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The Parable of Juicero: A Tech Lesson for 2017

The rise and fall of the juice company was a study in Silicon Valley hubris

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In 2015—long before the name Juicero became unofficial shorthand for Silicon Valley snake oil—Doug Evans appeared on Ventured, a podcast run by his investor Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. For the past two years, the founder had been operating the company in “stealth mode,” an industry term for when a startup quietly raises money prior to its product launch; the appearance was one of his first real opportunities to explain the motivation behind his product to the public, or at least the TechCrunch set.

During the 25-minute chat with KPCB general partner Randy Komisar and Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown, Evans revealed that his interest in health began after his mom died of cancer, his father died of heart disease, and his brother was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. He cited a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists that said if every American had just one more serving of fruits and vegetables, our country’s mortality rate would be reduced by “tens of thousands.” He made no mention of the trendy juice-based diets en vogue among celebrities. Rather, he offered a mission statement that seemed appropriate for 2015, a time when first lady Michelle Obama was still touring the nation extolling the virtues of gardening and exercise, and the economy was showing steady, promising growth. “Our focus is on how do we use technology to almost coddle that fresh, ripe, raw fruits and vegetables so that we can deliver it in the way that it was intended,” he said. “So it’s a healthier solution, not a more shelf stable solution, and then how do we make that healthier solution more affordable.”

A year later, Evans debuted a fun-house-mirror reflection of the vision he’d once described, skewed to reflect the priorities of Silicon Valley. The futuristic white processor—which he’d raised a whopping $120 million to manufacture—looked like a robot sidekick off the set of Star Wars. Inside the hulking device was a motor that was capable of crushing produce with 8,000 pounds of force. But before a Juicero owner was able to do that, a lot more had to happen. First, they had to order the $5-to-$8 packets of fruits and vegetables from the company to insert into the device. The machine was equipped with a camera that read each packet’s QR code and, via a Wi-Fi connection, determined whether it was fresh enough to squeeze. If it was just a day past its expiration date, no juice. If it was made by a different company, no juice. If your in-home Wi-Fi connection happened to cut out, no juice. It cost $700.

Evans’s pitch had evolved, too. Alongside his mention of deceased family members and affordable produce, he talked about amalgamous concepts like “chi” and “life force.” He went on an entertaining press tour where he said things like “If you look at a two-year ROI at $700, it’s less than a dollar a day. So if you look at someone who makes juice, it’s a bargain, because their time is so valuable.” Because he couldn’t make definitive claims about juice’s positive effect on a person’s health, his best argument for the product was simply that it required less cleanup and was better tasting than the juice produced by his competitors.

However confident Evans was as a salesman, it became clear that he had room for improvement as a CEO. The initial Juicero processor engineered under his leadership was so expensive to manufacture that, despite its high price tag, it lost the company money on each sale. According to a Gizmodo report, Evans was a “micromanaging tyrant and a demeaning bully” who frequently forced his employees to adhere to his extreme environmentalist ideals. For a period of time, employees were reportedly forbidden from expensing non-vegan meals on business trips. Rather than address an office fly infestation by hiring an exterminator, he reportedly requested employees research how to “relocate” the insects.

Less than a year after Juicero’s public launch, Evans was replaced by Jeff Dunn, a former president of Coca-Cola North America. A company press release presented the shake-up as an amicable, logical step toward the future—one that assured Evans would still have a role as chairman of its board and continue to drive Juicero’s “vision and strategic relationships.” “Because of his deep experience building fresh produce and beverage businesses, Jeff is the ideal leader to execute the next phase of our ambitious vision," Evans said. But as soon as Dunn took over, he began running damage control. He slashed the price of the juicer by $300 and he set engineers to work designing a cheaper, $199 iteration. Meanwhile, Evans embraced his role as salesman, rustling up more potential investors and serving juice to Katy Perry at Coachella.

Dunn’s efforts were not enough to battle the scandal that would soon come. In April 2017, Bloomberg published a side-by-side video of a person using their two hands to squeeze juice out of one of the company’s custom juice packets, next to a Juicero doing the same task. The short clip demonstrated that a very expensive gadget—which cost roughly the same amount as a round-trip plane ticket—could essentially be replaced with a little arm muscle. To the already unsympathetic tech pulpit, this was cold, hard evidence of a scam, and deeply embarrassing proof that investing in the pet project of a man who exclusively eats raw produce and wears hemp shoes was categorically unwise. This internet had a field day. “It’s easy to mock Silicon Valley, where too often companies repackage familiar ideas and sell them back to us as exemplars of Groundbreaking Disruptive Innovation™,” wrote Slate. “But, if you’ll pardon a pun that will explain itself in just a moment, you’d be hard-pressed to find a sillier example of that tendency than Juicero.”

