Onyx Motorbikes was in bother — after which its 37-year-old proprietor died | TechCrunch


James Khatiblou, the proprietor and CEO of Onyx Motorbikes, was watching his e-bike startup disintegrate. 

Onyx was being evicted from its warehouse in El Segundo, Los Angeles. The corporate’s unpaid payments have been stacking up. His chief working officer had abruptly resigned. A cargo of round 100 CTY2 dust bikes from Chinese language provider Suzhou Jindao was delayed, and prospects have been beginning to demand refunds – a significant downside contemplating Khatiblou already owed each lenders and shareholders some huge cash.

Khatiblou, recognized for his heat and outgoing character, was fearful and pressured, in keeping with interviews with individuals who labored alongside him. Within the waning months of 2023, he was so distracted by the startup’s rising debt and authorized issues, he was unable to observe by way of on fundamental duties. On the similar time, his well being was deteriorating, in keeping with his mom, Diane Khatiblou. The colourful and energetic man with the toothy smile was having bother respiratory and even strolling, she stated. 

Then Onyx’s issues escalated in a approach no one anticipated. 

At 37 years outdated, Khatiblou – who liked driving the halfpipe on the firm warehouse and touring the world – died unexpectedly. The Los Angeles County Coroner’s Workplace decided Khatiblou suffered a pulmonary embolism, itemizing deep vein thrombosis as a secondary trigger. 

His dying on December 12, 2023 added a brand new layer of uncertainty to the way forward for Onyx and its property.

Khatiblou left behind no will and no succession plan — solely tens of millions of {dollars} in debt and questions from employees, collectors and prospects about find out how to proceed when the only real proprietor of an organization dies. 

At the moment, nobody owns Onyx Motorbikes, which suggests all operations – buyer deliveries, funds to suppliers and collectors – have floor to a halt. Oxygen Funding, an Orange County-based creditor to which Onyx owes round $2.2 million, is petitioning the Los Angeles County probate courtroom to develop into the administrator of Khatiblou’s property. 

“[Onyx] had such good prospects. It had such a loyal fan base and such a good product, and it was all just basically put in limbo the day James passed away,” Adam Lomax, chief govt officer of Oxygen Funding, advised TechCrunch. “And it has remained in limbo all the way up to the point where we are now.”

As administrator, Oxygen may assist put some items collectively. However quite a few authorized wrinkles threaten to derail these plans. 

A battle between Oxygen Funding, two former shareholders and Onyx’s Chinese language elements provider is now raging over who controls Onyx’s remaining property – bikes, chargers and batteries – and who will get to be made entire first.

Primarily based on interviews with collectors, attorneys and a number of former workers at Onyx, the corporate’s story highlights how difficult issues can develop into if the only real proprietor of a enterprise doesn’t make a plan for what occurs once they die. 

A life modified by $1

Khatiblou didn’t create Onyx Motorbikes. Its founder is Tim Seward, who’s now VP of product and design at e-bike firm Ubco, and who initially simply wished to make a cool electrical moped to impress his pals. 

“I grew up loving Volkswagens and vintage cars and motorcycles,” Seward advised TechCrunch. “I loved that style and wanted to make an electric moped version of that.”

Seward began constructing out what would develop into the prototype for Onyx’s common RCR electrical dust bike in 2016 whereas a designer at LG Electronics, the place he labored alongside Khatiblou. 

“The look of the bike is actually an eagle with its wings folded together as it dive bombs,” Seward advised TechCrunch. “The two side panels are the wings. The wood part is kind of the body or the torso, and the seat would be the tail of the eagle.”

As Seward drove his bike round San Francisco, folks saved stopping him to ask the place they may get one. After saying, ‘It’s not on the market,’ sufficient instances, Seward lastly determined that possibly it must be. 

He launched an Indiegogo marketing campaign for Onyx Motorbikes in 2018, elevating almost $1 million. Onyx promised to ship American-made bikes, which Seward stated would assist the corporate preserve higher high quality management, create native jobs, and keep away from import tariffs. 

Picture Credit: Tim Seward

The bikes have been an prompt hit. Individuals liked the Seventies and Nineteen Eighties enchantment of the design, the picket physique, the made-in-the-USA-style. And, most significantly, the bikes may shred.

