In 2002 a clarinetist named James Freeman quit his job as a professional musician and started… a mobile coffee shop. James was passionate about freshly roasted coffee. Back then, in the San Francisco catchment, it was virtually impossible to find coffee beans whose roast date was stated on the packaging. So James decided to roast his coffee himself. He roasted the beans in a garden shed at home and then drove to a farmers market in Berkeley and Oakland, California, where he set up a mobile coffee shop. Every cup was freshly brewed. James was friendly and accommodating, and his coffee was excellent.
Soon James and his coffee cart called Blue Bottle Coffee had a fan base. In 2005, he set up a stationary blue bottle coffee shop in a friend's garage in San Francisco. In the course of the following years his business grew and he opened more cafes bit by bit. In 2012 there were blue bottle cafes in San Francisco, Oakland, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. It was a deal that many would have called perfect. The coffee was considered one of the best in the whole country. The baristas were friendly and had extensive knowledge of coffee. The interior decoration of the cafés was also perfect: wooden shelves, tasteful ceramic tiles and a reserved logo in perfect sky blue. James, however, found his business by no means perfect or complete. He was still a passionate coffee specialist and innkeeper and wanted to bring the Blue Bottle experience to even more coffee lovers. That's why he wanted to open more cafes.
He also wanted to bring people home with freshly roasted coffee, even if they didn't live near a blue bottle cafe. If his coffee cart had been a Sputnik, the next phase would have been a rocket launch to the moon. In October 2012, Blue Bottle Coffee raised $ 20 million from a Silicon Valley investor group, including GV. James had many plans for using the money, but the most obvious one was to develop a better online store for selling fresh coffee beans. Blue Bottle wasn't a tech company, and James wasn't an expert on online retailing. How did he transfer the magic of his cafés to smartphones and laptops?
The problem with good ideas
Good ideas are rare. And no matter how good an idea is, that is no guarantee that it can hold its own in the real world. This applies to everyone, whether they lead a start-up, teaches in school or in a large one Company is working. Implementing ideas can be difficult at times. What is the main point that you need to focus all of your energy on? And how do you go about it? What will your idea look like in real life? Is it better to have a particularly clever person come up with all of this, or should you do some team brainstorming? And how do you know you've found the right solution? How many meetings and discussions does it take to be sure? And once that's done, is anyone interested in your idea?
On a bright December afternoon, Braden Kowitz and John Zeratsky met with James. They sat at a bar, drank coffee and talked about the challenge. The online shop was important for the company. It took time and money to do it well, and where and how to start? In other words, Blue Bottle Coffee sounded like the perfect candidate for our method. James agreed to it.
Convey a great experience
Braden, John, and James considered who should attend the meeting. A very clear candidate was the programmer who would be responsible for setting up the Blue Bottle online shop. James also wanted the Operations Officer, CFO, and Communications Manager with them. He also invited the customer service manager, who handled customer questions and complaints, and even the chairman Bryn Meehan - a retail expert who had founded an organic grocery chain in England. And of course James himself would take part.
The online shop was essentially a software project, something our GV team was very familiar with. But this group didn't look like a traditional software team at all. The participants were busy managers who had to abandon their important work for a whole week. Would it be worth this time On Monday morning, the Blue Bottle team met in a conference room at GV's San Francisco office. We drew a diagram on a whiteboard to show how coffee consumers might move through the online store. The Blue Bottle team focused on a new customer who wanted to buy coffee beans. James wanted us to focus on this scenario because it was so difficult. If the company managed to gain credibility and provide a great buying experience to a new customer who had never heard of Blue Bottle, let alone visited its cafes and tasted their coffee, then any other situation would be a walk in comparison.
