Juicero is a startup that sells a $400 machine that squeezes packets of diced fruit and vegetables to produce fresh juice. A person might assume that a product so simple and boring, yet weirdly expensive, couldn’t possibly attract the entire internet’s derision. A person would be wrong.
It’s best to begin this story in March of last year, when the New York Times published a profile of the company’s founder Doug Evans, a former Army paratrooper who had already started and sold the successful Organic Avenue line of cold-pressed juices and healthy snacks. Evans was not a Silicon Valley veteran, but he spoke like one, rhapsodizing his product with quasi-religious grandiosity. “Not all juice is equal,” he told The Times. “How do you measure life force? How do you measure chi?”
Evans beguiled investors with the promise of a miniaturized industrial-strength juicer that could one day serve as kitchen candy in millions of households looking for a quick way to liquefy fruits and veggies. Lo and behold, the storytelling worked. Juicero raised $120 million from venture-capital firms, including Google Ventures and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and food companies such as Campbell Soup. But there was an opposite reaction as well: The Times profile, its quixotic subject, and the dollar amount engendered a kind of coiled schadenfreude among many readers—poised and eager to strike.
Their moment came this week, after some Juicero investors who received the product noticed something strange. The pouches didn’t require a $400 piece of equipment to yield juice. They required something less proprietary—fingers. Two Bloomberg reporters, Ellen Huet and Olivia Zaleski, performed their own test. They found that squeezing Juicero’s pouches in their hands for 90 seconds yielded as much juice from the bags as the industrial strength machine, which actually took 30 seconds longer to produce a similar amount of liquid. It appeared that Juicero’s vaunted product, which had so beguiled Silicon Valley, was basically a simple press—functionally the equal of a waffle iron, except one that can’t make waffles.
Mockery reached a fever pitch on Thursday when Jeff Dunn, the chief executive of Juicero, published a defense of the company in Medium that, among other sins, used the phrase “raw, plant-based nutrition” twice and never once referred to his product, which is juice, as simply “juice.” He dismissed the Bloomberg video as trivial—“We know hacking consumer products is nothing new”—and defended the maligned machinery, which is called the Press, with a capital p.
And what is the Press? The official description reads like something manufactured by NASA to drill asteroids for root vegetables. The website promises a “bead-blasted aluminum door” constructed with “aircraft-grade aluminum and precision-forged gearing components” to generate “4 tons [of] potential pressing force,” with a “suite of sensors scans” connected to the internet so that “you have the latest updates,” all optimized through “multiple iterations of miniaturization.” And all this for what? A thing that squeezes a bag?
No. Juicero is more than that, Dunn promised. Much more. In his words:
Our connected Press itself is critical to delivering a consistent, high quality and food safe product because it provides:
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.
Consistent pressing of our Produce Packs calibrated by flavor to deliver the best combination of taste and nutrition every time.
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 is more than a glass of cold-pressed juice. Much more.
To review: Juicero cuts up fruits and vegetables and sells them to consumers, who drink the produce in liquid form. That’s what juice companies do. It publishes an expiration date for consumers. That’s what juice companies do. So, Juicero could have gone around Silicon Valley and said: “Hi there, we’re a juice company. We sell juice. The juice is so good.”
But Juicero didn’t do that because, although being a juice company isn’t exactly dumb, it is something far worse than dumb in the venture-capital world. It is boring.
“Dumb” can be interesting. And “so stupid it might actually be brilliant” is practically an investment category for some partners seeking high-risk, high-return opportunities. But nobody wants to invest in a mere beverages company—especially since this particular market is both declining overall and crowded with competition from bottling companies and juice bars. So, Juicero had to tell a bogus story: the story of a juice company that isn’t actually a juice company, but rather a cutting-edge hardware company providing a WiFi-connected platform for enthusiasts of raw nutrition that has the potential to become the Keurig of liquefied plants.
That storytelling worked—$120 million raised! But a key difference between a prospective investor and an actual consumer is that consumers do not have the patience for good stories to become good products. They just want juice, preferably at a price that doesn’t feel like armed robbery. And the Press is, at best, a money-sucking capital investment which is almost incidental to the viability of the juice product, and, at worst, a beautiful hardware con.
As defenders of Juicero on Twitter noted—and yes, there were defenders—some people really like expensive juice. They said critics can laugh at the Bloomberg video, but ordinary people might not want to squeeze pouches of diced raw plants into a glass, even if the process isn’t particularly arduous and messy. Plus, the market for affluent people to purchase the feeling of health is enormous.
All of which is true. Indeed, one of the wonders of capitalism is that there will always be a vast market for things that one considers silly or absurd. There are luxury breadmakers, and high-end sous-vides ovens, and many species of kitchenware whose functions I cannot imagine. But none of these products or their manufacturers are subject to a withering, or even financially threatening, round of mockery, because they didn’t attempt to differentiate themselves in a crowded market with a gratuitous and easily falsifiable narrative about platforms, aircraft-grade machines, and the life force of diced vegetables. Juicero’s product may be delicious. But its bogus-sounding story about converting a beverage company into a technology company has revealed itself to be just that—bogus.