Lyndon Rive co-founded SolarCity with his brother in July 2006. In its first three years, SolarCity became the largest residential solar power provider in California and grew to over 350 employees serving over 500 communities in three states. Prior to SolarCity, Lyndon founded Everdream, an industry leader in software and services for large-scale distributed computer management. A lifelong entrepreneur, Lyndon founded his first company at the age of 17 in South Africa, and in his spare time he has been a member of the U.S. National Underwater Hockey Team.
SM: Lyndon, where is your accent from?
LR: I was born and raised in Victoria, South Africa.
SM: How long were you there before you came to the US?
LR: I came in 1998 when I was 22 years old. I came over here to start a software company with my brother, who is the other founder of SolarCity.
SM: I would like to hear a bit about South Africa and the environment you grew up in.
LR: It was an interesting time to grow up in South Africa because of the political climate. It is an incredibly beautiful country because of its climate, and it’s an amazing place. However, it is not the best place for strong business. My family was very entrepreneurial. My mother came from Canada and moved to South Africa when she was two.
She had a successful business, which was a massage therapy college. Students came to learn reflexology, massages, and natural health therapy. She had a big cottage and would teach 50 students every six months. That business did well.
SM: Did you go to college in South Africa?
LR: I have never gone to college. As a family we are very natural health and environmentally oriented. That is one of the reasons we started SolarCity. When I was 17 my grandmother started using a natural health product. She was suffering from arthritis and found a product which really worked for her. It was a homeopathic product that was only available in Victoria and had no reach in the rest of South Africa.
I approached the company that made the product and offered to distribute their products through all of South Africa. At first they laughed at me and told me to come back when I had grown up and had a degree. I was persistent and got them to agree to distribute the product, and to allow me to create a company in which they invested.
SM: You were a very persistent 17-year-old.
LR: I was, but they ended up owning 90% of the company.
SM: At 17 that is OK.
LR: It was. They did not have a great vision of expansion so they viewed it as a no-loss opportunity. I had friends who were in the computer industry and we brought technology that allowed distribution to scale. After three months I launched that company and paid back all the money that we borrowed for the computer infrastructure. After the next three months I started matching the current company’s income and a year out, we had tripled their income. It had been wildly successful and something that I had always thought about doing.
SM: So you didn’t quit high school while you did this?
LR: I didn’t go to high school. I was enrolled and the principle was going to expel me for not attending classes. I convinced him, after showing him the company’s P&L, that I was running a business and that it made no sense for me to give it up so I could go to class. It made no sense. The irony is that it was more money than most successful people were making at the peaks of their lives. It was good money. He looked at that and realized that it was significantly more than he was making. My monthly salary was more than most very successful people’s yearly salaries. He allowed me to only write the exams.
SM: Were you able to do those without studying?
LR: Yes, it was not a problem. I did not get As, but I passed.