Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but not in the world of startups.
There was drama this past week in the olive oil business — and it unfolded on LinkedIn, the online haven of startup feuds, oversharing and self-mythologising odes to #founder culture.
An angry post by olive oil entrepreneur Andrew Benin caused a stir in a small corner of the Internet food world, in part because it raised a slippery question: Who owns the squeeze bottle?
Benin is CEO and co-founder of Graza, a direct-to-consumer startup launched in 2022 that sells olive oil in squeezable, forest-green plastic bottles designed for optimal drizzling and Instagramming. Whole Foods sells it, Bon Appétit gave it a rave and Food & Wine magazine called it a “cool kid olive oil.” As The Wall Street Journal noted this year, Graza struck a “sweet spot” in the market with its two extra-virgin olive oil bottles, the Drizzle ($20) and the Sizzle ($15).
After quality and shipping issues last holiday season, Benin apologised to over 30,000 customers in an unusually heartfelt and detailed email. That gesture, along with posts on Graza’s blog (the “Glog,” as the company calls it), painted a picture of an enthusiastic founder.
Then, as he wrote this past week on LinkedIn, he faced what he called “#copycat culture.” In the post, he singled out a competitor’s new olive oil, which is also packaged in a squeeze bottle and marketed as something to be drizzled over pizza.
“While friendly competition was always welcome, I do view this as a blatant disrespect and am choosing to voice my discontent,” Benin wrote. He tagged the company, Brightland, and its founder, Aishwarya Iyer, and included a photo of the squeeze bottle in question. “#Founders know that this day will come,” he wrote, adding, “Personally, I think it’s ok to get miffed when folks rip you off.”
Some Twitter users said Benin’s post kicked off “the olive oil wars,” but it should be noted that the spat was one-sided. Iyer and Brightland have not spoken publicly about the call-out. (Brightland declined to comment for this article. Graza did not respond to requests for comment.)
The reception of Benin’s post seemed mixed, with many of the comments on LinkedIn chastising him for stirring up unnecessary drama. “With all due respect, you did not create the squeeze bottle,” Alison Cayne, founder of Haven’s Kitchen, wrote. “Chefs and home cooks have been using it for decades.” The FAQ section of Graza’s website even says as much.
“Get used to it,” Ju Rhyu, CEO and co-founder of Hero Cosmetics, wrote in a tweet about what she called “olive oil copycat-gate.” She attached four photos of products that appeared to mimic one of her own company’s products, the Mighty Patch.
“I think it comes with the territory,” Rhyu said. “It means you’re achieving some level of success, if there are copycats out there. It’s something that we try to definitely defend against, but it’s not easy.”
Rhyu said she first learned of the olive oil imbroglio on LinkedIn.
“I did think it was poor form, calling out another founder who is an entrepreneur and really, in some ways, rekindled this category,” she said of Benin’s naming Iyer, who founded Brightland in 2018, in his post. She added that the post was, in her view, an “overreaction.”
Benin appeared to regret going after a rival. Hours after his original statement, he posted a follow-up on LinkedIn that included an apology to Iyer and his team at Graza. “I was heated, and reacted poorly, and have learned from the variety of comments that everyone has left today,” he wrote.
For some online, the cold-pressed social media drama was a welcome distraction from the more pressing concerns outside the niche community of artisanal olive oil.
“Honestly god bless the olive oil war, this is exactly the kind of ludicrous startup-brain-worms low-stakes drama that the world needs more of right now,” tweeted Helen Rosner, a New Yorker staff writer who covers food. “No villains, no victims, just top notch public ego dumbassery.” — NYT