other start-ups. Were there any kind of important lessons you took from those experiences that have helped you now?
James: [00:03:49] Yeah, quite a few, and I think when you meet, probably in your interviews, you’ve talked to so-called serial entrepreneurs and as they establish companies and go from company to company, there’s no question they’re picking up more and more experience and I’d like to look at it in a sense of I’ve made enough mistakes that I think this one at least solved the ones I’m aware of and that I’ve seen over the last four or five ventures that I’ve been through, and those can be across the board. Maybe they’re personal mistakes, but there’s sort of structural mistakes as well. It’s either the ownership of the company, it’s the investors that come in and there’s a lot of investors that are not friendlies that raid companies and I had one very sad occurrence with a company that we thought was going to be extremely successful, and then an investor came in and wiped us out. There’s competition that comes out of nowhere, so keep your eyes out and be aware, and don’t assume everybody has good intentions. There’s many, many learnings along the way, but the most fundamental one is, I don’t know if you have the show there, but the Shark Tank version here, at least in the U.S. and you know, whether these guys are selling a lemonade stand or we’re doing what we do. You know, the first question is, what’s your product and does anybody want it? And there’s an awful lot of businesses start up with a push system that says, I think I’m going to create a market and one of the expressions we used to have at GM when we were looking at some of our new product opportunities because you like people to push the envelope – is this an answer to a question nobody’s asking? And so, you can be sometimes, leading a market and you could use the iPhone as a good example where we didn’t know we wanted iPhones. We didn’t know we needed little handheld computers, but here they are and everybody’s hand. So, you can invent some markets, but in the car business, a lot of the time, if it doesn’t exist, there might be a good reason why it doesn’t exist because nobody wants it and you go through a very expensive product development program, launch the vehicle and oh, look, nobody wants it. So, the biggest fundamental in all those learnings is make sure you’re starting out with at least a shot. You know, this is a probability game, whenever you do start-ups, you’ve got to have at least a chance. So, the start of that is, is your product sound and is there a customer demand? Is there a market? After that, you’ve got all kinds of execution details that you can either do well or mess up, as you said, with the mistakes. But the very, very beginning of that process is do you have a really good line of sight on a high market demand that when you finish all the tough parts, raising cash, executing, you know somebody’s at the other end of that and can’t wait to get your product?
Brendon: [00:06:09] That was really interesting and helpful to get that context James, in terms of your kind of experience working with General Motors and the roles with Hummer and Cadillac was their kind of experience in that world that has helped you with ELMS.
James: [00:06:24] Well, I think we’re on the front end of that, of course, as a new company, but I’d say the top learning from both those companies, and I’ll put it in the context of those companies and their competition and still their competition is brand, brand and brand. So, I wouldn’t say anybody can make hardware, but more or less, and there’s a lot of new entrants in the vehicle industry all the time from foreign locations coming here or just existing competitors. But you look at the differentiation and the success and ultimately profit margin and how much of that is the hardware itself, four wheels, a tin box, you know, and driving down the road and how without the front grill on it and without the badge, how identical are 90 per cent of the vehicles, pick any segment you want, versus then add in the badge on the front of it. You put a Porsche badge on the front to an exactly the same vehicle as a Volkswagen, which they do, and charge another thirty thousand and make people much happier. So, the brand, brand image, brand loyalty, brand reputation is incredibly powerful and, in many cases, the difference between making money and not making money.
Russ: [00:07:26] How are you therefore differentiating and, you know, from your competitors because obviously it’s become, you know, a very hot space at the moment in terms of, you know, the last mile delivery and obviously with such an increase in e-commerce booming, particularly obviously off the back of the pandemic as well. So, how are you convincing your customers to choose ELMS?