We were faced with a big question: how should we structure the types of coffee? In this scenario, the potential buyer would be able to choose between roughly a dozen coffee beans, each offered in almost identical bags. But unlike in the Blue Bottle Café, there was no barista to advise him. At first glance, the solution seemed obvious. From small, exclusive coffee roasters to large-scale companies like Starbucks, retailers tend to sort coffee by region: Africa, Latin America, Pacific region. Coffee from Honduras versus coffee from Ethiopia. It would only make sense if Blue Bottle structured its beans the same way.
Brainstorm and find solutions
"I have to admit something," Braden announced. Everyone looked at him. “I like coffee, okay? I have a scale and all the various accessories at home. «Electronic scales are the hallmark of a real coffee freak. Braden was able to measure the water and the coffee beans with the scales so that he could experiment with different proportions. This is a whole science. Coffee scales are accurate to a fraction of a gram.
Braden grinned and held up his hands helplessly. "I have no idea what the regions mean." There was silence. We avoided looking at James. After all, it is possible that Braden's valiant admission would be seen as heresy. "That's okay," James replied. The lock gates opened. John and Jake didn't know the differences between the regions either, nor did she know Daniel Burka. We always drank coffee together, but neither of us had ever admitted our lack of expertise.
Then Serah Giarusso, Blue Bottles customer service manager, snapped his fingers. "What are we doing in the cafes?" She asked. The baristas have to be constantly confronted with customers who are similar to Braden: A customer wants to buy coffee beans but doesn't know exactly which ones.
From the vision to the concrete idea
James is a slow and deliberate speaker. He paused for a moment before answering. "The brewing method is very important," he said. “We train the baristas to ask customers a simple question, 'How do you make your coffee at home?'” James explained, depending on whether the customer is brewing filter coffee by hand, using a coffeemaker with a press, or a normal coffee maker or some other method, the barista would recommend an appropriate coffee bean.
"How do you make your coffee at home ...?" Braden repeated. Everyone took notes. James started by outlining his vision: the online shop should be just as welcoming and hospitable as the cafes. We felt we were on the right track.
The team spent the following day sketching ideas for the online shop. On Wednesday morning we had fifteen different solutions. You can't test that many solutions on a customer. Hence, the team selected their preferred alternatives to narrow down the choices. The second suggested solution contained a lot of text reflecting the conversations baristas often have with customers. Ultimately, James decided on the third solution, which sorted the types of coffee by brewing method. So the question "How do you prepare your coffee at home?" Could be transferred to the computer screen.
The prototype is created
James had picked three competing ideas. Which one should we prototype and test of? The idea of a website that looked like a coffee shop was the most attractive. The Blue Bottle aesthetic is famous; a customized website would be different from any other website on the market. We had to try the idea, but it was not compatible with the other proposed solutions. These other approaches were just as fascinating. We couldn't make up our minds.
So we decided to make a prototype of all three. After all, we didn't need a functioning website. In order to look real for our test purposes, each test online shop only needed a few screen pages. In our collaboration with the BlueBottle team, we used the presentation software Keynote to create a series of slides that looked like three real websites. With a little ingenuity and without any programming effort, we made a prototype from these pages that our test customers could use.
On Friday, the team watched the customer interviews. Each test customer bought in several online shops. Blue Bottles three prototypes were placed between the competitor's websites. (In order not to give customers a clue, we gave each prototype a fantasy name.)
From sample to implementation
Patterns began to emerge. The shop with the wooden shelves that everyone had high hopes for? We thought the prototype was very nice, but customers found it "cheesy" and "not trustworthy". The other two prototypes performed far better. The design with the question "How do you prepare your coffee at home?" Worked smoothly. And the text-laden design shocked us: customers actually read all of the text and additional information that breathed life into Blue Bottles voice and expertise. One customer said, "These people know about coffee."
James and the Blue Bottle team built trust. They were much closer to defining how their online shop should work. Most importantly, they had achieved it in a way that reflected their principle of welcoming hospitality. They were convinced that the online shop could be a truly authentic blue bottle experience. A few months later, Blue Bottle launched its new website, and from then on, online sales growth doubled.
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