I was chatting with John Borthwick a few years ago and he said something that struck me. He said he was interested in companies that appear to be focused on selling X but are really online communities that happen to make money selling X. This helps explain why many investors are confused by the sustained success of these companies. One example he cited was GoPro. Many investors decided not to invest in GoPro because they saw it as a camera company, and camera companies generally get quickly commoditized. However, investors who properly understood GoPro saw it primarily as a highly engaged community of sports enthusiasts, something that is very hard for competitors to replicate.
Shortly after that conversation I got an email from Jordan Cooper about a company he was investing in called Soylent that was taking an open-sourced approach to developing science-based food products. “The community and engagement around the product is pretty amazing to me – there’s something interesting happening here,” he said. He was referring to Soylent’s very active discussion forum, as well as the DIY Soylent site where users share their own Soylent recipes. Seen through the lens of Borthwick’s comment, it was an obvious investment – a few days later we signed a term sheet to lead the seed round.
Soylent is a community of people who are enthusiastic about using science to improve food and nutrition. The company makes money selling one version of that improved food (some users buy “official Soylent,” others buy ingredients to make their own DIY Soylent recipe). If you look at Soylent as just a food company, you misjudge the core of the company, the same way you would if you looked at GoPro as just a camera company.
Why are Soylent users enthusiastic about applying scientific methods to develop food? You might wonder why the nutrition advice you hear seems to frequently change. When I was growing up, we were told to reduce our saturated fat and increase our carbohydrates. Now we are told the opposite. As Vox explains in this excellent article, that’s because food science has been distorted by the influence of food companies:
Many of the health policies and personal dietary choices we made related to fat (and saturated fat in particular) were based on very flawed and biased evidence. Contradictory research findings that challenged the paradigm were systematically stifled and ignored, and self-interested researchers — as much as Big Food — shaped the research agenda, media reporting on diet, and public perception.
There was very little incentive in the past to invest in the science of food and nutrition. Traditional food companies are primarily marketing and distribution companies. They blanket the earth with advertising and fight to distribute their products as widely as possible (while blocking the distribution of competing products). As a result, it is very hard to get food that is convenient, affordable, and nutritious outside of wealthy areas where organic and other premium food is available. If you read the Soylent forums you’ll see that – contrary to the caricature of Soylent as a complete food replacement – it mostly replaces unhealthy meals:
“I do it because the alternative for me is to swing by a gas station for a Krispy Kreme donut or three, or stop by a fast food restaurant and pickup a few things off the dollar menu for lunch.” source
“Personally, I don’t really care for cooking. I usually feel that a meal should take longer to eat than to cook. That leads to meals that are more “assembled” or “heated” than actually cooked, just sandwiches, hotpockets, and anything microwaveable. This is not a healthy diet. So Soylent seems like the right fit for a healthy diet with very little food prep effort.” source
“During a typical week there’s several meals I eat alone in front of the TV, weekday dinners mostly. Those were usually fast food, or frozen or canned. So I thought Soylent would be faster, easier, and healthier than what I had been doing before. I still eat out with friends several times a week, and the food at work is actually quite good.” source
Soylent inverts the Big Food business model, spending nothing on advertising and distributing solely through e-commerce. Soylent’s “marketing plan” is to invest in its online community and in peer-reviewed scientific studies. The belief is that the internet has made people smarter, and that the old tactics of selling junk food using clever advertising will be increasingly ineffective. We have all sorts of food-related problems in the world – malnutrition, diabetes, and obesity, to name a few. Part of the solution to these problems is providing people with better scientific research, and more food choices that are convenient, nutritious, and affordable.
Today we are announcing that Andreessen Horowitz is leading a $20M investment in Soylent, alongside our friends at Lerer Ventures and Index Ventures. Since the seed round in 2013, Soylent has grown quickly and now generates millions of dollars per month in subscription revenues. The company is profitable and doesn’t need additional capital (our favorite kind of investment), but decided to take money to invest in long-term R&D. In addition to improving the current product and introducing new products, the focus will be on dramatically reducing the price of Soylent, from the current $3 per meal to a fraction of that. We are very excited to continue working with Rob and his team on this important project.