Big Money and Big Bluster Couldn’t Save Jawbone

Inside The 2015 Consumer Electronics Show
Hosain Rahman, chief executive officer of Jawbone Inc., speaks at a news conference during the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., on Monday, Jan. 5, 2015. This year's CES will be packed with a wide array of gadgets such as drones, connected cars, a range of smart home technology designed to make everyday life more convenient and quantum dot televisions, which promise better color and lower electricity use in giant screens. Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Michael Nagle — Bloomberg/Getty Images

I wrote a feature in early 2015 about a peculiar “unicorn”—a private company valued at more than $1 billion—called Jawbone. Jawbone was peculiar for several reasons. At 16 years of age, still private, still essentially a startup in that it didn’t make money, the company already was on its third product line. It pioneered Bluetooth headsets for phones. Then it created a niche for Internet-connected speakers. Finally, it made stylish “wearables,” a step counter masquerading as jewelry.

Jawbone had all the elements of Silicon Valley legend. Its CEO was a larger-than-life fellow named Hosain Rahman, who talked big and was a master at raising (and spending) money. Its top designer was a Jony Ive wannabe named Yves Behar, a stylish guy popular on the conference circuit. It products were popular in conference schwag bags and on retail shelves.

Jawbone had great investors too: Sequoia Capital, Kleiner Perkins, Silver Lake, Andreessen Horowitz. They remained publicly enthusiastic, despite Jawbone’s inability to convert its buzzy products into profits. “It’s a unique company that has a unique set of capabilities,” Ben Horowitz told me. As an example, he offered Jawbone’s intellectual property assets, a strange attribute for a would-be high-growth prospect.

In the end, neither brash talk nor savvy investors were enough for Jawbone. It spent too much, paid its bills too infrequently, missed too many product deadlines, and entered too many faddish markets where bigger players reaped whatever gains were to be had. In a move first reported by the scrappy subscription newsletter The Information, Jawbone has begun to liquidate its assets. Its $3 billion-valuation is now a thing of the past. Equity investors likely will be wiped out.

This startup thing is harder than it looks. What’s more, execution is as important as product innovation. Jawbone deserves credit for lasting as long as it did. Now it joins a long list of Silicon Valley might-have-beens that will be forgotten relatively quickly.

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