Tesla is deeply associated with Elon Musk and vice-versa. That can make people think that the company only came to be the most valuable car company in the world due to its current CEO. A CNBC interview with Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning shows that the solid foundation set by these two men helped quite a lot.
If you don’t know who Eberhard and Tarpenning are, they are the founders of Tesla. Their interview shows how much the company and its current cars owe to Eberhard’s love for sports cars and “The Rocket e-Book,” the first e-book reader that he and Tarpenning created in 1998.
It was their experience with lithium-ion batteries with that e-book reader that made Eberhard ask AC Propulsion to build him a car with lithium-ion cells instead of one with lead-acid batteries, as the company used to produce. Recently divorced at the time, Eberhard wanted to buy a new sports car, and he wanted an electric one, which was not for sale. That led them to create one, which now people call Tesla Roadster.
It was also Eberhard’s love for sports cars that probably led him to see an electric car should be desirable for people to stop seeing them as appliances. That stroke of genius is followed by Tesla to this day, but not only that.
Eberhard and Tarpenning were also the people who set that goal of making a desirable sports car, developing a sedan or an SUV with the money earned from that sports car, and scale the company’s increase in volume in a sustainable way. That is pretty much what Tesla’s Master Plan established in 2006 – when Eberhard was still the company’s CEO.
They also tell how spontaneous demand from customers drove Tesla to work with waiting lists. It was not intentional: people just wanted to own one of those cars and asked to be put in line, regardless of their position.
The video also shows how fundamental Lotus was to make Tesla emerge. Not only by manufacturing the Roadster’s body – making sure the things around the battery pack, motor, and computers could be delivered – but also for helping it get other parts from suppliers.
According to Eberhard and Tarpenning, they did not imagine these companies would be so wary of Tesla. If it were not for Lotus helping the company get what it needed, we would probably never see the original Roadster in the first place.
If the company was doing so well, why did Eberhard and Tarpenning leave? Each of them had different reasons. Eberhard said he was “voted off the island in a rather rude way” on November 28, 2007. Eberhard sued Tesla and Elon Musk on May 26, 2009, and made a settlement in September 2009, so he cannot comment on what happened to make him leave.
Articles written at the time show that Eberhard claimed Musk “set out to rewrite history by falsely claiming that he was the founder or creator of Tesla Motors.” Musk accused Eberhard of ruining Tesla’s financial health.
As an early Series A investor – invited by Tarpenning and Eberhard to invest in the company after they had already founded it – Musk would be concerned with his investments. Eberhard also said Musk "compromised Tesla Motors' financial health."
The legal settlement made him legally recognize Musk as one of the founders, as well as JB Straubel and Ian Wright. Ironically, the CNBC interview – recorded on October 28, 2019, but aired only now – begins with a discussion about that.
Eberhard questioned why JB Straubel is considered as a founder if he joined Tesla in the same day Tristan – or Triston, as YouTube subtitles phrased her name – a software engineer in the early days. It is a pity he did not mention her full name so that we could mention her properly, but we learned from former Tesla employees her name was Tristan Colson.
Tarpenning left in 2008 – when Tesla started working on the Model S project. He had dedicated to Tesla five years of his life and had “three small children at home.” Eberhard had then also left the company, and “it was not that fun anymore. This is why he decided to leave.
Both of them are still Tesla shareholders and think Musk made incredible things in the company's realm. They just told the company’s formation from their perspective, which sheds light on many aspects of what it is today. When you thank Tesla for doing what it did for electric mobility, remember to thank Eberhard and Tarpenning.