Mate Rimac Opens Up About the Trials of Starting His Own Electric Car Company

Barely 30 years old and already having redefined the supercar for the 21st Century, the Croatian EV entrepreneur prepares for his next act.

Last year, The Drive interviewed Mate Rimac, the 30-year-old founder of Croatia's Rimac Automobili. At the time, Rimac was wrapping up production of the company's first all-electric super car, the Concept One, and preparing for the electric vehicle start-up's next act: transforming into a Tier One supplier of EV powertrains for clients including Renault, Jaguar, Aston Martin, and Koenigsegg. The company's kept moving since then; Rimac's second supercar, the Rimac C_Two, a 1,888-horsepower beast that can get from zero to 60 mph in under two seconds, was introduced at this year's Geneva Motor Show. Now, with the help of a 10-percent investment from Porsche, Rimac stands to be a crucial player in the next wave of EV product development.

The Drive

Mate Rimac

The Drive: Mate, how did you get here?

Mate Rimac: My passion was always with cars, so, as soon as I turned 18, I bought myself an old 1984 E30 BMW for hooning around. But being from Croatia, I read a lot about Nikola Tesla. I was always inspired by him, but especially by the electric motor. I was always asking myself, "Why is nobody building an electric race car, or electric sports car?" Then, one day, the engine of the BMW blew up, and I decided to combine my two passions, electronics, and cars, and show what electric cars can do. So, I converted this BMW in my garage into an electric car, and I started to compete.

The Drive

Mate Rimac's 1984 E30 BMW

I went on races, and at the beginning, everybody was just laughing at me, like, "What are you doing with this washing machine on a racetrack?" Like, "Can I charge my phone on your car?" and these kind of jokes. That was a different time. Now, electric cars are interesting, and sexy. You have Tesla, but back then, nobody knew about Tesla. It was something completely new. Nobody saw electric car at racetracks. At the beginning, the car wasn't really that great. It would fall apart on races. The differential would break, the shafts. I would have problems with the batteries, but after every race, I would come back home, and improve the car, make it faster and more reliable, better.

You were development testing as you were just having fun with it on the racetrack?

Yeah. I had more than just a hobby in my mind. Back then, already, I wanted to make a business out of it. So, I used this as a test bed, and eventually, it became competitive, and started winning. In 2011, I broke five FIA and Guinness world records for that, for the fastest acceleration of electric car.

How did it get from being in the BMW to something that you could market and create a business around?

Basically, I wanted to make my car. I knew it's difficult to make a car, and hundreds or thousands of people have tried, and failed. But there were Horacio Pagani and Christian Von Koenigsegg who have done it, and I basically wanted to do what they have to done. So I went, for example, to the University of Mechanical Engineering in Zagreb in Croatia, and I asked them for advice, and they told me, "It's impossible to build a car in Croatia. Give up. The sooner you give up, the less people will go under with you." So, I said, "Okay, it seems like, you know, I have to figure it out on my own."

Going from the BMW, I didn't just want to convert this old car, and improve it until infinity. I wanted to build my own. So, I met Adriano, who is today our head of design. He was working for GM at that time, in Germany as a designer, and we decided to develop the car. I was responsible for the technology, and he was doing the design. It was just the two of us. I was in the university. He was working for GM. He would work on the design after work, and I would, you know, after university. We had some 3D models, some sketches, some renderings.

The Drive

Adriano Mudri, head of design, Rimac Automobili

Then a guy came up to me, by coincidence, a Croatian guy who works for the royal family of Gulf State and said, "The stuff you're doing with your BMW is quite cool. I'm looking for interesting opportunities to invest in. So, do you have something to show that I can bring to Abu Dhabi?" We made a brochure with specs of the car, renderings, and he went there and he called me, like they wanted to order two cars, and I said, "Great, but there is no car and there is no company. It's just the two of us." The next day, he called me and asked, "How much do you need?"

Of course, I said a stupid figure that I thought is enough to build the car. We started to negotiate about the investment that they invest into the company. We decided to build it, and that was beginning of 2011, and we wanted to show the car at the 2011, in September 2011, at the Frankfurt Motor Show. We made an agreement with the Abu Dhabi investors like, "You are going to invest. We have agreed on everything. We have to do the paperwork so it would take some more time. So, I will lend money from everywhere I can, and I will employ the first people. We'll start to build the car. Book the stand in Frankfurt, and then you are going to pay back all the debt." That's how we started off. In April 2011, the first employees joined me. So, we had five months to build the first car. Nobody did that before. Croatia never had a car industry, so I couldn't hire anybody who has done anything like that.

Was the dollar figure optimistic or was it, eventually, not enough?

Of course, I was completely wrong. I had no idea what we have to do. I think, you know, going back, like the door handle in the BMW. Way would have cost more than what I asked for, but we had to figure it out. We had to do it. We had the stand booked. We were working day, and night, Saturdays, Sundays. We would sleep on the floor. We didn't believe we'll make it at some point, but somehow the car going on the track before Frankfurt, we were still putting on the last parts. There it was, the beautiful, red Concept_One, the first one.

We were just five people at the time when the car, when the first [Concept One] was built. But with the Abu Dhabi guys, it didn't really work out well. It took a lot more time than we expected. We completely ran out of money, like months before Frankfurt. We didn't pay the rent for the facility. The electricity company came to turn off our electricity in the facility. We couldn't pay our suppliers. They were calling me. So, it was really difficult.

