How did tech startup Fast’s big Tampa plans unravel so quickly?

Domm Holland outlined his vision for the Tampa Bay tech landscape during a panel at February’s Synapse Summit, an innovation-focused conference at Amalie Arena.

He spoke of moving his family from San Francisco to Tampa on the Fourth of July, of the “dozens of media appearances” he’d made touting the region’s appeal and potential, of his desire to diversify “tech-bro culture” by hiring more women, minorities and employees with kids at his online checkout startup, Fast.

“I spend as much time as I can sitting in an office at Sparkman Wharf with a home in South Tampa, and manage to run a big company very successfully from here,” said Holland, Fast’s founder and CEO. “I would rather attract 400 highly paid workers to come work here, to come live here, than just the one founder or the two founders of the company.”

None of that, it turns out, will come to pass.

On Tuesday, Fast made the sudden announcement that it was shutting down amid reports it was burning through cash with little return after raising some $135 million the last three years.

Related: Splashy financial startup Fast, which opened hub in Tampa, is shutting down

The news shocked many in the tech investment world. Headquartered in San Francisco, Fast had substantial backing from Stripe, an online payment company, and was once thought to be nearing a billion-dollar “unicorn” valuation.

In reality, The Information, a technology news site, reported that Fast generated revenues of just $600,000 in 2021, yet was spending up to $10 million per month. It had reportedly considered laying off some of its 400-plus employees and was actively exploring a sale.

All of this came not long after Holland moved to the United States from Australia, where he’d founded another troubled startup: Tow, described as an Uber-like service for tow trucks. Disputes over unpaid fees led to a protracted legal battle with the Australian government, during which, according to Australian media reports, Holland considered selling users’ personal data to pay off debts.

Investments publication The Motley Fool compared Fast’s downfall to that of scandal-plagued startups like Theranos and WeWork, the subjects of recent prestige-drama miniseries The Dropout and WeCrashed.

It’s a juicy story in Silicon Valley. But it’s also relevant in Tampa, where Fast last summer established an East Coast hub led by Holland himself.

“It hurts a little bit, to be honest,” said Saxon Baum, vice president of investor relations at Tampa venture capital and angel investor firm Florida Funders. “You have this company that’s raised a bunch of money, they’re a high flyer, they have this personality about them that comes into Tampa, our sort of small town when it comes to technology, and they tried to put their stamp on the city, saying, ‘This is an amazing tech city! This is going to be where we really succeed!’”

Instead, Baum said, Fast ended up more like Tampa’s Laser Spine Institute, which abruptly shut down in 2019, leaving partners and patients in a lurch.

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“Everybody thought this was one of the most successful companies in Tampa,” Baum said of Laser Spine, “and the next thing you know, a day later, the company is shutting its doors and they fire all their employees.”

Fast planted its flag in August with a news conference at Sparkman Wharf attended by Mayor Jane Castor, the Rays’ Kevin Kiermaier, the Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov and troupes of water scooter riders and aerialists. Holland arrived in a Fast-branded racing truck spinning donuts in a parking lot, driven by NASCAR’S Parker Kligerman.

Fast CEO Domm Holland, in  pink, addresses employees and supporters during a launch for the online checkout company's new East Coast hub in Tampa on Aug. 3, 2021. He is flanked by, from left, the Rays' Kevin Kiermaier, Mayor Jane Castor and Jim Weiss, chairperson of the Tampa Bay Economic Development Council.
Fast CEO Domm Holland, in pink, addresses employees and supporters during a launch for the online checkout company’s new East Coast hub in Tampa on Aug. 3, 2021. He is flanked by, from left, the Rays’ Kevin Kiermaier, Mayor Jane Castor and Jim Weiss, chairperson of the Tampa Bay Economic Development Council. [ Fast ]
Related: Tech company Fast picks Tampa for major East Coast hub

Holland was a new corporate creature in Tampa Bay, an over-the-top tech CEO who welcomed the spotlight, à la Mark Cuban or Richard Branson. He hit the ground running, partnering with the Lightning to make Fast a one-click checkout option at the team’s online store, and becoming a $50,000 investor and executive committee board member of the Tampa Bay Economic Development Council.

Since then, Fast also formed partnerships with the Nashville Predators and Cleveland Cavaliers. Holland hoped to expand into NASCAR and the English Premiere League. Just last week, the company announced a partnership with the Honest Company, the lifestyle brand cofounded by actor Jessica Alba.

On Tuesday, Fast told sellers that the platform will cease operations by April 15. At Amalie Arena, Fast was still working during a Lightning game on Monday. By Tuesday’s John Mayer concert, it was not. The arena has four Lightning games and four concerts scheduled over the next 10 days. A Lightning spokesperson said pending purchases through Fast would still go through, but that other Fast elements, including QR codes on signs and cupholders, would be removed or stop working.

A public relations firm that works with Fast referred questions to the company’s chief communication officer, who did not return emails Tuesday and Wednesday.

Holland on Tuesday tweeted that “start-ups fail for many reasons, of which Fast obviously was not immune.” He said he would “take responsibility for” Fast’s closing. And he encouraged companies to hire the “truly incredible people” losing their jobs at Fast.

“They are the most phenomenal people I have and you will have had the pleasure of working with,” he wrote.

As of this week, Fast had fewer than a dozen local employees working out of a shared office at Sparkman Wharf. Business Insider reported that their last day will be Friday. Fast employees in Tampa and nationwide quickly began seeing job leads and messages of support across social media.

“Tampa Bay still welcomes your talents to help build our ecosystem,” tweeted Andreas Calabrese, general partner of venture capital investment firm TampaBay.Ventures.

Moez Limayem, dean of the Muma College of Business at the University of South Florida, said he was surprised by the Fast news, and that it would be “foolish or naive to say this will not at all have any negative impact.” But he added that Fast’s collapse is not uncommon; the vast majority of startups do end up failing.

“This is a good learning moment for all of us,” Limayem said. “It’s really important for us, as leaders in this community, to understand what happened. Are there things we could have done better to help this company, given that it is high-profile? And then move on and keep the momentum. We have great momentum here in Tampa. Tampa has not failed.”

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, left, and Fast founder and CEO Domm Holland were on hand for the announcement that Fast was opening an East Coast hub in Tampa on Aug. 3.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, left, and Fast founder and CEO Domm Holland were on hand for the announcement that Fast was opening an East Coast hub in Tampa on Aug. 3. [ Fast ]

The attention Tampa’s leaders lavished on a failing company shouldn’t taint the community’s image as an emerging tech destination, Baum said.

“A lot of people outside the state of Florida for a while looked at Miami as a market that was filled with people that weren’t doing business the right way,” he said. “I hope that’s not the case with this. But something definitely happened here.”

Holland’s time in the Tampa business community isn’t over. He is still a board member at the Tampa Bay Economic Development Council. He will remain an investor there through September, a council spokesperson said. He and his family still own a $2.8 million home built last year in Sunset Park.

Related: For high-flying founder of fintech firm Fast, Tampa’s ‘a great place to live’

At the Synapse Summit, Holland said he hoped his role with the Economic Development Council would give him “ a louder voice in the discussions about some of the development of this area.” The fact that he’d so openly embraced the city of Tampa after leaving Silicon Valley — and that Tampa had in turn embraced him — should, he said, be a selling point for others looking to invest here.

“It’s a great place to live,” Holland said. “The story we’re telling people is true.”

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