Electric Car Tycoon Plans Expansion

China's Elon Musk comes from humble beginnings.

It was almost inevitable he’d be dubbed the “Elon Musk of China.” As the co-founder and CEO of Nio, in just five years William Li has managed to turn the EV startup into a symbol of national pride and chart his unique path. The ride has not always been smooth.

Just a few months ago, Nio had only $152 million left on the balance sheet and was not expected to survive. Since then, the company has enjoyed a stunning reversal of fortune. Not only it has successfully raised capital, but its second-quarter deliveries nearly tripled from the year-earlier period, prompting its US-listed shares to soar more than tenfold. These gains, however, are not without challenges, says transportation expert and professor of management at the University of San Francisco, William Riggs: “Most EV manufacturers need to invest in infrastructure and accelerate vehicle delivery to consumers, and Nio is not an exception.” In the meantime, Riggs adds, Nio must continue to attract new customers, face Covid-related supply-chain disruptions, and grapple with basic resource issues such as finite supply for the battery-grade lithium used to power its vehicles.

Li, born in 1974 in a dairy farm in Anhui, knows all this. At 25, he launched the automobile web-content and marketing services provider Bitauto, which was valued at $1.1 billion by the time Li sold it in 2013. That might also explain why Li has been so effective in marketing not just his cars, but in building an entire lifestyle around them. Nio’s customers have exclusive access to so-called Nio Houses, a mix between a showroom, an event space and a Starbucks. Over time, Li said, we can expect to see them popping up everywhere—including outside of China.

Yet, increasing market share and expanding abroad will prove tricky: “The clean-fuel vehicle market is highly lucrative, with heavy competition between new companies like Nio and Tesla, as well as legacy brands like GM, Ford and BMW,” Riggs points out. All of them have potential to succeed, all are likely to face ups and downs for years to come.