In 2012, when Tesla Motors opened its seventh retail location in Westchester County, just north of New York City, George Blankenship recalls inviting Jim Motavalli, who writes often about the environment, transportation and “green” cars, to come and visit the new store.
After touring the shop, taking a test drive and getting a general feel for the Tesla experience, Motavalli and Blankenship—who was then the company’s Vice President of Worldwide Sales & Ownership Experience—sat down for an interview for The New York Times.
Motavalli asked Blankenship to describe Tesla’s “sales motion.” Confused, Blankenship said “Sorry, Jim, I don't know what you mean." According to Blankenship, Motavalli said “‘Every car dealership has a sales motion. You introduce yourself to the customer. You try to find a connection: Did my cousin go to school with your cousin's nephew's sister? You try to figure out what kind of car they're looking for. You think about what you have in inventory, take them on a test drive, introduce them to the manager, and sell them a car.’”
What happened next is emblematic of Blankenship’s decades-held branding and customer acquisition philosophy and serves as a thesis for his presentation. “I looked at him and said, "Geez Jim, I hope we never sell anyone a car. I want people to buy a Tesla because they want it, not because we sold it to them."
When the story in the Times came out—of course, Motavalli used Blankenship’s bombshell quote in the lead—a call from Tesla’s mercurial co-founder and product architect, Elon Musk, wasn’t far behind. Musk was taken aback by Blankenship’s stance on sales. “I told him this is exactly where we want to be. I'm positive.” He was right.
“We opened up the store at 10:00am on Saturday and closed on Sunday at 6:00pm,” said Blankenship. “During that time we had people come in who had never seen the car, had never even heard of Tesla. And not one, not two, but five people walked in the door and said, 'Here's my $5,000, please send me a car in a couple of years.' We took five reservations from people who had never seen the car, and we didn't sell them anything. I said ‘Elon, this works.’ He said, ‘Are you sure?’ I said yes, I'm sure. He said, ‘OK, go.’”
Looking back over his career, Blankenship considers himself “the luckiest guy in the world” because of the visionaries he’s learned from. At the Gap he worked with retail legends Don Fisher and Mickey Drexler. At Apple, he worked with Steve Jobs, with whom he helped craft the design of the company’s retail stores and customer experience strategy. Then, for nearly four years, he reported directly to Musk, who he characterizes as “a little bit Steve Jobs, a little bit Thomas Edison, a little bit Christopher Columbus, wanting to go to the new world. For Elon, it just happens to be Mars.”
Blankenship joined Apple in 2000. In those days there was no iPod, no iPhone, no iPad. He took some time to assess the market to learn what people thought about the brand. He went to stores where Apple products were sold—CompUSA, Circuit City, Fry’s Electronics—and watched for days as people bought computers. What he realized about Apple was quite simple: in 2000, most people didn’t want an Apple product.
“We thought if people are going into a store to buy a product and they already know they don't want one of ours—whatever the reason—we need to do something different,” said Blankenship.
“So we thought let's ambush customers when they're not thinking about buying a computer. Let's open up stores in places where people are shopping already. Get in front of them when they're looking for new things.”
Apple opened its first two stores in May of 2001 in Tysons Corner, Virginia and Glendale, California and were greeted with huge lines. Later that year, in October, they launched the iPod. In 2004, they released the iPod mini. The stores, the devices, and the computers, were something different and became wildly successful. This is where the brand really took off.
Then, in 2007, Steve Jobs told the world Apple was going to do a phone. “This, I believe, was the turning point for the company,” said Blankenship. “In 2000 people said ‘I don't want an Apple product.’ By 2007, people started camping out so they could be at the head of a very long line at every store to buy an Apple product that no one had ever even seen.”
Just as Tesla buyers would do a few years later.
The iPad came out in 2010 and it was the same thing: long lines at the stores, heavy media coverage and a gold rush among developers to get their apps noticed in the App Store. “If you think about what happened over that 10 year period, and the way it changed the way we do things today, it's pretty amazing what Apple did,” said Blankenship. “But the fact that people are buying Apple products is not important. The important thing is why are they buying Apple products? This is going to sound really simple, but they buy them because they want them.”
From store to online to product, Blankenship’s success—and the success of the brands he’s managed—is built on an obsession with four specific factors: innovation, design, simplicity, and the ownership experience. Whether it was The Gap, Apple or Tesla, the central goal was figuring out how to inspire people to keep coming back, to develop a long term customer connection.
Blankenship closed with a challenge: “Who in this room is ready to envision the opportunities of the next 10 or 15 years and then do something that will shape your industry forever? Somebody is going to define how your industry does things over the next 10 years. Somebody's going to figure it out. The only question is this: Will it be you?”