“With motorbikes, if you just make them safer, and it happens to be electric, that's sold." - Jay Giraud rides the entrepreneurial highway
Damon Motors recently broke ground on two new buildings, grew their executive team and exceeded $40M in presales for their electric motorbike. Here's how their founder got there.
Scott Road Station is about as far east as you can get on the SkyTrain’s Expo Line. If you hopped on at Waterfront, you would be just three stops shy of completing the entire route. For weary commuters, Scott Road Station is hardly an oasis near the end of a tedious journey. Despite rather scenic views of the Fraser River and New Westminster skyline to the southwest and Pattullo Bridge and Port Mann Bridge to the northeast, the station is tucked amongst car repair shops, arterial roads and a Home Depot. Rental apartments and a community centre are new additions sparking a little life into the area.
But, the addition to the Surrey, BC, neighborhood—known as Bridgeview—that will perhaps make the biggest difference is the new manufacturing facility for Damon Motors. “Over 100,000 people a day go through there by SkyTrain and it's going to have a giant Damon dragon on this big wall as you pass by,” Jay Giraud, CEO and co-founder, justifiably gushed when we chatted on Zoom earlier this month. The manufacturers of electric motorcycles broke ground on the new facility on October 5th—the same day the BC government announced that Damon would receive $400,000 from the CleanBC Go Electric ARC program. Then, later that same week, the company announced that it had exceeded $40 million in presales.
Capping off an impressive month for the company, Damon is finishing October strong with a trio of announcements this morning. The company has announced the launch of an R&D facility in the San Francisco Bay Area as well the Damon Lab, a private online community for Damon’s ridership. Further, Damon announced a new addition to their executive team. “As we enter the production phase of our HyperSport motorcycles, it is important that we look to the future and continue to surround ourselves with top talent,” Giraud said of the news. “As a result, we’re excited to open this new R&D facility and bring aboard Phil Gow, whose battery expertise is unmatched.”
Gow has a rich history in the space with over 25 years of experience, including stints at Apple and Google. Those Silicon Valley ties are crucial as Damon launches an R&D facility in California. Gow’s role within Damon will be twofold. In his role as Damon’s VP, Power Systems, he will lead powertrain engineering efforts with a specific focus on battery systems and electronics development. As Damon’s Bay Area General Manager, Gow will oversee operations at the upcoming R&D facility.
“Damon is a company with a strong vision, aggressive goals and an incredibly capable team that is delivering on its mission to create groundbreaking motorcycles,” he said. “I am excited to join this dynamic company and further develop and evolve Damon’s transformative electric motorcycle products into the future.”
Sure, that future is unquestionably exciting. But, to understand how the company will get there—how it arrived at its present, even—it’s key to understand the history of Damon and Giraud.
Giraud’s journey to this point is winding. It begins not southeast of Vancouver in Surrey but northwest in Whistler. Giraud’s initial vocation was that of a professional snowboarder. He rose, in the late ’90s, to the 9th ranked athlete in the extreme sport of snowboardcross, a type of downhill racing where four to six competitors navigate an arduous course full of turns, jumps and drops.
Extreme sports lead to extreme injuries. What better way to rehab them than an après-ski bar in Whistler? But, what appeared on the bar TV would shape Giraud’s entrepreneurial vision and the next two decades of his life.
“I was nursing a snowboarding injury, working in a bar in Whistler. I was watching the bombing of Baghdad and was thoroughly disgusted by the news reports that it was all about freedom. To me, it was clear that it was about oil, control of supply lines, all those kinds of things. Then, I thought for years, how do you take the impetus out of war? My best conclusion was, well, the majority of wars have been over resources. Namely, oil. So if we could just get the world off oil… How do we get the world off of oil? Well, people will have to get into some non-oil-powered vehicles,” Giraud reflected.
He dove headfirst into the world of alternative energy. Through his research and experiences, Giraud concluded that electric was the answer. This led to a moment of realization that seemed to surprise Giraud, even in his retelling of the story. “Holy shit, I have to build an electric car company. Who does that from a snowboarding background? So, I thought I was going to open up a dealership. I thought I needed to learn about running dealerships and I went and got a job in a car dealership. I fucking hated it, but I was really good at sales. I thought, well, maybe I can build my own chain of electric car dealerships and solve all these stupid dealership problems, as well,” he shared.
As he worked on bringing this to fruition, it appeared he was slightly ahead of the market. “By the end of 2007, I realized there were no electric cars coming that were real. They all sounded real, but none of them were when I contacted them and tried to get distribution. But, I had also promised myself that I'd put an electric car on the road by 2008. So at the beginning of ‘08, I realized the only way I was going to fulfill my promise was if I built the car myself,” Giraud recalled.