Rimac Automobili

Rimac Concept One

Finally, we came to the moment where we can sign with them. When the paperwork was done, and you know, we would finally get the investment. We really needed that money. So, I flew to Abu Dhabi to sign the agreements. Then after almost a year of negotiation, he said, "You know what? We don't want to do this in Croatia. If you want to get the money, you have to move the whole company to Abu Dhabi." I really needed it, but I still said no.

Yeah.

I wanted to do it here. One of my motivations is also to do something good for the country, and build up a car company, and show that it's possible to do it here. I didn't want to live in Abu Dhabi, to be honest. So we, yeah, we didn't finish that investment, and you know, being in debt over here, like the water was well above us already. We had to figure out what to do next. We showed the car in Frankfurt, but it was very far from being a production car.

At this point, you're what? 24, 25 years old?

2011. Now, I'm 29, so I was 22 at that time.

I mean, you're 22. You're not going to give up. It’s like, “You'll figure it out.”

Yeah. I think it's almost like a gamble then. You're already all in. So what are you going to do? Back up?

There's several things we figured out at that time. So, one, we were completely out of money, and in debt. We didn't know what to do next, because the car was far from being a production car. If we wanted to make a full production car, there was still a lot of stuff we needed to do. So you know, I went to the suppliers of the car industry because 90 percent of the cars are built by suppliers, and not by the manufacturers themselves. Most of them didn't even want to talk to me, of course. Some of them were laughing at me when I told them about the volumes we are talking about. Some of them have special divisions to deal with small projects, small projects for them being Ferrari producing 7,000 cars per year.

They give you access to the stuff they already have for the big manufacturers, but you have to pay a fee to get access to them. So, I went to one of these suppliers with a list of like six things that I wanted, like the parking lock, the infotainment system, windscreen washers. So, not really the big stuff, not power train or chassis or something like that, like small stuff. They said, "Look, we can't develop anything specifically for you. We can adapt something we already have, just you know, give you access to it. To have access to these six things that you want is 20 million." 

The Drive

Refining the Concept One's structural components.

That was when I figured out to build a car you have to build up a team that can develop technologies, take the technologies to develop systems, and then build a car. But because we didn't have the money to just do that, we had to work for other manufactures. That's the best thing that happened to us. So, then after Frankfurt, we started to look for projects for other manufacturers. We started to develop full cars for them, or powertrain systems, and batteries, but always in the direction where we wanted to go anyways. They kind of financed the development of our own car.

You know, we found a project where the car manufacturer wanted to have a battery that's basically more or less what we wanted to have for our car anyways. That's what we did. Like 90 percent of the work was doing stuff for the automotive industry, and 10 percent was on the side working on our own car. We still wanted to bring the car on the road. But in that way we became a car company- technology company. That's really a car company. The car is still very important. That's how I started, and what I wanted to do originally, but the business is really in the technology.

The Drive

Rimac is aiming to be more than a supercar developer.

Today we are a technology company. We are 250 people. Much bigger than like the smaller car manufactures in a much shorter time, which is only possible, because we do so many things for the industry. The cars are still very important for us as a showcase what we can do. We have the Concept_One currently, which is in production. We have also a following model [the Rimac C_Two], several following models being in development right now. They'll be a very important part of us. We want to show with our cars what we can do. What electric cars can do. We want to be the top electric super car manufacturer.

The real business, the majority of the business of the company is the technology. We are, as far as I'm aware, the most vertically integrated car company in history. We develop everything here. We manufacture most of the stuff here. That's very interesting for the car manufacturers. They, some of them have a very clear idea of what they want, and they come with clear specifications. But most of them come here without really knowing what they really want. So, having this experience, and like we did already 24 projects for different car manufacturers.

The Drive

Rimac battery pack.

We have I would say an insight, you know, and some ideas that are maybe out of the box. So, we define the cars together with them. We cover the whole spectrum, and that's very interesting for the OEMs. But on top of that we are focused on the high end, high performance systems. So, very high performance motors, very high performance batteries, so everybody who is trying to make a high performance hybrid electric car comes here.

When you're a car company, cost so much to develop a car, you guys seem to be doing it a different way.

Yeah, very different, first Croatia is a tiny country. Like Volkswagen has four time more revenues than Croatia has GDP. We don't have a single venture capital fund, no car industry, ever. So, the Croatian government didn't support us, or couldn't support us. We didn't ask for it. So, we had to bootstrap our way through with nothing. So, that was the hardest part. That was 90 percent of my job, to keep the company alive. The worst thing for me was, in 90 percent of the cases I didn't have the money at the beginning of the month to pay the next payroll. So, somehow we had to, you know, make our way through all the time, and that was really stressful, you know.

While growing this company, from here where it's very difficult to get any investment. So, we were profitable from 2012 until today. Probably the only electric car company that has such a long span of profitability, but not because I wanted to, but because there simply was no other way. We got the first investment around 2014. Which is public and it was 10 million euros, which is a lot of money but for a car company it's nothing. So, the whole investment in the company so far, was 10 million euros. Right now, we are finalizing our second investment round to get the company to the next stage. But most of it is organic.

Rimac Automobili

The Rimac C_Two