James: [00:07:43] Well, again, as a new brand being very realistic and honest, also, we’re still in that convincing phase and we’re still out attracting new customers and convincing them to take our product and not going to exaggerate so at the front of them. But what I see that we need to prioritise the reason, let’s go back to why ELMS and why not? Let’s say a Cadillac or a Hummer is, on the commercial side, this act of convincing your customers, to be honest, I wouldn’t say it’s simpler, but it’s a lot easier in the sense that it’s very pragmatic and you’re in a commercial, it’s again a business asset. It’s a tool and it either does the job or it doesn’t. Pretty black and white, from a duty cycle standpoint, it’s big enough, carries enough or it doesn’t. It goes far enough; you know the range is adequate or it isn’t. But these are fairly rational, asset-based financial decisions, unlike the retail business, is 80 per cent emotional. You like the brand, you like the colour, you like the styling, you like the dealer. When you go through your final shakeout, it’s way more irrational, call it emotional, than it is pragmatic and a business decision. So, in our case, what we have to present these potential customers is the business case. Here’s the story – this vehicle is going to do what you need it to do, and it’s less cost. You know, it’s kind of that simple. Behind that, a lot more complicated, but if you, as we are now, make this proposition to a current fleet owner and say, look, I can drop your costs 30 per cent. Are you interested? You kind of got them right at the beginning, and that’s pretty hard to say – No, thanks. I’m good. Well, how would you do that? The new technology, the fact that these vehicles run at an immediately lower cost than the vehicles that are in your fleet as you turn these over, your business is going to be more competitive. That’s a little hard to resist. Now at the second level, though, is okay, yeah, but, but how do these electric vehicles work? And I’ve never seen one, I haven’t even driven one. So, the next sort of hurdle is them getting used to it and understanding the product’s capabilities and developing, say, trust in us as a brand that we’re going to do our side of it as a company and then trust in the product itself. But the way we differentiate the current vehicles, that would all be, of course, gas-driven vehicles is cost.
Brendon: [00:09:48] I mean, kind of reading up ahead of this conversation, I noticed that you speak a lot about reliability, efficiency, and total cost of ownership. You kind of hinted at some of these things, but when you’re having conversations or for fleet managers, logistic managers out there, what’s is the high-level kind of transformative impact that you can have for them with Electric Last Mile Solutions? What sort of level of transformation are we talking about as far as those costs?
James: [00:10:14] Well, let me build my way up just to set the stage here and as you’re all aware that the two things; pandemic, but also the chip shortage has brought kind of the supply side of the auto industry to its knees. So, if you look through the last year, year and a half, but in a high-level sense and see that the annual demand, let’s make that one hundred, just for the sake of this discussion, that would be a normal, steady-state replacement rate for new businesses buying delivery vans. All of a sudden, the supply side went to 20 or 30 per cent, so that 80 per cent that’s been replenishing fleets, you know, adding to new businesses, it was gone. So, like all businesses that started drawing down the inventory, drawing down pretty soon, the inventory is zero. I was at a company last week, a dealer who said, you know, typically look out here, my lot would be four hundred vehicles, I have four. So, there’s no inventory and so you have this huge supply exceeding demand issue. Regardless, gas or electric. Now you throw on top of that e-commerce, increasing at, pick whatever number you want, 15, 20 per cent. Who knows, every year we guess what it’s going to be, and it’s higher. So, demand is from steady-state going from one hundred to a hundred and twenty to one hundred and forty. Supply is at 10,15 per cent of history. So, this gigantic hole in this delivery van market. Now new entrants come in instead of just, of course, the famous Amazon, Walmart says, I’m coming in, Target says I’m coming in. All these new players want to deliver a food, want to deliver packages. Of course, as we all as consumers have switched to saying, press this button, it’ll show up at my door tomorrow. That’s not so bad with or without the pandemic. I think I’m going to keep doing this. So, with all those going in place, you have an enormous amount of unmet demand. So, as we walk in, fortunately, very fortunately and say, hey, I got some extra hardware, we’re incremental supply. They’re very interested in talking to us regardless of propulsion. The second factor that comes in is a huge amount of, I just say, positive momentum in the EV industry and that take when I started the first one 10 years ago where you had to go into a fleet guy and convince them to look at this, batteries cost a fortune. There was almost no EVs on the road. People were like Tesla who? Now spin forward 10 years, Tesla has broken the ice. People are comfortable. Electric vehicles work. They charge, they go down the road. They don’t break down every hour. So, it’s a much higher comfort level of adoption by these fleets than there would have been years and years ago and the cost has dropped, you used to have to say, gee, how would you like to pay a 50 per cent premium for an electric vehicle because you want to be environmentally responsible? No, thanks. I’m not that environmentally responsible. Now it’s a wash or lower so there’s a lot of arrows of all of a sudden lined up where they’re much more interested in the adoption. I’d say just to put a little bit more icing on the cake the large companies have also got very, very aggressive ESG goals that they’re being either volunteered or mandated to take on. So, they started looking through their company and saying, what are all of the dials I could turn on my ESG front, especially, of course, on the environmental side. If you’ve got a large fleet, that’s one of the fastest switches that you can flip to make a big headway into your carbon footprint. So those are all the driving factors, sort of a long answer to say what’s going on at the fleet manager’s desk while he’s just trying to be a simple guy and order his vehicles, that’s his real world. So, as we arrive with the solution.
Russ: [00:13:40] I just want to go back to what it said in the intro. The fact that you went public via a SPAC, and congratulations, valued in excess of a billion dollars. But why did you choose that particular route to raise the finance?
