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SoftBank's $375 million bet on pizza went really bad really fast

Bloomberg logoBloomberg 2/14/2020 Sarah McBride
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Two years ago a truck covered with large photos of pizza pies nosed its way onto a long Bay Area driveway. It was ferrying Alex Garden, the chief executive officer of Zume Pizza Inc., to the home of SoftBank Group Corp. CEO Masayoshi Son. Zume’s pitch was robots that could make pizzas a person would want to eat, so Son climbed aboard in the driveway of his Woodside, Calif., estate to watch as the truck’s ovens fired up some robot-made pies, according to people familiar with the meeting.

By the time Garden headed back down the driveway, he was well on his way to a SoftBank investment of $375 million, with double that money on the table if his business gained traction. But that’s not what happened. Instead, Zume marks one of the biggest recent disappointments in SoftBank’s port­folio. As of this year it no longer makes or ­delivers pizzas. In January, Zume cut 360 jobs, leaving a little over 300 employees, and said it would focus on packaging and efficiency gains for other food delivery companies. In a note to employees, Garden said that improving the global food system required increased focus and that the pizzas had served as “inspiration” for higher-growth businesses. Zume declined to comment for this story.

While Zume’s retooling hasn’t cost SoftBank’s $100 billion Vision Fund nearly as much as the fund’s $4 billion investment in WeWork, both startups—as well as the home-goods seller Brandless Inc., which announced its imminent shutdown on Feb. 10, less than two years after taking $100 million from SoftBank—reflect one of Son’s blind spots. If a founder seems brash enough, charismatic enough, reminiscent enough of a younger Son, some of SoftBank’s rigorous ­business-model tests appear to melt away. “Our large, diversified portfolio will perform well over time,” SoftBank said in an emailed statement. “The fund is less than three years old and we’ve already had eight IPOs and returned $10.6 billion to our limited partners.”

Accounts from 10 current and former Zume employees, plus four people who closely evaluated or worked with the company, suggest that Zume’s predicament, like WeWork’s, offers lessons for the U.S. startups that collected more than $136 billion in venture capital last year. Among those takeaways: A visionary founder with a fire hose of money can’t solve every problem. Often, that combo creates new ones. “I’ve never seen data to suggest that being charismatic and confident and overly brash is linked to a successful business,” says Kellie McElhaney, founding director of the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership at the University of California at Berkeley’s business school. Instead, she says, the Vision Fund should seek leaders who combine confidence with humility.

CEO and co-founder Julia Collins, left, and co-founder Alex Garden stand in front of one of the company's delivery trucks at Zume Pizza in Mountain View, Calif. © AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez CEO and co-founder Julia Collins, left, and co-founder Alex Garden stand in front of one of the company's delivery trucks at Zume Pizza in Mountain View, Calif.

Garden comes from the world of video games. In 2004 he sold his company Relic Entertainment for $10 million. He co-founded Zume with restaurateur Julia Collins (of fusion chain Mexicue) in 2015, but a 2013 patent now held by Zume shows he’s been thinking about food robots and mobile ovens for almost a decade. The patent outlines technology to turn balls of pizza dough into boxed pies without ever using a human hand. And why not go one step further and cook the pizza en route, so it arrives at a customer’s house still piping hot?

Zume did a so-so job delivering its first pizzas in 2016. Although some reviewers on Yelp appreciated the fresh ingredients and speedy delivery—“Clearly better than low end pizza places,” one wrote—several complained about undercooked dough or small amounts of sauce and toppings. Eventually, Collins’s team gave up on the dream of baking the pies while driving to customers, according to two people familiar with the matter. The cheese tended to run everywhere as the trucks turned or hit bumps in the road. Instead, the oven trucks began parking in central locations, with runner cars or mopeds transporting the cooked pies.

The home base in Mountain View, Calif., wasn’t as cutting-edge as hoped, either. Among other things, humans still had to load the racks of assembled, unbaked pizzas into the trucks. Some hires came directly from coding schools that specialize in quick boot-camp-style training courses. One adviser recalls being surprised to learn that some Zume coders had last worked at the porn-and-hookup site Adult FriendFinder, known for a security breach that exposed the data of 412 million users.

