Editor’s Note: The Dobson Chronicles’ Mo Akif recently sat down with Zak Lefevre, founder and president of Meo Electric. Meo Electric is a Montreal-based company that offers personalized, all-inclusive electric vehicle (EV) charging solutions for businesses and individuals. The company recently completed an installation of 10 EV charging stations on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
Meo Electric came in 2nd Place in the Small & Medium Enterprise Track of the McGill Dobson Cup 2016. The application deadline for this year’s McGill Dobson Cup 2017 is this Wednesday, January 18, 2017 at 11:59PM. Submit your application today!
Hey Zak, care to tell us a tiny bit about yourself?
I’m currently the founder and president of Meo Electric. I graduated from McGill in 2014 minoring in Computer Science and Finance. I often don’t advertise my Arts major which was in East Asian studies because it doesn’t seem relevant to the work I do now, but I would highlight this to other students: a lot of people involved in entrepreneurship assume that you have to be doing a BCom to make it happen.
You really don’t. I would, however, say that if I could go back I might have done something a little more technical like Engineering, but hindsight is 20/20, right?
What’s the secret to building a VALUABLE product or service?
Figure out what other people want and give it to them. I don’t try to think of an idea that’s attractive to me and build that. If I get a great idea and want to build something, that’s great. But what I’m really interested in, is something that people need. This takes some of the sexiness out of entrepreneurship, but it’s been my philosophy with Meo Electric.
Go out and find people that have a problem, then solve their problem. Make sure it’s a big enough problem, and that your solution does a great job of solving it in a unique way that no one else can offer. Don’t forget that they have to be willing to pay for your solution as well. With no customers willing to pay, you don’t have a business.
What’s the problem you’re solving – why can’t I install an EV charger at home myself?
You need to learn about your car, research the options, buy the right charger, then get a certified electrician — EV charger installation is a skilled trade: typically, people hire professionals. That’s what you do without Meo Electric.
But what we’re offering at Meo Electric is a turnkey service.
This is a term borrowed from the real estate world where the buyer doesn’t have to do any work at all — the agent takes care of the negotiating, the paperwork, the cleaning, even the furniture, and all that is left for the customer to do is to turn the key and open the door to their new home.
Along the same lines, our customers come to us saying “I just bought X electric car”, and then we take care of everything. We say, “here are the best options for chargers, here are the installation costs” and then send you the quote. We come with the charger and install it. It’s a service for people who don’t want to jump through a bunch of hoops before driving. We take away the headache so all you have to do is step in and enjoy your new ride.
Take a ride in a Tesla with Full Self-Driving Hardware.
Why do you care?
Our mission is to provide solutions to help accelerate the adoption of electric transportation in Canada. Most people see our country as a green, eco-conscious place to live. But quite counterintuitively, countries like the United States are way ahead of us in terms of adopting electric vehicles.
Canada needs to catch up. Part of the reason is that Canada is actually pretty conservative culturally and fairly risk-averse. Naturally, that affects their adoption of new technology. A place like California on the other hand, has a culture that is way more risk-tolerant. Meo Electric wants to help Canada catch up in the world of electric vehicles: the future is coming, and we’ll be there for Canadians when it’s here.
Do end-users qualify for any government incentives?
Yes, and it differs from province to province. First of all, there are incentives on the cars themselves – you get between $6,000 and $10,000 knocked off of the price of the electric vehicle in Ontario and Quebec, for example. Keep in mind that a new car can be about $40,000 or more. It does have to be a new car from a dealership to qualify for incentives.
Next up, there are also provincial subsidies for the chargers. In Quebec, you can get $250 off a charger and $350 off the installation, so in total, you get $600 off. In Ontario today, you can get up to $1,000 off the charger purchase and installation. In both provinces, the charger incentives only cover a maximum of 50% of the total cost, and the vehicle incentives are based on battery capacity and other limitations, so there are no free rides, but it helps. We also install a lot of chargers for businesses of all sizes, and there’s a separate set of incentives for these customers.
The incentives in place are pretty significant – they make the EV option a lot more attractive. Why don’t more people own one and what is being done to inform consumers about what’s possible?
It’s sort of a chicken and egg problem. Business owners for example don’t want to install chargers for their employees’ electric vehicles because there are very few people who own one. On the other side, consumers are less likely to buy an electric vehicle because publicly available chargers are few and far between. Although EVs are gaining traction, growth is currently slow.
However, I’ll point out that intuitively, humans tend to think linearly in the sense that we often assume that the current rate of growth for X will remain the same. But that’s not how tech works. By 2020, a significant number of people will own electric vehicles, and a decade or two from now most new vehicles on the road will be EVs.
We’re also focusing a lot on educating consumers through events and information sessions about electric vehicles. We don’t need to push or sell in a pushy way because if consumers are interested in EVs, they’ll naturally come to us — we’re the experts. It’s really an education-based style of selling where we let them make informed decisions.
Earlier, you mentioned that there are differences in how risk-averse the culture is in the US compared to Canada, how do these cultural differences manifest when it comes to the world of entrepreneurship?
California is the place you can get a million dollars for an idea. In Canada, it’s very difficult to get that kind of investment unless you already have half a million dollars in sales for example. By extension, Canadian entrepreneurs themselves are also risk-averse. There’s just a major difference in the types of things people want to accomplish.
Right now, the valedictorian at a great Canadian school like McGill might aspire to work at Google or be the head surgeon of a hospital. You go to a good school in the United States like MIT, and the valedictorian there wants to BUILD the next Google or create technology that will completely change the face of medicine. Canadians need to think bigger!
