Zak Lefevre: Raising $30 Million for EV Charging Software – EP. 160

About This Episode:

What would a future look like where wherever you go, you can plug in your car without worrying about who’s getting paid and how? Well it turns out, in addition to the vast hardware infrastructure requirements of electric vehicle charging, there’s a tremendous software need too.

To balance power, to accept payments, to supply apartment buildings and more. And someone’s got to build that software.

Well that someone is my guest today, Zak Lefevre, CEO of ChargeLab.

He’s a Forbes 30 Under 30 Founder who’s raised about $30 million for his company to date, they make software that runs about 80% of the EV chargers out there, so it’s a very cool concept from an extremely smart founder making a difference.

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1:57 – “I’m the co-founder and CEO of Charge Lab. We are a software startup. We build software for managing EV charging stations. And so the way to think about an EV charger or an electric vehicle charger is it’s basically like a gas pump, but for an electric car. And now that millions of Americans and people around the world are switching from driving gasoline vehicles to driving EVs, which are much more sustainable and tech forward, there’s a huge need for refueling those vehicles. And one of the really interesting things about EV infrastructure is you’re no longer constrained to kind of go into a gas station that has a giant tank of petrol underground that you pump up into your vehicle. You can actually charge your electric car at home in your condo, in your apartment building, at your office building. If you’re a fleet, instead of going out to gas stations, you can charge at your depot.”

2:55 – “It’s also a total reinvention because the way we’re refueling our vehicles is completely changing. And obviously, for the better. Electric vehicles are cleaner. They’re more sustainable. They make cities more pleasant to be in. You don’t smell the fumes coming out of vehicles. They’re quiet. They’re safer. And so whether it’s the climate change impact or just generally living in a better environment, EVs are great for the world. And that’s one of the reasons that I’m really excited about what we’re working on and why I started this company.”

4:34 – (Ross) “I’m one of those EV aspiring people. I’m on the fence. I’m the target demographic. The Chevy dealership, they call me on my cell phone all the time and they say, ‘Ready to buy a Bolt yet? Are you ready to buy a Bolt?’ I’ve been thinking about it for a very long time, and they know that I’m going to do it any one of these days. And one of the things that I’ve always wondered about is, yeah, when do you charge this thing and should I get rid of my gas car and should I replace it with an EV? And sometimes I’ll go to the gym and I will see these parking spaces that have dedicated chargers and clearly there’s some kind of payment system that everybody who has an EV knows about and probably it runs on your software, since I know about 80% of them do or something like that. But I’ve always kind of wondered, would that be a benefit to me or not? If instead of going to a gas station, I charged my car at the gym or at work, all those places that you described and then paid some kind of money.”

5:35 – “I actually started this company quite early in the journey of North America electrifying. In 2016. And to give you some perspective, there were less than 500,000 EVs on the road globally at that time, not in North America but globally. And now we’re well over 15 million on the way to 20 million.”

7:15 – “I think the thing to understand is that charging your electric car is a lot more like charging your laptop or your phone than it is like filling up a gas car. What that means is across all of the economy, 80% of the charging sessions that happen are going to happen at home. So I live in a single family home. I’ve got a level two charger in my garage. People who live in apartments and condos, a big part of our business is providing software to those buildings so they can install all of these chargers and that they can bill individual residents. So you’re going to have individual EV chargers in apartment buildings and condo buildings.”

8:27 – “The other thing that I think people kind of misestimate is how much you need to charge, right? So my Chevy Bolt, it’s an older one, it’s a 2017 so it doesn’t have the longest range by any means. You now have cars with 300 miles of electric range, 400 miles. I’ve only got 200 miles of range. But on a given day, I’m driving to the office, which is a couple miles away. I’m picking up my groceries. And so I’m not charging every day, even though I have a charger conveniently installed in my garage where my car lives. I don’t even bother plugging it in. I probably charge about once a week.”

14:13 – “When we started this company seven years ago, you could not have done a cross-country trip in most EVs. Now you’re going to be completely fine in most EVs, there’s this big network called Electrify America. You’ve got convenience stores building out their own networks now, obviously, you got the Tesla supercharger network.”

15:53 – “If your goal is to get coast to coast across the country as fast as you can, you still can’t beat just pumping up a gas vehicle. But the reality is most people need to stop to eat. They need to stop to sleep. And so there’s getting more and more options to just time your charging, ‘Hey, I’m going to get a meal, I’m going to stop along the road. I’ll be fast charging while I do it. I’m going to get back on the road. I’m going to have a bathroom break. I’m going to fast charge. Okay, now I’m going to stop overnight in a hotel. I’m going to charge there and then home stretch, make it to the destination.’”

19:13 – “I wanted to build a business that had kind of a double bottom line that was profitable, but also had a positive impact in the world. I wasn’t going to go and engineer and build an electric vehicle…I didn’t have the experience or skills or capital for that, but I thought, people often forget about infrastructure, right? It’s such an essential part of everything we do. The pipes coming to our house, bringing water and electricity, right? The roads that all these Amazon prime trucks come to deliver our packages, like the fact that there’s a giant fulfilment center within a 50-mile radius of where you live that has like every Amazon SKU ever – that’s all infrastructure that you don’t think about. All you think about is I press a button and I got matchsticks delivered at my house the next day. So I’ve always been fascinated by infrastructure. So I kind of took these interests and said, ‘Okay, EVs are growing exponentially. People are going to be really interested in the vehicles. They’re going to write articles about it. But people are going to forget about the back-end infrastructure. So what’s the infrastructure for EVs? It’s charging.’ And I had a background in software, so that was the best angle to come at it from.”

