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March 25, 2014

Coffee's third wave? The Apple to Starbucks' Microsoft

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NEW YORK —

Andrew Parker, a partner at the Boston-based VC firm Spark Capital, told me his firm has invested in the eyeglass-maker Warby Parker because it "was born online and uses retail stores more as a showroom marketing experience than as an essential distribution channel." But he can't imagine putting tech investors' money into a venture like Blue Bottle, no matter how tasty its coffee. That said, Parker added, "Every good VC firm knows how to break the rules when appropriate."

For Conrad and True Ventures, Blue Bottle was worth breaking rules for. Never mind that its business is not Internet-driven (so far). As an investor, Conrad found Freeman's sensibility irresistible. "When I closed my eyes and thought about the things that were important to James, they were not dissimilar to what I've learned to recognize in what I'll call 'founders of movements,' " Conrad said. "James had a vision every bit in the same way that [WordPress co-founder] Matt Mullenweg had a vision for democratizing people's voice. Caterina Fake at Flickr, Kevin Systrom at Instagram — they're rare, but when you run into them, you know it."

In October 2012, True Ventures joined Meehan and others to lead a $20 million funding round that also included a starry roster of social-media stars, including Systrom, Fake, Path's Dave Morin, and Twitter's Ev Williams and Biz Stone. By January 2014, Blue Bottle was raising a second round to the tune of $26 million that included Google Ventures, Morgan Stanley and skateboarder Tony Hawk.

The tech community's embrace of Blue Bottle has raised some eyebrows. "Blue Bottle is getting $25 million because it is pretty good coffee that happens to be located next door to tech companies," snarked business writer Kevin Roose. Certainly the company's proximity to Sand Hill Road hasn't hurt. Yet third-wave rivals like Stumptown and Intelligentsia have also taken on big investments, albeit from more traditional sources. Meanwhile, food chains like Sweetgreen, Potbelly, and Pinkberry have taken the VC route, the latter two with backing from a Seattle-based firm called Maveron — whose co-founder just happens to be Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.

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