To do just that, he founded a company known as Rev Technologies. The execution, though, left a little to be desired. “We built electric pickups and SUVs. I think we had four or five prototypes by the end of that first year. I drove them around as my daily driver, they were crap, but they worked,” he joked. Upon this realization, Giraud pivoted to a new venture: Mojio. While Mojio was still in the electric vehicle space, the company focused on software and developed a platform to apply cloud-based technologies to the apps used to help electric vehicles function.
Towards the end of his tenure with Mojio, Giraud spent time in the bustling Indonesian capital of Jakarta. In Jakarta, the dominant method of transportation, at least for Giraud, was not a car. “I was riding around on a motorbike every day, and I thought, ‘If I'm still going to help get the world off oil, someone's gonna have to help get motorbikes off oil.’ [Worldwide] they're much more common than cars. Plus, Tesla happened in that same eight-year period, right? So, okay, the car side’s handled,” he said of the moment he realized that cars and trucks may not be the play.
Giraud’s period in Indonesia was in 2016 and within a year he founded Damon. An all-electric motorbike seems a straightforward sell, but Damon’s offering prioritizes safety amongst speed and sustainability. Heeding the technological lessons learned at Mojio, Giraud oversaw the inclusion of an artificial intelligence and cloud-supported safety system known as Co-Pilot into Damon’s bikes. The system uses AI to warn riders of impending doom—the handlebars will rattle if the bike senses an oncoming object, for example—while storing patterns in the cloud to better understand its rider.
“Well, there's still a big gap here in motorbikes and, in fact, it’s more important. The safety thing was more of an acute issue that mattered. Most people don't sell a gas car and get into an electric one, just because it's better. There's not enough of a personal reason for them. People have to gravitate towards technology to get into a Tesla. Whereas with motorbikes, if you just make them safer, and it happens to be electric, that's sold. So, that really became the formula for Damon,” Giraud added.
Sure, technological lessons abound for Giraud. But, these are supplemented by a host of entrepreneurial lessons, too.
“The biggest one I took was that you can be a visionary and have great ideas and all those kinds of things, but, if you can't keep your team with you at your speed, you've got nothing. Another cliché way of saying it is you can't build a company by yourself. I made that mistake at Rev and at Mojio where I was moving too fast, so to speak. You're as fast as your slowest team member. That's the truth,” he told me.
“That was the biggest lesson: learning to hold a vision strong out in the future, bring that vision to life as much as possible in a daily experience of your team, so that they're connected to it. They're never going to be inside your head. They really can't feel what you can feel and they can't see what you can see. But you can impart some of it to them. They're just trying to execute on it to the extent that they understand it. So, if you move too fast, it's like this elastic band that eventually just snaps and then you don't have anything,” Giraud continued.
On the back of these lessons, Giraud has grown Damon, culminating in the new manufacturing facility. Vancouver, where the company is headquartered, may as well have a grainy, flickering “no vacancy” sign hanging over it. “Vancouver has a 0.27% vacancy rate for commercial buildings above a certain size, aka zero,” Giraud said of his research. With this realization, Giraud knew that if his company’s facility would be in the Lower Mainland, it would have to at least be east of Boundary Road.
Then, a stroke of luck. “We got really, really lucky. My co-founder [Dom Kwong], he's really tight with someone who's part of the Bosa property family. [Bosa] just fell in love with the pitch. They fell in love with the Damon story and they're like, ‘Well, we're building this building over here. It's not built yet, but the plus side is we can build it to your needs.’ Quite frankly, they could have taken a much better tenant, you know, an easier one, right? Something like a warehouse distribution company that just puts stuff on a shelf,” he shared.
The new, bespoke building means Giraud can look to the future and impetus of his company. “What they really wanted to be a part of was we can build a centre of excellence for electric vehicles. Damon is not only going to be hiring 800 people in all the disciplines of technology and engineering around cleantech—Vancouver's been a hotbed in that for a long time, since the early days of Ballard in the 80s. In that, if there's a place where electric vehicles should be manufactured in Canada, it makes way more sense for it to be here than in Ontario. It's just not the same thing, the way you put together a gas car and the way [you need to build] an electric vehicle,” he explained.
It’s also a unique opportunity for Bosa and the city of Surrey. “For Bosa, this is their first foray into a very different future for the company. If you know Damon can be successful building electric motorbikes here, what does that mean for Bosa? They're situated in Surrey so we are interfaced with the city of Surrey. It’s been the fastest-growing city in Canada for the last 15 years. So, it’s got the right demographics, the right location, the right talent of people that have been brewing for years from all of the other EV companies or cleantech companies. So it all just came together really nicely. Sounds like it just happened. But it was a long shepherding process,” Giraud told me.
Ah, yes. Another overnight success story that was decades in the making. It’s been said that good things come to those who wait. That’s certainly the case for Giraud and Damon. Good things appear to be what is in store for the future, too.
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