Juicero and the maker's mistake
A view from Ian Leslie

Juicero and the maker's mistake

Maybe we should aim to make half the stuff we usually do but make it twice as good, Ian Leslie argues.

There are juicers, and then there is Juicero.

Juicero is a machine that makes an eight-ounce glass of juice when you insert a specially made pouch of fruit into it and hit a button.

This machine does not come cheaply. It will set you back four hundred dollars (a steep discount from its original price of seven hundred dollars).

No wonder. When product designer Ben Einstein dismantled a Juicero, he discovered a mechanism of breathtaking intricacy: "Of the hundreds of consumer products I’ve taken apart over the years, this is easily among the top 5% on the complexity scale." Its many components are custom-made from top of the range materials – and very expensive.

But then, Juicero is much more than a juicer. It is a "juice platform". The company behind it procured $120m (£92m) in funding from some of Silicon Valley’s most prestigious venture capitalists.

Each Juicero is Wi-Fi enabled, and each pouch has a QR code on it so that a camera inside the machine can scan it and check its freshness against an online database.

Juicero’s supply chain is also painstakingly engineered. In its Los Angeles factory, workers slice and dice fruit and vegetables according to precise specifications (carrots are diced, beetroots chunked).

When users need more fruit, they order it via Juicero’s smartphone app. The pouches, each of which cost the consumer eight dollars, are delivered from the factory by FedEx.

Fruit juice is a simple pleasure. But there is nothing simple about Juicero. "It’s the most complicated business I’ve ever funded," one of its investors told The New York Times.

There is something awe-inspiring about the way Juicero has turned the act of getting a glass of juice into an operation that rivals Cern for complexity. Reading about it is like staring at a painting by Hieronymus Bosch for too long. After a while you start to wonder whether its maker is mad, or you are.

Of course, without the invention of new solutions to apparently trivial problems, our lives be duller and our economies smaller; did anyone know they needed a coffee machine until they really, really needed one?

But Juicero is on another level altogether. It has spent over a hundred million dollars on developing a wildly over-engineered product without ascertaining whether or not consumers want to pay for it.

Bloomberg reporters discovered that if you squeeze Juicero’s pouches with your hands you can yield as much juice from the bags as you can from the machine itself. It may be most expensive lemon ever assembled.

Perhaps Juicero’s true value lies in what it can teach the rest of us about the perils of making stuff.

Brian Eno recently gave an interview to Pitchfork magazine about the process of making his new album, Reflection. He told a story about something that happened to him back when he first started making ambient music, in the 1970s.

When Eno played back what he had recorded at the end of a session, he realised the tape was playing at half-speed. Instead of stopping it and starting again at the right speed, he just listened. He realised it sounded much better that way.

(Those of you treasure a set of Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards, which contain tips to anyone engaged in a creative project, will recall at this point the injunction, "Honour thy mistake as a hidden intention".)

Eno concluded that the reason it sounded better at half-speed was that much less was happening per unit of time. As a result it sounded sparser, less cluttered.

That day, he learned a lesson that stuck with him: "As a maker, you tend to do too much, because you’re there with all the tools and you keep putting things in. As a listener, you’re happy with quite a lot less."

We have been hearing a lot about the virtues of making stuff in recent years. We have more, better and cheaper tools for making than ever before, from 3D printers to laser cutters to editing software. The idealism and vitality of the "maker movement" is infectious. So is the optimism of Silicon Valley.

But there’s a risk to the technology-driven valorisation of making. The risk is that we spend too long in what Eno calls "maker mode".

Juicero is probably full of brilliant engineers. I’m sure each of them is obsessed with making the product, or their bit of it, as good as it possibly can be. But that’s the problem.

Maker mode is creative, but, like any other cognitive bias, disastrous if left unchecked. In maker mode, we want to put more and more stuff in. We want to add, scale, refine and complicate. We all too easily forget about the person who is supposed be actually drinking our juice, listening to our album, or buying our product. They almost always want something simpler.

Maker mode has a lot to answer for. It convinces people that this ad must include a list of product benefits, this app needs three hundred functions, this brand experience requires a fleet of drones, this Powerpoint presentation needs eight bullet points per page, and this paragraph needs five examples.

Today, brands are under pressure to always be in maker mode – to be content factories. Those pipes won’t fill themselves. Yet, to put it charitably, it’s far from clear that consumers are being well served by this frenzy of production.

Eno says that ever since that day in the studio he has been careful to spend more time in listening mode. Perhaps we should follow his example. Maybe we should aim to make half the stuff we usually do but make it twice as good.

We should definitely ask ourselves, at regular intervals: is it possible we’ve gone a tiny bit mad?

Ian Leslie is an author and brand strategist