Blue Bottle Coffee, and the difference between the Entrepreneur and Auteur

I have been away, working on developing a new food product… yes, yes I am. But this is not an undertaking that has spontaneously arisen from thinking I’m a brown Rachael Ray because I write a blog… nope it’s been a long time coming, and let’s just say, Rachael Ray isn’t my steeze.

It actually started 1.5 years ago at the same time as I was introduced to the topic of this little write up: During an immersive entrepreneurship program funded by the Swedish government (A strong public sector is socialist perk!), that took me to San Francisco to study food culture, entrepreneurial endeavors, etc, etc. Many of the other students in the group were all about Silicon Valley… I just wanted to see, be seen, and eat.

I ended up attending a panel discussion; I think it was on marketing your food product. I was helping a lady with a business in the Mission district, so we went together. This event was put on by the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center, a wonderful resource for the community. It was very nice for these successful bay area entrepreneurs to give their time: one of which was James Freeman, the Founder of Blue Bottle Coffee.

After the panel, the image from his at times ‘soliloquy’ styled presentation, which was intended as advice, stuck with me.

Did he have a  plan?

Not so much, he just wanted to make a the best coffee, no matter the measures he needed to take… and thereafter making sure his employees do the same, and that’s the product is kept fresh: sold within 48 hours of grinding.

Did he spend a lot of time on marketing?

Hmmmm, not really, he figured, if they like it, they will come back.

Any peaks and valleys to speak of?

I recall perhaps a story about a mishap with a machine, but all in all his tone was kept quite uniform and relaxed, with one exception: he thought it was oh so sophisticated (I am pretty sure at one point he actually used the word ‘glamorous’) to see Blue Bottle served at the MOMA in NYC. That is the only point in the speech where I heard any distinctly enthusiastic inflection in his tone, this obviously excited him. I was suspicious he was perhaps an intellectual whore… its like Hipster, but they came of age in the 90’s when the independent film was ‘invented’ by a friend of a friend… but I prompted myself to digress and take heed to confirm first.

I looked around the room, and could imagine some of the people’s thoughts: “What the hell, does this guy know he’s a red blooded American capitalist or what? Where’s the beef? The scoop? The strategy?”

All in all, this guy seemed more of an auteur of the art of coffee then an entrepreneur. Unless, of course, his nonchalance was in itself a marketing tool to appeal to the consciously aloof yet somehow well informed hipster crowd that seem to take their coffee EXCRUCIATINGLY seriously in SF. However, I doubt this was the case, as this panel was far from a press opportunity… the room was sprinkled with folks who run mom and pop shops in the cities outskirts, who were genuinely looking for insight in how they can develop their bodega or product to play with the larger contenders.  In other words, people who really needed the advice, not any glamour.

He spoke mostly of his coffee technique, as if it was an art style. Very much a different creature then the other two entrepreneurs on the panel, who broke down their secrets from co packing, to UPC bar codes, and the tricks grocers have to sell shelf space.

No, No, No… this was not the Blue Bottle world: Although Blue Bottle has developed into having multiple locations and expanded (and since then sold for $20 million). That was not the part of the story worth elaborating on for Mr. Freeman or perhaps those things just happened on their own, I’m not sure, and the couple of questions posed to get some clarification were met by him with a combination of modesty and briefness that could be read as apathy…  this guy reminded me much more of an European artist then anything else.

It made me think….

Did this business happen by chance? Or did his passion for creating something truly of a quality, without any pretext otherwise, naturally bloom a business people appreciated?

I’m not much for fairy tales, not when business or people’s lives are concerned.

 If either is the case, is this man an entrepreneur if he did not set out to create this dynamic business? Well, I’ve thought on it for a bit and realized:

“You know what, it really doesn’t matter.” Why? Because he still set out to create value.

I know, its a matter of semantics, and that line can be considered a cop out in explaining the realities of the world, but there is something to identifying ‘value’.

Now, of course if no one knows you have even developed a product of value, its a tough sell, but apparently the “if you build it, they will come” approach does still work when the temperature is right… and we know the guys at Blue Bottle know how to finesse a temperature gauge.

Although, I was a initially a bit confused by his coolness and seemingly lack of insight… after the inaugural steps of initiating my own endeavor, I began to think about this oddball entrepreneur and find comfort in his general lack of predisposition. This approach is the antithesis to many of the entrepreneurial ‘lessons to live by’ that have been hammered into my subconscious (most graciously) during this past year’s education. Sure, we covered ‘passion’ in spades, but it was always coupled with ‘plan’. I would not abandon planning, momma didn’t raise no fool, but evaluate the process.

I did laughed a bit inside when I saw that gleam in his eye as he talked about a literal DROP of coffee… but somewhere in there was a truth and conviction for what he does. Besides, I’m no stranger to looking far too enthusiastic when I talk about food… actually I could benefit from learning to play it bit more cool like Mr. Freeman.

When you deal with things so close to the primal heart as food, there is a lot of merit in passion and precision when it comes to your business. Any food lover will tell you “when it’s made with love, you can truly taste it.”  I would never use that line in business, too corny, but I must admit, its true.


I have to be careful never to forget that.