It started with a movie.
While watching Chris Paine’s award-winning documentary, “Who Killed the Electric Car,” Mike McQuary, CEO of Wheego Electric Cars, recognized a familiar voice. It was a voice of passion.
“What surprised me was the passion of the people who had been driving electric cars,” says McQuery. “They said things like, ‘I loved that car’ and ‘I’d buy another one tomorrow.’”
It wasn’t the first time he’d heard the outcry of such a passionate consumer base. The former president and COO of Atlanta-based MindSpring remembered those voices from the early days of providing Internet service.
“In the early days (of MindSpring), people would say things like ‘I got two of my coworkers to sign up’ and ‘I’m sending an extra $10 because I don’t want you to go out of business,’” he says. “I recognized that voice and said it looks like they need an electric car—I wonder if I can make one.”
More than five years later, McQuary and his Atlanta-based company, Wheego Electric Cars, did exactly that. The business has sold 400 of its two-seat, North American-assembled, all-electric Wheego LiFe vehicles.
He credits the success of Wheego to the people he has surrounded himself with in Atlanta.
“One of the most attractive things about Atlanta is the universities like Georgia Tech and Emory — top academic institutions — that are cranking out smart, really qualified college grads,” he says. “I’ve always tried to tap into that sort of intellectual capital, both in terms of interns and hiring young, smart people. I was comfortable that I wouldn’t have to leave Atlanta to get this venture up and running.”
The road to 400 vehicles was not reached without sweat. High profile failures like Coda Automotive and Fisker Automotive along with the shuttering of a series of smaller startups highlight the challenges of creating a new product for a new market.
Initially, the cars were built as low-speed vehicles and had to meet very few requirements to be roadworthy. When Wheego decided to build a highway-ready version, it faced major regulatory hurdles.
“My biggest surprise was how difficult it is to get a car through crash testing. The NHTSA requirements… it is spectacularly detailed,” he says. “Getting through all of those regulations is a very difficult process. It’s a gauntlet, definitely.”
McQuary was also surprised by the challenge of raising capital — a common concern among startups — particularly after the success of MindSpring. Wheego was created in the depths of the recession and has had slower growth than he envisioned.
“I thought it would be a lot easier… it’s surprising to me that you can have a lot of success and still have trouble convincing people that you’re on the right track,” he says.
Still, the company continues to grow and is looking to expand into new markets. Plans for a larger, five-seat SUV are currently in the works, as well as a goal of expanding in the Asian and European markets.
His advice to potential entrepreneurs: be resilient.
“Sometimes the plan isn’t going to go the way you envision it,” he says. “You have to realize that it’s going to be a tough road. If you have a failure in one venture you look upon that as a learning experience. People who have even the greatest successes can point to things that didn’t go their way.”