James: [00:13:52] Well, I think it’s again, luck and timing often works out in business, and this is one of those good examples where when we were going through this actually August of 2020 and my partner and I, sort of forming this business concept and saying, what about and running the play like all early companies would? This was going to lead, eventually, to requiring cash and funding, we started down to say the traditional roots was just a series A, B, C and private funding, maybe working our way towards an IPO. We looked at some joint ventures with other companies that were already in this space thinking maybe we could just jump in with them. To be honest, Russell, I call it again, along came the SPACs tsunami. It’s like, oh my God, like, everybody’s jumping in there, looks relatively, not easy, but super quick, and when I’m asked about the advantage of a SPAC, well, the disadvantage is you take a three-year process and you jam it into six months, so it’s sheer hell going through the process. The advantage is, in six months, you go from zero to having your money, so that’s much, much less in the big picture, painless or much less pain than it would be going through a typical IPO process. So, you go from zero funding to a few hundred million in the bank, relatively fast, and that’s the big advantage. I’ve been on the other path, raised 20 million, burn it, raised 20 million, burn it. You’re constantly in the market, constantly meeting with bankers, constantly running out of money, constantly almost missing payroll. That is a huge headache. When you’re trying to simultaneously stand up a company, attract people to work for you, take risks, lose their jobs. If you’ve got a few hundred million in the bank, it’s a little easier to attract people to your company than if you say, trust me, I’m going to keep raising enough money to not close the doors, so it’s also a big advantage for attracting talent.
Russ: [00:15:34] That’s what I was going to ask because obviously you then go literally the next day, you’re now worth a billion dollars or more. I mean, how has that changed the perception of the business?
James: [00:15:44] Well, it helps us also back to Brendon asking at the customer front that we simplify it here and just have a line that’s like, we’re real. Sounds pretty simple, but like simple things. We’re real. So once you’re a public company, you’re valued at a billion dollars, as you said, you’re trading, you have money in the bank. Of course, you have real hardware that’s driving down the street and you have real engineering people in your office. Then the customers aren’t again thinking they’re rolling the dice or something. With a lot of start-ups, they have come and gone, frankly, in the EV industry where they’ve been sort of stuck with dinosaur product, where the companies didn’t make it and they have to crush it or do something with it. But all of those factors, we just said, especially the SPAC, Russell, makes us very real to our customers.
Brendon: [00:16:28] Picking up something that you mentioned earlier, James, about the impact of the semiconductor shortage in the market. I was kind of reading the Sunday papers and I was obviously aware of all of this. But, within the consumer world, I was kind of reading about how manufacturers are basically shipping cars without basic features because they don’t have the semiconductors to put in like the Bluetooth audio or whatever it might be.
James: [00:16:53] True
Brendon: [00:16:53] What’s the kind of the state of that supply shortage at the moment? And how are you navigating that?
James: [00:16:59] Well, at the industry level, you’re right. I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve spent many, many years in purchasing as well, and this is unprecedented. One commodity can bring an entire industry to its knees is phenomenal. Car companies wrestle this all the time if they’ve allocated their wheels to Brazil and all of a sudden there’s an issue, then that model and that plant’s down. That happens all the time, but an entire industry being shut down essentially by one commodity is unprecedented and you’re right, they’re doing everything they can imagine, reprograming their actual hardware boxes to adapt to new chips. They’re moving the chips from Vehicle A to B to try to protect the more valuable or higher-margin products. The shipping, as you said here because we have many assembly plants in this Detroit area. You can drive up I-75 and see huge farmer fields with all these vehicles parked waiting for the day of a chip shows up so somebody can run out, put it in the vehicle and an off it can go. But it’s been devastating because you drive around the dealerships. As I mentioned, there’s just no product on the lots. The poor sales guys have literally nothing to sell. You order a car, it’s a two or three-month lead time. So unbelievable. Switching back to us, though, one of the advantages we have is that our business model we haven’t talked about that much, is at least initially what we call ‘Knock-down kits’, CKD, completely knocked down and it’s done often with many large OEM’s that go to a new country and a new market. So, they take an existing vehicle, break it all down into its parts, put it in a box, I’m making this oversimplified, ship the box off to that new country, set up an assembly plant, put it back together, call it Lego, and off the vehicle goes. Depending on the regulations of that country though, you may get away with just shipping the vehicle, as is, put it back together, you’re in business, or you have to adapt it to that local market. So even in our case, those Cadillacs started off and heading into China, we said, OK, we break down our Cadillac here, as is, ship it to China, put it back together, ba-boom. Then over the years, you start localising all your parts and it becomes more and more of a homegrown unit and ultimately with a full assembly plant, as China is today, is one example. Think of Toyota coming to us. The very first Camry came over with the Japanese Camry with a grille and now boom, huge assembly plants and all localised in the U.S. So that’s the standard kind of automotive go to in a new country play. So, in our case, to keep this simple, what we’ve done is we’ve found product in Asia and in China that’s already in the market. That’s where the proven reliable comes from. It’s being sold and has been in the market for several years. The normal things that go in vehicle launches with software bugs and things like that, have been worked out. Durability, suspension, things like that and so we bring those over in kits and then do the final assembly here. But add in all of the U.S. specific requirements, which are and it’s quite a few, but it’s the safety system, all the airbags and steering wheel airbags, all that have to be all brand new and a completely different set of regulations than are in both Europe and China. So, all that said, the advantage we have is that the chips are already in those vehicles going down the line today, in China on those assembly plants, and we’re leveraging their purchasing power or leveraging their current vehicle bills and so at this particular time, they don’t have chip issues in the models that we’re bringing over. So consequently, we don’t either.
