Humane AI post-mortem

HUMANEideaWe can learn more from failure than success. People in the AI industry should therefore celebrate the failure of the Humane AI pin device, as a teachable moment for the entire industry. This is a cautionary tale that all startups should consider.

So who or what is Humane AI? It’s an AI startup that offered the concept of a small, chest-worn "communicator"—sort of like the Star Trek communicator badge. Such an innovative idea naturally attracted attention. However, the reality of Humane's $700 AI Pin was far from the idealized vision. Initial reviews were scathing, pointing out obvious and significant flaws such as limited battery life and overheating issues.

The New York Times quietly spoke to 23 current and former employees, advisers, and investors of Humane. Their insights painted a picture of a company hampered not by engineering shortcomings but by a detrimental management culture. The founders Bethany Bongiorno and Imran Chaudhri reportedly fostered an environment of toxic positivity.

While optimism is vital in a startup, it can become a liability when it means not being able to see reality clearly, and ignoring critical feedback. Employees' warnings about the AI Pin's power consumption issues were dismissed, leading to a product that reviewers highlighted for its poor performance and overheating.

It wasn’t that management wouldn’t listen, it enforced an “aspirational” culture that led to punitive measures against dissenters. For instance, a software engineer who raised concerns about the Pin's readiness was fired for "talking negatively about Humane." This punitive approach discouraged other engineers, leading to departures and a significant talent drain.

Here are the Takeaways for Aspiring Founders

Here are a few simple rules to follow to avoid Humane’s fate in your efforts to build the next big thing:

Embrace Constructive Criticism: A culture that discourages honest feedback is doomed to repeat its mistakes. Encouraging the capacity to see reality clearly, and to detect blind spots, is essential for innovation. Both employees and users need to feel safe to voice concerns and suggestions.

The Path to Success is Iterative: Developing successful product is usually via a series of pivots. Iteration based on user feedback and internal critique is key. Be willing to make course adjustments rather than pushing forward with a flawed product, backed solely by the ego of the CEO.

Balance Optimism with Realism: While a positive outlook is absolutely necessary for a startup, it should not come at the expense of realistic assessments. The art of balancing optimism with a healthy dose of skepticism will ensure that potential issues are addressed proactively.

Leaders Must Be Flexible: Effective leadership involves listening to your team and being flexible enough to change course when needed. Stubborn adherence to an initial vision can blind you to necessary changes and improvements. It is vital for the founder to “release ego” and encourage constructive criticism with gratitude.

Learn from Failures: Every setback is actually a learning opportunity. Steve Jobs used to call manufacturing errors “gems”. Analyze what went wrong and why, and use these insights to inform future decisions. The ability to learn and adapt fluidly is what distinguishes successful ventures from those that fail.

Here's a handy mnemonic for learning from Humane AI's mistakes:

  • Honesty: First, be honest with yourself, especially if your product sucks
  • Understanding: Encourage open dialogue with data-driven suggestions for improvements
  • Maturity: Accept constructive criticism with gratitude, in fact, beg your employees for it
  • Adaptability: Learn to be more agile and how to implement less painful pivots
  • No Sycophants: try not to hire yes men, and seek those with the courage not to be suck ups
  • Ego reduction: notice if you feel emotion or have a knee-jerk defense whenever you get critical feedback

By fostering a culture that values constructive criticism and innovativeness, you will be better equipped to turn innovative ideas into successful products. Celebrate your triumphs, but remember that the road to success is paved with painful lessons learned from failures.