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"Some people think of Innocent as a load of guys hanging out on bean bags"

Richard Reed, co-founder of Innocent Smoothies, talks fruit, innocence and a bad experience in a dog biscuit factory.

Innocent staff kick back, Photograph: Getty Images

Although Richard Reed, co-founder of Innocent drinks, claims not to have dreamt of starting his own business as a kid, he does remember sitting in classrooms inventing new businesses. “I used to doodle in exercise books, coming up with names and drawing logos for imaginary businesses,” he says. And while he says he doesn’t remember consciously wanting to be a businessman, he tells familiar tales of childhood experiences.

At aged four he was selling rose water (“rose petals in water in a jam jar”) to neighbours and at seven he was washing windows for money. Then, aged 11, he hit on a lucrative scheme. “Near my gran’s there was a discount stationery shop that sold Smurf stickers for 3p each. I bought loads and sold them at school for 15p each. I haven’t made a mark-up like it since.”

And aged 16 a bad experience working a summer job in a dog biscuit factory convinced him to set up a business cutting lawns for neighbours.     

Innocent Drinks, he says, was born from friendship rather than an entrepreneurial drive.

“I wanted to start a business with mates. I wouldn’t have had the confidence or the skills to do it by myself,” he admits.

He met those co-founders, Adam Balon and Jon Wright, at Cambridge University where they worked together organising club nights. “We always talked about doing stuff and had a sense of how we worked together.”

Reed says a critical lesson for others in the Innocent success story is that the three founders share a strong set of values and principles, but have complementary skills. “The map of skills is such that where mine end Adam’s start and where Adam’s end, Jon’s start. We’d rather die than do each other’s jobs. But we care about the same principles. We really believe in getting stuff that’s delicious and pleasurable but that gives you vitality.” 

Reed says the three talk in terms of “being pulled towards” starting the business. “At its most basic my objective was to do business with my two closest friends. But it was more like a pull – this sense of wanting to do it. We never dreamt about how big it was going to be one day. It was just that we really wanted to do this thing.”

Reed says it is essential that those starting a business keep faith in their idea. “When we set it up we were 90% sure that it wasn’t going to work. Then everyone said it definitely wasn’t going to work. When you think it’s a ‘no’ and you hear ‘no’ 1,000 times, you start to think it definitely isn’t going to work. We kept going because there was the three of us. And there was part of us saying, ‘Yes, but, some people do manage it, so if not us, then who?’ That’s the positive voice people should listen for.”

Reed is adamant that the UK needs to value its entrepreneurs more. The story of his motivations for starting a business – he did it to impress a girl – highlights the way perceptions of entrepreneurs have changed. “I started Innocent to impress a girl who worked where I worked. As I was leaving to start Innocent and I told her what I was doing, she looked at me in horror and said, ‘You sound like a right Arthur Daley’. Being a businessman has gone from being Arthur Daley and Del Boy to Richard Branson, Lord Sugar and Dragons’ Den.”

But for all the positive change, Reed says still not enough people know starting a business is an option. “Business has got cooler but it is amazing how most people still think it’s not an option for them. We have this assumption that you have to work for someone else.” 

And Reed is clear that starting a business is open to all. “Being an entrepreneur is essentially about coming up with an idea and orchestrating people to do a series of things within a finite time. It is project management, but you have to think of the project. Everyone can do it. But only a small proportion will make it big. But you don’t need to make it big; just big enough to be in line with what you want out of it.”

It would help if more people left education with a better idea of what was involved in business. Too many people, says Reed, don’t have that. “Some people think of Innocent as a load of guys hanging out on bean bags or playing table tennis, occasionally making smoothies. The reality is that everyone here works their nuts off and we are ferociously on top of the detail and the data. You are not going to build a business this size without doing that stuff well.”

That understanding of what’s involved in running a business needs to be taught. “We need to teach entrepreneurship in schools. It needs to get into kids’ brains at 11 years old that it’s an option. An entrepreneur class should be compulsory. It is amazing what you learn at school compared to what you need for life and business. I send staff on training courses about how to make a presentation or how to negotiate or be personally effective. These would be great things to learn as a kid. It’s important to learn history and geography and all that, but there has to be room for personal effectiveness or time management. Why are we learning this stuff aged 30? What a wasted opportunity.”

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia. This article originally appeared in Economia.