Russ: [00:20:22] In terms of moving to the next phase of the business then, so we’ve, you know, obviously, 2021 has been a huge milestone to get to where you are now. But yeah, what’s the next frontier for ELMS?
James: [00:20:34] We’ve been looking at a couple of things first is there’s a lot in this SPAC business and then also in the start-up business, there’s a lot of what we just call hype and a lot of promises and a lot of PowerPoints and things like that that have manufactured some very high-value companies, but their actual execution is a long time away. Car business takes a long time to stand up, and so what we’re focusing on near your end right now is execute, execute. So, get vehicles out the back door, scale our plant and so we’re starting initially by design with very low volumes 50 or 100 a month just to make sure again that the plant level and the manufacturing level, we have all of those systems tuned in and the quality systems are working properly. Then throughout the first, second quarter, we’ll start climbing that volume up much higher. So, from the investor’s, shareholder standpoint and even our customers, what they’d like to see is you’re not just an aftermarket low volume converter. You are a true OEM. So, the first step is during 2022 is for us to scale a plant up and produce significant volumes, that comes back to my original theme of being real. We’re a real OEM. And then from publicity and communications, all of that end of the business gaining some large brands so that we can have customer testimonials mainly, and this is a business that goes laterally, very fast. We catch a couple of very big brands, Big Fleet managers, Big Fleet companies that adopt our product and then word gets out very quickly. It’s a small world that these guys all live in, and we’re very sure that lateral growth will go like wildfire once the word’s out that they’ve taken our product and they work and they’re reliable. Our reputation is good. So, scale is, I think, the simplest answer.
Russ: [00:22:24] Are you prepping for that scale in recruitment now, how are you planning for that?
James: [00:22:28] Yeah, that’s on all fronts. There’s the scale of the engineering headquarters we have here in the northern area of Detroit. We also have scaled up an office in San Francisco to address the talent pool, human capital that’s available in the whole software-hardware space, of course, in San Francisco. We opened up an office in Shanghai to scale there so that we can tap into, let’s be honest, the EV industry in China is, what, three or four years ahead of us here. So, they’re already well down the road with developing engineering talent and having talent pools for us to be able to draw in. So, we’re scaling our talent in each of our offices worldwide and also expanding our market first, and then scaling a different kind of scale, adding in another product to our product portfolio. So, sort of expanding on all fronts.
Russ: [00:23:17] Picking up on that, James, as all this expansion happens. Does that create new challenges that you have to overcome?
James: [00:23:23] Yes. Well, I think the one that comes to mind is again, people and human capital as we expand into those different areas. The one reason we’re doing that is to access the pool of human capital, not rely on all of that. Being a Detroit, Detroit’s famous for and has a phenomenal pool of its traditional vehicle engineers here, and so as you look into the chassis suspension’s body, there’s no better place to park yourself, which is why we’re here. But on top of that, you also have to access all of the hardware-software that is in, we think, Silicon Valley. So that is that office. And then as we expand into China with their whole EV industry, you know, batteries, energy systems are primarily located there. So, one is to locate in the centres of expertise and where the highest amount of human capital exists, but then the second challenge is the competition. Everybody in the world, every major OEM and all the start-ups are all looking for, to some degree, the same people to come to their companies and convince them that that they should join them. So, we have a real everyday hand-to-hand combat with all of these good people. It’s easy to get average people but to get the really good people, we have to convince them that ELMS is a better place for them and why, and they don’t pitch our story to them and sell them into coming to our company. That’s probably the biggest challenge.
