free html hit counter June 2015 - John Battelle's Search Blog

Scaling Through Culture: WeWork and Blue Bottle (vs. Regus and Starbucks)

By - June 17, 2015

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The way we work is changing. That statement seems self-evident to anyone involved in what I call the NewCo economy – work no longer has to be a duty, it can be a calling. For those blessed with the talent, education, connections, and skill to turn work into part of their self expression, work isn’t the thing you have to do so you can “have a life” – instead, work is your life, and your life is your work – and that’s in no way a contradiction.

This is all well and good if you’re in the small percentage of privileged folks who can find such an advantageous integration between work and life – but can it really scale? Or is the “rest of the world” doomed to work in shitty jobs, for shitty companies, with shitty outcomes, shitty attitudes, and all around bad karma?

I don’t think so. I think we can scale great approaches to work. I’ve written about work life integration recently, so I won’t belabor that point here. But a recent conversation with one of NewCo’s investors – Tony Conrad from True Ventures – reminded me that the idea of work-life integration just might scale – and that’s an idea I want to explore – because if more people felt the way I do about work, well, I think the world might be a far better place.

First, some background. A while back I had the chance to meet Bryan Meehan, the Chairman of Blue Bottle Coffee. Conrad is a board member and investor at Blue Bottle, but when I met Bryan, I didn’t know either of those things. I just wanted to meet another fellow traveler. Bryan is a lovely Irish fellow who is deeply passionate about his work, and he insisted on explaining the Blue Bottle culture to me – evidence of which was all around us, as we took the meeting in a cafe that had been approved to serve his product (yes, approved!).

Now, Blue Bottle is a pretty bespoke coffee brand, a fair target for anyone seeking to make fun of the hipster pose already passé amongst…well, hipsters. But the truth is, Blue Bottle makes a supremely awesome product. Once you’ve had their coffee, you’re pretty much done with Starbucks or Peets. I’ve driven miles out of my way to get Blue Bottle coffee, and knowing that, I recently jumped at a chance to become a very small investor in the company. So sure, read this post knowing I have a stake in the company, but know also I’d have written this post regardless, because I think Blue Bottle is onto something big, and while the product is superb, at its core it’s got less to do with coffee, and far more to do with the culture that creates that coffee.

Bryan is a quintessential entrepreneur, but not of the tech variety. He’s started companies in cosmetics and food, as well as venture – and he’s sold his companies to the likes of Whole Foods and LVMH. In 2012, he focused his skills on the then fledgling Blue Bottle, and in partnership with an all star lineup of tech investors (yes, including Conrad, who subsequently invested in NewCo), he and the founding team are busy scaling Blue Bottle’s bespoke approach to coffee across the US and beyond.

So why am I writing about a chain of coffee shops? Because Blue Bottle reminds me of another startup – WeWork. Over the past month, I’ve visited WeWork locations in Amsterdam, Austin, New York and San Francisco (both Blue Bottle and WeWork participate in NewCo festivals). Privately valued at more than $5 billion (nearly twice than their largest public competitor), WeWork recently graced the cover of BusinessWeek. The accompanying story essentially anointed the company “the future of offices.” WeWork is on a mission to create a global platform for people who want to express themselves through the work they do. Oh, and by the way, they also rent office space.

If WeWork is the future of office space, I’m optimistic about capitalism, because WeWork is about way more than work, just as Blue Bottle is about more than coffee. At their core, both companies are about something more meaningful: They are attempting to scale a new kind of culture – one that promises a quality workstyle, to be certain, but one that also celebrates who we are as people: we seek to find meaning in work, we seek a connection to a community where we both belong and contribute.

Put succinctly, both Blue Bottle and WeWork are successful cultures of work – and that’s key to their ability to scale. The greatest social shifts happen when an infectious new kind of culture is created and embraced – a new set of values that advance society in a positive way. That’s how the great religions all started (and when they lost that culture, it’s how they ossified and began to fail). It’s how all the great social contracts – like democracy – got started. And it’s how all great social movements started, from civil rights to rock and roll. Enough people said “this is bullshit, here’s a better way.”

I think we’re at a tipping point of a better way to work. And companies like WeWork and Blue Bottle are emblematic of that tip.

Blue Bottle’s baristas are an independent, opinionated bunch. They are coffee snobs, sure, but there’s more going on. “This is actually what they want to do with their life – create amazing coffee for their clients,” says Conrad. “This is their passion.” It’s that passion – that dedication to delivering amazing experience – that sets Blue Bottle apart. Working at Blue Bottle isn’t a job you pick up out of high school – unless you’re dedicated enough to do it. Blue Bottle requires that their Baristas commit to at least a year of work when they sign up. Starbucks? Not so much.

The differences don’t end there. Starbucks requires that their baristas not offend clients with colored hair, tattoos, or piercings. Blue Bottle could care less about those things, all that matters is the product and how it’s made and delivered. This reminds me of the dramatic difference between WeWork shared office spaces and their largest competitor – Regus.

Here’s a Google image search for “Regus Offices“.

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Pretty soul sucking.

Here’s the same search, but for “WeWork offices“:

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Click on those images (or on the searches themselves) and…what’s the first thing you notice? Yep, there are a lot more people in the WeWork images. And a lot more culture. And a lot more….life. And a lot less…corporate bullshit.

