Innocent Drinks road to success

In the late 1990s, Adam Balon, Jon Wright and Richard Reed came up with the idea of a device to automatically fill your bath, but, on account of the dangerous mix of water and electricity involved, they changed tack and started selling fruit smoothies instead.

After successfully testing the market at a jazz festival, Innocent Drinks has grown into the number one smoothie brand in the UK, with turnover last year of over £16 million. Richard Reed explains how they made it happen.

What inspired you to start up Innocent Drinks in the first place?

When we were at university together, we ran a business organising club nights. It was a great experience but we knew we had to get some experience of other businesses before taking the plunge. When you run your own business, you can decide how that company is going to work. So we always knew that we wanted it to be a successful business, but also that we would run it in a way we could be proud of when we were older.

At Innocent, that pride comes firstly from making fantastic natural drinks, but also from trying to run a sustainable business that treats its employees really well and also donates money to a separate registered charity, The Innocent Foundation.

Has anything taken you by surprise?

We definitely didn’t realise quite how long everything takes. When we first wrote our business plan, we thought the initial research and development bit would only take three months. In the end it took us nine. So you really need patience and you have to know that whilst the business is your absolute top priority, it may not be quite as urgent for your first customers, or suppliers.

What was the biggest hurdle you faced?

There were quite a few hurdles. Firstly we went to see 20 banks and they all said no. Various VC groups then turned us down too. In the end we emailed all our mates asking if they knew anyone rich. Luckily for us, someone knew someone who then put us in touch with this great guy called Maurice Pinto. Maurice believed in our vision and gave us some money.

When we talked to people that make soft drinks they all told us we should put sugar, or water, or preservatives and other funny stuff in the drinks to make them cheaper to make and last longer. We knew we didn’t want to do that so we just persisted until we found a way of making the first totally fresh smoothies.

What would you do differently now?

I can honestly say no. Of course we’ve made mistakes along the way but each one you make you learn from. I bought a whole load of little fridges to give to outlets to put our drinks in early on. They were useless, but it was too late. So definitely trial things first before you bulk buy them.

Is there a secret to your business success?

Do something you are really passionate about. I still drink at least three smoothies a day, and I am still really clear that they are the best ones out there. So that is exciting.

What advice would you give to someone else?

Think about it really hard. Do the numbers. We love what we do. Don’t get put off. If it is a good simple idea that you can explain to your granny in one sentence, then maybe it is worth giving it a go.

I met a woman whose dream was to run a café in India and then go swimming in the sea every evening. And I met that woman on a beach in India at four o’clock. You can live your dreams.

See also: Innocent Drinks founders invest in business set up by ex-Yahoo executive

Marc Barber

Marc Barber

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.