Seward employed out a crew of technicians to assist him fulfill his rising order rely. Khatiblou, who lived close to Onyx’s San Francisco store, would typically are available after his new day job at Amazon to blow off steam. He even constructed his personal Onyx bike after shopping for one on Indiegogo, stated Seward, who shared a video that confirmed Khatiblou’s pleasure for his new toy. 

By early 2019, Seward was getting burned out with the duties of working a enterprise. He wished to concentrate on designing and constructing bikes, not take care of buying agreements and payroll. He began purchasing for a merger. 

What he ended up getting was an acqui-hire deal from Chook, the struggling shared e-scooter firm. As a substitute of buying Onyx and its property, Chook paid Seward a lump sum within the a whole bunch of 1000’s to come back and work for them full time. As a part of the deal, Seward needed to discover a alternative for himself at Onyx. He ended up touchdown on Khatiblou, who had supplied to give up his Amazon job and step up into the CEO position. 

Keen to dump the enterprise duties of Onyx, Seward offered Khatiblou his firm in Could 2019 for $1. 

“My tax advisor had said to do that to avoid paying taxes, or something like that, but also James didn’t have a lot of money at the time,” stated Seward. “Mainly, it was because of what Bird was offering me, which more than supplemented what I thought I should have been paid for the company.”

Khatiblou stumbled a bit when he took over the enterprise, says Seward. In any case, he had by no means run an organization or handled e-commerce earlier than. Nevertheless it was clear he was devoted to working Onyx and getting cool bikes into the palms of loyal prospects. 

“He lived and breathed Onyx,” Diane Khatiblou advised TechCrunch. “It was everything to him, and he put everything into it.”

Whereas Seward had no official ties or claims to Onyx at this level, he continued to advise Khatiblou as a buddy and to supply content material for Onyx’s social media. That relationship continued till the 2 fell out over a dispute relating to new shareholders Khatiblou took on. 

Per Seward’s retelling, Khatiblou had determined to convey on backers who would make investments tens of millions within the enterprise. Regardless of the potential monetary upside of the association, Khatiblou wouldn’t cease complaining about how the deal would cut back his possession in Onyx. Seward – pissed off by his buddy’s doubts – took a step again from Khatiblou and Onyx, doubling down on his work at Chook constructing new e-scooter and e-bike fashions. 

As a first-time enterprise proprietor navigating the out of the blue scorching e-bike house, Khatiblou made some errors. He signed himself as the non-public guarantor for lending agreements; and he overspent on provide and accounting prices. And even towards the tip, because the enterprise spiraled, Khatiblou turned down what may have been a lifeline: a buyout supply from a competitor.

He additionally mismanaged the connection together with his two shareholders, who purchased into the enterprise and would finally sue him: Kenneth Ames, a former engineering and sourcing govt within the LED lighting enterprise primarily based in Simi Valley, and Troy Smith, a self-employed accountant primarily based in Carlsbad. 

In September 2019, by way of a “shareholders agreement,” Ames bought 2.2 million shares of widespread inventory in Onyx Corp., and Smith purchased 800,000, leaving Khatiblou the remaining 5 million shares. TechCrunch was unable to be taught the unique greenback quantity of those fairness investments. Below an “operating agreement,” Ames and Smith additionally collectively held a 37.5% share curiosity in Onyx LLC. 

Onyx filed as a company in California and Delaware in 2018. The separate LLC entity was arrange in California a yr later, when Ames and Smith got here onboard. Usually, an organization will arrange a company along with an LLC to isolate liabilities, for extra versatile tax planning, to customise possession construction, or to guard property listed below the LLC. 

TechCrunch was unable to acquire a duplicate of Onyx LLC’s working agreements with Ames and Smith, which could have given the shareholders the authority to take part in day-to-day administration and operation of the enterprise. 

TimTop JamesBottom Dec2019
Picture Credit: Tim Seward

The 2 didn’t reply to repeated requests from TechCrunch for extra info, nevertheless it seems they did have a hand in firm affairs — a minimum of, to start with. Seward advised TechCrunch that, whereas he wasn’t conscious of Smith on the time, he had met Ames and thought he was “a good guy.”

