PULP FICTION

Startups like Juicero are incapable of seeing their own absurdities

It’s easy to see why Bloomberg’s April 19 story on Juicero, a startup that makes a juice machine, went viral so quickly. The internet loves nothing more than a good bit of schadenfreude, and Bloomberg served it cold with the tale of a fancy, $400 juicer that, when tested against bare human hands, utterly failed to deliver:

But after the product hit the market, some investors were surprised to discover a much cheaper alternative: You can squeeze the Juicero bags with your bare hands. Two backers said the final device was bulkier than what was originally pitched and that they were puzzled to find that customers could achieve similar results without it. Bloomberg performed its own press test, pitting a Juicero machine against a reporter’s grip. The experiment found that squeezing the bag yields nearly the same amount of juice just as quickly—and in some cases, faster—than using the device.

Bad startup ideas are a dime a dozen, but Juicero wasn’t some random product. It has a lot of funding behind it ($120 million, with backers that include Google’s venture capital arm) and is valued at nearly half a billion dollars. The company’s founder, Doug Evans, has compared himself to Steve Jobs and said his juice machine wields enough force “to lift two Teslas.” Doug Chertok, a Juicero investor, called Juicero a “platform” for delivering fresh fruits and vegetables to people’s homes.

Silicon Valley is often knocked for devoting tremendous resources to solving—“disrupting,” in tech lingo—increasingly trivial first-world problems. Juicero is the perfect parable: a “technology company” that received millions to upend juice, only to be shown up by a human.

The irony seems to have been obvious to most readers of Bloomberg’s story, but not to Juicero CEO Jeff Dunn. “When I saw this week’s headlines about hacking and hand-squeezing Produce Packs, I had a one overriding thought,” Dunn posted on Medium on April 20, never mentioning the Bloomberg article by name. “We know hacking consumer products is nothing new. But how can we better demonstrate the incredible value we know our connected system delivers?” Juicero’s machine, he argued, “is critical to delivering a consistent, high quality and food safe product.” It provides:

  1. The first closed loop food safety system that allows us to remotely disable Produce Packs if there is, for example, a spinach recall. In these scenarios, we’re able to protect our consumers in real-time.
  2. Consistent pressing of our Produce Packs calibrated by flavor to deliver the best combination of taste and nutrition every time.
  3. Connected data so we can manage a very tight supply chain, because our product is live, raw produce, and has a limited lifespan of about 8 days.

“The value of Juicero,” Dunn continued, “is more than a glass of cold-pressed juice. Much more.”

The value is in how easy it is for a frazzled dad to do something good for himself while getting the kids ready for school, without having to prep ingredients and clean a juicer.

It’s in how the busy professional who needs more greens in her life gets App reminders to press Produce Packs before they expire, so she doesn’t waste the hard-earned money she spent on them.

The frazzled dad who finds relief in Juicero. The busy professional who, concerned about not wasting her “hard-earned money,” spends $400 on a juicer that will alert her to impending expiration dates, the same ones that, Bloomberg was careful to note, are also printed on the back of each produce pack. These examples are so absurd, so perfectly tailored to the “first-world problem” critique of tech, that it’s hard to believe Dunn, a veteran of Coca-Cola and Bolthouse Farms, has written them in earnest.

But he has. Startups like Juicero are incapable of seeing their own absurdities. Shower enough money and attention on any person or company and the detachment from reality becomes inevitable. “When you have a lot of power you lose your ability to take the other person’s perspective,” Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford’s graduate school of business, told me recently. We were talking about Uber’s ill-advised name for its secret program to monitor Lyft drivers—“Hell”—but the observation applies here, too. The wealth and culture of Silicon Valley inoculates these companies against the obnoxiousness—or in the case of Juicero, laughability—of their own behavior.

Juicero is hardly alone. WeWork, a company that provides shared offices, believes space can’t be measured in square footage. Color, a social-media hopeful, raised $41 million for its “multilens” “elastic network.” Quirky, a sort of Kickstarter for inventors, received $170 million by promising to make anyone into Thomas Edison. But Quirky didn’t produce enough Edisons and Color couldn’t sell its multilens elasticity. WeWork has yet to prove its offices defy conventional measurements. Silicon Valley decrees that everything must be “much more”; the “glass of cold-pressed juice” is never enough. It would be the perfect recipe for success if only the rest of the world saw things the same way.

The image at the top of this post was shared under a Creative Commons license on Flickr. It has been cropped.

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