Innocent Drinks is an iconic British company that went from being a startup to a full-blown multinational brand. According to co-founder Richard Reed, the UK is the best place to be for any company in this situation, and having that well-known startup community and attitude helps develop everything, from small ideas to functional IT solutions.
Reed also thinks Innocent Drinks is the most technologically advanced fruit juice company around, and that its current level of technological prowess stems from the attitude and culture that comes from starting small.
Innocent Drinks started with a stall in a music festival with a simple “yes/no” question: "Should we quit our jobs and become a fruit juice business?"
“We started from a market stall; that’s not a folk story, it’s true," says Reed. “It started small – but everything big once started small.”
Innocent Drinks utilises technology to deliver its “taste good and do good” mantra, with a main focus on social media, cloud-based computing and data analytics.
“We see ourselves as the most technically advanced fruit juice company in the world,” says Reed.
“We were essentially blogging since 1999 – the company was formed through the whole culture of having a conversation between us and our consumers.”
Reed explains how Innocent were early adopters of technology allowing convergence of data for analysis, using real-time supply chain and sales data together from every sales point in the UK to decide how much juice to make the following day.
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“I can’t imagine there is a fruit juice business out there consuming and using more data, it’s pretty front-edge stuff in terms of the sheer quantity and how much it is at the heart of the business,” he says.
Innocent Drinks was an early adopter of technology practices, such as data analytics and cloud, that businesses are now starting to work on.
Now the company is working on using technology for DNA screening to check for pathogens, and has invested in a startup to help with these causes – anything that will help the business supply the demand for its products.
Employees have also had the ability to work from home since the early 2000s.
“Business is just essentially a community of human beings,” Reed says.
“It was led by understanding how can we make it as easy as possible or as frictionless as possible for people to be doing their best work.”
Keeping the culture
Like most startups, Reed is adamant that success comes from having the right attitude and a great internal culture.
“We recognised early on that we needed to find people who think entrepreneurially, who want to take initiatives, who want to tackle problems rather than ignore them, so we made that a key part of how we recruited people,” says Reed.
“The company became more and more entrepreneurial, more and more alive with energy, full of ambitious altruistic people. For me, that was the real secret at Innocent – that we found people who were ambitious and altruistic in equal measure.”
According to Reed, these qualities are equally important as they act to propel a company towards a common goal, as opposed to going from one side or the other – a balanced approach between “evil capitalist” and “nice meaning but ineffectual” .
“I think to this day, Innocent is still driven by that human dynamic. People want to take on big challenges, but do them in a way that you can be proud of to bring other people with them," says Reed.
But has being part-owned by Coca Cola affected that culture? According to Reed, nothing has changed.
“Innocent is run by innocent people as it always has been, and [Coke] was completely supportive of profits going to charity and supporting ethical trading and all the rest of it.”
Why the UK works for startups
“I think the reality of setting up a business and then growing a business is difficult. But I can’t think of a better country to be doing it in than the UK. It is unbelievably liberal in terms of all of the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ – just the sheer lack of hoops you have to jump through to get to start a business.”
Getting a business off the ground quickly can take hundreds of days in other countries. In the UK, it can take as few as one, according to Reed.
We see ourselves as the most technically advanced fruit juice company in the world
Innocent Drinks co-founder Richard Reed
“We don’t realise it, but as a country we are a super friendly place for entrepreneurs to be. In terms of the legislative, administrative backbone I think it’s really good because there’s little of it. Then in terms of access to money, access to people – well I think it’s difficult because all of those resources are finite, and you’re going to want the best. Especially when it comes to people, and it is going to be a challenge. I think every single person I’ve spoken to growing a business, the single biggest headache they always have is trying to find the right talent.”
According to Reed, struggling to find the very best people is a sign of success as opposed to a sign of failure, despite how hard it is.
But what Reed thinks is the most special about starting a company in the UK is how much help and support others are willing to offer.
“Everyone’s in your corner, big companies want to help out small companies, experienced old business people want to help out young business people, just the sort of the classic British values of kindness, generosity, interest, curiosity - they massively intangibly support you as an entrepreneur.”
Ready for anything
According to Reed, innovation comes in three phases: start with the culture, develop with the human and have a ruthless structure to ensure no time and money is wasted.
“To have an innovative company, everything starts with the human. So you need to have people that think innovatively and have ideas. That’s step one. Step two is that you have to have a culture where it is protected,” says Reed.
“When that little first green shoot of an idea pops through the topsoil it’s not instantly stood on, it's allowed its opportunity in the sun, someone to tend it to see if it’s going to grow into something big.”
Reed explains this is initially how Innocent Drinks' Big Knit charity campaign, which encourages volunteers to knit smoothie-sized wooly hats for charity, started.
But it’s just as important to say no as it is to nurture ideas – or else too many projects are running at once, causing inefficiency. This is the final stage of creating an innovative business.
“Then you need the third part, which is the maturity to be able to go ‘it’s had its opportunity, it’s not working, kill it. Because otherwise you’ve just got stuff growing everywhere,” Reed explains.
“Yes’s are great, and no’s are great, maybes kill you. If you get a ‘no’ – that’s your answer and you can move on.”