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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“.

regusoffices

Pretty soul sucking.

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

weworkoffices

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:

sbuckscoffee

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

Now, how about Blue Bottle?

BBCoffee

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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