Mate Rimac's career as an inventor began in high school, where he designed a glove to replace your keyboard and mouse. He got his first paycheck for an automotive patent, filed for an automatic mirror that could reduce a vehicle's blind spot. Then came some drag racing with a 1984 BMW 323i, which soon blew its engine. Mate moved forward by turning his junked E30 into an electric M3-beater, using parts bought off the web. A few years later, his company broke a few electric speed records, and the world started to take notice.
Rimac's first car, the aptly named Concept_One, debuted at the 2011 Frankfurt Motor Show. Since then, there has been no stopping at the industrial park just outside of Zagreb, where Rimac caused quite a few power cuts in its early days.
His startup has built full show cars, batteries, control units and various other non disclosed components for a number of clients, including large OEMs. Even Meghan Markle and Prince Harry's wedding car, the electrified Jaguar E-Type, used Rimac's powertrain. And while the building complex used by the company since 2011 is continuously expanding to accommodate its now 400-strong team, Mate Rimac is already in the planning phases of the new factory he wants to have up-and-running by 2021. Then the company can scale by putting the 1914 horsepower C_Two and all its other parts into series production.
Once you pull into Rimac's parking lot–off the unnamed road officials are about to let Rimac christen–you arrive to newish, still unpainted buildings, only to hear the promise of an employee cafeteria coming next month, see a rarely used Playstation in the corner, and be amazed while staff members drive between the buildings using various electrified contraptions.
Of course Rimac's power has already made it into advanced wheelchairs, as well as electric bikes next door at Greyp. And while I check out the second production model the bike team is currently working on, I learn that Mate Rimac's original version has been unlocked, only so that he could top 60 miles per hour.
In the end, we did not talk about that, but tried to jam everything else into an hour on a busy Tuesday, when the place was full of school groups, friends, and quite possibly the people who's mid-engined prototype was quickly hidden from my sight. Just next to Rimac's battery assembly room, if you happen to be in the neighborhood...
R&T: How does one go from converting an old BMW to electric drive in 2009 to designing and building the most advanced electric powertrains in the world in such a short time?
Mate Rimac: When we showed the Concept_One in Frankfurt in 2011 it was still very far from a production car. We had a lot of work to do. Like, from then until the production car, we had three completely new iterations of the powertrain. We changed everything. So, there were lots of trial and error. Learning, making mistakes, screwing things up, and then doing it again, better, improved. To be honest, from the technical side, we really did not know what we were doing at the beginning. But what I was doing with the BMW was really focusing on the technical aspect, not the aesthetics. So, I had a few years of experience with that. Then, with the Concept_One, it was more about everything else. The doors, the interior, the infotainment, the electronics for the body control, lights…all of that stuff. And we learnt so much by making so many mistakes, doing things over and over again.
A good example is if you just look at the lights on the Concept_One. You look at the red show car from 2011, the blue car, which was the next prototype, and the production version, and you’ll see the generations, how much we have changed. Under the body, our motors, our batteries, the same thing. So, in 2011, we didn’t have the best powertrain in the world. We had a pretty good idea of what we wanted to do. But it took us years to get there.
R&T: When did you decide to produce your own parts instead of buying the components?
Mate Rimac: It wasn’t a decision, actually. In the beginning, I knew roughly how the industry worked. Suppliers make most of the components, manufacturers focus on assembly, and so on. And I wanted to do the same. Like Pagani with AMG, or McLaren with Ricardo, you know. So at first the idea was to buy the parts: this supplier does this, that supplier does that… and we would assemble the car. This is how the majority of the manufacturers work in this industry. Everything is outsourced. And Rimac, especially back then was one guy. Me. I didn’t even have employees. There was no company when I started to work on the Concept_One.
And I never imagined that I can do this. That we’ll build a company that will do its own chassis, the body parts, the interior, the infotainment, the powertrain, the battery with the battery management system…all of that stuff. So, I went to the suppliers, and it turns out that the industry works in a way that there are no volumes under 20,000 cars a year. Let’s say a BMW M3. That’s a niche car. There are no suppliers who’ll work with lower numbers, so most of them just laugh at you when you tell them you want to build five/ten/twenty cars per year. So, 90 percent of them fell out in the first round.
