Aircraft Carriers and Paper Airplanes

Nikola Motor Company (founded 2016) makes hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered trucks. It has a few hundred employees, one and a half plants, two truck models in production, and a lot of dreams.

Ford Motor Company (founded 1903) makes trucks, including battery-electric trucks. It has a few hundred thousand employees, dozens of plants, a pile of vehicles in production, and a lot of plans.

Guess which one has higher market capitalization?

Today, looks like Ford. Last week, Nikola. It varies. If you think the stock market measures value, then the two companies have comparable value.

Why do people think Nikola has more potential than Ford?

One reason is: Nikola is in a position to innovate, because they don’t have a bunch of existing systems weighing them down.

For illustration, here’s the footer on Nikola’s web site:

The footer has four columns with 18 links total

There’s like seven vehicles, two of which might be for sale. Nothing here is aimed at existing vehicle owners.

I went to looking for their “about” page, and it took a long time to find it. I had to shrink my font several notches to get the whole footer on the screen.

The Ford footer has five columns with 59 links, plus 17 above and below that, plus some disclosures and disclaimers.

There’s ten categories of vehicle. The longest column is targeted at existing vehicle owners. I accidentally clicked one of those, and a prominent header warned me about an airbag recall in some vehicle I’ve never heard of.

History comes with baggage.

At any large enterprise, software development is stymied by various extra security precautions and legal restrictions necessary to “protect company assets.” As a developer, those don’t feel like assets to me. They feel like liabilities. At a small company, progress takes priority over preservation.

Size has inertia.

History and size also have power.

Ford does many different things to help mitigate climate change. With their existing factories, they reduced emissions (30% already in seven years). With their revenue, they invest billions in zero-emissions vehicles. With their relationships in Michigan, they’re trying out autonomous vehicle lanes. (OK maybe that’s not for climate change but it’s cool.)

Nikola is doing exactly one thing. That makes an easier story to tell. An easier story to sell, on Wall Street.

Constraints offer possibilities.

In an enterprise, there’s a lot of overhead work that goes into being a part of a system that large. Coordination overhead, policies applied more broadly than make sense, procedures and policies that make life easier up the hierarchy at unmeasured cost to the teams.

Yet sometimes it takes a company that big, with so many stories to tell, to accomplish something like autonomous vehicle lanes on the highway. To build a charging infrastructure that changes which vehicles are feasible. (Nikola is partnering with GM for this, because they can’t do it alone.)

Sometimes it takes a history so rich, and a deep system with many checks in place, for customers to be confident that a vehicle launch is real. Ford might not grow in the next few years, but Nikola might not exist in a few years.

There are tradeoffs here: the power of size and history, vs the inertia and complexity.

Aircraft carriers are very slow to turn, but sometimes they launch real planes.