As a company, Hampton Creek is a little bit like a Mr. Potato Head of businesses. It's a consumer packaged-goods brand that sells plant-based foods like eggless mayo and cookie dough in stores like Target and Whole Foods. It's a big white-label supplier to cafeterias and corporate commissaries. It's also a biotech that seeks to "scale discovery" by unlocking the molecular secrets of the world's 353,000 plant species. It also licenses ingredients to direct competitors like Kraft so they can make vegan versions of their own products. On top of all that, it recently announced it will begin selling cultured meat and seafood, grown in a lab from animal cells, as early as 2018.
That would be a wildly ambitious road map for a startup that had established a solid footing in its core business and was ready to branch out. But Hampton Creek isn't that. It's a five-year-old private company that has lurched from one big-sounding idea to another because the idea it started with--making food healthier, better for the environment, and more delicious, all while making it cheaper--has proven next to impossible to pull off, even with more than $100 million in venture capital. Along the way, it has stumbled through half a dozen scandals, lawsuits, and even an investigation into its practices by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Justice Department.
There are two things Hampton Creek definitely has going for it. Its mayo is pretty good. And its chief executive, Josh Tetrick, is the kind of straight-from-central-casting visionary CEO who can sell investors, employees, and just about anyone else on just about anything, including an over-ambitious Rube Goldberg of a company. He presents as a charismatic thought leader, buying full-page ads in The New York Times to publish encyclicals about whatever's on his mind.
A few weeks ago, I sat down with Tetrick at an open-plan desk in Hampton Creek's new offices in San Francisco's Mission District. He told me about some of the company's recent successes--new ingredient discoveries, new product lines, sales momentum at major retailers. He also talked about his evolution as a leader, a process of learning what it means to run a food company and where he needs extra help. He cited recent hires like that of chief technology officer Jim Flatt, who came to the startup from Synthetic Genomics, as evidence of promising things for Hampton Creek.
Not long after that meeting, Flatt was out, having gone behind Tetrick's back to the board of directors in what was described in the press as a "coup attempt." Two other executives were fired with Flatt--"terminated," the company said, for "attempting to change our company's corporate governance, which in the process, would have stripped our employees of the autonomy to direct our long-term mission."
Monday brought news of another round of departures: Hampton Creek's entire board of directors, with the exception of Tetrick, has resigned. Among those stepping down were Mustafa Suleyman, co-founder of the Google-owned A.I. startup DeepMind; Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Obama; and Khosla Ventures partner Samir Kaul.
The exact nature of the connection between the board housecleaning and Flatt's coup wasn't immediately clear. But both episodes turned on the question of who calls the shots at Hampton Creek, now and in the future.
While most founders who capitalize their startups in multiple funding rounds pay a price in the form of dilution, Tetrick has managed to consolidate his power to the point that the board of directors has become largely an advisory body. This is all the more remarkable given that Tetrick has weathered scandals and setbacks--like seemingly well-documented accusations that Hampton Creek was buying up its own products to boost its sales figures, or Target's decision to remove Hampton Creek products from its shelves pending a safety review--of the sort that tends to force CEOs to accept greater oversight. (The federal investigation into the report of fraudulent sales closed without a finding of wrongdoing.)
With Tetrick firmly in the driver's seat, Hampton Creek is now looking more and more like an all-or-nothing proposition. A strong, independent board would likely be looking for a way to put a floor under investors' losses and salvage some shareholder value, probably in the form of a sale. Tetrick has made it clear he won't go that route, at least not willingly.
By executing on his "Five-Point Plan," Tetrick seems to think he is hedging against the risk of failure in any one of the array of businesses Hampton Creek is trying to build. A skeptic might say he is stretching the company's resources, blurring its focus, and compounding its technical risk. (Growing meat in a lab has very little in common with trying to replicate the flavors of eggs and dairy using plants.)
Founders with unchallengeable power have built some of Silicon Valley's greatest companies. They've also been responsible for its biggest disasters, like Theranos and the past six months at Uber. Which is to say Hampton Creek's CEO is likely to prove the company's greatest asset or its greatest liability.