Then, you have the specialists. Divisions of the suppliers doing parts for small projects. And for them, small project is a tractor manufacturer, for example. Or a bus. And Ferrari. But Ferrari has Fiat-Chrysler behind it. Lamborghini has Audi (VW). And they can push them, saying “look guys, if you want the contract for the Fiat 500, you’ll need to do this as well.” We did not have that card. We could get access to some components, like infotainment, windscreen washing systems, locks…you know, bits that people would consider to be completely irrelevant. And for each of those components, not to develop new ones, but just to get access to existing ones, the ticket is like 5-20 million Euros. For each and every one of them. Which means you need hundreds of millions just to start. That’s one reason. No access to components. Then, having no money to get the components that we wanted to buy, or what we had access to. And third, most importantly, the technology didn’t exist. I mean, for most components, it did, but for some, it did not.
For the motors, for the batteries, and so on, there were no components to squeeze…to achieve like 2.8 second acceleration back then, 186 mph top speed, you know, the power we needed from the batteries. So, when I took all of these three factors together, and especially the one that we didn’t have the money, I realized that if I want to build a car, we have to develop these technologies, and we have to build a team that can develop it.
But what was even more important was that since we didn’t have the money to survive for years just to develop a car, which was necessary in order to get from the show car to the production model, I realized we have to do something else to survive. So, we started to work for the auto industry, developing components for them, and at the beginning, we even did full cars, prototypes. At that’s what kept us alive.
R&T: Rimac has been profitable since 2012. How was that possible so early on?
Mate Rimac: You have to understand the although the company was started in 2009, I didn’t have employees until April, 2011. So, I consider the start of the company April, 2011. Before that, it was just myself in a garage. Which means that basically, we’ve been profitable from the beginning. Not because we wanted to be, but because there was no other way. We couldn’t have survived without making money.
R&T: How did you convince major players like Koenigsegg and Aston Martin that a startup like Rimac can achieve their goals and deliver in time?
Mate Rimac: Looking back, it was always the extra effort. We were checking back on our business development. Analyzing the projects we got, and the ones we didn’t get. So, for example for Koenigsegg…you know, Christian was my hero. Before I started the company, I was pursuing him at the shows. Geneva, Frankfurt, and so on. We tried to get to Christian, but I didn’t know what he looked like. I think it’s difficult to remember how ten years ago…the world has been different. There were no Youtube videos about Christian, and now, it seems ridiculous, but I, as a car guy had no idea what Christian von Koenigsegg looked like. And I went to the stand and I talked to somebody, who turned out to be his father. Really nice guy. And he gave me Christian’s business card. Like, “here you go, call him!” And when I did the E30, I sent him an email.
You know, the interesting thing is that when I show somebody my initial emails, like from fifteen years ago, when I was a kid in high school, I had the same approach. I was very structured in the way I communicated. I see what people send me…”you know, I have a great idea, can we have a coffee one day?” They don’t understand that the person on the other side is busy, that hundreds of other people them, and so on. But I understood. When I wrote to Christian, I didn’t just go “hi, I’m Mate,” I sent him the pictures, the plans, everything nice and complete. And he took the bait. He replied, telling me to keep him updated. He is a smart guy, and he knew this technology was coming. It’s difficult to look back. Ten years ago, to most people, I was just some crazy guy, doing some crazy stuff, like electric cars. What the hell? Who is doing that? Nobody. Now, it’s obvious.
Back then, it was wild, and nobody was serious about it. Yet Christian said “keep me in the loop! Tell me what’s going on.” And then, two years later, when it wasn’t just the E30 anymore, we just came here to this building, and he went on holiday with his family in Croatia, and he called me. I was somewhere else. “Mate, tomorrow, I’m in Croatia, let’s meet!” So, I came back to Zagreb, we met, he tried the first red prototype, we had lunch. And I knew that sooner or later, he will go electric, or at least hybrid. So, for his birthday, I made two Greyp bikes.
We researched his childhood to figure out what he would like. He was watching some Danish stop-motion movie, or maybe Norwegian about some mechanics who were building this steampunk car. So, we did the first bike with exactly that design, with beautiful plaques engraved “custom made for Christian von Koenigsegg," and then I wrote a nicely designed letter to him about how he was my hero, the second bike was done in the style of the Koenigsegg One:1, which was just about coming out at that time. We shipped those to him, and he said it was his best birthday present ever. Part of that was that I wanted to give him something for being my idol, but also that I knew that after trying those bikes, when he goes hybrid, he will remember that. And that’s what happened. A few months later, he went “hmm, Mate, what do you think of this idea?” And so we started to work on the Regera.
