What the demise of Juicero tells us about good (and bad) storytelling

Over the next few weeks I’ll be hosting a series of workshops on the art of storytelling for several different audiences, including a session at the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center in San Francisco in October. While the fundamentals of storytelling never change, there are always new examples of companies doing it well – and companies doing quite the opposite.

As I was sitting down to prepare for the workshop, one such example really caught my attention. The story of Juicero and its demise at the beginning of this month is a great illustration of a brand that failed to follow the key steps in telling a compelling, sustainable story – and instead became a punchline in a larger story of Silicon Valley largesse and technology innovation run amok.

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For those unfamiliar with the details, the now-defunct company Juicero developed a Wi-Fi-connected juicer that originally sold for $699, and subsequently for $399. The machine worked by exerting four tons of force – “enough to lift two Teslas,” according to its founder, Doug Evans – to extract juice from fresh fruit and vegetable cartridges, also sold by the company.

Juicero secured $120 million in funding from some of the most high-profile Silicon Valley investors – including Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB), Google Ventures and Thrive Capital – to pursue its vision of market domination.

The juicer seemed impressive, but there was just one glaring issue: You could squeeze as much from the Juicero bags with your bare hands as you could using the machine – and in some cases your hands could do it faster – a fact pointed out by Bloomberg in a devastating article published in April 2017. It turns out the machine was a waste of time. It wasn’t even a solution looking for a problem; it was just plain pointless.

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Predictably, the backlash was swift. A round of funding fell through. In July, the company announced plans to lay off a quarter of its staff as it worked to reduce prices. And then on September 1, Fortune broke the story that Juicero was shutting down and suspending sales immediately.

So how did a company go from being one of the best-funded U.S. hardware startups in 2016 to being out of business a year later?

From the perspective of storytelling, Juicero’s strategy was filled with holes and wishful thinking. In our storytelling workshop, we outline six key elements all companies should follow when creating their story:

  • Understand what connects your customer to you

  • Paint a vision people can engage with

  • Name the problem currently in your customer’s way that you are trying to resolve

  • Show how your product will overcome those challenges

  • Tell the story from your customer’s point of view

  • Last, but certainly not least, back up your story with facts

Apply these elements to Juicero and it isn’t hard to see where things went wrong.

Let’s start with understanding your customer. People like juice, sure. But do they like it enough to spend $700 on a juicer, or even the subsequently reduced price of $400? I don’t have any market research to prove it, but my gut instinct and a quick office poll says – emphatically – no. People may counter that customers are willing to pay a premium for a Keurig coffee machine, but people’s relationship to caffeine (or at least mine) is very different to their relationship to juice.

Name the problem in your customer’s way: Squeezing juice can be cumbersome, particularly on a busy morning. But is it that much of a problem? There are countless home juicer options available. And there are many other choices, from juice bars to bottled juice. Again, it is hard to see a sustainable market for this product.

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Even if I am mistaken on these assumptions and there is in a fact an unknown, as-yet-untapped market for the world’s most powerful juicer, the bottom line was this story was missing one crucial element: The facts did not support the vision. While it may seem unfathomable that a company could secure so much funding from seasoned venture capitalists and already begin selling to customers before anyone noticed that the product didn’t actually deliver value, it’s not unprecedented, as Theranos recently illustrated so brilliantly. As Bloomberg points out, all it took was one person running a quick hands-on test to expose the product’s limitations.

Blame it on a frenzied FOMO (fear of missing out) market, a desire to see things how we wish them to be rather than how they are, or just plain ineptitude. The Juicero story was clearly suspect from the outset. But like many Silicon Valley failures, this story offers lessons and other brands can learn from Juicero’s experience.

A great vision without facts is just a dream. Take the time to assess your company story against the criteria of good storytelling. Only then can you be sure you have a solid foundation in place to grow.

For more insights on storytelling, please join me at the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center on October 25.