“It was something that had the potential to leave the world a better place than we found it. And it was with two of the most brilliant humans I ever met eventually a hundred of the most brilliant humans that never met but it was really a special team and so, you know when those things come together” – Marc Fenigstein
This video excerpt was taken from the interview Baldy did with Marc Fenigstein, the visionary co-founder of Alta Motors. The company made some of the best dirt electric bikes and closed down after 10 years without warning. In this excerpt, Marc discusses how the company started. If you enjoyed this video, don’t miss the full interview.
The full transcript is below …
Marc: If you remember, in 2009, Tesla looked like a long shot, only the roadster was out and wasn’t taken that seriously because it wasn’t actually faster than the gas vehicles, you know, it can accelerate create in a straight line and everyone was like, I can’t believe they’re going to build it with these consumer electronics batteries. And actually, we thought Fisker was promising, yeah, so it was a different context.
And Mission at that point existed as well, they had unveiled the Mission 1, the first one, even the hard-designed bike, but they had gotten to the R yet. And so, that was my context. And when she told me they were working on this electric motorcycle, I was like, no, no, sounds like a terrible idea, but sure, I’ll meet with them.
And my reasons for it sounded like a terrible idea was I rode and loved gas bikes and from product point of view, if it wasn’t going to be better at being a bike than what gasoline could do, then it was a science experiment, it was interesting for the technology, but not necessarily interesting as a product. And I felt like the ZERO was a little different in that it was trying to create a new category. The Mission 1, I do think fell into that category, it was trying to put itself up against super bikes and it just wasn’t there. And it needed to be better at least one thing that was important or you know, you didn’t have a business.
And so, I met up with Derek Dorresteyn, Jeff Sand who ended up being my co-founders and that was the first thing I told them straight through the doors, was I went to Derek’s machine shop and it was clear that these were two guys that could design and build anything that they wanted to and so that’s what I said. I was like if you want to build one as a hobby, you know, go for it. But unless this is going to be better than the gas bikes, it’s not a business and they said, oh no, we agree and we think we’ve got that. And I said that’s not possible, let’s take a look.
And they showed on screen, they fully catted up a concept at that stage and they said, no, no, the numbers work out, we think it’ll run with the 250s and I said that can’t be and we walked through battery for battery, energy for energy. Alright, how much power is a 250 putting down and like what’s the drive cycle look like and what’s a lap under a pro and how much energy is that going to be? And the numbers worked and they shouldn’t have in 2009.
And so, I had to unpack that. I was like what are these guys doing differently that no one else is doing. Because the mission you know looks promising, but it’s a multiple away from the battery pack and power that it needs to be to run with a super bike and this is also a performance category and there were a couple of insights from that.
The main one being they had really picked the right battle. Now, they picked the right battle partially because they were dirt bikers and that’s what they did and that was part of how they were friends, they’d collaborated on a couple projects, but they also rode together, they rode dirt bikes and so that was just sort of where they started.
But they had stumbled onto something, which is on the street, you can put down a pretty massive amount of power. You have a lot of traction, the roads are flat and straight. And the reason we end up with bikes of really high displacement 2,000CCs in the cruiser category is you actually can use all that power and torque when you have enough tire and enough fastball in a long straight. Off road, yeah…
Baldy: I had a Ducati Diavel a few months ago and oh my God, that thing is so fast, they had performance exhaust on it. It was listed by Wikipedia is the second fastest bike in the world to go to 60 time, I don’t know if that’s true, it’s just that was in Wikipedia. So, I tried some of these 0-60 times, I’m just getting the neurons to let me keep the throttle open.
Marc: Oh yeah, your eyes start to distort and…
Baldy: Everything was just crazy. And it didn’t feel like it accelerated, it felt like it transported you to the future. You just crack the throttle open and suddenly, you were going 100 or something, but anyway, so keep going.
Marc: Well, so in off-road, your traction limited and that means your power limited. It doesn’t matter if you somehow fit 200 horsepower onto a dirt bike, you’re not using it. And in fact, outside of again, desert racing and sand, there aren’t that many people on the planet that can even put down the 55-60 horsepower of a 450 outside of a few narrow moments on certain tracks. And so, once you start looking at how much power the dirt bike is really putting down on. Even under a pro rider and even on a pretty big track, it turns up out it’s pretty low. The racing format for motocross is relatively short especially you know at vet or amateur levels, but even the pro race 35 minutes. And so, the amount of energy you need is basically your average power times the time that you’re using it. Well, motocross is a format with low average power and a really short duration.
And so all of a sudden, instead of being kind of 5X away from where you need it to be in terms of the amount of energy you could fit on a vehicle, you were closer to like one and a half 5X and maybe that’s a gap you can close. And especially, if your target isn’t the pro ride and 35 minutes but the Vette ride at 20, now the numbers work. And you know the majority of riders and that’s definitely the riders that are paying their own money for their bikes. If you can take that rider and you can make them faster, right, in a performance driven category, in a category that’s all about either winning the race for being faster than your buddies, that’s something that people will really pay for. So, that clicked.
And then also, that algorithm of our limitation is battery and how we find categories that aren’t limited is this combination of average power and time. You can start to look at the world of transportation and say, well, motocross is sort of all the way to the right on the Pareto chart, not to be too nerdy, and it’s nicely, it’s performance driven, it has a lot of brand value and it’s probably the most skeptical customer I could ever imagine. And so, if we can win over that customer, I think we can win over anybody.
Baldy: So, you said online a couple of times it wasn’t about a green movement at all. Well, I mean it’s about 90% performance and oh yeah, bonus points for being green, but most motocross riders don’t care that much or didn’t at the time about being green, just give me a performance. You had this saying you want to make heroes of your customers and the heroes has put him on a better performing bike so they win and they’re hero?
Marc: Yeah. I would say that was absolutely the case from a business standpoint, it needed to be that. We sort of couldn’t blind ourselves with promises of it being cleaner and greener. We needed to be hard-nosed about if this was going to be a business, it had to be a better motorcycle regardless of…
Baldy: Wasn’t Tesla green, but oh by the way, you can go 0-60 in four seconds?
Marc: It was. Well, and maybe that’s the way we should have gone, because…
Baldy: I don’t know. You build the hell of a company, you were successful.
Marc: Yeah. But I think our audience was a little bit different. I think, you know, you would find a pretty big swath of luxury car owners that responded to that message that wanted most of the performance and none of the guilt and wanted to be able to signal, maybe that they were responsible even while they were doing irresponsible things and I definitely have some of that built into me. I don’t think there would have been that many of those customers in our sector. But I would be lying if I didn’t say that the fact that it was electric and that it had the of being cleaner wasn’t a major part of all of our motivation in starting the company.
It was something that had the potential to leave the world a better place than we found it. And it was with two of the most brilliant humans I ever met eventually a hundred of the most brilliant humans that never met but it was really a special team and so, you know when those things come together, something that is super fun and potentially a big business opportunity and a team that you really gel with. And I’ll say, so I met Jeff and Derek summer 2009. We spent six months of nights and weekends, kind of working together, but also getting to know each other and making sure this was the thing that we wanted to do.
And even then, we started the company, I think officially in January, but we all hung on to our day jobs for like another six months after that. So, there was a really a year, because we knew it was a big risky, crazy venture and you want to make sure you’re getting into it with the right folks. And I can say, I was even a decade later with all of the trials and tribulations and even knowing the outcome, you know, still super closed with both of them and we would work together again for sure.