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A Tale of Two Products

This is the tale of two products. Physical things that do something rather similar. Each prepares a beverage – one hot, one cold – that are consumed on a enormous scale all over the planet.

The drinks themselves have been consumed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. But each of the devices has been developed within the last 15 years.

One was invented by a man in his 60s. He’s been an old fashioned inventor for decades, inventing simple, widely known and popular plastic based toys (one of which holds the record for the object thrown furthest by a human on earth*), and, quite late in life by most people’s standards, created this device to meet a specific need for which he found no exact equivalent available, although there are countless devices that exist to do the job.

It is made of plastic, requires no power, and has no internet connection. He had no prior experience with this beverage other than as a consumer of it. His modest company (by internet standards) funded and produced this device, and you can buy them for less than $50, all round the world.

Every few months (or even years, depending) it requires you to purchase a perishable component for about $5. You buy the raw product needed to make the drink from any of thousands, potentially millions, of suppliers worldwide.

The other product was developed by a startup that raised $120 million in venture capital from top tier investors. The founder had enormous prior success selling this beverage in bottled form. The device sells for $400 (originally $700) and uses a power source and an internet connection so you can operate it from your phone.

You must purchase the raw product ($4 to $10 per serve) to turn into the drink from the company, and only from the company. Although it turns out you could use the raw product to create the drink without even using the device!

One of these devices has engendered an enormous following of fans, from those who use it occasionally at home to some of the most experienced food and beverage professionals in the world. There are global competitions to use this device to produce the best possible beverage. People hack it to create variations on its original purpose. There are video based paeans to it online. It is truly a phenomenon.

The other is quickly becoming an object of outright ridicule. It shuts itself down if it detects you using it for any other purpose than consuming the expensive raw material you purchase from its manufacturer. Or if that material goes out of date.

Which of these two kinds of product are you trying to build? One that creates a passionate community who will take your creation places no-one, least of all you, imagined?

Or one that is a glossy, over ‘designed’, needlessly tech-laden trojan horse for your business model?

The Reveal

Two Products: AeroPress versus Juicero

image credits Aerobie and Wired Magazine
 
Of course, the first device is the AeroPress, and the second is the Juicero.

I’m a huge fan of the AeroPress, and have written about it before. I use it every day.

Coffee is at the heart of my life. I’ve made it for a living, and consumed it in myriad forms for well over half my life. On some of my most difficult days it’s been a source of profound comfort, and I’ve had some of the best conversations of my life, personal and professional, over a coffee.

I invited the AeroPress inventor, Alan Adler, to speak at one of our events but he’s not a great traveller and Australia was a bridge too far. His daughter looks after this sort of thing. A company with such impact being run by a small family (I am from a similar background) really says something to me.

Now, the plural of anecdote may (or may not) be data, but “AeroPress versus Juicero”, from the outside, tells a story that is in many ways what we are supposed to naively believe. Juicero convinced the likes VCs of GV and KPCB to invest, and garnered all kinds of press.

Now, that has turned into not very good press. As in really terrible, product destroying press.

Meanwhile, imagine the sort of advice the army of advisors and VCs would love to dish out to Aerobie:

  • * 500 additional filters priced not at 1 cent each, but 10 cents
  • * special pods of pre-prepared coffee (required) to ensure the best possible quality and experience (AKA a post sale revenue stream)
  • * on-board electronics to ensure the freshest and best quality drinks and remind you to replace the exclusive paper filters (and force you to use only Aerobie consumables)
  • * internet connectivity to share your coffee experience with your friends” “John just made a coffee!” (and shut down the device if non-standard pods or filters are detected – hmm, better up their price)

Instead, here’s how Aerobie responded to an after-market metal filter (which eats into that $5 a year paper filter sale they make).

There are many companies, both domestic and foreign, that manufacture filters designed for use in the AeroPress coffee maker made of other materials, particularly metal. We do not object to these other companies selling their filters but none of them can legally use our AeroPress trademark.

Alan Adler set out to make a single cup coffee maker, since that’s what he needed but couldn’t find anywhere. Turns out he created a novel, inexpensive way to make about as good a cup of coffee can be made.

And then, rather than stand in the way of people who wanted to take this simple amazing thing and do more with it (for example, start a competition for the best coffee made with it), he and his company embraced that.

Instead of looking to own the aftermarket space, Aerobie is happy to let others fill that gap. And instead of taking their captive audience, who I’m pretty sure would be very happy to pay more than $5 for hundreds of paper filters, they charge a ludicrously small amount (IMO) for a vital component to my coffee making.

Juicero isn’t really a device for extracting a great drink from fruit and vegetables, it’s a device for extracting money from customers.

AeroPress is a device that – largely by accident but also due to the values of its inventor – is much, much more than just the best coffee maker you’ll find.

There have to be some lessons in that.

World Record Throw at Fort Funston Set with Aerobie Ring

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I had an absolute blast, learnt so much, and met so many great people

Carmen Chung Software engineer, Valiant Finance

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