VC Justifies Investing in Blue Bottle Coffee By Calling It a Movement

If there's anyone more precious than a coffee snob, it's the tech investors who plowed $45.7 million into Blue Bottle Coffee, which Slate calls the Apple to Starbucks' Microsoft.

Since 2012, Instagram's Kevin Systrom, Twitter cofounder Ev Williams, Flickr cofounder Caterina Fake, Chris Sacca, Google Ventures, True Ventures, and more have poured money into the San Francisco-based chain.

But rather than acknowledging that they invested in Blue Bottle because (1) it's good coffee (2) next door to their offices (3) that makes them feel special (4) so who cares if it has nothing to do with tech, Tony Conrad, the cofounder of about.me and a partner at True Ventures, tells Slate that Blue Bottle creator James Freeman is starting a "movement."

This is what it sounds like when startup rhetoric gets grafted onto caffeinated beverages:

For Conrad and True Ventures, Blue Bottle was worth breaking rules for. Never mind that its business is not Internet-driven (so far). As an investor, Conrad found Freeman's sensibility irresistible. "When I closed my eyes and thought about the things that were important to James, they were not dissimilar to what I've learned to recognize in what I'll call 'founders of movements,'" Conrad said. "James had a vision every bit in the same way that [WordPress co-founder] Matt Mullenweg had a vision for democratizing people's voice. Caterina Fake at Flickr, Kevin Systrom at Instagram—they're rare, but when you run into them, you know it."

There's a slight difference between a successful franchise and a concerted effort to advance a cause, but Freeman embraces those reverent overtones:

Its method may be Japanese, but Blue Bottle's sleek aesthetic also carries a strong whiff of Cupertino. The words "Blue Bottle" and "coffee" are not plastered on large placards outside the company's cafes. Most locations are marked only by a simple stencil of a blue bottle, which doesn't shout "coffee" to the average passerby any more than the silhouette of an apple shouts "computers." As a result, just walking in makes you feel like you're in the know.

Exclusivity wasn't the intention, Freeman tells me. It's just that he doesn't like shouting. "I'm very secular, but there's a quote I love that's often attributed to St. Francis," he says: "'Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.'"

Once you filter out the magniloquence, however, the only underlying belief is that investing in a fancy store will probably make you more money than most apps:

"We're never going to get a WhatsApp outcome with Blue Bottle," Conrad admits. "But we're also not going to get the 40- to 80-percent chance of a flameout that you see in tech investments."

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[Image via Associated Press]