Most tech start-ups fail, but it usually doesn’t happen so dramatically or — forgive me — so fast.
You probably have to expect a certain amount of wisecracks when you name your company something like “Fast” but with the start-up’s cataclysmic collapse, everyone is working on their comedy chops. And behind the company’s plain name and banal mission, there appears to be a great deal more than the name “Fast” to make fun of.
Until the beginning of April, Fast had a valuation of $500 million. The start-up raised more than $100 million in Series B funding at the beginning of 2021. And they burned through all of it before crashing into bankruptcy in April 2022 and firing their entire staff, many of which saw few warning signs before the rug was pulled beneath them.
All of this money and some of the top software engineers in the world were devoted to accomplishing Fast’s mission: cloning a button.
Fast was founded just three years ago. The company’s strategy was to expedite online purchases for consumers. In reality, that meant cloning Amazon’s “one-click” checkout software, which reduces the act of buying something down to clicking a single button once. Amazon had a patent on this until five years ago. Media have described the field of start-ups and Silicon Valley giants racing to clone one-click as “crowded” and “formidable.” It probably says something vital about the state of the tech industry that billions of dollars and thousands of people are heavily invested right now in competing Manhattan Projects to make it less tedious work to buy toilet paper and cat food.
It wasn’t like working for Steve Jobs (though Apple reportedly has a project devoted to cloning one-click too), but Fast acquired some big time engineering talent in their race to bring their button to market ahead of the others.
For some reason, the Chainsmokers frequently wind up as supporting characters in stories about sickeningly wealthy people doing sickening things.
Fast’s CEO, Dominic Holland, did his best to live up to the tech founder archetype. “Introducing my Uber driver (and a NASCAR driver that likes to @gofast)” he captioned a video of himself climbing out of a race car en route to a press conference.
In the recent past Holland had been an Australian tech vlogger and domain squatter who registered “qant.as” and invited top executives from the Australian airline to bid more than a million dollars to buy it from him. Just a decade later, Holland had rebranded himself with the preppier name “Domm” and called himself “the world’s Fast-est CEO.” He was by most accounts the toast of Silicon Valley, with a company valued at more than $500 million and an odds-on favorite among venture capitalists to be one of the next American companies to reach the vaunted “unicorn” status as a $1 billion baby.
“Who wants to skydive with @domm?” Fast’s Twitter account posted in April 2021, with a photo of a helmeted Holland staring from an open plane, just a year before the company itself would plunge to a fiery death.
— Fast (@fast) April 4, 2021
The skydiving and NASCAR hijinks were just part of the profligate spending at Fast. Fast was reputedly burning through $10 million a month for all of 2021, according to Pragmatic Engineer. An unknown number of that seemed to be going toward high-profile and expensive marketing gimmicks and brand sponsorships. Departing employees have been telling journalists countless tales of Fast’s spendthrift ways.
One of the most fascinating details that was dug up by NPR’s dogged reporting on Fast’s collapse and Holland’s profligate spending was an alleged million dollar offer to an EDM duo to play at a retail conference.
For some reason, the Chainsmokers frequently wind up as supporting characters in stories about sickeningly wealthy people doing sickening things. In the Summer of 2020 — during the height of pandemic lockdowns — the Chainsmokers played at a high-ticket concert in the Hamptons. The press had a field day when video of the wealthy attendees breaking practically every single pandemic restriction imposed on New York residents was leaked. It became a kind of visual shorthand for the reality that there were two sets of rules that existed during the pandemic — one for the rich and one for the rest of us. (Among the other talent sharing the bill with the Chainsmokers was David Solomon, the “celebrity” DJ and CEO of Goldman Sachs.)
Holland was offering to pay the cheesy EDM duo more money than Fast had generated in an entire year. While Burning through some $100 million in 2021, Fast earned just $600,000 in revenue.
According to NPR’s reporting, Fast booked the Chainsmokers to play an event during a retail conference in New York. The price: a cool $1 million. The date: January 16 — less than three months before Fast laid off all employees and shut the company down. The contract also included the Chainsmokers “doing a promotional video with Holland.” One suspects it was this aspect of the contract that was most important to the image-obsessed “the Fast-est CEO in the world.”
The show never actually happened: the omicron variant was then whipping through the United States and lead to the event’s cancellation. The Chainsmokers’ management attempted to book a new million dollar gig with Fast but nobody got back to them. It was a rare moment of restraint — or perhaps the crashing reality that you can’t keep spending other people’s money when there’s none of it left.
Timing is everything in comedy, and Fast delivered some of the greatest corporate punchlines since Enron. Just before collapse, Fast had offered to pay a cheesy EDM duo more money than the company had generated in an entire year. While burning through $100 million in investor cash in 2021, Fast earned back just $600,000 in revenue, according to a report by The Information published days before the company’s implosion.
Behind the race cars and the promo videos and Domm’s soap-smooth alien grin, it seems that Fast was less a start-up than a cargo cult. The frenetic activity, hustle and flash veiled the truth that nothing was happening and none of it was real. Hundreds of engineers with great stock options they would never redeem were hammering away at code for a product that nobody used. One of its competitors, Bolt, generated nearly $50 million in the same market. Fast burned through twice as much to earn almost nothing.
We’re experiencing record inflation at the moment, and we’re being told that the cause of it was pandemic assistance — the money that enabled people to live and eat a time when they were legally prevented from working. Few cast the blame at start-ups and the empty-eyed gurus that lead them for hurling millions of dollars at image management and reality distortion. These people aren’t being treated like the culprits behind great swindles and catastrophes. This reckless part of the economy has become a content mill generating new characters for future Netflix series.
Well that was fast
— bored founder (@boredfounder) April 5, 2022
It makes me wonder: how many million dollar DJ gigs are there in this world, and how many of them come from companies like Fast? How much have DJ fees for top-end chum swillers like the Chainsmokers been inflated by venture capital-backed start-ups and, more broadly, by the cheap money that’s been sloshing around in the last decade for financiers who have access to it? How many Domm Hollands have driven up DJ fees and accelerated the shit-ification of house & techno culture in general?
The data is unknown, and the scope is probably unknowable for now. But it seems certain there are many other Fasts out there — lifestyle props disguised as companies, burning through millions on DJs and influencers paid to be the CEO/founder’s pretend friends.
“With Fast,” one engineer told NPR, “it was like, ‘how quickly can we set money on fire?'” The real question is how long can you keep burning bales of money before you burn up the world.
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