HOW FAST IS TOO FAST?

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Exploring the case of Fast’s shutdown and the elusive founder behind it

 

We often talk about highly successful startups. But barely do we have conversations on startups that come in with a lot of promise, raise spectacular amounts of funds and then fall flat on their faces. Today we shall dissect one such case of the easy checkout startup named Fast. Before meeting difficulties that eventually led to its collapse, Fast was valued at USD 1 billion in November 2020 and received USD 124 million, including USD 102 million from payments giant Stripe in January 2021. We will go from exploring its early days to the promises of its enigmatic founder up until the time it closed off.

Fast was created in 2019 by Domm Holland, Allison Barr Allen, a former Uber executive, and Joshua Abulafia, an Australian entrepreneur. After approximately a year, though, Holland and Abulafia became embroiled in a conflict over the company’s finances and direction. According to multiple former employees familiar with the matter, Abulafia was fired. But Holland was unfazed by the early tumult. He zigzagged around Silicon Valley, touting his ‘frictionless’ checkout button and claiming to be ‘the world’s quickest CEO.’ He gained great media attention and appeared on podcasts, touting his ‘frictionless’ checkout button.

 

 

Fast’s goal was to provide Amazon’s one-click checkout feature to the rest of the Internet. Amazon’s patent on one-click checkout expired five years ago, sparking a rush by startups like Fast to provide the service to the rest of the internet. Despite the fact that Holland sparked massive interest among tech investors, NPR’s research revealed that the business’s checkout product was at best patchy, and that it was not being used on all products by merchants the company claimed to be its major clients. Despite the company’s apparent aspirations for worldwide supremacy, Fast only made USD 600,000 in revenue in 2021, according to The Information.

And worse – Fast has a notorious history of exploiting its engineers. Fast employed Nigerian engineers to construct an early version of the company’s technology, which was used to sell to investors, before sacking them. According to a few of them, Holland took credit for their efforts. While it’s common for businesses to recruit offshore engineers while they’re just getting started, the experience left some Nigerian professionals with unfavourable feelings. According to a 2019 email Holland sent to engineers in Nigeria that was reviewed by NPR, Holland offered the developers USD 800 per month, or roughly USD 5 per hour, to work full time on designing and constructing the company’s website, mobile app, and features. It is not uncommon for companies to use overseas labour to cut costs. Nonetheless, Fast staff were taken aback by Holland’s handling of the situation. Fast claims to have paid market-rate wages to its Nigerian engineers, but two engineers in Lagos counter that the rate is lower than that of many other U.S. software firms. They claimed that Nigerian IT businesses pay entry-level coders roughly USD 1,000 per month, but that the task required more advanced skills.

Fast provided company materials, such as Fast T-shirts, to the Nigerian contractors. A snapshot from 2019 shows a group of roughly two dozen largely young males in Nigeria posing for a photo while wearing Fast gear. According to one engineer in Lagos, Holland ordered people who worked with Fast to attend conferences in the country and promote the word about the company – until they were fired. Three months into his employment, one of the Nigerian engineers said he tried to get into Fast’s Slack, a workplace communication program, but his credentials didn’t work. “We were abruptly ejected from the work. Slack was no longer functional. Domm ceased to respond. It was a strange experience,” said the developer.

The worst thing, according to the coders, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, was that Holland never acknowledged their contributions. Holland, a self-taught engineer, claimed instead that he had built the prototype himself. Even still, the Nigerian software developers who worked on Fast say they still had the feeling that they were exploited. “Everyone from Nigeria was sacked. Despite the fact that we produced the initial version of the app he was showing to VCs, he entirely wiped us” said one of the developers. “A lot of folks were in excruciating discomfort. It’s as if we didn’t exist at all, but we didn’t want to say anything since we didn’t want to get a negative reputation in Silicon Valley.”
But is it really a classic case of a startup burning its money out to closure? Or is there any story underneath it? The mysterious founder behind the startup is surely one to watch. And if you take a look at his past, you’ll surely have multiple questions in your mind.

