What’s Not There Matters: Why Building Value is Subtractive

We had gotten to a point in our rehearsals where we had a show that was presentable. All nine of us were hitting our cues, there was some spectacle, and moments of wonder were starting to come through. But I couldn’t shake the niggling question: what is this all about?

We had crafted a piece of entertainment, but we still hadn’t nailed a WHY. Why were we making this? And the longer I couldn’t answer this question, the more I felt what we were creating was gimmicky and trite. And it really got me thinking… How do you create something that really means something to people?

And then I went to hear the founder of Blue Bottle Coffee, James Freeman, speak at HustleCon. His iconic Oakland brand has nurtured a steady aesthete following since the early 2000s, and is recognized as one of the major players in third wave coffee. If you’ve ever been to the SF flagship Blue Bottle location, you know that this brand doesn’t fluff around.

There is one aluminum roller door that opens onto quaint Linden alley, with some large rocks perched just in front for those who want to sit. For the rest, there is a narrow three person long counter for quick, stand-up sipping—Italian style. There’s almost nothing else to that space except the goings on behind the counter, which you almost don’t notice. It’s just you, the hospitality of the casual barista, and the delicious coffee. It’s a pure experience.

So it made sense when James Freeman stood at the podium and said, “Building value is subtractive. What remains is important.” He has managed to create a undeniably clear vision of what Blue Bottle is. And more importantly, he’s successfully conveyed that through every aspect of his brand: the clean lines of the logo (no type on signs or cups), the single color, the unfussyness of the brick and mortar spaces and kiosks.

James Freeman, founder of Blue Bottle Coffee

James Freeman, founder of Blue Bottle Coffee

He spoke of the day when he was supposed to show up at a meeting with his vision statement ready to share. “I didn’t have it at all. But what kept coming to me were three words: delicious, hospitable, sustainable. These three words helped us strip everything else away.” And they have driven the company ever since.

It’s definitely not just about the coffee, but the experience of drinking it. “We were very clear at the beginning that we were looking at coffee as fresh food. And our product is the way a guest feels when drinking our coffee,” Freeman says. So what has clarity done for Blue Bottle?

As of writing, you can find Blue Bottle at 15 Bay Area locations, 12 operating or coming soon in New York, 23 other locations in the US, and 8 in Japan—it’s no surprise that the no frills nature of the Blue Bottle brand has gained a loyal following in a culture that values the less is more ethos.

It’s easy to focus on “hitting your cues”, and creating something that people will show up for once. But getting them to CARE about what you’re doing is a different story. What are you trying to say about the world and your experience of it? What are you asking them to feel? Why should they come to your show? And if they come, why should they come back?

The days of creating a great product and calling it good are over. We are now all in the business of making people feel something—whether we like it or not.