A robot places a pizza into an oven at Zume Pizza in Mountain View, Calif. © AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File A robot places a pizza into an oven at Zume Pizza in Mountain View, Calif.

Garden’s specialty was pitching to investors. Former employees remember joking about his “jazz hands,” referring to his tendency to spin things as positively as possible. Strategic and retail consultant Brittain Ladd says Garden contacted him in 2017, after Amazon.com Inc. purchased Whole Foods, to ask for help proving to SoftBank that Zume was thinking big enough for Son to invest. “He said, ‘I want to be the Tesla of fresh food, and the Amazon of fresh food,’ ” recalls Ladd, adding that he liked the big thinking but it needed to be backed up by action.

Around this time, say several people familiar with the matter, Garden’s attention began shifting to a grander vision of the company’s place in the food chain. In 2018, Zume applied to trademark the name “Gigaranch,” describing a facility that would create meats and cheeses using plant proteins, like Beyond Meat Inc. Zume’s mid-2018 financial estimates, reviewed by Bloomberg Businessweek, projected revenue of about $250 million in the final quarter of 2020 and almost $1 billion in the last three months of 2021, mostly from providing services to other food companies.

In the fall of 2018, SoftBank delivered its Vision Fund cash. After one conversation with Son, Garden choked up relaying the details to a confidant, saying, “Masa says I’m going to change the world,” this person recalls. To celebrate Zume’s supposed momentum, he decided to host a company­wide fete he called Day Z. But by June of last year, when staffers from Zume’s offices in the Bay Area, Southern California, and Seattle arrived at an event space near the company’s San Francisco headquarters for Day Z, Garden’s happy mood seemed to have soured, according to attendees. While rank-and-file employees got a typical Garden pep talk and lavish food and drinks, the CEO gave his executive team a rambling, vague speech about poor values at the company.

By Day Z, co-founder Collins was long gone, and Garden seemed to be having trouble sticking with ideas long enough to execute them, say current and former employees. FedEx, UPS, and Kroger have all rejected his requests for investment and help supplying the 10,000 vans he thought he’d need, according to a person familiar with the matter. (UPS and Kroger declined to comment; FedEx didn’t respond to a request for comment.) Garden spent serious cash to buy and convert a double-decker bus from London into a giant pizza truck named Martha for Day Z, but it wouldn’t fit on the party premises. (Martha is now up for sale.) Zume engineers spent months last year developing proprietary batteries and charging stations for the pizza trucks, as well as sensors to detect when hot food had cooled too much for delivery, but none of these projects went anywhere, say people familiar with them. Zume recorded 2019 revenue well under $1 million, says a person familiar with the company’s finances.

Last June, Zume bought a company called Pivot Packaging to jump-start its ability to sell compostable containers to other businesses. It held a one-day test at a Pizza Hut in Phoenix in October, with the goal of expanding the tests to more locations in January or February of this year. But the boxes can’t legally hold food in some jurisdictions, including San Francisco, because they contain the chemicals known as PFAS, which the Environmental Protection Agency has said can harm humans. No further tests have been publicly scheduled. Pizza Hut declined to comment.

Over the past year, Garden grew distant and spent less time at the company, former employees say. Several suspected he was indulging his well-known love of muscle cars, racing them at a nearby track. Executives started leaving in late summer and fall, by which point it seemed clear no more SoftBank money was coming. Reggie Davis, who joined Zume as chief legal officer in September, resigned in November after sending the board of directors a letter questioning Zume’s leadership and spending, according to three people who read it. Davis declined to comment.

Garden was at Zume headquarters during the mass layoffs in January, hovering as his former staffers packed up their desks. One departing employee asked on behalf of the group whether they could stay through the usual catered lunch. An HR rep said no. Instead, they headed to the nearest bars with their generous severance packages—brought to them, albeit indirectly, by SoftBank. 

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