The market for fully electric vehicles is growing. Some reasons behind the growth include new regulations on safety and vehicle emissions, technological advances, and shifting customer needs and expectations. But much of the mainstream acceptance and excitement for electric cars can be traced back to Tesla Motors Inc (TSLA). In this article we review Tesla’s business model and how it differs from traditional automobile manufacturers. (Read more in The Story Behind Tesla's Success)

Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk launched the company with the mission, “to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport by bringing compelling mass market electric cars to market as soon as possible.” This mission has served as the backbone to Tesla’s very successful business model. (Read more in Getting To Know Business Models)

In the Beginning

Tesla took a unique approach to getting its first vehicle in the market. Instead of trying to build a relatively affordable car that it could mass produce and market, it took the opposite approach, focusing instead of creating a compelling car. In a post on Tesla's website, CEO Elon Musk said this about the company's mission, “If we could have [mass marketed] our first product, we would have, but that was simply impossible to achieve for a startup company that had never built a car and that had one technology iteration and no economies of scale. Our first product was going to be expensive no matter what it looked like, so we decided to build a sports car, as that seemed like it had the best chance of being competitive with its gasoline alternatives.” So Tesla delivered to the market the first high-performance electric luxury sport car, the Tesla Roadster. The company sold approximately 2,500 Roadsters before ending production in January 2012.

The Next Stage

Once Tesla established its brand and had produced and delivered its concept car to the marketplace, it reinforced its business model. Tesla's business model is based on a three-pronged approach to selling, servicing, and charging its electric vehicles.

  1. Direct sales: unlike other car manufacturers who sell through franchised dealerships, Tesla uses direct sales. It has created an international network of company-owned showrooms and galleries, mostly in prominent urban centers around the world. By owning the sales channel, Tesla believes it can gain an advantage in the speed of its product development. But more importantly, it also creates a better customer buying experience. Unlike car dealerships, Tesla showrooms have no conflict of interest. Also, customers only deal with Tesla-employed sales and service staff. Including the showrooms, Service Plus centers (a combination of retail and service center), and service facilities, Tesla has 159 locations around the world as of December 31, 2014. Tesla has also made use of the Internet sales—consumers can customize and purchase a Tesla online.
  2. Service: Tesla has combined many sales centers with service centers. They believe that opening a service center in a new area corresponds with increased customer demand. As a result, they have combined their direct sales strategy with service centers in their newly expanded retail concept called “Service Plus.” Customers can charge or service their vehicles at the service centers or the Service Plus locations. Also, in certain areas, Tesla employs what it calls Tesla Rangers--mobile technicians who can service vehicles from your house. Sometimes, no onsite technician is required at all. The Model S, can wirelessly upload data so technicians can view and fix some problems online without ever needing to physically touch the car. As of December 31, 2014, there are 95 Tesla service locations and more on the way.
  3. Supercharger network: Tesla has created its own network of Supercharger stations—places where drivers can fully charge their Tesla vehicles in about 30 minutes for free. The premise behind building and owning these stations is to speed up the rate of adoption for electric cars. Without the ability to charge on the go (similar to the concept of getting gasoline while driving), electric cars face a huge obstacle to mass adoption. Tesla will continue adding to the network of Supercharger stations in the United States, Europe, and Asia.

Other Tesla Products

If you recall, part of Tesla’s mission is, “to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport.” To that end, Tesla sells powertrain systems and components to other auto manufacturers. In April 2015, it also introduced a line of home batteries, called the Powerwall, that serve as energy storage systems in homes or businesses. They are meant to connect with a solar energy system and can be used as backup power when power is interrupted or when peak demand is high.

Along with its three-pronged business model, Tesla offers financial services, similar to that of other car manufacturers, like General Motors Co (GM). This includes standard loans and leases. For some of the loan programs, it has a resale value guarantee provision. This provides some downside protection on a vehicle’s value should the customer want to resell it.

Vehicles

So far, Tesla has only manufactured and sold one model of its automobiles at a time. This will surely change as it ramps up its production capabilities and designs new models. Tesla entered the market with the sporty Roadster. When it introduced the sedan, called the Model S, in June 2012, it had stopped producing the Roadster. The company expects to start delivering its next new car, the Model X, in the third quarter of 2015 (it will reportedly be a mix between a minivan and an SUV). Tesla has also announced the Model 3, a lower-priced sedan, to be introduced in 2017.

The Bottom Line

Tesla did not invent the electric car or even the luxury electric car. What Tesla did invent was a successful business model for bringing compelling electric cars to the market. Part of the strategy was building a network of charging stations to solve one of the greatest obstacles facing adoption of electric vehicles—refueling on long trips. Tesla’s unique business model, which includes control over all sales and service, is one of the reasons its stock has soared since its initial pubic offering. (Read more in The Future of Tesla)

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