Brendon: [00:24:39] You kind of hinted at this, James, that there’s a lot of hype in the tech sector and lots of PowerPoints, as you said and you kind of talked a bit about how at the moment you’re really focusing on execution. But, you kind of also talked about how important brand is, you know, and ultimately, people can have similar boxes, but you know, brand is incredibly important. How do you see yourself kind of differentiating yourself from a from a brand perspective in this kind of very noisy cluttered environment?
James: [00:25:10] Well, I think back to the theme of business to business and sort of real-world evidence, I think the differentiation is earned and it has to be from the customer backwards. These people are, I think, in a pretty low tolerance on lack of performance. They’re not that forgiving. I think the early days when people receive a Tesla and it doesn’t work and the software doesn’t work, and the quality’s no good that if you’re an early adopter and you’re a kind of tech fanatic, you got a lot of tolerance for an imperfect product. Let’s say, they muscled their way through those early years, and now, of course, much better. But likewise in our front, we have to deliver these reliable products. They have to actually demonstrate the cost savings that we’re saying or they’re not going to repeat buy or they’re not going to expand their fleets or they’re not going to word of mouth you know tell the other fleets. So that’s how we have to differentiate the brand and to be honest, I’ll say this as a kind of a double negative as, say, the going-in position is a pretty low bar that it’s not going to work. So, all we have to do is deliver what we say we’re going to deliver, and we’ll make it. But there’s a lot of scepticism in this fleet side of the business that they’re going to be able to hold up to their reliability targets, GM’s coming in here with their Bright Drops, Ford’s coming in with their E-transits. In Europe, there are already commercial vehicles, so it isn’t like this is brand new, that there aren’t people already doing this and experiencing it. But in our particular case, ELMS case, we have a lot of experienced people here, we have a plant that’s been making vehicles for 20 years, we have experience there and so what we need to prove very quickly is our differentiating factor. What our brand is going to be known for is as reliable.
Brendon: [00:26:50] That’s really great to hear. Another area that we like to explore on this podcast series is around company culture and you’ve obviously got a distributed team. What’s your kind of philosophy as far as building company culture?
James: [00:27:05] That’s not just a trick question. That’s a complicated question and define culture and how much of that is just, let’s say, organically grown by doing the right things versus we’re going to make a culture announcement, we’re going to tell everybody what the culture is. You have to put all the right, in my opinion, enablers in place and then it happens or doesn’t based on your actions at the senior leadership. So of course, we can set the tone for that, we can set some direction for that by doing some of the right things at senior leadership. But the culture we’re trying to get as a very, call it, the pragmatic and un-hyped, I wouldn’t say low key because it’s very intense here as well. I think good start-ups have a constant view of survival, you can’t you can’t take your survival for granted. Coming from GM, of course, we said the safest place on Earth, and then we went bankrupt. So, I’m not sure there’s any safe haven anywhere anymore. But we have to have that attitude that everybody’s coming to game day every day and fighting towards survival to get us up to a point on a curve that at least, I wouldn’t call it sunny state, but it’s safer, and that’s only through execution. So, there’s a huge amount of, say, the cultural focus here on people that know what they’re doing. We’re hired for a specific purpose. They deliver what they said that they will deliver and they’re competent in delivering that and there’s no place to hide in a big company. You can have, again, speaking from personal experience, a lot of people that are pretty average or less, and find places to hide a whole career and then retire happy as if they actually did something, when in reality, they never really did anything, but they don’t get exposed. So, this is a very visible culture and your results are very visible and more like a sports team. I use sports a lot. Whether it’s your case football soccer team or whether it’s American football team, as you’re paid a lot of money to run out and catch the ball. You don’t catch the ball three or four times what happens? They trade you and it’s not like, oh, he’s a nice guy or, you know, he tried really hard or, you know, his mother’s sick. It’s like you didn’t catch the ball, like, that’s all that matters. You didn’t score. So, we want to have call it, a performance culture where it’s, you know, you hired me, my job is this, I did it, you should be happy with me, you should pay me well, it’s pretty simple. All the rest of it is important and, you know, ought to be kind of givens, supportive and the right benefits and happy people and all that, but we want people to just deliver, so the company can deliver.
Brendon: [00:29:36] I think sports is a very great inspiration for culture. I draw upon it all the time and constantly bore my team with like soccer analogies. But one of my favourite coach, he kind of says, I don’t want to have the best team. I want to be the best team. You know not having the best 11 players on the pitch, I don’t want to be the best team, which I think is a good one.
