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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 July 2003, 17:17 GMT 18:17 UK
Just an Innocent business?
By Laura Cummings
BBC News Online business reporter

Take a fledgling idea for a company, run by three young friends, with no sector experience, no financial backing and no clear leader. Sound like a sound investment ?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the numerous venture capitalists approached by the founding members of "Innocent" smoothies weren't that keen either.

Richard Reed, Innocent co-founder
Richard left a career in advertising to start making smoothies

"We broke every rule in the investment manager's handbook," says Richard Reed, one of the founders.

Launched five years ago by three Cambridge graduates, the smoothies were a relatively new concept.

Perishable, with a very short shelf life, and at almost 2 a bottle, the odds seemed stacked against them.

Innocent were also determined to run a very different kind of company - one where "the image and the product are the same," insists Richard, with aspirations of spending company profits on sponsoring cycle lanes in London rather than on high art.

Four years and over 10m worth of squashed fruit sales later, critics could be reviewing their scepticism.

Talk is cheap

The three founders, Richard, Adam Balon and Jon Wright, had talked about setting up a business throughout their student days.

Innocent's office
"Pop by if you're ever in the area," says the brochure

Their airy offices in London's Shepherd's Bush - affectionately known as Fruit Towers - sit in a quiet estate near the local school, with faux-grass walls, trendy young staff and the company's minibus parked outside, epitomising the fresh feeling Innocent is trying to create.

"It's about making life a little bit easier, a little bit better," says Richard.

Their pocket-sized brochure goes a step further.

"We want to make the best fresh drinks in the whole world ever.

"Just think of innocent drinks as your one healthy habit - like going to the gym but without the communal showers afterwards."

It all sounds so effortless.

Ditching the day job

The resume of how it all started appears just as simple.

Richard, Adam and Jon left university and went into the obligatory milk-round professions - one into advertising, two into management consultancy.

Four years later, they were still talking about their business idea, although they still had no product.

In 1998, after six months of trying out recipes on friends, they spent 500 on fruit, turned it into smoothies, and sold them at a small music festival in London.

Innocent webgrab of 'yes' and 'no' bins
An easy decision?

Their much-recounted scenario goes like this:

"We put up a big sign saying, 'Do you think we should give up our jobs to make these smoothies?' and put out a bin saying 'YES' and a bin saying 'NO' and asked people to put the empty bottle in the right bin.

"At the end of the weekend the 'YES' bin was full so we went in the next day and resigned."

Simple, no?

Days out

With no money and no sign of any funding, they wrote to friends asking if they knew anyone rich.

Cue Maurice Pinto, a wealthy American businessman who lent them 250,000.

He had met the trio during their formal presentation to his venture capital fund. The fund turned them down, but Mr Pinto took a leap of faith and invested his own money

Empty bottle samples on the wall
The fruit drinks market has ballooned in the last 3 years

The company now commands a 30% slice of a market with a retail value of about 50m, according to market researchers AC Nielsen.

The market itself has grown sharply in the last two years alone. In 2001, it was estimated Innocent had 21% of a market worth 20m.

"We just want to produce lovely drinks. And save up enough for a day out at the seaside," says the brochure.

Innocent by name...

Such Utopian-sounding aims are echoed by Richard.

"There's a touch of hippy in us," he tells me.

Yet these are very shrewd hippies. It is a quote recounted in interviews elsewhere and the seemingly effortless success feels an extricable part of the brand itself.

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Need help on how to promote your brand? Look no further than BBC New Online's panel of small business experts.

"Build it and they will come," says Richard of their decision to use minimal advertising, put the product out there and grow the business slowly.

It is the same quote - from cult film Wayne's World - used by Sahar Hashemi, co-founder of the Coffee Republic coffee shop chain, in the first chapter of her guide to setting up a business.

As carefully constructed as the brand is, Richard is keen to distance himself from the branding techniques he might have used during his days in advertising.

"If we call the company Innocent we have a responsibility to be innocent," he says, adamant that the company's image should reflect its product.

Already there are donations to the NGO Women for Sustainable Development in India, while the company's latest plan is to drive its minibus around London this summer offering passers-by free lifts.

I can't help thinking back to Ben & Jerry's "all natural" ice cream, founded by two self-confessed hippies who built the brand on their socially conscious image... and then sold out to the Unilever conglomerate for $326m.

But Richard insists none of the Innocent founders are going anywhere.

New business

In these days of Cantor Fitzgerald lawsuits, where even lawyers are beginning to question the mentality of work-hard, play-hard, Innocent's approach is well-timed.

Just as its drinks appealed to cash-rich, time-poor workaholics, its laid-back and earthy approach to business fits with the current backlash against the dubious ethics of Enron-style conglomerates.

Innocent drinkometer
The drinkometer rewards high sales with yoga and a "nature day"

"We take our product seriously but not ourselves," says Richard.

Richard, Jon and Adam gave up good jobs to build this business and their obvious intelligence, together with good timing, have served them well.

They also had four years' knowledge apiece of building brands and advising others on how to run a business.

Combine this with a passion for the product - "I came in to find Lucy picking pips out of Kiwis to find out what the average number is," says Richard of a colleague in product development - and suddenly they have far more ingredients for business success.

Maybe not so simple after all.




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