How the man who challenged Tesla went bankrupt
Faraday Future, an electric-vehicle company based in California, generated a lot of buzz when it poached top talent from companies like Tesla, BMW, Audi, Ford, and Ferrari. The ambitious company was cofounded and largely financed by Jia Yueting, a millionaire mogul who owns a multibillion-dollar media conglomerate in China.
In 2017, a court in Shanghai issued a freezing order on Jia’s assets, and Jia was named to a debt blacklist after he left to California to helm Faraday Future and refused to return to China to pay more than 470 million yuan. In 2018, Jia, $3.6 billion in debt, filed for bankruptcy. Unable to find another financier, Faraday Future furloughed all essential employees and applied for government financial assistance.
Jia is no longer a majority investor in the company nor its CEO; however, he remains in a senior role as a chief product and user officer. Faraday Future, helmed by a new CEO, relaunched its first production EV, the FF 91, this past November.
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Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: In 2015, Faraday Future was a California-based electric-car startup with deep pockets in China and ambitions to take on the world. It assembled, seemingly out of nowhere, a star-studded cast of top executives from Tesla, Audi, Lamborghini, BMW, Ferrari, Volkswagen, Ford, and Google, united behind a forward-thinking vision of jump-starting the autonomous, connected electric-car ecosystem. Or developing a car subscription service. Or inventing a drivetrain that could be mounted to any type of vehicle. Or putting this…Batmobile car into production? Wait, were they serious? OK, in 2015, Faraday Future’s actual plans were a mystery. But with a 1,500-person workforce, over 100 employees poached straight from Tesla, a foot planted firmly in Los Angeles, and an agreement for a $1 billion factory in Nevada, Faraday Future was ready to kill Tesla where it stood. But by 2018, Faraday Future had burned through billions of dollars and was struggling to stay in business. And it’s almost all because of this man: Faraday Future’s cofounder Jia Yueting, a billionaire tech entrepreneur whose aggressive money borrowing powered Faraday Future into a shining star in the automotive industry and simultaneously brought its downfall in three short years.
This is how the man who challenged Tesla went bankrupt.
Jia Yueting, or YT, as he was called, started his career in the 1990s as an official in a local tax bureau. He left to start a whole bunch of businesses ranging from coal to mobile phones. In 20 years he would be the 17th richest person in China, with a net worth of $7.3 billion. His most successful venture was a streaming company called LeTV, which launched its video-streaming service in 2004, three years before Netflix. On the heels of LeTV’s success, YT acquired and developed other lines of businesses: smartphones, TVs, sports programming, financial products, smart bicycles, and even electric cars, all under an umbrella brand called LeEco, or Le Economy. While LeEco’s activities seemed unrelated, YT saw an opportunity to provide consumers with everything they could want: an electric car that could drive you around, call your friends, hold a business meeting, or watch sports, all in one neat little LeEco package. In 2014, YT cofounded Faraday Future, headquartered in California. YT would spend hundreds of millions of dollars developing a car out of Faraday Future, eventually planning to open a $1 billion factory in Nevada, the same state where Tesla was building its Gigafactory. Meanwhile, in 2015, YT led an aggressive campaign to expand LeEco products into the United States, opening an 80,000-acre campus in San Jose, California, hiring over 300 employees from Silicon Valley, and acquiring American TV manufacturer Vizio for $2 billion. In 2016, LeEco launched its flagship smartphone, the Le Pro 3 and Le S3, and a smart TV, the EcoTV, with the aim to take on tech giants Apple and Google in the US market. And none of these ventures were making money for YT. With the exception of the streaming service LeShi, formerly LeTV, none of LeEco’s seven businesses were profitable, according to Bloomberg.
So where did all the money come from? Some from YT’s pockets, but a lot more came from China’s lenders. As reported by The New York Times, YT found cash, over $2.1 billion in this report, in two different ways. One: He simultaneously courted small, working-class investors by promising good rates of return and playing down risks. Two: He tapped back channels and dealt in China’s shadowy informal banking system where regulations hardly existed. Understandably, there was a huge backlash when YT didn’t deliver on his promises. In April of 2017, 37 representatives of small businesses staged a sit-in in the LeEco lobby, demanding LeEco pay $10 million that was owed to them. LeEco responded by filling its lobby with potted plants to keep the angry creditors from loitering there. YT ignored an order to appear in court in 2017 and instead fled China to Faraday Future in California, his last chance at getting some money together. The consequences of his debt, though, were too big and too far-reaching for Faraday Future to save him.
In 2017, the court in China named YT to a debt blacklist. The blacklist is a way to publicly slap the wrist of affluent Chinese businesspeople and try to prevent them from spending recklessly. But most importantly, YT’s name on that list meant investors were less keen on doing business with Faraday Future. In fact, Stefan Krause, Faraday Future’s CFO, was offered financing deals that were strictly contingent on YT resigning or giving up a controlling part of the company. It’s just, YT didn’t want to give up control. And Faraday Future desperately needed the money. After three years, the company didn’t even have a car to sell. Remember that 1,500-person workforce? Well, The Verge reported that insiders at Faraday said the company didn’t even have work for them to do. In 2018, Faraday Future, burning through cash and unable to find another financier, laid off a large chunk of its employees and applied for financial assistance. In October of 2019, Jia filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. According to the notice, YT accumulated over $6.6 billion of debt in total while repaying only $3 billion.
This story ends on a hopeful note. Today, Faraday Future is still alive. It continued to develop its first announced production car, the FF 91, and has tried to respark interest in it, keeping a stream of footage of the car on the street and in testing up on the Faraday Future YouTube channel. The company has a new CEO, the man in charge of the BMW i program and cofounder of Byton cars, Carsten Breitfeld. Breitfeld expressed renewed commitment in Faraday Future’s mission of using the technology FF has developed thus far to transform the car industry. And as for YT? Well, he’s still living in a mansion in California. He’s still involved in Faraday as a senior officer in charge of design, though he is no longer a financier of the company. In a statement on Twitter, YT apologized for his mistakes, namely failing to repay his debts. He also mentions how important it is for him to return to China, repay his debts, and make Faraday Future a successful company. It’s easy to see YT had all the tools to make a revolutionary car company. If you look around, you’d see YT’s vision in 2014 for a smart, connected electric-car ecosystem was right on the money. His bravado and charisma are the same as Elon Musk’s, who kept Tesla afloat through rocky financial situations on vision and enthusiasm alone. Faraday Future could have easily been as successful as Tesla; simply, the decision to push forward for so long without seeing cash and never compromising was unsustainable. YT says, “The success of a company is all about the choices it makes.” Seems like YT just made some wrong ones.