James: [00:30:00] That’s a good one. I love quotes like that. Because that happens on the weekends, a different team is the best team on that weekend. We’re going into the college finals now in football here and so many upsets going into these last set of brackets of teams that are impossible to lose, haven’t lost in three years and Ohio State lost, you know, two weeks ago. It’s like that can’t happen. But it did, and on that day, they weren’t the best team, so it’s the same metaphor here. We haven’t asked it yet, but hammer on this point for your audience, as well as, you know, human capital, human capital, human capital. So, what’s the differentiator? At the end of the day, if you’re CEO that you got one answer so you can pick a product, you can pick a plant, buy capital, physical capital, machines, locations, markets, but at the end of the day, the differentiation’s human capital, that’s why sports is so evident because that’s all you got is human capital more or less, right? You buy them equipment, but it’s all about people on display and it’s the same thing in a company. You have to have the right human capital or you’re not going to be the best team.
Brendon: [00:31:04] And I guess part of that role of managing human capital is the internal communication side of things and I think as a leader, you have this kind of dual thing where you’re often you’re trying to communicate with people one to one in small groups, but then at the same time, you’re trying to transmit your values, what you’re trying to get across to a wide group to the entire company. What’s your approach to internal communications?
James: [00:31:29] Well, I think I think a few things. One of the words that comes to mind is sort of humility, approachability, access. We’re small now, in this particular office, we’re only a hundred and fifty people. But in the old terms of just management by walking around, which means people see you, you stop by, ask questions, drop into meetings unannounced and say, hey, what’s going on to be accessible and be seen? It also gives you, to be honest, a speech opportunity because, you know, when you’re the senior leadership and my senior staff, we spend a lot of time together. If you hopefully if you queried any of them, they’d be able to articulate what it is that our vision, mission and all those sorts of things are. But you also can fall into a trap of taking that for granted and that message is being adequately filtered down to the lowest people in the organisation, and that’s a mistake if you assume that. So, you know, repetition, repetition, repetition, on what is the message and personally delivering it as opposed to assuming as you announce that in your staff meeting that that’s going to make it all the way to the right person or the right ears, reinforcing it in these meetings with the rationale and the outcomes and the whys behind it, as opposed to just posters on the wall and ensuring everybody gets it. I think the other principle that I’ve learned over the years, one of my mentors along the GM journey, we were talking and putting together presentations is kind of what you do for a living. You’re always presenting something to somebody because you’re selling a proposal, a budget, we’re going through it, and he said that it’s too complicated, it’s too complicated, so the line he said to me is; if you can explain this to your mother, Sunday night at dinner. Then you got it. But so many of the communication pathways, especially internally, are so complicated. You’ve lost your audience and again, you’re taking for granted that they’re operating with your level of information or background or education or all the different variables. So, I keep the message really simple and consistent and repeat it and repeat it and repeat it, not assume because you said it once it’s going to stick to the wall and whether that’s internal, to be honest or externally, a lot of that’s the same formula.
Russ: [00:33:35] I was going to ask actually; do you feel as comfortable communicating internally as you do as an external representative for the business?
James: [00:38:10] In my case, I do it’s, I think, you sort of ask why, you know, you look in the mirror and say, how come? Why is that? I think there’s a bit of a natural selection process and I think if you get the leadership levels, you have to have that you have to be a good communicator or a catch-22 is you wouldn’t become a senior leader because it’s an essential and critical role that you have and people that are promoting you, back to more big companies, not founding companies. Anybody can found a company and then whether they’re successful or not, will turn out. But at least in big companies, if you’re not a good communicator, you just don’t advance because it’s a critical skill. I think also in a convincing way, but I’d also say, Russell, you know, I’ve said this twice, three times, maybe already- Luck and timing. I was put into a lot of jobs where it wasn’t optional, the Cadillac job, for instance, was a huge number of public appearances. Also, practice makes perfect.
Brendon: [00:34:39] So along the way, James, I’m guessing that you’ve had a few tricky moments that you’ve had to manage from a communication standpoint. What would you say has been the biggest communications challenge you’ve had to deal with and overcome? That you’re prepared to share!
