Cloud computing pioneer Dave Asprey took a trip to Tibet in 2004 to learn how to meditate. But it was the yak-butter tea he tried there that ended up transforming his life.
"I had so much more energy and I didn’t feel sick at the altitude at all. I realized: There’s something going on here. I just felt so good," he remembers. He returned home and spent several years fiddling with ingredients, aiming for "a hot version of a Frappuccino without the milk and sugar." He started with a base of coffee instead of tea because he’s an aficionado; he says he got his only undergraduate "A" the semester he discovered espresso. And the ban on milk and sugar was one of the many biohacks he had practiced over 15 years (and $300,000 in doctors and 3-D radioactive scans of his brain metabolism) trying to rid himself of "brain fog" and 100 pounds of extra weight.
After years of fiddling with a coffee recipe to rival the yak-butter tea, he arrived at a well-frothed blend of low-toxin joe, one to two tablespoons of unsalted grass-fed butter (though he personally uses up to six), and 1 to 2 tablespoons of medium-chain triglyceride oil, a replacement for coconut oil "because I didn’t want my coffee to taste like a tropical beverage," Asprey says. He called his concoction Bulletproof coffee and posted it on his blog in 2009, suggesting people drink the fat-filled, 460-calorie plus beverage instead of breakfast, promising that it removed cravings, promoted weight loss by triggering ketosis, and had "a massive impact on cognitive function." Asprey claims that drinking the coffee and other health hacks helped boost his IQ by more than 20 points. (Marjorie Nolan Cohn, a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says improvements in mental clarity "can’t be scientifically substantiated," though "fats are beneficial for brain function.")
So far, so gross? Well, the recipe—which fans say tastes like a delicious creamy latte—took off. Actress Shailene Woodley tweeted about it ("one of the greatest of human achievements"), Jimmy Fallon discussed it with Maya Rudolph on his show, and Silicon Valley execs such as Dan Scholnick, a partner at Trinity Ventures, are so addicted they travel with coffee-making equipment (whole beans, a grinder, an Aeropress, and a battery-operated milk frother), plus butter (Scholnick freezes it the night before) and the MCT oil. "I’ve made Bulletproof coffee on a plane at 30,000 feet," Scholnick says, noting that a little tube of MCT oil is "under 3 ounces." Scholnick even invited Asprey to talk to the some 50 CEOs of Trinity’s portfolio companies. "He’s had the biggest impact on my life of anyone in the past five years," Scholnick says.
Meanwhile, some 7 million people have downloaded Asprey’s Bulletproof Executive podcast, where he extracts live-your-best-life type nuggets from guests such as Arianna Huffington, Tim Ferriss, and the Los Angeles Lakers’ head of nutrition, and promotes the diet he’s devised of healthy fats and no grains or dairy (a lot like paleo, but with more focus on the fats he says improve brain function).
The coffee drink recipe is free, but Asprey’s building an empire on top of it. The company—which has grown to 20 employees—now offers a variety of Bulletproof-branded products in its "Upgraded Self" online shop, including low-toxin coffee (Asprey claims mycotoxins, or mold toxins, play a role in obesity), MCT oil (Asprey calls his "Brain Octane Oil"), sleep induction mats, heart-rate variability sensors, and an $895 "Focus Brain Trainer" sensor headband.
"I have an MBA from Wharton and I know products," Asprey says. "Did I throw a handful of products up against a refrigerator and see what stuck? No. Anything that increases human performance is fair game."
He won’t reveal sales, but says revenue at the company, whose first product in 2011 was the coffee beans, has grown 700% since last year. Bulletproof coffee products are now served and sold at roughly a dozen restaurants and cafés, including Picnik Austin. "For the first three months we served mostly black coffee because nobody would try the buttered version," says owner Naomi Seifter, who discovered the drink when her mother sent her a link. "But now the Bulletproof coffee is hands-down the biggest aspect of our business. It’s really become what we’re known for."
Savvy marketing obviously has a role in the brand's growth, but fans say the coffee would have taken off no matter what it was called. "The branding is genius but you don’t keep drinking it because of that," says Omid Ashtari, Twitter’s head of sports and entertainment partnerships. He raves: "The first time I tried it I wasn’t sure what to do with myself because it hit my brain so hard. It was like an out-of-body experience." (Ashtari currently is trying to convince Twitter’s head chef to stock Bulletproof products.) Asprey himself also downplays the name’s role in winning converts. "I’m a pretty credible guy. I’ve had a good career and I’m clearly not nuts," he says of the reaction when he first posted the recipe.
But he admits he had a lucky break a few years ago when he got an upgrade to Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class cabin on a flight from London to San Francisco, where he sat across from Herb Kim, founder of England’s Thinking Digital Conference. Asprey told Kim about a book he wanted to write about how to have more energy. He planned to call it "Total Human Performance."
"Nah, you need to call it something more like ‘bulletproof,’" Asprey says Kim told him. Asprey wrote the name down and ended up using it for his coffee, which Kim says he now drinks every morning.
Next up for Bulletproof is a mitochondrial energy optimizer supplement called Unfair Advantage that will sell for $60 for a month’s supply. A ready-to-drink Bulletproof is also in the works. "If selling coffee and oils and supplements can help fund the growth of a platform to share really good information about health and human performance, it’s a good business model but it’s not a business model I learned about at Wharton," Asprey says.
In the first quarter of 2015, Asprey is opening a standalone Bulletproof coffee shop in Los Angeles, the city with the most visitors to Asprey's website. Asprey wanted to open in Silicon Valley but "San Francisco real estate is out of control, and paying living wages in San Francisco is really, really hard," he says. "In Los Angeles the level of health and fitness consciousness won out. And it feels like San Francisco did 20 years ago—there's a young entrepreneurial vibe."
He’s also finally gotten around to writing that book he told Kim about, which will include weight-loss testimonials from Jeremy Piven (who had his coffee on the Entourage movie set made for him by Bulletproof team members) and Brandon Routh, (aka Superman). Its name: The Bulletproof Diet, of course.