Domm Holland had a crazy thought in 2010: he would punk the country’s major airline. He had purchased the domain Qant.as for only USD 20 and waved it in front of Qantas Airways. “The domain name Qant.as might be snatched up by a competitor, causing millions of dollars in damage to Qantas’s business,” Holland told the Australian at the time. To put even more pressure on Qantas, Holland routed the airline’s website traffic to Virgin Blue, a competitor. He finally claimed that he had sold the domain for USD 1.3 million, but he refused to reveal the buyer’s identity. It is now registered to Qantas Airways Limited, according to records. This website is currently unavailable.

And that’s not just all. Years before starting Fast, Holland had another startup back home in Australia. Tow.com.au, his former creation, aspired to be ‘the Uber of towing’ in Australia by providing a simple means to contact a towing company like Andriske when a vehicle was seized for violating ‘anti-hoon’ legislation, or rules against dangerous driving. According to a former employee of the company, Tow acquired an exclusive contract with the Queensland police and was involved in the towing of around 100 vehicles per day while business was booming.
On his social media accounts and on Fast’s website, Holland recognises his experience with the towing startup. On the latter, it claims he founded ‘an on-demand vehicle towing platform in Australia that processed more than USD 50 million in transactions’ before mentioning his startup’s business honours, including the Brisbane Young Entrepreneur of the Year.

But trouble soon followed. Because many of the towed cars were not worth much, their owners never showed up to claim them, resulting in a hefty unpaid charge to the towing agencies. Holland claimed that the government should pay, but the government replied that Holland was to blame. The company’s coffers were eventually exhausted by unpaid towing and impounding costs, and it was on the verge of collapse.
When Holland ran out of money, he claimed to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that he planned to sell the personal information of more than 21,000 people gathered through his towing app, such as bank accounts and driver’s licenses. “On the illicit market, a driver’s license detail is worth USD 80, and we’re talking tens of thousands of these types of documents,” Holland told ABC. “It’s quite useful information for those looking for that level of detail.” “That action perfectly exemplified his willingness to push through. He’s willing to break the standards of what’s acceptable and, on occasion, ethical and morally acceptable” commented ABC Reporter Kristian Silva, who covered the demise of Tow, a Brisbane-based company. “If he’s backed into a corner, he’ll use every strategy he can to win.”

 

Despite the fact that Holland sparked massive interest among tech investors, NPR’s research revealed that the business’s checkout product was at best patchy, and that it was not being used on all products by merchants the company claimed to be its major clients.

 

Some residents, he claimed, saw Holland’s relocation to the United States as a way of escaping his history. Longtime observers of Holland noted that in interviews about his new company Fast, he began addressing himself as ‘Domm,’ rather than ‘Dominic,’ as he would normally present himself to Australian journalists, according to Silva. Holland uses the handle @Domm on Twitter, and he can now be seen in publicity shots wearing a “Domm” T-shirt.
And all these eventually left their mark on his current startup Fast. Fast was inking deals like one with The Honest Company to offer one-click checkout for its customers as recently as March 28, 2022. The company shut down abruptly with statements made by the elusive founder on Twitter. “I’ll be eternally thankful to the Fast team, our investors, and the sellers who shared our vision for transforming the online purchasing system,” Holland said. He claimed ‘responsibility’ for the ‘decisions taken that led to this conclusion’ in a subsequent Twitter post while encouraging other Silicon Valley-based firms to hire employees affected by the closure.
Fast’s abrupt closure coincides with a broader digital sell-off, with the stock prices of major online payment systems like Square and Shopify plummeting from last year’s highs. Insiders with knowledge of Fast’s internal operations told that dwindling investor sentiment was only half of the tale, with unsustainable revenue taking its toll on the firm. Fast’s shutdown was attributed to declining investor appetite and a lack of revenue, according to Holland. In a personal Twitter post, Holland stated, “Sometimes trailblazers don’t make it all the way to the mountain top. However, even in those circumstances, they pave the road for others to follow.”

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