28:31 – “My thesis with electric vehicles has been you’re always gonna have the early adopters, right? People who want a super sexy new toy. That’s great. And they should be able to get that and there should be products available for them. You’re also going to have people that are really motivated by climate impact. And I can relate to those people, right? Like, I want to leave the world better than I found it. That’s an easy sell for me. But I was never under any illusion that you would get millions and millions of Americans, let alone people everywhere else around the world, to drive EVs because they are cleaner. I knew that people were going to switch to electric vehicles because they became more convenient, more affordable, more accessible. And we’re getting to the point where the battery costs are coming down. You have these entry level electric vehicles like the Bolt.”

30:13 – “Nowadays, people are picking EVs because they’re like, ‘I’m tired of paying high gas prices. And by the way, when I do my family budget for next year, I’m tired of putting a question mark beside gas because I don’t know what the price is going to be.’ Right? It could go up 20%. It could go down 20%. I just don’t know what it’s going to be. They’re like, ‘I’m tired of this. I’m going to switch to an electric vehicle. I’m going to pay $2000, $3000, $4000, $5,000 more up front. But over the 7 to 10 years that I drive this vehicle, I’m going to save $10,000 or $20,000. And that’s what’s happening today.”

31:24 – (Ross) “One of the most exciting things about the future is the concept that your house can be a much more self-contained unit if you have one. You can have solar panels that charge your car. You can have water that comes from the air in your backyard. You can have all of these things. You can have honeybees that are giving you two and a half kilos of honey in your backyard per month, which is more honey than you could ever consume. So many things are possible now in terms of having this kind of idyllic, self-contained unit. And I think that’s where people from very, very different political groups align on this vision of the future, where people who may philosophically agree with very, very little else. It’s like you have preppers and you have people who believe in living off the land and being completely self-sufficient. Well, that really aligns with this eco future where all of that’s possible through developments and stuff like electric vehicles and charging technology.”

33:23 – “When it comes to the fuel sourcing… our grid is a domestic product. Energy in Canada is made in Canada. Energy in America, for the most part, is made in America. There’s a little bit of trade back and forth between Canada, US, Mexico, and stuff like that. But we’re not talking about shipping barrels of oil from far, far away. And so, again, I’m not going to personally take the position that global trade is bad. But if you were to take that position or you were to have more of this nationalist view, electric vehicles are great – power generated in America, vehicles built in America.”

36:10 – “I’ve got a friend over in the Netherlands who’s working on a car to put solar panels on electric cars. So, for folks who park outdoors, you could just be charging while you’re sitting there, while you’re on a road trip, obviously you’re not going to get enough power to drive infinitely, I think that’s kind of the dream is, what if we had such good solar panels that we could just drive non-stop? But if you can extend your range even by like 5 or 10% because you got solar panels while you’re driving across the country, those are the levels of optimizations we’re doing with ICE vehicles, right? I always think about it when you’re driving next to a newer ICE vehicle and you pull up to a stop and the engine stops. I’m like, oh, right. They’ve done all this fancy stuff so they can stop the engine when you park and then restart it. And we’re nowhere near that with electric vehicles.”

42:13 – “I think for anybody in the audience who is thinking of starting a business, I think not being too attached to your ideas is really important because even within Charge Lab, we didn’t start out building this software platform we’re like, ‘Hey, EVs are going to be huge, let’s start selling some chargers.’ We were effectively like a reseller business. And then we’re like, ‘Hey, all of our customers are asking for software, let’s go build some software.’ We built version one, it sucked. We tore it down and rebuilt it from scratch. We did that another 2 or 3 times. I like this kind of thing. I like figuring out when things aren’t working, when we need to kind of tear it down and build it back up from scratch. When to abandon certain ideas, when to latch on and follow other ideas. I think in entrepreneurship in general, one of the problems is falling too much in love with your ideas.”

43:20 – “If you are doing something that does not scale out, you’re not going to have a big impact. We wanted to connect as many chargers as possible because it would get the most people into electric vehicles and improve their lives the most. And so if there’s anything we can do to tweak our business, we’re going to go for scale because we’re starting from that foundation of, for every dollar we make, there’s a positive impact on the environment. So let’s try to make the business as big as possible to have the biggest positive impact.”

48:56 – “I think if it’s your first time starting a business or starting a tech company, you should absolutely do these incubators/accelerators, right? If, theoretically speaking, Charge Lab IPOs in four years and I go do something different or we sell the company in two years and I go do something different, I probably wouldn’t go back and necessarily do a startup accelerator because I’ve kind of been through the ringer. I’ve seen it all. But if it’s your first time, definitely apply to Y Combinator/Techstars. There’s no silver bullet. It’s not going to give you all the answers, but it’s going to provide some structured thinking for you to kind of validate it. And a cohort, right? I spend a lot of my time now talking to founders of CEOs of other companies of a similar size.”

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