So, let’s do the same for Starbucks and Blue Bottle. Here’s Starbucks:

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Lots of corporate logos, hero shots of the corporatized product, but…no people*.

Now, how about Blue Bottle?

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Look – there are people! And expressions of culture and connections and places you might want to visit.

It’s quite a distinction, one that I think is key to scaling any NewCo – your company is more than a set of corporate rules about branding, employment policies, or process. A NewCo is an ongoing conversation about your company’s core mission – and that conversation happens between all the people who contribute in some way to your company. If your brand doesn’t express that conversation – or worse, doesn’t even know what that conversation is – well, your company is toast.

There’s a lot more to say about all of this, but I wanted to get that core idea out – the best companies going forward will be those that scale through a great shared culture, one driven by a mission to create some kind of positive change in the world. And that trend is a wonderfully positive shift in what it means to be a “corporation.”

*Look, Starbucks has all manner of great things going for it – and should be applauded for all it is doing given its scale and its origin as a culture-driven company. But at the end of the day, well, the coffee’s not very good anymore. And that, at its core, is a failure of culture.  

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Why Does Silicon Valley Like “Silicon Valley” So Much?

By - June 15, 2015

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HBO’s Silicon Valley, which concluded its second season last night, is an unmitigated hit amongst the Valley folk I’ve come to know and respect. As someone who’s lived variations of the show’s comedically dramatized plotlines – investor takeovers, company-threatening lawsuits, sexist bro cultures, etc. – it makes me cringe, chortle, and engage – something precious few shows can reliably accomplish regardless of their subject matter.

This isn’t Hollywood’s first attempt at plating the Valley’s culture and serving it back to us – technology plays an integral role in nearly every piece of primetime “competence porn” – CSI, Law & Order, Scorpion, whatever. There’s always a team of nerds who work with the good-looking people to leverage data and surveillance, and for reasons that should spur any number of graduate theses, Hollywood has adopted a rather borderline approach to civil liberties so it can deliver the bad guy in the end.

But Silicon Valley is the first show that bothered to look under the hood of what we’re making here, and understand it well enough to parody it back to us. For that we’re deeply grateful. Sure, you can pick apart just about everything in the show, but the truth is, it resonates, because it gets the core narrative right: The team making Piped Piper have their hearts in the right place, the villains remind us of the asshats we’ve all dealt with, and the highs and the lows mirror our own struggles with company creation, capital raising, and team and product building.

For the first time, the Valley has a show worthy of its cultural throw weight. And that makes us all feel a bit more understood, and a little more validated. I’m looking forward to Season Three. I hope the guys all move to the city in this next chapter…because that’s where the story is heading after all, right?

 

Forget Work Life Balance. It’s All About Work Life Integration

By - June 01, 2015
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Tuning in.

Every so often (though less often than I’d like), I ask one of my team into my band room, a place I created five years ago where the only rules are honest conversations and unbounded agendas. I built it to nurture my budding interest in playing music, but it’s also a great place to pour a drink, erase the white board, and see where the conversation goes. I believe we do far less of this “undirected conversation” than we should. I find band room sessions deeply productive, even if I’m a bit foggy the morning after.

In any case, last week our head of product Abe came over, and we were riffing on the bigger ideas behind NewCo. He’s quite a bit younger than me, a member of that much-debated “millennial” generation. As a group, millennials were born into digital technology, take climate change as a fact, and are now the most dominant force in the global economy (millennials are the largest single demographic in our economy, ever).

Our conversation turned to work styles, and whether his generation viewed work as “work,” or more as a calling. At NewCo, we believe that work can and should be more than a job, it should be a fulfilling expression of a person’s values and connection to community. Companies that enable that approach to work are NewCos, and we celebrate that idea.

In any case, I brought up the concept of “work life balance,” which has been much in the zeitgeist over the past decade or so. The rise of laptops, then of mobile, has meant work had “invaded” people’s personal and home lives, and most of the mainstream press is filled with hand wringing about what this all means.

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A full band room white board.

But that’s not how Abe saw it. Instead he espoused the concept of work-life integration, a relatively new phrase rising concurrent to the entrance of millennials in our workforce. But as he explained his support for the idea, I realized I’ve been working this way my entire life. It’s fundamental to the entrepreneurial lifestyle – Life is simply life, and if you’re passionate about what you do, then work is part of that life. As you plan your time, you prioritize everything in that life, and because work is no longer bound to one office space during one eight-hour period of time, you can mix and mingle all kinds of experiences – some work, some family, some personal – throughout your waking day.

The flip side of this: If you adopt the philosophy of work-life integration, you must also adopt a philosophy of total individual responsibility. That means understanding how to prioritize things like exercise, nutrition, downtime, and family/friends into a demanding work life. It means that you are willing to be judged not on showing up or managing up, but on the work you deliver to your company. And it means you’ve joined a like-minded group who together have created a company that understands how to thrive in this new environment.

At NewCo, all of us simply assume we live in a work-life integrated world. People come into the office when it makes sense to come in, and they stay home when that works better for them. Conflicts are resolved as they might be between friends – openly and with genuine respect. If someone isn’t pulling their weight, we tell them, and figure out how to resolve it (or part ways). And vacation days are taken when they are needed – no one is counting.

It’s not easy to explain this concept of “work life integration,” but you most certainly will feel it when you run into it. While it certainly isn’t a model that the service industry can adopt (yet), it’s without question the best way to run a startup.