»Have I failed really fucking royally? Yes, many times.«

This interview with Lewis Horne, CEO of Uniti, was performed via Facebook Call while he was sitting under deck of his sailing boat in the Canary islands. The internet connection was bad and the line got interrupted several times. The conversation lasted for almost two hours; we transcribed the essential parts.

You sold cars already in 2019, but they didn’t exist physically, they only existed as a digital rendering.

– It is refundable.

Do you still have the money to refund everyone?

– Every person that has requested it has gotten a refund on the reservation deposit [149 Euro]. Every one of the »founders club«, that made an advance payment of the car, are refunded, and those are only forty people.

But my question was if the money still exists to refund the approximately 3 500 people that paid a deposit.
– There are not 3 000 pre-orders, because some have been refunded. I don’t know how many of the 150 Euro pre-orders that are left. I would have to check, we have the money in stripe accounts, we don’t touch most of it, we always reserve some for any refunds that come through.

So if everyone would ask for a refund today, they would get the refund?

– Today? No, I don’t think we could pay everybody if they all ask at once. Will they get refunded? The bankruptcy manager will have to handle that.

»There are times that have been so freaking dark, man.«

At the U17 launch event in Landskrona a moderator said: »We take that money, we put it in a separate bank account and you can always get it back in the end.« That’s not true.

– It was true.

Former employees says: »Lewis had troubles in accepting advice, full stop.« Do you agree?

– Five different engineers have five different opinions, you can’t make everybody happy. You are constantly pulled in different directions, which is why you typically want to invest in a CEO that has a lot more experience than me, who can decide who is right and who is wrong. Even today I have the chairman saying: »We gotta pull the money, we can do this.« And then we have other people saying: »Are you sure you are that confident to make this happen?« And I am in the middle here.

Former staff also mention insults and a toxic atmosphere because of your leadership.
– There are times that have been so freaking dark, man. You couldn’t imagine how dark. When you get under immense stress, you don’t perform your best. The same can be said for most people. I’ve become a lot better at it, but for sure, they have a point.

Some described you as a megalomaniac.

– Making things bigger than they are, I think that’s kind of the job. In the early days I was a less experienced guy, less mature, for sure. Did I make things bigger than they are? I don’t know, I always make things big as I would believe them to be. The press would make a more sensational headline, which is what you are trying to do now – making a more sensational negative story. It gotta be sensational in one way or the other, or it’s not a story.

But you are really good in framing the story?

– Yes.

Is that fair to your investors?

– We have around 3 500 investors, who invested 6,5 million Euro. The average invested a couple of hundred Euro and some guys put in bigger sums of money. Those are intelligent, qualified investors, very good in asking tough questions. They invest in people they believe in, and they know that all their investments don’t work, and that’s how it works in startups.
Right now I tell people the reality. We have this [Chinese] deal on the table, the deal hasn’t gone through yet. I have to file for bankruptcy – or I have to take in more money to buy more time. I don’t want to do that, but the team says: »Hey, can we share that story publicly?« So I wrote an article on LinkedIn, people pledge for it and yet I don’t know if I want to take their money and continue it, especially when the press is trying to make me a monster.
[Lewis got pledges for over 620 000 Euro and decided to accept them in order to avoid bankruptcy, but before Christmas 2021 the unknown Chinese investors cancelled the deal. Until Filter’s production deadline 220117 it was unclear if Uniti will continue to operate.]

You claim to have »reinvented a part of the world, the electric car« and »optimized the machine for it’s Achilles heel, the battery«.

– That was the design intent, correct, so we can make it lightweight. It’s not fully completed, no.

But you said that you had done it already.

– When Steve Jobs first created the Iphone it didn’t work, the screenswap didn’t work. The product we were working on was a lightweight concept, energy efficient. It was a design intent. No, it wasn’t the completed production car. I think that was pretty clear, wasn’t it?

»You can’t call it a scam because it wasn’t completed.«

In the shareholder meeting 2020 you said: »The main difference is: we’ve got a product, so we can start selling it, we can start creating revenue.« That also never happened.

– That car is in Media Evolution City in Malmö [a shared office Space], just go in there and take photos of it. Yeah, that’s the product that we could start selling.

But Lewis, that car is not even close to reinventing the world. It is a Zhidou D3, a cheap electric car from China. You imported the car and changed the color.

– The Zhidou D3 is not suitable for the European market for a number of safety and quality reasons. We have to invent, build the software system to make it a connected vehicle, we don’t need to engineer the knots and bolts of it, those are things that we leverage from the supply chain. That’s what I learned along the way. In the early days I wanted to reinvent every single piece of the car, and I learned that was not feasible unless we’d get a lot of capital which we did not get.

You could sell that and live with that?

– If we’d continue with that. But instead, we focus on a bigger deal, which would get us to the market launch of the Uniti One. The whole idea with the deal on the table now: we can build the factory in China, we can work on the Uniti One, we can execute on all these things.

