Alex Garden drove a Ford Raptor pickup into the Silicon Valley VC company's parking lot.
The massive $ 90,000 truck comes from a Mad Max apocalypse scene with sturdy tires and an impressively raised body. With state-of-the-art shock absorbers and engine power, it is able to handle rough terrain. If you were preparing for the end of the world, you would be in the market for a Raptor.
"There was always a nice car," recalled a Zume investor when asked what was striking about Garden.
The truck didn't last long. Garden soon gave up the apocalypse cell phone because of his preferred travel method – his motorcycle. He commuted from his home in Tiburon, a bayside town north of San Francisco, to his headquarters in Mountain View, California, where the average price of a home fluctuated over $ 2.3 million. The freedom to cycle the highways in the Bay Area would undoubtedly have pleased Garden, who claims he had no rules or restrictions in other areas of his life.
But that was Garden. The always confident, fast-paced entrepreneur stood out among his founding colleagues, as did his means of transport in the homogeneous Teslas and BMW fleet in the Bay Area. In an industry characterized by crafty engineers and Stanford MBAs, Garden was cut from a different fabric, although he had spent most of his adult life in the video game industry.
What he shared with some of the most famous and infamous names in Silicon Valley lore, from Steve Jobs to Elizabeth Holmes, was a knack for being a "storyteller" – someone who could inspire employees, investors, and the media to come up with an electrifying idea no matter how far fetched. Garden's story was about robots and pizza. His startup, Zume, would change the rules of the food industry by releasing armies of droids to make pizzas that could pump out cakes faster, more economically, and with a wow factor that went far beyond anything a human dough hand could do.
Investors, including Japan's SoftBank and SignalFire, have eaten it up.
But the robo-pizza revolution promised by Garden never came.
Problems with the bots became apparent early on when the machines made metal shavings that, according to a witness, posed a food contamination hazard and did not meet performance requirements. Even when Zume earned hundreds of millions of dollars and was staffed with hundreds of employees, doubts about the viability of the company and Garden's leadership were omnipresent.
Employees noticed that Garden tended to promise too much, deliver too little, and promise too much again. What started out as a robot building mission gradually became an effort to deliver baked pizzas on the go. By January, the robots, pizza, and half of Zume's employees were quickly discarded in favor of a new bet to make compostable food packaging.
Business Insider spoke to more than a dozen current and former Zume employees, who reported first-hand about the unpredictable course of the startup in its five-year history and the sometimes controversial role of Garden at the top of the company.
A Zume spokeswoman declined to comment on this article.
An early success in video games
Garden's life as an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley began with video games. Garden founded a game studio in Vancouver, Canada called Relic Entertainment. In 1999, at the age of 23, he had a slap on the hands.
"Homeworld", a real-time strategy game in an alternative universe with belligerent planet factions, was and was considered to be one of the genre's first breakout desktop games praised by critics when it started. The game even caught the attention of the Brithis prog rock group Yes, who worked with the Garden company and wrote the music for the game. according to a video about the project on YouTube.
When he founded Zume in 2015, Garden had added high-level positions to Microsoft and Zynga to his resume, and he wasn't afraid to highlight his industry knowledge in meetings with early investors and employees, sources told Business Insider.
When he started talking to investors, his reputation as a game industry personality and Microsoft executive became common.
"Investors thought he was the next sugar mountain," the investor told Business Insider.
At Microsoft, Garden served as director and general manager of Xbox Live, the Xbox console's online player network. according to press reports from the period. However, when Zume investors tried to learn more about the role, they were unable to confirm details of his employment or leaving Microsoft during the traditional review process.
In 2014, Garden moved to Zynga as head of the game studios. Garden joined the company in San Francisco, along with Don Mattrick, the former head of interactive entertainment at Xbox, who had just been hired as the new CEO of Zynga. About a year later, Mattrick was out, as was Garden.
Virtually all of Garden's experience was in video games and entertainment, not robotics. However, his background was less important to investors than his pitch. Garden wanted to take Domino & # 39; s and Pizza Hut off the market to become the largest pizza brand in the world. He dropped the buzzwords – artificial intelligence, robotics, machine learning – that brought in the big ratings.