James: [00:34:52] That’s a good one to think through. Well, I’ll work from, say, challenge right now to keep it in the current tense Brendon is that you know, being a public company CEO, you are under literally a microscope and knowing we could use this broadcast as an example, every part of this can be listened to by the SEC. They can say that you gave away information that isn’t public, somebody can put a lawsuit to me that said, ‘How did you say that? I didn’t know that’. So literally every word you say as a public company CEO is eventually and can be, many times immediately scrutinized. So that’s the first stress in any public company’s CEO’s life is being very, very careful, and what can happen is a natural consequence of that is you just don’t do any. You stop doing them because that risk is too high and so you’ll see, especially with bigger companies, such manufactured press releases, earnings releases, everything is pre-written, everything’s pre-scripted. They take very few interviews because the risk is too high. So, they just don’t, and they end up sending PR guys or sending other people to do their talking for them and take very limited engagements. So far, I’m not practising that yet. I just be careful, and I’d also give credit that I’ll just go back and say the same thing again is that, you know, General Motors is a very, very conservative company in a good way, and we had a lot of help in understanding what to say, not to say, staying on the safe side of the line and anticipating those as you’re talking. So, you don’t get yourself in trouble and I won’t name names here. But in the U.S. a few of the SPAC leaders founders that haven’t come through that kind of a system and didn’t have that level of experience got themselves in immediate trouble post becoming company and have since lost their jobs because they shouldn’t say what they say, you know, should never have said it and didn’t catch themselves in time or didn’t think about it, weren’t trained, weren’t experienced, whatever the cause is, but you can literally lose your job overnight in the seat I’m in now if you’re not careful. But you know, I’ve had lots of practice and hopefully I’ll stay on the right side of that line.
Russ: [00:37:07] Has there ever been a time when you’ve come off a broadcast interview and you’ve sort of panics or thought, like lost some sleep that evening thinking, Did I say the right thing there?
James: [00:37:18] No, you’re right. It’s let’s go back to sports, Russell. I go back over the transcript and look at it very carefully and go, ‘Damn, why did I say that?’ Or I have a pretty tough partner here, my co-founder, and he’ll come in and I’ll think, ‘Man, I nailed that one’ and he’ll listen to the cut and say ‘Why did you say that? How come you didn’t remember to add this, you know, and embellish this point?’ ‘Oh yeah, you’re right’. So yeah, we’re pretty hard on ourselves and post-mortem things to see if we could have done it a better way, to kind of hone our skills just like good sports guys do, when they look at their game films. But again, touch on wood, I haven’t got in any significant trouble where it’s cost me a job or a career. We always said that career-limiting interviews.
Russ: [00:38:06] It’s interesting, you said, because I mean, Brendon and I, we’re both naturally because we have our own podcast that we’re doing now. But you know, we love the podcast format because I find it much more informal, and we’ve talked about the fact that in that kind of informal setting, you can be more, you know, the CEOs do come across more, more real, let’s say, you know, more transparent, more honest, and you don’t feel like you’re getting that corporate response that has been rehearsed. I mean, just out of interest, is this a format that you like that you’re comfortable doing more than those, you know, more corporate style broadcast interviews, press interviews?
James: [00:38:43] No question, and you know, another aspect is, the good parts about being a founder and being a CEO and now kind of a company owner is I do all of these, I don’t delegate this to anybody. I think it’s important that I put a face on the company and it’s human. You know, it’s not a corporate line or a company’s line or company’s release. It’s mine. Also, establish your relationships with all these key communicators because let’s go back to the communication business that you’re in. It’s really, vital for a company, especially new ones and start-ups and things. So, I want to make sure it’s done well and that we’re getting, like you, the multiplier effect of getting the right audiences and all the tools in the business of getting our message out. We’re still kind of a best-kept secret, a little bit, and a lot of the areas that I go to and talk to, so we appreciate opportunities like this to get our message out.
Russ: [00:39:59] Well, I promise you if you have said anything bad, we’ll edit it out before we make this live. But I’m sure it’s all fine. Listen, James, we’ve got one final question for you. We’ve asked all our leaders in this series the same question, so we’re going to put it to you. If you were to go back in time and speak to your old self, what guidance would you give yourself about communications and what steps would you encourage yourself to take, in order for you and your business to excel in comms?