Why should people drive electric?
One reason is less maintenance. Let me put it this way: there are about 2,500 moving parts in a Honda Civic (depending on how you count). There are 18 in a Tesla Model S. When it comes to maintenance it’s the clear winner. No oil changes, no need to lubricate the engine.
Regenerative braking means you have to get your brakes checked less often. Also, it costs less. Electricity costs about half as much as traditional fuel if we use an equivalent measure: an e-gallon is the amount of electricity equivalent to a gallon of regular fuel. Also, Quebec is a great province for electric vehicles because we get our electricity from hydro, a renewable and much cleaner source of energy than almost everything else out there.
READ ALSO: The McGill Dobson Cup 2016 Grand Finale
How do you think the upcoming Tesla Model 3 will affect the market for EVs?
I’m not sure if anyone’s coined this already but I like to use a term called the “EV turning point” — which I would define as the point in time when the total cost of ownership for an EV is cheaper than a traditional vehicle (cost of ownership defined as the sum of the purchase cost, fuel, and vehicle maintenance costs).
It’s hard to tell if we’ve hit this point right now because the current offerings of EVs have different strengths and weaknesses, but in a year or two, we’re definitely going to hit that point. I understand that even if people care about the environment, that’s not enough for most people. The economy has changed – jobs are less stable and money matters. If there is no financial incentive to drive electric, people won’t do it.
That’s part of why I admire Elon Musk and the guys at Tesla – they’ve already considered this, decades ahead of time, and decided to build by funding through their premium models to the point where they can now offer this mass-market car: the Model 3. It offers 345 kms on one charge, which will help ease some of the “range anxiety” that many people are apprehensive about, at a low price of USD $35,000, before incentives.
What was your experience with the McGill Dobson Cup?
I entered in 2015 with two startups and neither of them made it past the first round. It takes a lot to come up with an idea and business model that’s going to work. You really can learn a lot by “failing” in the sense that you get to gather feedback and iterate. I later did an amazing founder development program called The Next 36, and came out of it with the basis for the idea for Meo Electric.
Then I re-entered in the McGill Dobson Cup 2016 with a vengeance, partly to prove to myself I could do it. This year we came in 2nd, which is pretty good. The guys who beat us were fantastic and were really developed, while we didn’t have any customers (yet).
The McGill Dobson Cup is a great place to find mentorship, connections, and the judges are great. We actually followed up with some of the judges for meetings and are even in touch with one of them today. We also won $10,000, which is nice because we planned to be self-funded for a while, avoiding investor money. Getting investors isn’t necessarily bad, but it does take time – time that could be spent growing your business instead.
READ ALSO: McGill Dobson Cup 2016 Award Winners
Do you have any advice for people interested in starting a venture of their own?
I think people should focus more on becoming a strong entrepreneur rather than building a successful business, because your first business is going to be a failure. Nobody I know succeeded at the first try. The economy has shifted. My mom worked 28 years at the same company.
Today, people shift from one job to another. It’s valuable to learn about entrepreneurship. Even if you don’t start your company, a lot of firms are looking for INTRApreneurs – companies often have small teams within the company whose focus is to innovate. So don’t think that you have to give everything up and start the next Facebook– building entrepreneurial skills is valuable even if you just want to get a great job at a great firm.
If you are interested in entrepreneurship but you don’t have a plan or an idea you’re passionate about just yet, I actually think it’s a great idea to go get a job while figuring out what you do want to do – inspiration can strike on the job, and you can even start it on the side.
Remember that entrepreneurship is not what Hollywood makes it out to be. You’re not Mark Zuckerberg and you’re not going to be rich in under 5 years. Most likely, you may never get rich. But you can make a living while building something valuable for the world, and if that interests you, go for it!
How did you build your team?
I met some of my team members through Dobson events and stuff like that before even entering the McGill Dobson Cup. I have a personal relationship with most of the team, and I recommend that you get to know someone before deciding on a business relationship. Trust is really important, so I don’t recommend you start a business right away with some random person you met at a hackathon. And this holds down the line too: at this point in the company’s development, I would never just put up an ad on a job board looking for a coder. If I needed someone new, I would probably ask people in my network for recommendations, and work from there.
Do you read?
Kind of. Everybody learns differently – I prefer audiobooks. I listen to audiobooks or podcasts for about 2 hours a day while commuting or doing chores. I try to do a couple books a month. Name a business, personal development, or social science classic and I’ve read it: Dale Carnegie, Jim Collins, Geoffrey Moore, Zero to One, Freakonomics, etc.
Lately I’ve been listening to How to Make a Spaceship – the story of the pioneers of private space travel. A great podcast I listened to recently is Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell: history often gets things really wrong, so he revisits them for accuracy. One interesting thing I learned is that the under-handed “granny” shot in basketball free throws would let ANYONE including LeBron James achieve a higher free throw percentage, but people just don’t use it.
Also, Blink was pretty interesting in terms of the way humans automatically make rapid decisions and quickly read situations. Understanding your own psychology is huge. This helped me in business for a while because it allowed me to make decisions faster.
A relevant quote I like is from Reza Satchu, who always says “Any idiot can make a good decision with complete information. Entrepreneurship is about making good decisions with INCOMPLETE information.” At some point, you have to take action without knowing exactly how it’s going to turn out.
Anything else you want to say the readers?
If any McGill engineers are keen and super excited about electric vehicles, I’d love to hear from them! If you’re thinking of heading down the entrepreneurial path, or working on a start-up and looking for guidance, I would definitely check out NEXT Canada and their set of programs.