The Hyperloop not only represents a transport revolution. The whole project approach is being seen as the precursor of a new way of building companies.
The Hyperloop is intended to revolutionise long-distance transportation. Remember the famous promise of being able to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 35 minutes instead of the 5 to 6 hours it takes by car? This implies a target top speed of around 760 miles per hour. The goal of Elon Musk’s futuristic project, first unveiled to the world in 2013, has generated some heated debate and continues to arouse scepticism.
Nevertheless, Dirk Ahlborn, CEO of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, underlined during the keynote speech he gave at South by West (SxSW) 2016 in March: ‟We’re not just planning to transform the way passengers, vehicles and merchandise are transported; we also want to change the way companies are built.” So it seems that getting the Hyperloop up and running is not a sufficiently exacting challenge. The project designers are going for a double revolution: rethinking how to put together a company as well as creating the transport modes of the future!
‟Often companies develop projects behind closed doors, without consulting those who are going to be their future users,” Dirk Ahlborn points out, stressing: “We want to build the Hyperloop in a different way, using the power of the community.” The preliminary design document published in 2013, which set out all the technical details of the project, included the following statement: ‟Hyperloop is considered an open source transportation concept. The authors encourage all members of the community to contribute to the Hyperloop design process. Iteration of the design by various individuals and groups can help bring Hyperloop from an idea to a reality (...)”.
It was far from pure chance that Dirk Ahlborn came to head up the Hyperloop project. He is the founder and CEO of JumpStarter Inc. which operates the JumpStartFund, a California-based ‘crowd-powered’ online incubator and crowd collaboration platform which works with startups from conception through to funding. All project owners can submit their ideas to the community and members who are interested can comment, offer their services and/or make an investment. The Hyperloop was showcased on the JumpStartFund platform in 2013, and from there later emerged a startup called Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) – set up as a subsidiary of the JumpStartFund.
Some lively debates are ongoing on both interfaces. Should users have to buy a ticket? Is ticketing the best way to monetise the project or can it be made profitable in other ways? Could the capsules do without toilets on these very short journeys? This is the type of issue on which everyone interested in the venture is invited to comment. During his SxSW keynote speech, Dirk Ahlborn also talked about how the outside of the Hyperloop tubes might look: ‟Some excellent ideas have emerged, such as using the pylons as vertical gardens. We shouldn’t forget that the success of the Hyperloop will be down to the power of the community.”
Working part time in exchange for equity
In addition to this ‘crowdstorming’ process, Hyperloop encourages people with the right skills to join the team in exchange for shares in the company. The Hyperloop team now has in its ranks engineers from NASA, Boeing, Airbus and Yahoo! – who have agreed to donate some of their private time to the venture – plus a group of 25 students participating in a Graduate Programme at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). In total over 520 people worldwide have been recruited to work part-time for Hyperloop, which involves committing to a minimum of ten hours a week.
Thus, in addition to whisking us off into an almost science fiction scenario, Hyperloop also stands out with its unique vision of how a company should be put together. The venture is a good illustration of the fact that being able to offer people all over the world the opportunity to help create tomorrow’s transportation is probably the best way to achieve an almost perfect product as the final version will have been distilled from the ideas of those who are not only potential future users but also highly motivated and equipped with the right skillsets to enable them to make a useful contribution.
Example of interaction on the Hyperloop project page on the JumpStartFund platform
During his SxSW keynote speech Dirk Ahlborn also talked about similar projects outside the United State, citing the example of Switzerland which has already tried to get the ‘Swissmetro’ – something akin to the Hyperloop – up and running at national level. ‟These projects didn’t make it, principally because they were tied to a single country. Governments change, budgets change, you might be supported, you might not. [At Hyperloop] we’re not a company, we’re a movement!” he underlined. Moreover, the work being done by Hyperloop illustrates a basic principle for managing human resources: passion is key. Being able to bring together a community of passionate talented people to work on a project is undoubtedly one of the secrets for making fast progress towards the final goal. ‟Passion really makes a difference, if you work with people that are passionate about the same things as you are they can drive you forward!” Ahlborn told the audience. Not least, when people take a personal stake in the company, that both helps to keep team motivation high, especially when the participants are only working part time, and is one way for a young company short on resources to transform this apparent weakness into a strength.