The three qualities that helped a small coffee company raise $70m
The story of how James Freeman and Blue Bottle went from quirky San Francisco brand to scalable, venture-backed business might not be a guaranteed roadmap, but it is repeatable.
Is Blue Bottle's James Freeman the patron saint of the mom and pops?
That's the question I asked myself as Freeman and I spoke on stage at Pandoland in Nashville last week. For one thing, he's middle aged. He looks more like a history professor than a hipster. His training was in... classical music. And his empire which has so far raised $70 million, began with just him, a cookie sheet and some raw coffee beans.
The story of how James Freeman and Blue Bottle went from quirky San Francisco affinity brand to scalable, venture-backed business might not be a roadmap for every other business, but it is repeatable.
Here are three important things Freeman had that most small businesses do not:
1) The right fans. Among Blue Bottle's obsessives were names like Kevin Rose, Evan Williams and Tony Conrad -- all of whom also happen to invest in startups like Bluebottle. Not only did these people have money to invest, they had the right risk profile. Tens of thousands here or there won't affect their lives. They've wasted more on silly apps trying to be the next social network. They also have an open mind about what can scale and what can't. And lastly an investment in Blue Bottle has a vanity component because it's so beloved. Like investing in a hot restaurant like flour+water (which many of the same folks also invested in) but with a possible upside. An easy deal... At least to seed.
Of course getting big dollars from the likes of Fidelity is what catapulted blue bottle into the big leagues, but there again the coffee did the negotiating. As Freeman explained on stage:
An analyst, one of the descion makers from Fidelity came into one of our shops [for a meeting] ... and she was like paleo or vegan and she got an almond milk cappuccino... and she couldn't stop talking about this almond milk cappuccino..
2) Total passion and authenticity. Most entrepreneurs start from a place of passion but along the way compromises happen. Not so at Blue Bottle, or at least not for now. When Freeman arrived on stage at Pandoland I apologized to Freeman for our coffee which I assumed was substandard by his painstaking one cup at a time tastes. He smiled and said sweetly "I'll never find out." Not only does he never want his own coffee to diminish in quality -- as he said on stage, he hopes this latest funding round will help make it taste better-- he apparently doesn't even allow other coffee to touch his lips.
Likewise, Freeman's refusal to produce Blue Bottle tshirts and other schwag. As he explains in the interview, he doesn't wear branded tshirts and so doesn't want his company to start selling them. What do they sell instead? $100 branded pajamas.
3. Timing. Blue Bottle isn't the only coffee business raising cash right now. There's a so-called "third wave" of roasters that is getting plenty of cash. So investors in Bluebottle might feel somewhat contrarian but they don't feel crazy.
Freeman has amazing clarity of vision for where he goes from here. When I asked him to name one thing he believes that few other people do he responded that he believes things don't have to suck when they get big. And when asked how something like a chain of coffee shops could scale to venture return levels, he simply answered they'd scale by... opening more stores. Like I said: The king of mom and pops.
Here's the full video of the interview:
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