James: [00:40:04] Well, sorry to be repetitive, but I think the old self and I look back sometimes I get this question quite frequently from younger people, of course, you know, how did you make your career so successful and it’s like you had some manual or something that says, ‘Go here, go there’, and a lot of it just happens to you. To another famous expression life, what happens when you aren’t paying attention or something? But during those journeys, as I mentioned, they’d have a lot of chances to practice being a communicator. I think just like sports, there’s also some sort of magnets that happen as if you’re good at something, you get attracted to it and then you get better at it. So, I think compliments of my parents, I think, was born a little bit with the knack. You’re probably you guys entered this business, so probably the same and I think I asked my mother and say, you know, you had the gift of the gab from the time you could talk, so I like talking. I always, always have, so it became more of a natural skill. But I’d say if you identify that in the communications areas where you’re heading to is practice, practice, practice, find opportunities and work on it. It isn’t different than sports or muscle building. You have to study it and look at it as a science, you know what works, what doesn’t work about communications and then get yourself in places to be able to keep getting better at it, just like sports practice, practice, practice. I think the other is, there’s been plenty of circumstances and I guess I think the one that’s just a top of mind, but, you know, even though this practice, I don’t want to sound that arrogant. It’s like there’s still some days you walk out like, OK, I am nervous as hell, because even I guess, let’s say you’re going to the World Cup or the Super Bowl. Even those guys do, when Tom Brady walks out in the field, I’m sure he’s got a little nervous, you know, it’s the big day. So, you know, I’m not fear free or something when you go into these, but you have to throw yourself in those circumstances, you know, trust your training and then and then maybe go back and post mortem. But you can’t shy away from the opportunities for big time, big time venues, big time opportunities to be in that space and take them on. So going back, I’d say early on, it’s probably a little bit reluctant to take on some of the big speaking opportunities or big communication opportunities. But think it’s just wait in there and treat it like sports, flex your muscles and you’re going to be better for it at the other end. So, I know the one it should be, I should be calm and normal. But when we did our actual announcement of our company and by the way, I count this like engagement and then we got married. So, the SPAC process, as you know, is a merger process really right? You aren’t founding a company. Somebody else already has one and you’re merging into them. But we announced our merger two days ago here, so our first birthday is on Saturday from a year ago. So, we made that announcement that morning, and I talked to Phil LeBeau on CNBC, and so I’d say that’s one of those days seven o’clock in the morning, we’ve been up all-night finishing all of our agreements. It’s freezing in Detroit, we’re standing out in the parking lot at 6:00 a.m. It’s Hey, good morning, Phil. Well, when you talk to Phil LeBeau and if you know him, but on a good day, he’s going to hey Jim, good to see you on a bad day. It’s like, what the hell were you thinking, and he attacks. So, you don’t know which way he’s going to come from? Those are stressful days, and so you just got to roll with that. You’ve got it pre-trained then and you’re going to survive the battle. But some of these communication engagements aren’t all fun like this one, and they can be extremely stressful, and they can be extremely damaging. But you just have to train like any sport and be ready for game day and go at it and do it. So that’s it.
Russ: [00:43:43] Brilliant advice. James Taylor, thank you so much for joining us today and joining the podcast. I really enjoyed it.
Russ: [00:43:41] Brendon another great interview there, what were your thoughts on what James had to say?
Brendon: [00:43:55] Yeah, it’s really interesting and I guess we talked to a lot of entrepreneurs who probably are earlier in their careers and don’t have James’ kind of you know, incredible background working for large corporations like GM, and it’s kind of really interesting to get his perspective on things with those dual kind of roles that he’s held with both start-ups and working for a large corporation. The thing that kind of resonated with me was the kind of he talked about the importance of brand in this industry, but he then kind of really explained how for them, it’s not really necessarily about kind of making this huge song and dance, but actually for them, the way that they will build their brand and build kind of trust and confidence is through being very pragmatic and really focusing on delivery and that they work with a group of customers who have a very low tolerance for failure. Whereas in some areas of technology, you know, that whole concept of minimum viable products means that you can kind of, your customers in the tech world can be quite forgiving, but not in this case. So, I think I guess it kind of really emphasised to me that while brand is probably important for every business, what constitutes a strong brand and what makes up a strong brand will be very different. And in this case, it’s actually about a pragmatic, humble company that is going is really focused on execution.
Russ: [00:45:28] Excellent summary, Brendon, thank you for that, and that actually wraps up this latest episode of the special series that we’re doing with Brendon’s company Tyto. If you want to find out more about ELMS, their website is simply electricLastmile.com, We’d love to hear your comments on today’s chat. You can do that by sharing them on our Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, or Twitter feeds, or you can do it in the comments of the YouTube version of this podcast. Those are all linked from the top of our website at csuitepodcast.com, where you’ll also find all our previous shows and supporting show notes, plus links to where you can follow us for automatic downloads of each episode via the likes of Spotify and Apple and if you’d like what you heard, please do give us a positive rating and review. We’re, of course, available on all podcast apps. Just search for the csuite podcast and hit, follow or subscribe. You can also subscribe to the Without Borders podcast from our partners at Tyto. All the details for that or on their website. Just head to TytoPR.com and click on the podcast link in the top navbar. Plus, you can also download a copy of ‘Growing Without Borders, the Unicorn CEO Guide to Communication and Culture’ from Tyto’s website, as well. It’s a great overview of the first 15 of our unicorn interviews. If you are a unicorn leader yourself and you like to be part of this series, please do get in touch via the contact form on the website at csuitepodcast.com. Plus, of course, anyone can get in touch with any feedback you may have and finally, you can also reach me via Twitter using @RussGoldsmith, or you can find me on LinkedIn. But for now, thanks for listening and goodbye.