For the Aston Martin Valkyrie project, we built a small prototype battery, a scaled down version that they could run their complete tests on. The cooling, everything. In one week, we simulated many hours of track driving, thousands and thousands of kilometers on the road, and we sent them our reports, the prototype. And all this takes a lot of extra effort, but with just a spreadsheet, we would have never got the job. And looking back, with every major project, it was always this extra effort.
Reputation in this industry is built over many years and projects. Everybody is looking on how a company executes its tasks. People talk a lot about different suppliers and recommend those that did a good job. This doesn’t happen overnight – it takes years and hundreds of success stories, with not too many screw-ups.
R&T: You've referred to Aston's battery pack as "crazy, crazy, really crazy." What puts a battery into that category?
Mate Rimac: It’s a lot of things, but I can give you just one example. If you look at a Tesla battery, which I think any normal OEM would describe as completely crazy, it has a 100 kWh. And it’s 500 kW maximum discharge for a few seconds. So, that’s a C-rate of 5. The battery we are doing for Aston Martin has a C-rate of 120. It’s 1.3 kWh, and 130 kW of power. And the Koenigsegg battery is 4.5 kWh, with 500 kW. So, it’s a hundred times discharge per capacity, and that’s just one number. But in order to achieve that, it’s so much work, and so much different than anything else. It’s like how a normal car manufacturer has an output of 50 kW per liter from an engine, and you get a 1000 per liter. That’s one number, but there are multiple other factors.
R&T: How did you assemble a team that can beat established engineering companies and battery specialists like Williams Advanced Engineering or McLaren Applied Technologies in this field?
Mate Rimac: I didn’t assemble a team that can do that. Croatia never had a car industry, nor high-tech industry whatsoever. So, I couldn’t hire anybody who has done anything remotely close to that. Just like how I built the BMW in my garage without knowing anything about it, the people at Williams and McLaren are also not magicians. Not wizards from another planet. They are people. And you can learn things. Today, the information is more available than ever, and our approach was the following: “Okay, we can’t hire people with any kind of experience in this field, and we can not afford to hire people from Germany, the United States, or western economies in general. So, what are we going to do? We are going to hire the right people, who have the right mindset, who have some basics and are willing to learn in a culture where it’s okay to make mistakes.” Like, for six month, do nothing but research. Try to do it, believe that you can do it.
I've heard it here a hundred times: "We’ve never made a headlight. How are we gonna do that? We never made an infotainment system…" We can! We can try, and…well, our first infotainment system totally sucked. It was total garbage, the first one. But after years and years of development, we have a dedicated team instead of just somebody working on the side, and we supply infotainment systems to OEMs. We built up the competence. It takes years and lots of trial and error, but I thing you have to be open to it, and let mistakes happen. Don’t think that you’ll get it right the first time, but in the end, you can do it.
R&T: How hard is it today to find engineers? I’m asking because next door, skilled people are leaving Hungary.
Mate Rimac: Oh, everywhere. It’s the same in Croatia. But here…everybody is complaining that they can’t find people, but then I look at our statistics, and we hired a hundred people in the last six months. The truth is somewhere in between. On one side, we are a very desirable employer, because we make cool stuff. The culture in the company is something that’s very important to me, so we work on creating the right environment for people. Up until now, it also kind of happened naturally, because we were a small group, and it kind of just worked, but now that we have so many people, it doesn’t work like that anymore, so we have to take a structured approach. Also, until now, the view of our people was “yeah, we are doing cool stuff, so we are cool for just being us.” But I don’t think that’s enough. We can do a lot more. That’s a priority. To me, employees are number one. Then the customers, and then the shareholders. And that’s clear. That’s clear to the shareholders, clear to everybody. The investors know that when we have happy employees, the costumers will be happy too, and that will keep the shareholders happy.
We are desirable here locally, so people come from Croatia and the neighboring countries, but also from around the world! We have people from 24 countries. They came from the U.S., Brazil, Sri Lanka, Germany, Greece…from everywhere. I think we now also have a Hungarian guy. Locally, we can find people with the right mindset. But totally not experts. What we do here is all new to them. Internationally, we have to hire people who have experience in certain fields. That’s the mix and balance we’re trying to do.