“He was smart and knew business and that’s what Onyx needed,” stated Seward, noting that Ames helped improve the manufacturing course of he had began. “From my perspective, he was making Onyx healthy.”

A month after signing the working settlement, Khatiblou signed a trademark task settlement, transferring possession of Onyx’s branding from Onyx Corp. to Onyx LLC. 

Khatiblou couldn’t shake his distrust of his new enterprise companions, nonetheless, in keeping with the accounts of individuals near him on the time. Lower than a yr after Ames and Smith had develop into shareholders, Khatiblou took motion to remove their decision-making powers. In August 2020 and December 2020, Khatiblou unilaterally eliminated Ames and Smith, respectively, as officers, administrators and managers of the Onyx firms.  

Across the similar time, Oxygen Funding, an bill factoring firm that gives money flows to small- and medium-size companies, entered the image. Khatiblou and Oxygen signed a commerce payables settlement in December 2020. Below the settlement, which TechCrunch has considered, Oxygen purchases bikes and elements immediately from suppliers and distributors on behalf of the e-bike firm, and Onyx pays it again plus numerous charges. 

Per the phrases of the settlement, Onyx’s provides and property could be held as collateral. Khatiblou was personally liable if Onyx didn’t make funds.

Will Drewery, founder and CEO of Diagon.ai, a startup constructing a platform for tools financing, advised TechCrunch that collectors’ charges are fairly commonplace within the business. Signing on as a private guarantor, nonetheless, will not be. 

“It’s legal to do it, but it’s dumb,” Drewery advised TechCrunch. “And places like Y Combinator, Techstars, any advisor or investor will tell you, like, ‘Are you an idiot? Why would you sign a personal guarantee? Don’t ever do that.’”

Clara Brenner, co-founder and managing companion of VC agency City Innovation Fund, had the same sentiment. 

“Personal liability… is something you actively run from,” Brenner advised TechCrunch. “It’s something we strongly dissuade our founders from doing because most of the time they’re not super sophisticated about these mechanisms, and it’s just really risky.”  

Oxygen Funding’s Lomax, for his half, stated making the borrower a private guarantor is commonplace protocol when a enterprise doesn’t have sufficient property to again up the credit score line.

However now that Khatiblou has handed away, all Oxygen and different collectors can fall again on is no matter e-bike provide stays. Oxygen and Ames, along with Smith, at the moment are duking it out for entry to these property. 

The CEO was slipping

Days earlier than Khatiblou died, Mig Cernicky, Onyx’s buying director, stated his CEO was slipping. 

“Several of us were working closely with James to try to get him on the ball…and take care of these eviction notices,” Cernicky advised TechCrunch. “At that point, his mental capacity had declined to the point that he was having a hard time even carrying on a simple conversation.” 

Diane Khatiblou advised TechCrunch that along with stress, her son was additionally out and in of the hospital and was “very ill for a couple of months before he died.” He was initially recognized with pneumonia. It seems that it was a blood clot that triggered Khatiblou bother respiratory and issue strolling to the purpose that he began utilizing a cane, in keeping with Diane Khatiblou.  

“I didn’t realize how much pain he was in because, of course, he was trying to pull himself up and not complain,” she stated.

Realizing that Khatiblou wasn’t in a match state to deal with the urgent issues at hand, Cernicky stated he began pressuring Onyx’s COO, Tay McDaniel, to step up – to which she replied with a resignation letter. 

FB IMG 1714781069653
Picture Credit: Tim Seward

At a loss for what to do and determined to attempt to save Onyx, Cernicky drafted a doc on December 8 naming himself as president and COO of Onyx Motorbikes for Khatiblou to signal.

“It is the last document that James signed,” stated Cernicky. 

Khatiblou died 4 days later, and Cernicky stepped in as performing CEO to attempt to hold Onyx alive. 

Khatiblou was single and had no youngsters when he handed away, so his mom, Diane Khatiblou, grew to become his sole inheritor.

That didn’t imply she was routinely answerable for Khatiblou’s property, which incorporates Onyx — solely that she had first rights to them. In accordance with the California Probate Code, in instances like this, the courtroom must appoint an administrator to resolve what to do with the corporate. After initially petitioning a Los Angeles probate courtroom in March 2024 to step in as administrator of her son’s property, Khatiblou’s mom reversed course and withdrew her petition.