A fateful meeting with "Masa"
Masayoshi Son, head of SoftBank and controller of the $ 100 billion vision fund, seems to have liked the pitch very well.
Garden met Masa, as the Japanese billionaire is regularly called in Silicon Valley, in 2017 before a planned Series B fundraiser. Garden liked to tell employees that "Masa has invested in me," which means that he was personally the driving force behind securing Series B and subsequent Series C investments, a former Zume employee told Business Insider.
When the SoftBank deal was closed in September 2017, Zume was valued at $ 218 million – a nice step up from Zume's first round of financing in 2016, which was worth $ 50 million and attracted investors like Kortschak Investments, AME Cloud Ventures, SignalFire and Maveron included.
At the time of the SoftBank deal, Zume gradually became known, although few people had actually tried the pizza (and among those who had eaten the pizza, several sources described it as mediocre by business insiders).
Garden hit the media hard in 2017 and appeared on CNBC and CNBC This week in startups to discuss how Zume not only saved the world from environmental disasters, but also paved the way for the future of work for millions of low-wage workers around the world. Pizza was just the beginning. The whole food preparation industry would be cut off from automation, Garden claimed, and his startup would make it possible.
The startup even appeared on the HBO satire show "Silicon Valley", in which Zumes Pizza was shown based on his pizza robots.
But Garden had financial problems, the Zume investor said, and was looking for other ways to increase his personal income. SignalFire entered, making Garden a risk partner with a salary of around $ 250,000 plus the usual deal carry incentives.
SignalFire co-founder Chris Farmer confirmed that Garden acted as a risk partner for the Company's Fund 2, but said Garden had resigned over a year ago and was not a risk partner for the current fund.
"Given his commitments to Zume to expand the company, he asked to step down over a year ago," said Farmer. He also contested the accuracy of Garden's compensation when he was a partner, but declined to clarify.
Garden was only listed as a partner on the SignalFire website on Wednesday. However, his name disappeared after Business Insider asked SignalFire about his role.
Fancy robots and metal chips
When the capital flowed out, Zume quickly deployed it, hiring robotics and engineering experts from universities and other vibrant startups.
Business Insider toured Zume's production area in Mountain View in August 2018 before SoftBank invested in the company. At that time, the robots were essentially mechanical arms that "in a fraction of the time it would take human workers to squeeze, sprinkle and distribute dough and lift pizzas into and out of the oven".
It's not clear how many of these robots were there and how that number has changed in recent years, but a Zume spokesman told Business Insider in 2018 that around 370 pizzas per hour are being produced in his Mountain View manufacturing facility could.
The real picture behind the orchestrated photo ops was not so beautiful.
A former employee told Business Insider that the robots on which Zume and Garden had built the entire company were inherently flawed and couldn't perform food safety inspections because they produced metal shavings that could lead to finished pizzas. Business Insider confirmed in a series of photos that the former employee provided that the chips were present in the food preparation area.
"They had hired a lot of people who had no idea what kind of equipment should be used in food, and many engineers were not food hardware engineers," said the former employee.
SoftBank invested another round of $ 375 million in financing in November 2018, which catapulted Zume to unicorn status between $ 1 billion and $ 2.25 billion. Business Insider was unable to confirm the private rating.
SoftBank, now Zumes largest investor, wanted growth at all costs. Garden had little background knowledge of the technical aspects of robotics and the logistics of food preparation and tried to keep the business focused.
"Information came from a source or from a customer, and over-correcting that one data point was incredible," another former employee told Business Insider. "That was the case from the start, and adding $ 375 million is like pouring gasoline into the fire."
A $ 1 million truck and broken stoves
With the robotics department struggling to meet expectations, Garden developed a new solution: vans that could bake the pizzas during transportation to shorten delivery times and improve the finished product that is displayed on customers' doors , The so-called "Baked On The Way" trucks appeared on company premises and on Jim Cramer's television show "Mad Money" on CNBC.
However, at least five former employees mentioned problems with the startup's famous trucks. The main truck, nicknamed "Martha", cost the startup over $ 1 million, but it lacked the technology to adequately bake pizza.
