Aug 23, 2018

Why Zoox suddenly fired its CEO

Former Zoox CEO Tim Kentley-Klay. Photo: Rob Lever/AFP/Getty Images

"Do you know what happened at Zoox?" I got that question from nearly a dozen VCs last night, after it was reported that the self-driving unicorn's co-founder and CEO Tim Kentley-Klay had been fired.

The state of play: The inquiries were not only because Zoox raised $500 million just one month ago, but also because Kentley-Klay had gone on a subsequent Twitter rant about how his ouster was "Silicon Valley up to its worst tricks."

So I reached out to a different dozen people to ask: "Do you know what happened at Zoox?" Here's what I learned, from sources who declined to give names due to fears that this situation could turn litigious.

The board fired Kentley-Klay because of what is described to me as an abrasive and uncompromising personality, not about any sort of fraud, misappropriated funds or sexual harassment.

  • Issues came to a head during fundraising, with new investors (and prospective new investors) expressing concerns over keeping Kentley-Klay in charge. It does not appear that a CEO change was part of the actual term sheet, but the financing process effectively sealed his fate.
  • For a better sense of Kentley-Klay, this Ashlee Vance piece from June is a must-read.

Kentley-Klay tweeted that he was canned "without warning, cause or right of reply." I've not been able to get total clarity on this, but one source says it's technically possible. "Someone with at least a minimum EQ would have realized the reality of his deteriorating relationship with the board and management."

  • Even if that's true, it's pretty remarkable that he wouldn't have first received some sort of formal warning. That next board meeting will be pretty awkward, since Kentley-Klay does remain a director.

Kentley-Klay is given credit by most for his design acumen and company-building abilities, but many investors believe the "tech rock-star" is fellow co-founder Jesse Levinson (who was promoted from CTO to president, as the company will search for a new CEO). There is consensus insistence that the tech at Zoox — which wants to build entire self-driving car from scratch — is legit (i.e., not Theranos 2.0).

  • The bottom line, per source: "Addition by subtraction."

What they're saying: Zoox itself is keeping quiet, neither issuing a statement nor replying to requests for comment. Kentley-Klay also didn't respond to an interview request, nor to an offered opportunity to speak unedited on the podcast.

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