Joe Paluska traded in a successful agency career to become VP of global communications and policy at Better Place in 2008, after helping launch the startup one year earlier. Founded by Shai Agassi in Silicon Valley, and brought to market in Israel, Better Place is one of the leading movers behind the development of electric vehicle networks.
Unusually for a startup, Better Place has begun disclosing its financials, because of regulatory requirements related to its second-largest shareholder, Israel Corp. That development, coupled with questions about the company’s vehicle network, has sparked plenty of scrutiny in the media. In the interview below, Paluska explains how he is handling these issues, and offers advice for anyone considering a similar career jump.
You’re still a startup but now you have to start disclosing your financials. How big of a comms challenge is this?
It’s interesting because our largest shareholder is publicly traded on the Tel Aviv stock exchange. As a result some of their disclosure requirements affect us. One of the biggest challenges is trying to explain why an operating loss is actually an investment and not a true loss. We’re pre-revenue, so all the losses on a true P&L are actually investments in R&D and deployment. It’s reported mostly in Hebrew but then it gets translated to English and then goes around the world.
Why do you think you’re attracting that type of coverage?
I think there’s a sensationalism to putting a headline out that says Better Place loses hundreds of millions of dollars, versus a headline that says Better Place invests hundreds of millions of dollars. You’ll get more eyeballs. At one stage one of the outlets here converted it to shekels because it’s a much bigger number.
How do you deal with stories like that?
It’s more about putting the context around it externally, but also particularly internally. We want our employees to have confidence in the company and not read a story that says we have a tremendous losses, and worry about the health of the company. We can’t think of any other company that has had to face this type of issue.
Do you think the level of scrutiny has helped you, from a comms perspective?
We do think it’s a good thing. It helps us mature as a company and it also helps bring a relentless focus to earning our first revenues.
What’s the message you are trying to get across, when it comes to deployment issues that you are facing?
The way we think about it is our technology solution is a massive integration project. Using off the shelf technology, and integrating them into a brand new system. Granted, there’s a lot of our own design and engineering and software development, but we are still using the who’s who of Silicon Valley in our solution. As part of that, this system has never been done before. We’ve been working on it for four years and it’s in the final phase of being tested and re-tested, so we’re close. It’s our brand and reputation that is out there so we want the system to be reliable for consumers to use, and consistent with what our brand means to them.
Has it been difficult to make that case?
There’s a level of impatience right now in the industry as a whole. There’s the hype curve for the first one-to-three years of a new technology, and then there’s the downward slope where expectations are lowered. It’s still very much early days of the industry - what we’ve seen is Renault-Nissan leading the charge from a manufacturing perspective, then you had Tesla and others. The category is growing and its growing quickly, but it also an early stage category.
Is the industry complicit in generating too much hype?
It’s changed. In the US for example, four years ago the environment was an extremely fashionable topic. These days it’s less fashionable, you have to change the message and speak more about energy security. In Europe, four years ago there was a huge discussion around environmental responsibility and lower CO2 targets. These days the regional dialogue is more about the eurozone crisis and austerity measures. It really depends on where you are in the world and what is the national dialogue and how different companies play into those terms.
You worked agency-side for several years and now you are at a startup. What is your advice for someone considering a similar career change?
Get ready to drink from a firehose. It’s 24/7, it’s a lot of fun, you build everything from scratch and you basically have to use every ounce of energy and experience from all of your client work. You have to thrive on that level of dynamic pace.