What about the rebranded Zhidou D3, which you call Uniti Zero?

– We didn’t just change the color; we designed and changed the bumper. It’s pretty easy to say: »Ah, it’s just a piece of plastic.« Yes it’s a piece of plastic, but it has to get the cooling and the crash structure right. So you have to do engineering work to be able to make a bumper. It’s easy to twist it, or to say: »Wow, the only thing they did was a bumper.« You don’t see me doing any sensational claims like: »Oh, we work with Amazon«, and so on. [Uniti actually do use Amazon’s logo on an internal PDF to attract new investors.] We had a bunch of work on a compatible telematic system, that we can connect to the cloud in order to build a infotainment system on top of it. Other developers can develop on top of that platform, that’s a pretty cool innovation.

You didn’t get a production intent vehicle in six years.

– I mean, the Uniti Zero is a production intent vehicle, they did make a thousand of them. And we were in the process of making it the first launch car, but we got this other deal to focus on the Uniti One, sell some other cars as well, get the company off the ground. So it depends how you wanna twist it. If you wanna say that we didn’t get a production intent Uniti One car on the road: yes.

But they didn’t produce a thousand of Uniti Zeros. They produced Zhidou D3:s, and there is absolutely no innovation in that.

– Exactly. How do you know that? Of course, there is a, there is a … [Lewis pauses for a moment.] With a very small team in a very small time, and a very small budget we got a car over here that could be a great car for the market in Europe, and if we could connect that to the cloud it’d be a great thing for Europe to have.

But it basically has nothing in common with the Uniti One prototype that you presented in 2017.

– Correct, because we do it in steps.

You never announced to anyone that the first step is to import a cheap Chinese electric car.
– Because that are pivots, dude. I realized: Hey, this car plan is not working, we need a pivot. We need to do it in steps, we need a thousand of these on the road, build up the financial muscles to build the Uniti One. Our company is allowed to make a pivot, or does this make it a scam? I talked to the shareholders, sent it out to everybody: »Hey guys, that’s what we gonna do. We gonna bring over another car, build on the base platform, upgrade in a bunch of ways.« It would be very innovative to have the world’s first developer-friendly car API, which is all we are working on.

It just hasn’t been done.

– That’s not true. The work was not completed. But you can’t call it a scam because it wasn’t completed.

Did you ever lie about the company?

– Never.

Do you remember that you posted a video in October 2019 where you announced an event »later this year« where you would present the Uniti One physically?

– And we had the money then.

That’s impossible. By then you were several hundred thousand Euro in the red, your books were incomplete and your auditor had left. How could you promise to present a car that you hadn’t even built?

– It wasn’t within a couple of weeks, can we not exaggerate things here?

Well, there were ten weeks of the year left.

– At that time, it was the timeline that we got from the engineers. We could have built it by then. I had done that before when it was a really brutal timeline. It is the same with Tesla, all of these companies, it is a reality of that business that you are trying to scramble to build something with a very short timeline, with a very small budget. And when the timeline slips, the timeline has slipped. It doesn’t mean that I lied, it is what I’ve been told. I have done it before, it was also impossible – but we pulled off the [concept] car at the U17 event.

– Should I have been much more conservative with my language, in hindsight? Hell yeah, I’d be more conservative with my language had I known that it was overly optimistic stuff that I was hearing and repeating. But hindsight is just a funny thing. Deadlines are delayed, and then the prices are a lot higher. So we couldn’t do it at all, we had to go into reconstruction, in the court, and we explained it to journalists. We were just a bunch of guys, the corona virus was happening, we came up with a bunch of cool ideas and one was to produce protective masks for Lund Hospital.

»Every step of the way I believed in things so deeply and that was the truth.«

Now you blame the engineers. Isn’t it your job as a CEO to make management decisions?

– They said they can. Which one do you want me to do – listen to advice or not?

Do you think you are qualified to lead a company like that?

– I want your opinion. What should I do today? Because I am on a fence here, I am ready to close the company down and resign. On the other side I’ve got CEOs from car companies, the chairman, that say: »Do not quit.« I feel like I failed on a lot of stuff here, I feel super bad about it. Have I failed really fucking royally? Yes, many times. Do I regret and wish that it didn’t happen? Yes! But I really didn’t want this to be a story about encouraging people not try to do crazy dreams that they are thinking off. Every step of the way I believed in things so deeply and that was the truth. I mean, the Breakit article says: »He took the money, he fled Europe.« This is literally lying, it is literally not the case. We sold our shit, moved on to the boat, it was five minutes from the office, and I’m working on this deal with this company. The boat cost me and my partner less than an apartment and my monthly living costs are 6 000 SEK. It is a lot cheaper to live on the water, and I’m happier.

Things that didn’t happen: launching the car, producing 100 000 vehicles in the UK and India, IPO [to launch the company at a stock market], production in Landskrona, Silverstone, assembling in Georgia, a crypto currency … So, again: Do you think you are qualified to lead a company like that?

