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Fast, the easy checkout startup, shuts down after burning through investors' money

Fast CEO Domm Holland at Web Summit 2021 in Lisbon. On Tuesday, he announced the startup would close its doors.
Harry Murphy
/
Sportsfile for Web Summit via Ge
Fast CEO Domm Holland at Web Summit 2021 in Lisbon. On Tuesday, he announced the startup would close its doors.

Fast, a buzzy startup that attracted more than $120 million in investment to help people expedite online purchases, is shutting down, according to the company's chief executive, Domm Holland.

Fast had stood out in the crowded field of one-click checkout startups after it landed a $102 million infusion of cash in a fundraising round last year led by payments giant Stripe.

The company was embarking on its next fundraising round, attempting to bring in new money at a valuation above $1 billion, also known as unicorn status in Silicon Valley, when it ran into trouble.

Fast had hired hundreds of employees, including highly paid executives, but the startup's product was generating little revenue, according to several former employees. The tech publication The Information first reported that Fast generated about $600,000 last year.

Several rank-and-file workers, whom the company referred to as "Fastronauts," told NPR they had noticed Holland pouring significant money into deals aimed at creating marketing buzz, like partnerships with sports teams. They questioned the benefits.

"With Fast," said one former employee who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation. "It was like, 'how quickly can we set money on fire?'"

NPR published an investigation in February in which some close to Fast raised doubts about Holland's decision-making, and others who knew him in his home country of Australia revealed lingering bitterness about the downfall of his company there.

In a statement confirming Fast's closure, Holland said he is grateful for the employees and investors who shared his vision of improving how shoppers buy stuff online.

"Sometimes trailblazers don't make it all the way to the mountain top. But even in those situations, they pave a way that all others will follow," Holland said, adding that the company had done that with its one-click checkout software.

Affirm, a San Francisco consumer lending startup, said it would extend employment offers to the vast majority of Fast engineers "to advance our existing product," a company spokesman confirmed. It is unclear how many engineers will accept the jobs.

Fast's quick and bumpy rise

Fast was founded in 2019 by Holland, former Uber executive Allison Barr Allen and Australian entrepreneur Joshua Abulafia.

But after about a year, Holland and Abulafia got locked into a dispute over finances and the direction of the company. Abulafia was pushed out, according to several former employees close to the situation. Abulafia was unavailable to comment on Tuesday.

The early turbulence didn't slow down Holland. He zigzagged around Silicon Valley calling himself "the fastest CEO in the world," received glowing media attention and appeared on podcasts, touting his "frictionless" checkout button.

Fast aimed to bring the one-click checkout feature now available on Amazon to the rest of the Internet. Amazon's patent on one-click checkout expired five years ago, setting off a goldrush among companies like Fast to try to offer the tool to the rest of the web.

Paypal and Apple are among the largest and most formidable players in the space. But Holland, a charismatic leader known for hijinks like racecar stunts and skydiving, convinced Silicon Valley investors that his company would outpace smaller competitors like Bolt and Shopify.

But even as Holland stirred new excitement among tech investors, NPR's investigation found that the company's checkout product was spotty at best and was not being used on all products by merchants the company claimed were its biggest partners.

Fast hired engineers in Nigeria to build an early version of Fast's technology that was used to pitch investors--before abruptly firing those engineers. A handful of them told NPR that Holland took credit for their work. While it's not unusual for companies to hire offshore engineers as they're starting up, the experience left some of the Nigerian engineers with negative feelings.

NPR also found that Holland's past business, an Australian towing startup that ended in liquidation, went under following a dispute with the Australian government, and some mom-and-pop towing businesses say that, collectively, they lost millions of dollars. Holland claims he tried to help those businesses, but some saw Holland's later success as unfair.

Some locals reportedly noticed that Holland started going by "Domm" instead of "Dominic" once he moved to the U.S. and launched Fast, and viewed it as a way of running from his past. A spokesman for Holland adamantly denied this and insisted he had long used the nickname.

$1 million offer to the Chainsmokers

Following the $102 million investment in Fast, several employees noticed company spending that some described to NPR as "frivolous" and "extravagant," especially when it came to attempts to secure celebrity endorsements.

Emails reviewed by NPR showed how, at the direction of Holland, Fast booked American electronic duo the Chainsmokers to play an event during a retail conference on Jan. 16 in New York City. An employee with direct knowledge of the arrangement said Fast agreed to pay the group $1 million for the performance, a deal that included the artists' doing a promotional video with Holland. When NPR asked a Fast spokesperson, they declined to provide any information about the gig.

The event was ultimately delayed because of the Omicron coronavirus surge. Representatives for the Chainsmokers attempted to confirm a rebooking, but the emails were not returned, company emails show.

"The band has been made an offer and I would like to know if this event is still moving forward per our calls. I would appreciate it if someone could get back to us with an answer," wrote Mac Clark of Creative Artists Agency, which represents the group, on Feb. 1.

Clark declined to comment for this story.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.