R&T: Who owns the trio of Rimac Automobili, Rimac Technology and Greyp Bikes at the moment?
Mate Rimac: Today, I’m still the majority shareholder at 52 percent. The biggest shareholder beside me is the Camel Group. They have invested 30 million Euros last year, they have 19 percent. They are the largest battery manufacturer in Asia. The remaining shares are owned by the A-rounds investors, and now, Porsche AG.
I try to remain the majority shareholder, but I’m not sure how long it's gonna stay like that, because I’m here to make the best for the company, I’m not personally motivated by money, but I’ll do what’s best for Rimac, which means that at some point, I’ll fall below the 50 percent threshold.
R&T: Do you want to go public?
Mate Rimac: Well, I don’t want to sell the company, but eventually, the investors will want to exit, so sooner or later, we’ll have to go public, but I want to delay that as long as possible. So, it’s not like I want to build up the company, go IPO and cash out. Investors are pushing to do it sooner, but I don’t want to.
R&T: What change will the Porsche investment bring?
Mate Rimac: Having Porsche as a partner and investor is a big recognition for the whole team. It is the best partner we could have wished for. Of course it will be extremely exciting to work together on future Porsche hybrid and electric vehicles, but we see a much deeper collaboration – especially on helping us to scale production up and structure the company in the right way to be a serious supplier of key and critical components to the big players of the industry. A key element for us is learning from Porsche. I am still remaining the majority shareholder with lots of autonomy in decision making so we are still an independent, small, tech-oriented company that can do crazy things that the big companies won’t or can’t.
R&T: Does its ten percent grant the VW Group access to all of Rimac's technology and know-how?
Mate Rimac: We are here to help the industry make exciting future vehicles. Everybody has the access to our technology and know-how if the project is interesting enough. Porsche’s investment for sure makes some things easier for the VW Group companies where it will be easier for them to involve us in some sensitive areas of development that might be closed for “ordinary” suppliers.
R&T: Theoretically, could we see Rimac parts even in the Bugattis of the future?
Mate Rimac: Ultra-high-performance cars are our key market. Bugatti makes incredible cars that we would like to see more electrified in the future. If we can help with that, we will be very excited to do so.
R&T: When you have the new factory in 2-3 years, and everything is up and running, can you imagine Rimac making an affordable, more mass produced powertrain for an OEM?
Mate Rimac: No. That’s not our target, and we are not the best company to do that. There are much better out there for that, like Bosch and Continental. The car industry is so big, and you can get into really high volumes, but we are targeting the high performance end of this scale, and the niche projects of the OEMs. Performance SUVs, the AMGs, Ms and RSes of this world. These types of projects, at those prices, in the short-mid term. Later, in six, seven, ten years, maybe! But for now, this is the chunk we are biting into. And it’s a huge bite, and we have to do a lot of things to get there. But we are positioned perfectly to do that, even if it will take some time.
R&T: Is Rimac a carmaker now, or more of an engineering company?
Mate Rimac: We are both, somewhat separated. We have Rimac Automobili, and we launched Rimac Technology at Geneva, which is a new brand with an individual team behind it, with R&D and production capability. So, they work in synergy. I would be impossible to develop a car like ours without having that other side of the business. Because while everything was developed for our car, you could never afford to use that technology just for that, in low volumes. Not to mention that with the cars, we are showing what we can do, and we attract customers through that. The CEOs of big car companies know about us. They don’t necessarily know about another engineering company or powertrain manufacturer.
R&T: What have you learnt from Tesla?
Mate Rimac: They have done a great thing for us. When I was trying to raise money for the first time in 2011, I just couldn’t, because Fisker went bankrupt, [along with] Coda and a bunch of other players. A lot of money was lost. And when Tesla went public, nobody was sure if they could survive. At the time, Fisker and Tesla were considered to be at the same level, pretty much. They expected a small Californian company to go down as well. Then, Tesla went IPO, and eventually, their shares started climbing. And when people started to make a lot of money, that’s when they became interested in electric cars, investing in other companies. Tesla made electric cars mainstream, and that’s a big takeaway for us. Commercially,
I’m a big fan of what they are doing, but we can’t learn much from them. It’s a different approach, and a different scale. They have raised 14 billion dollars that’s publicly known. Probably even more in reality. They have, I think, over 30,000 employees.
