In February, Dave Asprey will cut the ribbon on his first-ever Bulletproof café. After nearly five years, it seems like a logical step for a guy whose butter-infused coffee inspired a cult following. Read on for the story of how Asprey went from experimenting with "biohacking" his own body to building a thriving business. (And check out more stories in our Built From Passion series.)
Where the Idea Came From
At 20, Dave Asprey was depressed, overweight, and eating to cope with his emotions, which veered from clear and decisive to stricken with fear. After buying disability insurance, "because I got to the point where I wouldn't hire myself," he told Inc. last summer, the former project manager and software entrepreneur became obsessed with his health, from the quality and duration of his sleep to the fat content of foods he consumed.
The more he studied himself, the more he realized he wasn't after a quick pick-me-up but the feeling of being on, all the time. At a friend's suggestion, he began taking so-called smart drugs--a broad term for compounds that heighten cognition--and he says then his hazy world came into focus. After shedding 50 pounds in three months, "I fired my doctor and started taking smart drugs without supervision," he said. He went on to lose 50 more.
Asprey, who is 41 and lives in the Bay Area, spent 15 years and more than $300,000 to "hack" his biology. He claims he upgraded his brain by more than 20 IQ points and lowered his biological age while learning to sleep more efficiently. He says that learning to do these seemingly impossible things has turned him into a better entrepreneur, husband, and father. This premise became the foundation for Bulletproof Executive, the self-funded performance-coaching company Asprey started in 2010.
Experimenting with smart drugs eventually led Asprey to toy with that most quotidian of energy boosters--coffee. In 2009, he first posted a recipe for Bulletproof coffee, the coffee and butter beverage that he now says was key to his transformation. By 2012 he began selling Bulletproof-branded low-mold coffee beans online. (Toxins from mold are "performance-robbing," he told the Times.) Soon he added supplements like Brain Octane (his own medium-chain triglyceride oil, an easily digestible fat). Since the Food and Drug Administration doesn't review supplements, Asprey continues to roll out his own; the latest, called Unfair Advantage, is intended to grow mitochondria--i.e., cells in the muscles and brain--in order to slow down the process of aging.
How the Business Took Off
As word got around, Bulletproof coffee gained a cult following. It became popular among tech types in Silicon Valley, New York City, and Seattle, and won over celebrities such as music producer Rick Rubin, who introduced the drink to British singer Ed Sheeran, and Dr. Frank Lipman, an integrative doctor who treats Gwyneth Paltrow. The 450-calorie drink is ideal for "mind clarity and a bit of pep," Lipman told the Times.
Making the coffee is simple: You start with some low-mold coffee beans; add at least two tablespoons of unsalted butter (grassfed, which is higher in omega-3s and vitamins); and dump in one to two tablespoons of MCT oil. Put the whole thing in a blender and mix until smooth. Your energy levels will go through the roof, Asprey says, and your hunger will fly out the window.
Now, nearly five years after its launch, Bulletproof Executive is a 20-person company endorsing the biohacking lifestyle (the company declined to provide revenue numbers). Last year, the website drew some six million unique visitors, and 11 million people have downloaded Asprey's health podcast on iTunes. His book, The Bulletproof Diet: Lose up to a Pound a Day, Reclaim Energy and Focus, Upgrade Your Life, was published in January. The Bulletproof shop and cafés are up next.
After running a "quantitative analysis" to see where Bulletproof coffee was most popular, Asprey settled on Los Angeles for his first standalone café, which he says will be anything but a regular coffee shop. Noting he has "several of the early people from the Starbucks team" on board, the focus will be on getting customers to try the coffee. "The idea is that people still say, 'Butter in coffee?' and there's a disbelief that it can taste as good as it does or make you feel the way it does," he says. Clearly, he wants to convert them.
"It's an experience; it's more than just coffee," Asprey continues. "We're building the whole store to have the Bulletproof principles in mind as we go through the day." This means lighting that's compatible with circadian rhythms, a Whole Body Vibration platform (like astronauts use to strengthen muscles on missions), and a small seating area where furniture and flooring "connect to the earth."
"It's the indoor equivalent of being outdoors in the park with bare feet," Asprey says proudly. "Studies have shown there are reductions in inflammation and stress when people are able to discharge and walk around."
The coffee shop is the biggest sign Asprey thinks this is more than a fad. When asked why, he offers this anecdote: "Last night, I did a book signing in New York City, and a guy in the front row said, 'I've been drinking Bulletproof coffee every day for a year and a half. I've lost 50 pounds and started two companies.' Feeling this way isn't a fad," he says bluntly. "Once you do this, it's priceless to have your brain work all day and not have food cravings all day."
But how do you grow a business nontechie types may view skeptically? To hear Asprey tell it, you sell what the coffee does for you instead of the coffee (though that should taste great, too). "I care about the person coming in even more," Asprey says, contrasting his approach to other roasters like Stumptown Coffee, "not the estate or where the beans are grown."
This year, Asprey plans to open two or three shops, gather data on their performance, and then "go substantially faster after we know what's there." The first store will be funded internally, and over time he'll expand the roast profiles of the coffee, in addition to brewing methods. "We want something that tastes creamy and delicious," he says of the drinks, whose prices will compare to Starbucks'. "We're still working on the menu and testing things."