Smoothie maker's story shows it is not so Innocent after all

 

BOOK REVIEW: A Book About Innocent: Our Story & Some Things We’ve Learnedby Dan Germain and Richard Reed; Penguin, £14.99 (€17)

INNOCENT, THE smoothie company, has a reputation for being fun and wacky.

Its west London offices are furnished with beanbags and decorated with fake grass; staff receive free breakfasts and yoga classes. The company holds music and food festivals; it raises money for charity by asking people to knit woollen hats for plastic bottles.

So it would be easy to dismiss the people who put squashed fruit in a bottle, slapped on the name Innocent and created a multimillion-pound business as fun-seekers who got lucky.

But Britain’s leading smoothie makers, who last month gave up a minority stake in return for an investment of more than £10 million from Coca-Cola, are more canny than such characterisations suggest.

Their business savvy is reinforced by Innocent’s first corporate history, co-written by one of its founders, Richard Reed.

It tells the story of three ambitious Cambridge graduates with backgrounds in advertising and management consultancy, who were determined to establish a successful business.

Much of the book, released to coincide with Innocent’s 10th anniversary, is pure marketing puff.

But despite the photos of staff in Innocent T-shirts having birthday picnics at work and playing table-top ice hockey, the book reveals management practices that are less feel-good .

For example, staff are reviewed twice a year and are given a score from one to five – five being “an absolute star” but one being the more brutal: “It’s time to move on.” Many of the recommendations are hackneyed:

“Success is about resilience. When others are telling you something can’t be done, keep going until you prove them wrong. Find the ‘yes’ when everyone is saying ‘no’.”

However, the book has some genuinely useful tips for the intended audience – people who want to set up their own business.

It instructs readers to write business plans when they get home from work to see if they are really committed and explain how their idea will beat the competition in a simple sentence their grandmother would understand.

The tips are believable because Innocent’s founders have experienced all the ups and downs of building a business.

Like most budding entrepreneurs, they did not realise how hard it would be to get going.

“Whatever length of time you think it is going to take, triple it and then add some more. Everything takes longer than you think.”

Their advice to be clear about your goal and to stick to it may sound like a platitude, but it becomes less pat when you read of their persistence in only using natural ingredients in spite of being told time and again by other drinks companies that they would not succeed unless they made smoothies with juice concentrate, flavourings and preservatives.

They also explain the toll that setting up the company took on their personal finances and advise wannabe entrepreneurs to stay in their existing jobs for as long as they can before quitting to pursue their dreams.

Some aspects of the privately held company’s story underline the significance of chance.

For example, Innocent’s founders were turned down by dozens of banks, as well as London’s venture capital community when trying to raise money and only found an investor – an American, Maurice Pinto – after sending an e-mail to everyone they knew, headlined: “Does anyone know anyone rich?”

The book is easy to read and rich in anecdotes (such as how Mr Reed used a thesaurus to come up with the name Innocent after rejecting the names Fast Tractor and Angel).

But it has one flaw that is hard to overlook: while it covers the company’s early challenges, it does not tackle its current ones: namely, how to keep growing as sales of smoothies slow.

Over the past 12 months, retail sales of smoothies in Britain have dropped some 30 per cent by both value and volume, according to market research from Nielsen.

One of the reasons that Innocent sold a stake to Coca-Cola is that it needs money to expand so that it is not reliant on smoothies alone.

It would also have been helpful to hear more about Innocent’s mistakes, such as the Advertising Standards Authority’s criticism of some of its health claims.

Still, there are some missteps that it does not mind admitting to, such as when it launched the brand in France with the claim “pas des preservatifs”. It translated as ‘our smoothies are condom free’. Not the message we intended, but then at least it was true”.