Employees at this Silicon Valley start-up are rebuilding a rare 1970s 'microcar' as a bonding exercise

Key Points
  • Instead of the usual team bonding exercises, Volta Charging employees rebuild rare vehicles.
  • Virgo led a $15 million funding round in Volta which is using the capital to build out electric vehicle charging infrastructure.
  • Volta is on a mission to hasten the shift from gas to electric cars in the U.S.
Volta Charging CEO Scott Mercer

Company culture-building efforts can range from corny trust falls to lavish retreats. At Volta, a start-up that builds electric vehicle charging infrastructure, employees work on rare cars together, turning them into street-legal electric vehicles.

Volta's CEO and founder Scott Mercer said, "It doesn't matter if you have any technical experience. Anyone at the company can learn how to weld, or learn about all the different components of a car."

At the moment, the Volta team is rebuilding a Zagato Zele, a "microcar" originally made by Zagato in Italy during the oil crisis of the 1970's.

As Mercer describes the vehicle: "It's a dorky little box that could have been in Star Wars. It was an early electric car, and they only produced a few hundred."

Volta Charging employees are rebuilding a Zagato Zele, an electric microcar made in the 1970s.

The best thing about working on cars as a team, Mercer said, is that people who don't collaborate on a daily basis get tangible rewards from working together. The so-called "Z-build" ("Z" for "Zacato") also instills a love of vehicle design in every employee, including those with no prior automotive experience.

When Mercer started Volta in 2010, he was living with his parents in Colorado, repairing cars for fun and work. To finance the start of Volta, he said, he bought a 1967 Jaguar E-type on the cheap, lovingly rebuilt it, then sold it to a car collector in Athens, Greece for around $50,000.

Would Volta sell any of the cars its employees rebuild? Mercer said, "No, they're for our team to drive around and to take to electric car shows."

In addition to the team-bonding work on rare cars, Volta also offers employees a stipend of up to $200 per month to cover the cost of leasing or purchasing an electric vehicle.

Employees' electric cars and motorcycles parked at Volta Charging in San Francisco.

Fostering a great company culture can be a matter of the life or death for even venture-backed start-ups.

Mercer said, "It's no secret how challenging it can be to hire in the Bay Area, especially if you don't have Apple or Google money to offer. It's really essential that we have fun and a meaningful mission."

Reducing demand for oil

Volta has tapped into more sophisticated sources of growth capital since its scrappy early days, raising $15 million in its last round of venture funding, led by Virgo Investment Group. It has also raised $25 million in new debt financing to build more of its charging stations.

Volta wants to hasten the shift from gas to electric vehicles in the U.S., a country that has lagged behind China, Germany, France and others mandating or incentivizing this transition aggressively. In a nod to the mission, Volta has re-purposed oil barrels as planters in its headquarters office.

Oil barrels are used as planters in the offices of EV charging start-up, Volta, in San Francisco.

The company installs its charging stations -- with large, bright displays -- in parking lots at highly trafficked venues. The chargers can be seen today in stadiums, malls, Whole Foods parking lots and national parks.

Sponsors pay to reach passersby via Volta signage much like they would with a bus shelter ad, or a billboard. Drivers get to re-charge their EV's for free.

According to data from the International Energy Agency, there were only 2 million electric cars on the road in 2016. But that number is expected to skyrocket in the next decade starting with buses, shuttles and other commercial vehicles likely to park where Volta chargers are positioned.