SAN JOSE, Calif. – The idea for SolarCity came to Lyndon Rive on a trip with cousin Elon Musk to Burning Man in 2004.
"That's when the light bulb went off," Rive said.
A decade later, SolarCity is among the largest solar companies in the country, with operations in 19 states, 15,000 employees and 300,000 customers. The ride hasn't always been smooth. The stock took a hit in October, when the company announced it missed expectations and lost $2.41 a share in adjusted earnings in the quarter. SolarCity's shares fell 22 percent to $29.65. They've rebounded since, trading around $51 last week. Some analysts have knocked the company for high customer acquisition costs and its struggle to turn a profit.
But SolarCity reached an agreement on a big cash infusion in late November. Silver Lake investments agreed to a $100 million strategic investment, together with $10 million from Musk, the company chairman, and $3 million from Rive.
The tight-knit family — Rive's and Musk's mothers are twins — has stayed together across multiple countries, continents and start-ups.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Your mother, Kaye, was a career woman?
A: She had multiple businesses. She was an entrepreneur herself. She's also the one that encouraged me to start my company at the age — my first company — at the age of 17. I'm very grateful. Most parents would not encourage their kids to start a company while they're in high school. In fact, she was totally fine with me not going to high school and working on the business.
The principal was going to expel me because I wasn't going to school. So I showed him my financial statements. I said, "Look, it makes no sense for me to leave this and come back to school, so that I can go to university with the hope of earning one-third of that." He agreed. So then he allowed me to come and write the exams. If I passed, I passed. If I failed, I failed. I passed.
Q: You came over to the United States, for the first time, on a 1998 trip with the South African national underwater hockey team for a tournament in San Jose. Tell me about your first impression of the States.
A: When you landed, just in the airport you could feel the vibe. This place was just buzzing. You didn't even have to go anywhere, you'd just feel the energy of the Bay Area. You just walk around Palo Alto, you just walk around Mountain View, you just walk around all the places and everybody is excited about everything.
[My brother Russ] had the idea that if we start a software company that could manage PCs remotely, that could come in very handy. We funded the company [Everdream], spent a year building out the business model, getting customers, proving out that a remote management of a PC on a subscription basis can be a real business. In '99, we got our first funding from DFJ. Steve Jurvetson led that round. At 20 years old, I got my first $2 million check. I went, "Wow. OK."
Q: What did that feel like?
A: It was literally written out to Everdream, as a check. I deposited it into my bank account, which I had full authority over. Only in America. We spent the next eight years running that company.
Q: Why did you get into solar?
A: I wanted to do something that can have an impact on humanity. Something that you feel good about. It's not anymore about working this hard for money.
On our way to Burning Man, it was myself, my wife and Elon in an RV. So we had a ton of time to talk.
Elon's recommendation was to get into the solar industry once he understood what I wanted to do. He didn't say how, or what, but just get into the industry.
I came back, discussed it with my brother, Peter Rive. He loved it.
We launched SolarCity in 2006, July 4. We chose July 4th as Independence Day. The goal is to become independent of fossil fuel.