– If I was to apply all of the things that I have learned, maybe. Looking back at all these failures, would I try to do this if I knew that those failures would happen? Definitely not. No, for sure not. I thought I could pull it all off and I didn’t. Over and over and over again, many, many times. More than what you are even seeing there, more than you are even thinking about.

You promised a small city car, with a big range, at a very good price, and sustainable on top …

– With capital, time and the right people, that could all be achieved. If a big company would try to do that, they could achieve it. If I’d have capital to do that and the right people around, we could achieve it, and that’s what I thought we could do.

»If you ask me if every investor in a crowdfunding round gets their money back: No.«

How real is the China deal?

– The shareholder agreement is not signed, the investment agreement is not signed, they have sent back their copy of it. There is a Stockholm lawyer working on it.

Would that live up to your dreams and big plans?

– That would be the intention.

You would have a world revolutionary car, a long range, with all the features that you presented in 2017?

– Yes, to make apps and services in a car the same way as on a smartphone is revolutionary. Right now, what all cars have is a source that comes from a smartphone, giving data sources from a car, develop apps and services for them would be revolutionary, just a first step. Being able to have a vehicle with a 300 km range, when you say this in your exaggerated manner: »Oh, very long range …«

I’m just quoting you.

– 300 km range, that is a modest range. There is a 150 km model, that is also a modest range. You can do that when you have a lightweight car, that’s energy efficient.

But can it also be cheap? Either it will be light materials, but they are expensive, or it will be unsafe. Batteries are also expensive. Why haven’t other car companies, like Smart, already done what you are promising?

– They are building them in China right now, just exactly like that for 3 000 Euro to buy. I wanted to try building them in Europe, but it wasn’t feasible. They have a massive supply chain in China, that’s why we are trying to team up with people that can do that.

Will I ever see the 1 000 Euro that I invested again?

– If we go bankrupt today, no. Well maybe, depending on what they’ll sell the company for if they do. That’d be up to the bankruptcy manager. If I continue today – to be honest, this call doesn’t help my confidence on that one, you know, risk another million of people’s money – and the deal with the Chinese goes through, I think there is a good chance that you would get a good return on it. If they deliver on their promises. They want to do an IPO within twelve months, they’ve already sent me the paperwork for it. I said no I’m not signing it before we complete the process and I see cash in our bank, which I haven’t seen. But if you ask me if every investor in a crowdfunding round gets their money back: No. Most of them don’t. I appreciate that you did that investment back then. I’m sorry that I didn’t pull it off. I tried my ass off, man.

Isn’t it risky to cross the Atlantic in winter with a small sailing boat?

I will cross on Monday to Cape Verde, and then the ocean at the end of the year.
The least risky time, when everybody crosses, is in December/January. If you ask me: »Is it risky to cross the Atlantic ocean?« Yes! »Is life risky?« Yup! You do not make it out alive. So yes, it is risky to cross the Atlantic at any time.

Have you done that before? Is your crew experienced?

– No. The crew has their qualifications. If you are saying to me: »If you fail at that, if you die out by the cross, then you are a scammer.« No it doesn’t mean that. It just means that I failed at it, that’s all it means. People say: »What if you sink in the Atlantic ocean?« Well, then I die.

– I didn’t realize you are a shareholder. So now I’m asking you as a shareholder: What should I do? I have to decide today.

I don’t have an opinion. I found it interesting that you and the press releases convinced me to invest in the company, and wanted to follow that story. You are the CEO, I’m just a journalist.

– I made a PowerPoint presentation that said »things we are working on« and somebody from the team changed it to »things we are doing«, and I didn’t  see it until I went up on stage. And I thought it’s not things we’re doing, it’s things we are working on. Everything lands back on me, I get that, that’s what I signed up for. Everybody knows that failure is quite probable if you try to do something really difficult like this, and all you can do is just, you know, believe in yourself and all that kind of stuff. So, everybody says it is your decision. I talked to our auditor today, and I said: »Have I done something wrong?« And he said: »No, legally you haven’t done anything wrong.« If you say to me right now: »Look, honestly I don’t think you are fit to do it. I think you should file for bankruptcy.« It would be helpful if you tell me what you think.

I think you should look back on the last six years and answer the questions that you haven’t really answered: if you think you are the right guy for this job.

– Number one, people that have done that shit before said: »We think you are the guy.« And I am talking about very tough people that made it really hard. The Siemens CEO said: »You can do this, in Sweden blah blah blah.« And yeah, they used us to get press as well, a lot of people did. Eon still uses our footage for getting press, this is how it is. Another thing that made me qualified for the job: I knew that this is gonna be super brutal, and I didn’t think that everybody could go through that and keep going, but I knew that I probably could. Although it was wildly more brutal than I could have expected, and it still is. Those factors say: Yes, you are capable of it. In terms of making good decisions as an automotive CEO? No, I haven’t been one. I mean, I’ve been trying to be one.

 

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Artikeln publicerades i Filter #84 (31 januari 2022) och är skriven av .