Photos of the interiors of the trucks made available to Business Insider show broken glass, insufficient cooling and pizza boxes stacked on the floor. Delivery and catering teams often resorted to cooking pizzas in the startup's Mountain View warehouse and delivered orders in private cars. However, Garden personally instructed the quality assurance team to keep all 11 trucks running until "something big happened," said a source.
Another former employee reported a catastrophic catering experience in which the team had to cook the pizza in a toaster for over 100 people when the ovens in two separate trucks didn't work.
"It was all really ruthless," said one of the former employees. This employee left Zume after posting concerns about the machines, particularly the metal chips and the faulty blade, to Garden and threatened to point the FTC to misleading advertisements because Zume still marketed the pizzas as baked on the go.
Like pouring gasoline on a wood stove
Every former employee who spoke to Business Insider spoke of a dispute or disagreement with Garden that in some way contributed to their departure. From executives to hourly employees, several sources spoke of an uncomfortable work led by Garden that took employees to their breaking points.
Several former employees said that Garden had hired HR and recruitment officers to hire young, attractive women for entry-level positions, including his own executive assistant. Many of these women had just graduated or had no full-time job. Several sources called Garden's hiring process "misogynist".
Garden co-founder Julia Collins left the company after maternity leave in November 2018. Collins had overseen the robotics division of Zume Pizza, which had been renamed Zume, Inc. during her vacation. Her departure coincided with the investment in SoftBank, but several employees named her departure as the fundamental change with Zume's internal culture.
"The whole tone of the business has changed without influencing it," said a former employee.
Several sources said Garden often changed business direction and had the habit of speaking about female employees and executives at meetings.
"It seemed that it was the hardest thing for women to be successful with Alex. Women who were successful before and after Zume simply couldn't be successful with Alex," said a former employee.
Several high-profile executives, including CFO Meredith Whitney and General Counsel Kira Druyan, affected women with established careers in their respective areas. Some faced Garden's anger after expressing dissenting opinions about Garden's business or personal behavior.
"He doesn't deal well with people who question his authority," said the former employee. "He likes to dress up people."
Since January, Zume has had no woman in his C-Suite after layoffs in the company.
A bitter pill for "Juiceranos"
With the layoffs and reorgs in January, Zume changed gear again to pursue a new business plan, and Garden is almost alone behind the wheel.
The layoffs remained hidden from employees until a report by Business Insider revealed the company's plans. Several employees affected said that the promised severance payment had not yet occurred. One employee said he had been given "Alex vacation", an internal joke that employees could not show up for work for several months and still collect a paycheck until the severance pay came in a few months.
The startup's remaining employees will focus on compostable packaging, a company that Zume acquired when it bought its pizza packaging partner Pivot Packaging in February 2019. Although Zume's website states a nationwide Pizza Hut packaging test run, Business Insider has confirmed that the test is currently being postponed after concerns were raised at the only Arizona location that used Zume packaging.
Pizza Hut was not immediately available for comment.
Employees are trying to make the manufacturing process work as a contract between Zume and members of the Saudi government is pending.
Garden & # 39; s Hail Mary arrives when the Zume-Backer SoftBank, after the fights at Uber and WeWork, two of SoftBank's biggest bets, takes a closer look at money-losing startups. In December, SoftBank declined to advance the planned financing for Zume, according to Business Insider.
In the meantime, the 360 Zume employees, who were fired in January, were told that they could apply for 100 new vacancies at launch. However, at the time of going to press, these roles were not publicly listed on Zume's website or other employment sites.
Before the layoffs, a lack of transparency and a constant jumble of worrying information about the company resulted in some employees humorously calling their employer "Juiceranos", a combination of the known startups Juicero and Theranos.
For the hundreds of people who signed up for the Garden Revolution, the nickname seems more appropriate every day.
Do you work at Zume or another startup supported by SoftBank and want to share your story? Contact this reporter via the encrypted messaging app Signal at +1 (331) 625-2555 Use a phone without work, email to email@example.com, or Twitter DM at @m_hernbroth_hernbroth.