Do you have a dream? You must do – or you wouldn’t have started a business?
So… how can a dream come true?
Touching on the highs and lows the business went through from its inception in 1998 until they sold the brand to Coca Cola in 2013, the story offers lots of insights that might be relevant to us all.
Here we pluck out 6 threads.
One clear theme that comes through is how strong the friendships were between the three co-founders of Innocent: Richard Reed, who’s the interviewee, Adam Balon and Jon Wright.
In answer to the question ‘How did Innocent begin?’, Richard Reed starts ‘It was borne out of friendship.’
The three were ‘best friends’ at university, and had already, while there, organised ‘club nights together, which gave us a sense of how much fun it would be to work together’.
You may of course not have this as an option, but it stands as an excellent example: already knowing you work well together may be one good reason to choose to do so.
The three also had complementary skills but shared values, highlights Richard Reed. This helped too.
‘The three of us had very different brains’, he told The Guardian. ‘Jon was passionate about operations and the supply chain. Adam was passionate about selling and doing deals. I was passionate about the product – the shape, tone and colours. Although we had different skills, we had a shared set of values – that was a really strong dynamic.’
The reason they came up with the idea of Innocent smoothies was precisely because they saw – felt, indeed, for themselves, as customers – that gap in the market.
Hungover on a snowboarding trip, they couldn’t find what they wanted that morning. ‘It was hard to get hold of something that was convenient and good for you back then’, says Richard Reed.
‘With Innocent we were trying to solve that problem.’
So what was different about Innocent?
‘There was already one smoothie brand out there. But when we looked at it, we realised that they were making smoothies the way you would if you ran a factory, using concentrate, rather than if you were making them for yourself’, he explains.
They found their niche, and then hung on to it.
‘Because we’d never worked in the food or drink industry, we [did things differently]. We were making smoothies from fresh fruit every day. That simplicity was our single biggest strength.’
As the market grew, he explained, more and more players entered it. But none of them went about it Innocent’s way.
When asked ‘Starting out, did you imagine that Innocent would become so successful?’, Richard Reed said ‘We started with the absolute assumption that it would not work, not least because everyone told is it wouldn’t. Most businesses fail and there was no reason to think ours would go against type. But we had a sense that if it was going to become successful, it would be international.’
Such an interesting paradox.
There’s something here about doing what you do with real strength, vision, purpose – hold on to your own brand values, come what may – while realistically seeing the marketplace you’re entering, and that there are no guarantees.
But the other clear key is to be always thinking of your customers.
‘Back then what we were selling was very expensive,’ says Richard Reed; ‘cans of Coke were like 50p and here we were trying to sell a bottle of fruit juice for £1.50. It hadn’t been done before, people were nervous.’
But the customers liked it. That was always, absolutely, he explains, the Thing.
The trio now host a venture capital fund called JamJar.
‘What we find staggering as investors is that most of the time the business is not thinking about what the consumer wants, but what the boss wants or what the shareholders want. We were always very strong on this point at Innocent: without consumers buying our products, we cease to exist. Without them, we are just strange men with a very expensive fruit-crushing hobby.’
Richard Reed describes both the best and worst moments as Co-Founder.
‘We did a lunch at Innocent in 2006 to introduce our 100th employee, that felt brilliant…’
‘Also, the idea to give 10% of profits to charity, which was a decision that took us half a second to make in our first business meeting. I’m a huge believer’, he says, ‘in the benefit that business can play to society in addition to creating wealth and employment.’
But in 2008, they hit their lowest point, having to lay staff off.
‘The best moment as an entrepreneur is creating jobs, the worst moment is destroying jobs’, says Richard Reed.
‘In 2008 we didn’t understand what was happening, we’d had 10 years where literally every month we’d beat our target. Then every month we were suddenly missing our target. We’re not to blame for the macroeconomic climate going into a tailspin, but we are to blame for not understanding that and reacting to it quicker.’
There’s more in the interview.
On the subject of Innocent’s eventual sale to Coca Cola, the interviewer asked, very specifically: ‘Did knowing that charitable giving was embedded in the business make you happier about selling it to Coca-Cola?’
‘Charitable giving was fundamentally part of the business,’ starts Richard Reed’s answer; ‘it had said it on the packaging for 15 years. That was actually one of the reasons Coke wanted to buy it, the brand message was so strong…’
And further on, he also explains how Innocent had solved their own funding crisis way back in their first year: by sending out an email asking ‘Does anyone know anyone rich?’
Today, they like being investors, incidentally, because they like giving back – or passing on. ‘Entrepreneurs are like the yeast in a society,’ says Richard Reed, ‘they are the thing that allows the bread to rise and the dough to get bigger.’
It’s a really interesting, and entertaining, interview with pertinent lessons for us all.