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End of an Era - Thoughts on uBeam Founder Stepping Down as CEO

Earlier today news was broken by Axios that uBeam founder Meredith Perry had "stepped down" as CEO to spend more time with her fa...

Thursday, September 20, 2018

End of an Era - Thoughts on uBeam Founder Stepping Down as CEO

Earlier today news was broken by Axios that uBeam founder Meredith Perry had "stepped down" as CEO to spend more time with her family... I mean make way for a more seasoned CEO. As always seems to happen with big uBeam stories, I had work commitments that meant I had barely a few minutes to type up a post as it happened, so I'm only just getting to my thoughts on this late at night. Now bear in mind I have access to no more information than any of you on this event, so this article is simply my best guess based on knowing much of the history and the personality of the people involved.

There's a small number of articles that have any hint of original information - there's the original story from Dan Primak at Axios, a series of tweets from lead investor and board member Mark Suster, (Suster deleted all his Tweets Pre Oct 18, here's the waybacked record of that) and the statement from uBeam on the company blog. There's also an article on Techcrunch by Josh Constine that recaps some of the history of the company. From the company blog:

Meredith Perry has decided to step down as the day-to-day CEO of uBeam and will assume a role as a senior advisor and an active board member at the company.  Having overseen uBeam from its inception through its development of a functional working product, Meredith felt it was time to bring on a seasoned executive in the electronics field to lead the company through its commercialization phase. The company has begun a search for this new CEO.

The official accounts are very professional, making it clear that it was absolutely the decision of Perry herself to step down, praise for her great ability, and positioning that her stepping aside is actually a new era in the company. A bold step that bodes well for the future! Yeah, right, that'll be why Suster's tweets seem to quietly admit they've abandoned the phone charging thing, which is pretty sad considering they raised $10 to $14 million dollars on that promise less than a year ago, and (by my guess) around $37 million promising over the lifetime of the company.

So let's take much of this in turn - first of all the Perry I thought I knew would never, ever, in my opinion, voluntarily step down from her position in the company. If an interviewee for a senior role ever asked if she might consider stepping into another role in the future as the company grew into a new phase, it appeared to me as if that ended any chance of a job offer, no matter how talented or capable they otherwise were. In describing her role I would hear her talk about "the mission" and her "destiny" to bring wireless power to the world. I always felt that in Perry's mind, she was uBeam, and uBeam was her, and given how much stock I believe she held in the company at least when I was there, legally that was pretty much true.

A "functional working product" made me raise an eyebrow. If they had that, I'm pretty sure an Apple or Google would have taken them off the field by now, and neither would they be moving from "consumer-facing mobile charging to b2b licensing for IoT". A functional working product that could charge a phone at 15 feet and faster than a wire would not be pushed to IoT (Internet of Things), in my opinion. As I've commented in the past, pointing at Energous and Ossia, there's a pattern to the at-a-distance wireless power companies of initial bold claims of producing devices working at multi-meter distances and multi-Watt charging, then to 'trickle charge', then to a licensing model, then to IoT. I would expect at some point investors just don't buy that the 10 to 100mW charging levels under good conditions will work for phones, so the business model shifts to saying IoT because you can make some half-baked argument it'll work, right up until it doesn't. In my opinion, if you want an IoT charging option for distance, that's low cost and been on the market for years, and you only need micro- to low milli-Watt charging, look at Powercast. Basically, what they have works and none of the other options, to me, offer anything better (but some possible big downsides).


Taking a look at uBeam's product roadmap from the last fundraising round, you can see that by now they should have completed multiple new transmitter and receiver designs, licensing deals, and about to start a private beta test, with a product launch starting early next year. I'll just quote Techcrunch here saying "repeatedly missing self-imposed deadlines" and leave it there.

The "begun a search for a new CEO" line is interesting, as normally that line is "and introducing our new CEO" or "long serving COO steps into this role" or similar. Problem is that uBeam has bled senior executives - by my count it's 1 CEO, 1 CFO, 2 CTOs, 2 COOs, and 3 VP Engineering that have departed, and that doesn't include the other staff. The COO who left most recently (according to LinkedIn), around May 2018 after barely 9 months on the job, had an extensive background in IP licensing and would have been perfect for a role to transition to "b2b licensing for IoT". To me, there's a red flag here, if this were well planned out and in a well running company, I'd expect to see a smooth handover to an experienced executive happy to take on the role, and you don't hand it over to the head of HR, no matter how talented they are, they're not the right choice for a tech company looking to do licensing deals.

Next thing that I notice is not what is said, but what is not said. Where's the quote from Perry herself? These releases usually have something from the founder/CEO saying "It's been the honour of my life to grow this company and build this team, but I feel my talents best serve the investors on the board and evangelizing for the company, and I leave it in the capable hands of my successor." but this time - nothing. From Constine's article "TechCrunch spoke to Perry but she declined to comment on the record." is interesting, there wasn't even the prepared one liner to hand out. Nada. Zilch. Nothing... Hmmm.

