A steelman of Juicero

The puzzle is this: why did anybody ever take this company seriously? Its beverage-making machine cost hundreds of dollars. It required ingredients in proprietary packaging at several times their normal price. The drinks it produced weren’t all that great - you could make something just as good with cheap equipment and a minuscule amount of effort.

I’m talking, of course, about the Keurig coffee maker.

Keurig machines seem absurd to me. The entry-level models cost between $100 and $200. The coffee pods they need cost around $1.50 per ounce. By comparison, the drip coffee maker I bought several years ago cost something like $45. The coffee beans I buy are about $0.55 per ounce.

It would be one thing if the Keurig machines produced really great coffee. But they don’t. They make consistently-OK coffee at best. I’m not a snob; I’ll happily drink Keurig-produced coffee if it’s offered. But with 90 seconds of effort pretty much anybody can make something much better.

We can tell a similar story about Juicero, the Silicon Valley startup that folded in 2017. The company’s products were extremely expensive - its machine cost $400, and the packets cost at least $5 each. And the machine wasn’t even that great at turning the packets into juice. Indeed, Juicero’s downfall came shortly after Bloomberg News published an article claiming that squeezing them by hand was (almost) as effective as using its machine.

Juicero has now become a symbol of the excesses of Silicon Valley and venture capital, since it raised hundreds of millions of dollars. The much-missed Scott Alexander Graham Bell found almost a dozen pieces in mainstream outlets that mocked Juicero, the tech industry, and venture capital in his blog post on the subject. The theme of these pieces, and others like them, is: (a) Juicero was/is dumb, (b) the people who used the product are dumb, and (c) the investors behind the company are really dumb. The New Yorker article on Slate Star Codex even got shots in, three years later.

My own opinion is that Juicero was a ridiculous product. It had WiFi? And DRM? Why?* But this nearly-unanimously snide commentary is why people hate the media. One reason, anyway. Only a small fraction of the articles in the Juicero-dunking genre asked “is there any reason why somebody might have used the product?”

To its credit, the Bloomberg News piece that effectively killed Juicero did try to answer this question. It noted “Workers from seven businesses that own Juicero machines said they like the product because the disposable packs can be discarded with minimal cleanup.” Aha! Perhaps it wasn’t entirely worthless?

A Juicero press saved users a little bit of labor, the same way a Keurig machine does. I don’t mind measuring coffee beans, grinding them, pouring water, etc. So I’m not willing to trade money for convenience at this margin. But I can see why other people might be - if you don’t drink much coffee, or don’t have a lot of time in the morning, or are using it to deliver caffeine, maybe you should use one. Similarly, if you're a restaurant employee pressed for time, maybe a fancy juice press is just what you need.

I’ve got no problem with poking fun at people with more money than sense, and no doubt many of Juicero’s customers fit that description. But let’s not pretend there is no universe in which the Juicero product could have worked out. Early coverage of Juicero indeed compared it to Keurig, and ex-ante it’s not obvious that it couldn’t have had similar success. If you want to call the Juicero dumb, go ahead, but please do explain why it was clear from the beginning that no sensible person could decide to use one.

* Some Keurig models have had WiFI and DRM also, for what it’s worth.