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Tech Company Hyperloop Doesn't Pay Its Employees — At Least Not In Cash


All right. Now we're going to get sucked into the world of a very different kind of transportation company - Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. Steve Henn of our PLANET MONEY podcast reports it's not only trying to build something bold. It's also attracting talent without paying them cash.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: A few years ago, no one had ever heard the word Hyperloop except for maybe Elon Musk, the guy who runs Tesla. He began namedropping the Hyperloop at tech events in 2013.



ELON MUSK: The Hyperloop, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Is it like a "Jetsons" tunnel? What...

MUSK: It's something like that, yeah.

HENN: Eventually, Musk explained. It's like a train, a solar-powered high-speed train traveling through a vacuum tube. Musk thinks it could hit speeds well over 700 miles an hour. A trip between LA and San Francisco would take just a little bit more than half an hour.

Musk threw out this idea, but he didn't actually want to build it himself, so he opened it up to other companies. And one of those companies, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, is taking a really unconventional approach to hiring. They decided not to pay their employees, at least not with cash. Dirk Ahlborn is the founder and CEO.

DIRK AHLBORN: The core team is basically - are people that are working in exchange for stock options.

HENN: Now, stock options aren't unique, but usually employees at startups get a few options and some cash, and usually they have to quit their day jobs and work full-time - actually, more than full-time. But team members here just have to put in 10 hours a week. And Ahlborn says this has big advantages.

One, he doesn't have to spend any money to get his company off the ground. And two, he can attract all kinds of talented people, people with unique skills who are interested but just might not be ready to take the leap and bet their entire livelihood on the future of a Hyperloop. He can attract people like Robert Delgado.

ROBERT DELGADO: I am the hypermaster planner for the...

HENN: So wait a second. Your job title is hypermaster.

DELGADO: That's the title I was given by the team and Dirk Ahlborn. So yeah, I guess that's my title there.

HENN: Delgado has a day job with a normal title. He builds infrastructure projects all over California. But as a hypermaster, he's helping get approvals for a test track. One of the other people on his team once ran the Colorado Department of Transportation.

DELGADO: A lot of people volunteer a lot of time to do something, to be a part of something and put their name on to say that they were there at the beginning.

HENN: But they're also being promised a payday sometime in the future in the form of those stock options.

DELGADO: We're going to create something big, and the expectation is that there's going to be a big value - dollar value onto that.

HENN: Now, right now, those stock options are almost theoretical, right? There's no dollar value attached to them. There's no place to trade them for real money, and everyone is paid the same amount per hour. Most businesses don't work this way. People make different amounts. Still, this company has a lot of takers.

AHLBORN: We have over 420 team members right now in addition to several very large companies.

HENN: Ahlborn estimates these volunteers have already contributed work that would've cost tens of millions of dollars to pay for in cash. Lisa Gansky is an entrepreneur and author of the book "The Mesh."

LISA GANSKY: They're recruiting people and building a company in a very fresh and, for me, very exciting way.

HENN: Gansky says networks of creative people are sometimes better than conventional businesses at tackling enormous, big, hard problems. Think of Wikipedia but for a train. And if this works, Ahlborn's promising his volunteers a big payday. Steve Henn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.
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