by Geoff Ralston11/11/2021
Today, Embark Trucks, once a startup in YC’s W16 batch, is going public. I remember interviewing Alex, Brandon and their former co-founder Michael in late 2015. Whenever we see such young teams – they were each 19 or 20 years old at the time – we have to wonder if they are actually ready to start a startup. Often, this sort of application simply represents undergrads playing games and is not a serious stab at company creation. In this case, we wondered if Alex et. al. were merely playing with golf carts and having a good time while never planning to leave school.
But almost everything about this team allayed that concern. Their thinking was startlingly clear and robust. Their answers were direct and to the point. They had a plan and were serious and, by the way, they’d already built the first self-driving vehicle in Canada. We were sold. This was a team of builders that was passionate, energetic, and committed. Those qualities make age irrelevant.
The team from Varden Labs – that was Embark’s original company name – came into YC intending to build self-driving shuttles for use on campuses where the roads and pathways were far more controlled and speed could be far lower than out in the wide-world. This was a key insight for the team: that the first self-driving vehicles would be delivered in a highly constrained environment because the unconstrained problem was, frankly, too difficult. We know today all too well how spot-on they were.
As their time in the batch progressed, they found, somewhat to their dismay, that not only was their chosen domain, i.e. campuses, not as constrained as they had hoped, it also turned out that various campuses had such different environments that each posed it’s own, unique set of challenges. As the initial excitement around their chosen market diminished, temptations to pivot began to show up. A mining company in Australia wondered if the team could create self-driving mining trucks in mining’s own, highly constrained environment. The team was tempted to switch ideas, but, in one of the early, impressively focused decisions, they chose to stay the course, show that they could sign up campuses and grow. They continued to sign up customers, had a very successful Demo Day and raised the early funds they needed to build the initial version of the company that would emerge as Embark.
Despite this early success with their original idea, eventually Alex and Brandon became persuaded that the campus market was not the right place to start. On the other hand, they believed that self-driving trucks, constrained to highways, was an enormous market and although still fabulously difficult, a more tractable problem. So they did pivot, successfully persuading their investors to keep on riding shotgun with them. And, as always with this team, they got right down to building and in short-time had put together their first self-driving truck.
I’ve stayed in close touch with Alex and Brandon over the years and their energy, their optimism, and, above all, the clarity of their thinking has never ceased to impress me. Now, they have shown they can build a company. Today’s milestone is but one step on what I’m sure will continue to be an exciting road for us all to follow. Congrats to Alex, Brandon and the entire Embark team.
Geoff Ralston is the former President of Y Combinator and has been with YC since 2011. Prior to YC, he built one of the first web mail services, RocketMail which became Yahoo Mail in 1997.