Update 9/21/18: Perry tweeted a short statement after close of business yesterday, which managed to say very little but was at least professionally written. Still strange this wasn't prepared ahead of time, it's the sort of thing that takes a few minutes to prepare and is standard in this type of situation.
End of update, back to the original post.

So jumped or pushed? I don't know, but this doesn't smell to me like a regular founder transition.

I'll leave this post with a story about my time at uBeam, and specifically my last day at the company, in October 2015. Things had been untenable for some time prior, and I had exhausted every route available in trying to correct what I saw as a terrible situation for myself and the company, all the way to the board. I had been interviewing and things were clearly going well enough that I was prepared to go, and had some upcoming personal events I wanted to attend to.

One meeting in particular pushed me over the edge, and I told the CEO that I was extremely unhappy, and we should discuss a way to amicably separate. I knew the transducer and acoustics side better than anyone, and would give the company as much time as needed to transition and pass over my knowledge. It was a tense meeting, and I went home after, and there were then a series of ... interesting ... emails and phone calls with Perry, that ended with no conclusion. Ironically, among the demands from the company was a statement for the press about how I still believed in uBeam's goals and the technology, but I declined. I got a text the next morning to come to the downstairs company conference room, and to bring my laptop, lab-book, and any company property - it was clear what was about to happen.

I arrived and the room had CFO Hushen and CEO Perry. It was tense, and Perry sat at the head of the table in her position that she used when about to be CEO-like and give a prepared speech - straight back, leaning slighty forward, hands together. She looked at me and said:

"Today will be your last day with the company. But before we go on to that, it is important that you understand that you are a quitter. You have quit on me, you have quit on yourself, you have quit on the company, you have quit on your team, you have quit on.... wait what are you doing?"

At this point the speech was so ridiculous I had picked up my phone to start taking notes because this was too good not to write down. I looked up and she seemed shocked and demanded "Are you texting someone? I'm talking." and I looked at her and said "Just taking some notes." Sadly, this seemed to throw her off, and I never did hear the rest of that prepared speech. She simply mumbled then moved to telling me that I would now give an exit interview, and was again perturbed when I declined. She insisted and the CFO, acting as HR, had to step in and say that wasn't necessary. I handed over my laptop and the few items I had, and made a clear instruction that the company was not to make any statements or quotes that were to be attributed to me - I heard from the team that about ten minutes later they were all told in a company meeting by the CEO that "I wanted them to know that I wished them all the best and success for the company, and still believed in the company mission" or something similar.

The next few weeks were also interesting when it came to the mechanism of departure, but that's another story. So to end this post I'll address Perry herself and say that if you stepped down from your role:

"Today is your last day as CEO of this company. But it is important that you understand that you are a quitter. You have quit on yourself, you have quit on the company, you have quit on your team, you have quit on.... well, you'll have to look at your own notes for who else you quit on.

Oh, and the exit interview is optional."

10 comments:

  1. Love it! Her arrogance is what makes the story so much different than every other failed startup. Her promises were wildly impossible and her absolute derision of any naysayer, even experts such as yourself, is why I've followed the narrative. Savour a little bit of this, not because of her failure but because of the way she treated you an so many others.

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  2. So despite raising all these upfront investments but never having an actual product Perry still gets to walk away scot free? Sounds a pretty good deal if you ask me.

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  3. Nice anecdote! As an aside, a single individual acting as both CFO and HR manager? Christ, I bet they were popular.

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  4. I believe the Elizabeth Holmes fiasco had a lot to do with investors deciding to carefully examine what underqualified ceos who don't deliver any products are up to. The similarities in appearance wouldn't have helped either!

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  5. Paul, this is pure comedy; absolutely love it. Let me know when you get back to the right coast so we can grab a beer.

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    1. I'm likely to be out there in the next couple of months, send me an email to liesandstartuppr (at) gmail and let's see about that beer.

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  6. There is far more comedy out there than I ever realized.

    TV news, TEDx, Nexus Conference...

    https://youtu.be/otjvUz7qKXc

    As an aside, I wonder what Bill And Dave of Hewlett Packard fame would think of how products of what remains of their original company (test and measurement instruments - now called Keysight) are being pitched in today's world.

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    1. Thanks for that link - there are more similarities to uBeam's history there than you know.

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  7. Think she knew about this study?

    https://newatlas.com/ultrasound-brain-neuromodulation-decision-making/59314/

    When uBeam first debuted I (half-)jokingly described them a a remote denture cleaning play. But now it seems they could actually pivot into lucrative defense/intelligence/national security play.

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