Ever since I heard about the futuristic food startup Soylent, I’ve been intensely fascinated by them and their mission. Soylent has created an alternative to food that provides all the daily nutrients your body needs. It comes in the form of a powder that mixes with water to create a tasteless slurry-shake-drink at a low cost, currently only $3 per meal. It can be used to varying degrees: some use it 2-3 times a week, while the founder of Soylent, Rob Reinhardt, is on a 90% Soylent diet. At an individual-level, it’s marketed towards people who want to simplify their lives and take the time and decision-making involved with feeding oneself out of the equation. At a macro-level, it’s marketed as a cheap and scalable staple food solution to feed the world’s unsustainably growing population. Damn. It’s a pretty bold proposition create a product that is generic food in the purest sense of that term, but to also take the long-view that this product can solve world hunger. Wow. This isn’t your father’s photo-sharing app startup. But despite my fondness of Soylent’s mission and their recent $20MM Series A led by Andreesen Horowitz, the company faces a steep uphill battle. Among its many challenges:
- Suppliers and distribution - Web/app startups really have it easy, huh? Creating, packaging and shipping a food product at scale is tough for a startup and a competitive advantage for incumbents in Big Food Inc. The value chain of the business starts with nutrients purchased in large quantities from suppliers. Sure, volume purchases can be negotiated with suppliers, but Big Food Inc incumbents have the ability to exert pressure on these suppliers to make it difficult for Soylent. Moreover, Soylent is currently only available through their web store. If Soylent wants to find themselves on the sweet side of the S-curve of growth, they will need get their product on store shelves. Building distribution and gaining partnerships to make that happen will be challenging.
- Branding - Browsing Soylent’s website is kind of like dropping into a minimalist, colorless, dystopian future. Its packaging evokes an eerie feeling that you were just issued rations from your robot overlords to sustain you for a day in the slave pits. As mentioned, Soylent markets to individuals as a time-saving food substitute. Efficiency is at the heart of the product and its lack of color and inherent simplicity call back to this ideal. Sure, this all makes sense, but from a brand perspective will this devoid-of-personality approach ever resonate with customers? This generic food is almost too generic.
- Marketing - In the Soylent promotional video the positioning of the product is illustrated through three different personas. The first persona is a music producer/DJ who lives in the type of fictional loft apartment you only see in TV. He’s too busy spinning and cutting tracks to cook for himself so Soylent is perfect for his lifestyle. The second persona is a young businesswoman who’s too busy in power meetings and kick-boxing classes to run out of the office for a salad. The last persona is a couple who is taking Soylent with them for a camping trip. This kind of general good-for-everyone positioning worries me because when you target everyone you often get no one.
- Open-source formula - As a strong proponent of open-source software and the opposition of patents in software, I applaud the community of hackers that have embraced the open source formula for Soylent. Although from a business perspective, with no patent protection tied to the Soylent formula and no strong brand (see above), what does the company actually have? Apparently, according to Chris Dixon the active community around Soylent makes it worth it, but I’m skeptical that this community is only representative of hackers and engineers.
Clearly the company faces many challenges. Inventing the food of the future is a bold venture. As Soylent continues to pick up steam, the mission will only get harder with limitless opponents and competitors. Personally, I think the product would be useful in my life and I want to try it. Sometimes I find myself eating “maintenance meals” when I eat not for enjoyment, but just not to be hungry. In these instances, I am pressed for time and often eat something unhealthy like a frozen pizza. Substituting pizza with a nutritious, filling drink would certainly be better for me, but I probably could not be convinced to use the product outside of that. This is mostly because I try not to fall into the busy trap and believe that the time saved by using the product would only be spent doing scrolling through feeds reading about the next startup trying to invent the future.