Dunn took to Medium to smooth over the discovery, but it only seemed to make things worse. “The value of Juicero is more than a glass of cold-pressed juice,” he wrote, arguing that Juicero ensured food safety, enabled a tight supply chain of raw food, and ensured consistent taste and nutrition. “Much more.” Still, his offer to refund any Juicero owner’s machine was interpreted as an acknowledgement of defeat. The post was widely mocked as a desperate attempt to save an already-doomed company by way of empty marketing speak. Wrote one commenter, “This is everything wrong about Silicon Valley in one note.”

There have been plenty of useless, buzzy consumer tech flops over the years, but every once in a while an invention comes from a place of such miscalculated overconfidence that it communicates something profound about the frivolousness of American consumerism. The 2001 debut of the Segway, which Steve Jobs said would be as big a deal as the PC, predicted a Terminator-lite vision of society where our bodies would rely on a more powerful exoskeleton. Its designers didn’t account for the fact that people would still rather use their human legs to walk just a little bit slower. In 2012, Google debuted a face computer named Glass as an antidote to smartphone-induced social isolation. In a TED Talk, CEO Sergey Brin praised the product's ability to “free” your hands, eyes, and ears. It fizzled under legitimate concern that no one in the presence of a “glasshole,” as they came to be known, would be free from being covertly recorded or photographed. The 2014 smartphone app Yo, whose only function was to send a push notification that said “yo,” went viral for its stupid premise. That its creators immediately stumbled into a $1.5 million seed round was proof of a new Silicon Valley cynicism that prioritized press exposure over substance.

On a basic level, Juicero was a company that helped concentrate the guts of fruits and vegetables into an 8-ounce glass of juice that you could then consume. Zoom out a little, and it also distilled two trendy startup schemes into one gloriously impractical hunk of plastic and metal. On one side was the fetishistique cult of Yves Béhar–designed hardware, a meme in the tech industry that began at Apple and has since seeped into nearly every company product and price tag, no matter how inconsequential. On the other was a pseudo-scientific interpretation of what it means to be healthy, rooted in both California’s love affair with food and exercise fads, and the average technologist’s desire to extend their lifespan with the help of apps, exercise bands, and blood boys. From its debut, Juicero stood as a glorious tribute to the tech industry’s incessant navel gazing. It was made for and by the rich—the Tesla of produce secretion. (Evans himself often made that comparison.)

Evans was able to collect an absurdly large pile of cash for his idea by riding the wave of the tech industry’s optimistic “food technology” movement. It began with Soylent, the company that marketed nutrition shakes to coders as a food replacement and inspired all kinds of niche subgenres. Highlights included the Impossible Burger, which marketed its plant-based meat substitutes as an equally delicious substitute for protein; Hampton’s Creek, which similarly offered a plant-based alternative to mayo; and Habit, a food-delivery service that planned your meals based on the supposed needs of your DNA. But Juicero was the crown jewel of the trend because it was utterly extravagant, did very little to “disrupt” an existing market, and had no plan to tackle a larger existential problem in society. It was made because some venture capitalists were self-obsessed enough to think that the rest of America would spend money on a nice juice machine, too.

For that reason, the tale of Juicero’s downfall feels like a modern-day version of The Grapes of Wrath, refashioned to debunk the intoxicating myth of Silicon Valley’s innovative food kick. A handful of its industry peers have already suffered from some form of debunking over the past few years. First-person tales about living off of Soylent depicted the experience as a form of self-punishment. A Bloomberg exposé revealed that Hampton Creek had a history of making exaggerated claims about its mayo’s environmental benefits and supermarket sales. My own investigation of Habit discovered that the company’s “proprietary” DNA testing mechanism lacked the peer-reviewed research to prove it was effective. But when it came time for Juicero’s unraveling, it was by far was the most visually jarring of the bunch.

By September, Juicero was no more. In a rundown of the company’s demise, Bloomberg reported that several investors felt it was “a victim of an anti-elitist political and media climate.” This is a fancy way of saying that the company was shamed into oblivion. Consumers were finally fed up with being duped into spending too much money on something they didn’t need. For years, Silicon Valley’s band of miracle-working health startups had hidden behind a smoke screen of slick marketing and perpetual caveats. Prior to Juicero’s hand-squeeze scandal, disproving the effectiveness of something like a health tracker or a DNA-inspired meal plan required consumers to weigh a long-winded study that may or may not have been convincing enough for them to admit they wasted their money. Researchers have long said that health trackers don’t make people more fit, but tell that to the desk worker who religiously aims to reach a 10,000-step goal each day. For every story arguing that meal plans organized around your DNA are a scam, there might be another first-person account that argues they point people “in the right direction.” But Juicero’s proof of deception was immediate and devastating: an indisputable receipt in GIF form. The thing might as well not exist. Soon enough, the company didn’t.

As 2017 comes to a close, Juicero is now etched into history as a parable for Silicon Valley hubris. What happens when a misguided modern-day health food evangelist manages—like many before him—to co-opt California hippie culture’s obsession with homegrown raw food, and refashion it into an unnecessary, over-engineered accessory for the rich? Juicero is proof that there’s only so much profit the tech industry can squeeze out of pseudoscience until the empty calories become quite obvious. Is this the year they finally learn?

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