Now, Oxygen Funding is petitioning the courtroom to develop into the administrator, its chief govt Lomax advised TechCrunch. That’s a technique for the creditor to make sure that it will get its a refund. Lomax wouldn’t verify whether or not Oxygen would promote firm property to pay itself and different collectors again or discover another person to choose up the items and hold the corporate alive. 

Collectors develop into secured collectors once they file a Uniform Business Code (UCC) kind. Oxygen filed one among these with Delaware’s Secretary of State in December 2020, which the creditor says makes it first in line to be paid again its $2.2 million. There are different collectors ready in line too. JP Morgan Chase claims to be owed $43,323.29, in keeping with probate courtroom paperwork. In mid-Could, a buyer who had bought an RCR dust bike and a few equipment again in November 2023 additionally filed as a creditor in probate courtroom to get his $6,019.97 again. Sources say Shopify, the platform below which Onyx made its gross sales, can be owed cash however has but to file a declare.

Ames and Smith are additionally claiming to be collectors. The pair filed UCC varieties in California for each Onyx Motorbikes Inc. and Onyx Motorbikes World Holdings LLC on Could 26, 2021 – the day after Khatiblou signed a settlement settlement that will see him shopping for again their shares for some $10,000 per 30 days over the span of 80 months.

By submitting these UCC varieties, Ames and Smith basically turned a share buyback right into a mortgage settlement – and they’re holding Onyx’s property, “tangible and intangible,” as collateral in opposition to their safety pursuits. 

Counsel for Ames and Smith advised TechCrunch that Onyx had breached its reimbursement settlement when Khatiblou handed away and will now not proceed shopping for again shares. 

“Accordingly, Mr. Ames and Mr. Smith, as secured creditors, are taking steps to foreclose on Onyx LLC’s assets,” reads a press release from the lawyer.

The 2 shareholders earlier this month gave discover of a lien sale to Khatiblou’s property and performing CEO Cernicky, in keeping with a number of folks acquainted with the matter. 

The discover advises that Ames and Smith plan to promote Onyx LLC’s collateral someday on or after Could 21. Within the discover, collateral is outlined as a basic all-assets description. On the time of publication, none of Onyx’s disputed property had been offered.

Along with Ames and Smith, their counsel didn’t reply to TechCrunch’s requests for extra info, like what property they’ve of their possession and plan to promote.

E-bikes caught in storage

Since there’s no cash in Onyx’s coffers, the one approach for Oxygen or anybody else to be made entire is to promote no matter property and provides stay. Oxygen posits that because it paid for Onyx’s provide and for the reason that e-bike firm defaulted on its funds, it’s the rightful proprietor of any remaining property.

There’s only one downside. These property are being held cut up between a minimum of two events. 

Oxygen is in possession of about 100 batteries and chargers in addition to 25 CTY bikes, confirmed Lomax. The remaining 74 bikes are in a warehouse utilized by Suzhou Jindao, the e-bike meeting producer in Suzhou that was Onyx’s provider. Suzhou Jindao is ready for a courtroom order that directs the place the stock ought to go. 

The Chinese language provider has additionally been pressured by Ames and Smith to carry onto the bikes and guarantee they don’t make it into Oxygen’s palms. In an e-mail that TechCrunch has considered, counsel for the 2 traders requested the provider to carry off on delivering the bikes “in light of the liens held by Troy Smith and Ken Ames.”

With property cut up between two events and an online of authorized claims, it’s unclear precisely who would be the victor — or if Onyx will ever exist once more. 

There are a number of potentialities. Ames and Smith may use the trademark task to dam Oxygen and others from promoting Onyx-branded gear. The pair may use the tactic to not solely wrest management of the property however as a method to convey the Onyx model again. 

To make issues extra tough, Ames and Smith – who declare to be collectors per the share buyback settlement – now seem to have regained full possession of their shares, making them energetic shareholders. It’s because their shares have been being held in escrow whereas Onyx was paying them again; when Khatiblou died and Onyx defaulted on funds, these shares moved out of escrow, which Smith has confirmed to TechCrunch. 

“Either you’re an owner or you’re not an owner,” stated Lomax. “Which is it? Because if you’re an owner, then we need to talk to you about how Oxygen Funding gets repaid.”

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