R&T: When you built up this place, what was the first machine you bought?
Mate Rimac: I was always into machining, wanted to have my own CNC, because I love parts. Just the way they look. But also to have the flexibility to produce internally. So, I’ve been dreaming about it, and finally, we bought our first machines. And then, the machine to create molds for the carbon fiber...
R&T: Where is your BMW now?
Mate Rimac: It’s just outside. It’s crashed, and it’s always on the priority list. I make a list of what I want to do in the year, and usually, I end up not doing most of what’s on there. I do things that are urgent things, instead of important. Which is the wrong approach. But when I read “do the important things and not the urgent ones,” I really want to see those people in my shoes. The BMW is always on the top of the list. One of the guys crashed it like five years ago. Into a wall. And the car wasn’t badly damaged, but I just didn’t want to refurbish it to that spec. I want to bring it to the next level. That was the whole purpose of that car. Always a step ahead in development.
Now, I want to put the C_Two powertrain into that. One megawatt of power on the rear axle.
R&T: Where is motorsport on that list?
Mate Rimac: Personally, high, because that’s how I started, and we were involved in a lot of projects. Pikes Peak is just one, but with a lot of things today in motorsport, we are somehow involved. But you can not build a company on that. There’s no volume there that would sustain us. And teams expect manufacturers to sponsor them, which we as a small company can’t do. We kept our involvement in Formula E very low because the teams wanted to get sponsorship, and that’s something others can do.
If we do one thing, we can’t do the other. In the past, we were small enough to do motorsport, and now, we are in this scale up phase where we focus on higher volume projects and cannot dedicate a team to work on racing cars.
R&T: Where do you see Rimac in ten years?
Mate Rimac: At a high level. On the car side, I want the Rimac to be the best electric hypercar, but also the most technologically advanced car of any kind. On the other end, I want our components to be the key parts of many cars that are out there, looking at volume high performance models. Technical leadership is important to me, and also big names using our tech.
R&T: You are 30 now, but were 23 when your first show car debuted at Frankfurt. What’s your advice to the youngsters out there?
Mate Rimac: That’s a difficult one. You can do these things without choosing my path. It’s not a great life to be an entrepreneur. Although I can only speak for myself. I love what I’m doing. But it’s hard. Fighting for the survival of the company. From the beginning, I’ve been working Saturdays and Sundays. I’m here every day if I’m not traveling, and I work 16 hours a day. This is your life, and nothing else can be there. Literally, nothing else. Because even if you take a vacation, which wouldn’t make any sense to me, there are plans and conflicts. And every day you’re elsewhere, things will pile up. Ninety percent of startups fail. You are trying to build a car company, a technology company. Christian von Koenigsegg and Horacio Pagani did an amazing thing that hundreds of people have tried to emulate and failed. Now, imagine doing that in Croatia, with the challenge of landing huge projects early on. Had one part failed, the company wouldn’t exist today. Or, would be something very different, with 30 people. Now, a big part of my job is setting up the processes, the organization of the company. That wasn’t an issue three years ago.
Unfortunately, the CEO just can not be involved in the engineering part anymore. It’s impossible, so the fun part falls out, and then you have contracts, and financial stuff and meetings. It’s still exciting when you see the results, but the day-to-day job is just dealing with lots of problems. And there’s this hype about startups and entrepreneurship, but I’m not sure if it’s for everybody. Those who decide to do that have to be willing and ready to give up everything for the company. It’s not a superstar life. Like, I read those motivational blogposts on Bloomberg: “become an entrepreneur to control your own time!’ Say what? You control your own time between 8 in the morning and 8 in the evening? I don’t know how it’s possible for a company’s founder and CEO to work eight hours, or less. I can’t imagine that.
It’s not an easy life, and if you go for it, you have to be good an multiple things. Having a great product is not enough. You also need to ace attracting people, finance, marketing and PR, sales, fundraising. And if you are not good at these, you first need to admit it to yourself, and then find people who are. And the most important thing: the idea is completely worthless. People are always worried, but nobody is going to steal your idea. Nobody cares, and your idea is worth nothing without the realization anyway. And doing it is a long way, while ideas that are easy to copy are not worth pursuing anyway.