Will.i.am’s technology company i.am+ is running out of money, according to current employees, company emails, and documents obtained by The Verge. As a result, two current employees of smart home platform Wink — which i.am+ acquired in 2017 — tell The Verge that workers haven’t been paid in seven weeks, and that their office in Schenectady, New York has been temporarily closed. Wink users have also reported on Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook that all sorts of third-party devices have stopped working with the platform, and that the company’s customer support line is dead.
Founded in 2012, the Black Eyed Peas frontman originally positioned i.am+ as a maker of extremely expensive iPhone cases. The company eventually expanded into other hardware, like a poorly reviewed smartwatch, and wireless earbuds that were modeled in promo photos by Kendall Jenner. The company ultimately raised over $100 million in venture capital after pivoting again to making conversational artificial intelligence for corporations. (It sold chatbot technology to Deutsche Telekom in 2017, for example.)
But a stalled deal with Dubai-based retail giant Majid Al Futtaim (MAF) has apparently left the company in the lurch, according to a handful of all-staff emails seen by The Verge.
Will.i.am announced the deal with MAF at the beginning of 2019, which was supposed to use i.am+’s contextual AI technology to create an “entirely new level of experiential retail.” Shortly after the deal was announced, Will.i.am claimed i.am+ and MAF’s combined forces could create a company as big as Amazon.
Almost nine months later, that deal is still not done. In an email sent on Friday, October 18th, i.am+ accountant Travis Lopez said MAF is “100% on board” and that the deal is dragging because MAF has “never undertaken a technology partnership of this size.” In another email, sent this past Wednesday, i.am+ co-founder and CEO Chandrasekar Rathakrishnan said the company is “caught in [MAF’s] internal process and waiting on the release of funds.” Rathakrishnan said i.am+ is “speaking with [MAF] everyday and pushing it aggressively to receive funds now,” and that there is “no question or risk” that his company will be paid.
Rathakrishnan also apologized to employees. “I realize we are hurting badly and while it does not help soften the pain, please be assured that we are doing all we can to recover expediently,” he wrote.
Representatives for MAF did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Shay Markarian, i.am+’s head of HR, said in an email that the company’s senior executives could not immediately respond to questions because they were all on flights to Los Angeles. (Will.i.am performed during the opening ceremony of a robotics challenge in Dubai on Thursday. He’s also slated to attend the Future Investment Initiative conference next week, also known as Davos in the Desert, according to a leaked schedule obtained by Axios — one year after a number of companies and executives abandoned the conference following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.)
The MAF deal isn’t the only one i.am+ has had trouble closing. In May, wireless earbud startup Earin walked away from a deal with i.am+, saying only that the acquisition “stalled due to unfulfilled obligations.”
At the same time, i.am+ is also late on both state and federal tax payments, according to documents filed with the California secretary of state. The state of California has filed multiple tax liens over the last year against i.am+ showing a total of nearly $500,000 in delinquent taxes. The federal government filed a lien in August showing i.am+ owes $1,787,726.11 in delinquent taxes and interest.
I.am+ did make some short-term cash in August by selling the assets of Over.ai, an Israeli conversational AI company it had acquired in 2016, to the voice-over IP company Vonage for an undisclosed amount. Will.i.am’s startup was even given “considerable” stock in Vonage as part of the deal, according to an email from the director of Wink’s New York office, which was obtained by The Verge. But i.am+’s cash needs were apparently so pressing that the company turned right around and sold that Vonage stock to a bank in order to meet payroll, according to the email.
Wink has had an especially troubled history, even for a startup. It was originally founded in 2014 as Wink Labs, inside of a startup incubator called Quirky. Just one year later, Quirky filed for bankruptcy. As part of that restructuring, Quirky announced a plan to spin off Wink as a standalone business, and ultimately sold it to electronics manufacturer Flextronics. Two years later, Flextronics sold Wink to i.am+.
But the current employees, who were granted anonymity because they are still holding out hope of being paid, say things have only gotten worse in 2019. Payments have been late basically all year, they say, but going seven weeks without a paycheck is creating serious personal financial problems. One says they’ve resorted to delivering pizzas to pay overdue bills, while another says they’re borrowing money for meals.
“Just feels like lies on top of lies, that they’re trying to starve us out, to quit,” one says. “People [are] leaving left and right and none of those seats are being replaced by new employees,” says another.
Meanwhile, Wink customers across the internet are reporting all sorts of problems, and many aren’t able to get answers from the company’s customer support. The platform’s status page is down, and firmware updates aren’t downloading. Third-party products meant to connect to Wink’s smart home hubs have reportedly stopped working, including one customer’s door locks, according to a post on the Wink subreddit.
“Spooky! Just in time for Halloween!” a fellow Redditor replied.