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Disruptor | Lyndon Rive, SolarCity

Disruptor | Lyndon Rive, SolarCity

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The South African native is challenging the legacy rules of U.S. power generation and financing, seeking to make clean energy as cost-effective as electricity generated by fossil fuels.

Bill Gates. Barry Diller. Richard Branson. Business-school textbooks are replete with case studies of successful entrepreneurs who skipped earning college or university degrees for the sake of real-world experience.

It's a trait shared by South African-born SolarCity co-founder Lyndon Rive, and it almost wound up being a liability.

In fact, Rive faced deportation from the United States while developing his first major startup, IT services company Everdream (acquired by Dell in 2007) -- despite being the employer of close to 300 people and dedicating four lawyers to the task. It was his wife's expertise at a somewhat obscure sport that finally earned the couple their green cards.

"If it wasn't for underwater hockey, I wouldn't be here," recalls Rive, referencing a U.S. immigration policy that looks favorably on individuals who can prove "exceptional ability" at something the federal government finds compelling.

It so happens that Rive, 36, is also a world-class underwater hockey player, the youngest person to qualify for the South Africa team back in 1998 when he first visited San Jose during an international tournament. On that trip, he fell in love with California and vowed to return for good, traveling home to sell his first startup founded while he was a teen, a natural health products distribution business that piggybacked on his mother's successful stress treatment center in Pretoria.

Rive -- who recently became a U.S. citizen -- is now the veteran member of the U.S. men's national team, with hints of silver strands just beginning to invade his light brown hair. "It's getting harder and harder to keep up," he says, laughing.

Besides, Rive has grown fond of other diversions, such as kite surfing, and more importantly, spending as much time as possible with his two preschool-age children while juggling his 60- to 70-hour weekly schedule as CEO of a newly public company.

Founded on Independence Day 2006, SolarCity pioneered the leasing model bringing cost-effective solar power to tens of thousands of U.S. homeowners and businesses, including the likes of eBay, Intel and Wal-mart. The company arranged for one of the biggest U.S. installations to date, the $1 billion SolarStrong initiative serving the U.S. Army. It managed that accomplishment despite a financing setback when the Department of Energy walked away from a loan guarantee in the aftermath of the infamous failure of taxpayer-supported solar technology manufacturer Solyndra.

If anything, that development made the competitive Rive even more determined to make clean energy a more viable alternative to coal-fired power and other fossil-fuels energy schemes. "I'm a little blown away when I hear people say that global warming is not real," he says, his native accent growing thicker with enthusiasm. "How can you even think that? This is not a debate, this is a fact. You often hear the question, 'Do you believe in global warming?' There is no belief here. The earth is heating up because of human activity. That is a fact."

The idea for SolarCity was born, appropriately, after a conversation Rive had on his way to the Burning Man festival in 2004. His famous entrepreneurial cousin, PayPal inventor and Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk, suggested researching opportunities in solar as they drove through the desert. After two years of investigation, Lyndon and his brother Peter, who worked by his side at Everdream, launched the SolarCity plan. Musk, an early investor, is currently SolarCity's chairman and often shares management tips with his younger cousin.

"We realized that the part that was neglected was delivering the energy, not making the equipment," Rive recalls.

Plenty of high-profile investors agreed. In its startup phase, Rive led SolarCity's efforts to raise more than $200 million in corporate capital and $1.6 billion in structured financing from the likes of Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, Google, PG&E, and U.S. Bancorp. After scaling back expectations, SolarCity closed almost 50 percent above its $8 per share offering price on the day of its IPO, raising approximately $92 million. As of April 18, the company's shares were trading just below $20.

As befits their personalities, Lyndon's focus is external, while his older brother holds the chief operations and chief technology officer titles.

"We play a lot of sports," he says, explaining the division of responsibility, and gushing over his brother's ability to 'pierce through the bullshit.' "So we relate working together to sports. I handle offense, [Peter] handles defense. Offense is getting the customers, making all the commitments, making all the promises. And then defense is fulfilling all the commitments and fulfilling all the promises."

With the grueling road show preceding SolarCity's December 2012 IPO behind him, Lyndon Rive has his mind on the aspects of being a chief executive he considers "fun," like growing and mentoring the company's team -- now 2,700 employees and counting.

"Over and above just the qualifications, [we seek] the passion towards knowing that we have a big problem ahead of us and we have to solve this problem, is what we look for," he says. "If somebody has a passion beyond just the job, when the job has a difficult time -- everybody's job has ups and downs -- the passion will help get through the downs, and then you enjoy the ups so much more."

One potential "down" surrounds the revelation shortly before SolarCity's IPO that the company is part of an IRS and Treasury Department investigation into federal grants for solar installations. The company has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

The Rive brothers believe a culture of transparency is integral to stoking that enthusiasm, so they host the "founders' radio show" (a company-wide conference call) on a monthly basis to share all the major activities that have developed over that timeframe and to answer the questions employees are encouraged to send their way -- even controversial ones are addressed head-on.

"Everyone knows that they can reach out for any specific issue," Lyndon Rive says. It's easy to find him in his open cubicle, which is the same size as any other SolarCity employee.

Given the resistance from legacy players, it will take a strong resolve to realize SolarCity's overarching vision of rewriting the rules of energy and electricity distribution -- which includes a future in which utilities manage power distribution, but aren't necessarily suppliers.

Although Rive believes the incumbents will do everything possible to protect their 100-year-old monopoly, he is optimistic about the grassroots interest in clean energy across his adopted country.

"I think there is incredible enthusiasm from the public and many political leaders to get this change occurring," he says. "People want a cheaper, cleaner form of energy. Most people understand that the way we are consuming energy is not sustainable and is going to cause tremendous challenges for us as a country and for the world in the future."

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure