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Tim Kentley-Klay suddenly ousted from Zoox

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Some of Zoox's prototypes

A few weeks ago, I published an analysis of the Zoox strategy to produce a custom car. Last week, Zoox decided to fire its founder and CEO, Tim Kentley-Klay, with no warning. Very little has been said, other than:

  • The board (other than TKK) was unanimous, including co-founder Jesse Levinson
  • Carl Bass (formerly CEO of Autodesk) will be temporary CE

Tim posted an angry tweet on his firing:

I came to this town as a founder only to build the future of mobility, and by the metrics shared here was crushing it against the biggest. But the shocking reality is that this—without a warning, cause or right of reply—the board fired me. Today was Silicon Valley up to its worst tricks. This town sells the story that it backs founders to create real change. Rather than working through the issues in an epic startup for the win, the board chose a path of fear, optimizing for a little money in hand at the expense of profound progress for the Universe. Cheers to the true believers that have built Zoox from scratch these last four years. Don’t let anyone stand between you and what you know is right. TKK.

Some speculation suggest this change was forced by Zoox's newest investors, who recently bumped the valuation over $3B. However, this story about the relationship suggests that all evidence suggests it was a good one. Of course, TKK would probably not have embraced a new investor who he knew wanted him out.

I have no specific details on the firing. Tim had recently invited me to come visit Zoox now that they were out of stealth so I could see how they were doing, but that's the last contact I had.

As I wrote in the earlier article, Zoox's strategy for a new startup to do it all -- radically different vehicle, self-drive software stack and robotaxi ride service -- is a very bold and risky one. It conveys certain advantages; there are things that can only be done easily by a company trying to do all three. At the same time it's hugely expensive and difficult. Creating any of those three components on its own is a bold challenge, and the many companies trying each face giant risks. I suspect Tim would argue that only by doing all 3 can you surpass those risks.

Zoox obviously impressed investors with this plan. It's risky, but if it wins, it wins huge. That is exactly what venture investors like to see these days. They want to place 10 bets and have 9 fail and 1 take over the world. Many think that getting VC investment suggests a company is on a sound plan. Rather, it usually means it is on a risky plan with great chance of failure, but also a chance of great reward.

Another example is comma.ai. Their plan to build a self-drive system with just a camera and open source tools is very much a long shot. It's not how I (or most others) would bet. But VCs will invest because they want to be in if that long shot pays off.

Tim is extremely dedicated to his vision and very stubborn about it. I have always felt he was far too stubborn, though in time he has mellowed. His original plan called for a vehicle with 4 way symmetry, meaning a motor in each wheel. That offers a few advantages, but comes at a cost of vastly increasing the amount spent on motors. It's not something you need on day one, particularly in vehicles where mechanical reliability is less important than in regular cars because you can get your redundancy by replacing cars in the fleet in minutes, rather than by having backups of everything. (Safety reliability is of course another story, you don't compromise on that.)

As I said, Tim wants to follow the path of Steve Jobs, a classic example of a CEO who was stubborn (also sometimes irrationally) and devoted to having the designer at the center. A strong-headed and controlling designer sometimes sees what others don't, and this creates great new things, as well as mistakes. This was the way with Jobs.

And Jobs was also fired. Of course, he was able to take his money and work on Pixar and NeXT and come back. Tim is wealthy on paper with his Zoox stock, presumably all vested by now, but it has no public value to fund his next vision.

Can you try to follow Jobs' path with other people's money? Maybe you can't. Sometimes people don't even pull it off when they do it with their own money. To be the visionary, the one who pushes your own people to do things they don't yet see the importance of, you have to be alone. If everybody gets your vision, you aren't as much of a visionary. (And, of course, if nobody gets your vision, you are also often not a visionary, because you are wrong.) When billionaires push risky visions, they lose their own money (though also that of others in many cases.) And sometimes they make things only a "crazy billionaire" would push through.

Waymo's strategy seems to be to make the software stack, make the LIDAR (because nobody else makes one like theirs) and let car makers worry about 90% of the vehicle design an d manufacture. Waymo knows that the "Uber" part (ride service platform) is easily within the competence of its parent and now-cousin Google. Uber and Lyft already rule that, and are doing the software stack but almost nothing on vehicle design. GM put Cruise as an independent unit to do the software while it does the car building. No word on how they want to do the ride platform.

This is a race, and trying to do too much can mean coming late to the finish line. It can be OK to be late to the finish line if you are spectacularly better. But not if you're only a little better.

Perhaps the board of Zoox felt this pressure brewing. It is odd that Tim would not have read that from them. It is odd that they would not have brought it up. For now we don't know.

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