Delusions of Grandeur

June 7, 2024 • Louie Mantia

In earlier years of what we now call the “tech industry,” startups were smaller and scrappier. They had to prove to investors they could do a lot with just a little jumpstart. These days, however, startups begin at enormous scale under the assumption that it accelerates the process.

But importantly, it robs startups of the chance to identify the most valuable pieces from their ideas before they run with any or all of them. Running a startup is about being able to shed what isn’t working in pursuit of what does. If a startup spends too long in a “stealth” mode developing their idea before revealing itself to the public, it risks that it misjudged the market entirely.

It’s not just a culture of “positivity” over criticism that results in Humane’s misfire. The lack of building a product incrementally and publicly, in the mindset of “go big or go home” does the industry and the market a disservice.

It’s frankly too dangerous to play this game, because while the best case after launching anything is that you stick the landing and get to keep making new things, the worst case differs with time and money spent.

If you only spent a month, you only wasted a month. But if you spend several years, you—and your employees—waste several years.

Starting smaller (in product scale and employee count) is a much safer bet. It may seem obvious, but building, subjecting ideas to critique, fixing, and iterating before you take off is paramount. I said it before.

Shipping an unfinished product isn’t the end of the world. In fact, I think it’s super cool to ship an unfinished product. But what’s uncool is not telling people that it’s unfinished.

It’s true that all products need to start somewhere, but what you start with has to be good. You may not get the chance to make a version 2.

And that’s the worst part of the Humane story. In their hubris, the founders raised tons of money, hired hundreds of people, spent five years in development, and yet they still shipped a product that no one needed.

This lesson could have been learned years prior if the board and investors didn’t let the founders make it this big. But they all fueled this faulty vision, not just of the product, but the company as a whole.

As it turns out, a thousand patents under your belt isn’t as big of a flex when the inventions were created at the only company with as many smart people as Apple, who all jointly create an environment for each other to invent practically anything. What’s more important is recognizing truly just how many people are needed to make something you imagine. Understanding the scale and depth of your “inventions” helps gauge the reality of what’s needed to actually build it.

That’s where Humane failed most spectacularly. Humane hyped its own founders being former Apple employees, but those founders failed to recognize that when at Apple, they had effectively infinite resources to execute on their dreams. That “skill” doesn’t translate to running a startup.

Taking all the credit from group efforts for your mere idea, accepting no criticism from your peers, and admitting no fault when you’ve failed? That’s how you end up with a company like this.

It was the ego behind Humane that killed it. It didn’t have to grow to this scale, it didn’t have to hype itself up, and it didn’t have to burn through this much cash—or shirts or charging cases.

It would not have taken this long to figure out that this wasn’t a viable product—and that its founders were in way over their heads—if it started much smaller.

In the end, founders got hits to their egos, investors lost money, and employees lost time; but most importantly, we all lost valuable effort from undoubtedly smart people that could have been working on literally anything else that would have sent us into a better future than this.

Asking for 1 billion dollars at this point shows they have still not quite learned what happened here, and that they would be doomed to repeat these mistakes if purchased.

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