Interview - Innocent Drinks co-founder Jon Wright
We interviewed Jon Wright, the co-founder of fantastic drinks brand Innocent Drinks. He tells us about the story of their success and the ups and downs of their great journey.
What prompted you to set up Innocent Drinks?
There were the three of us in the car, setting off for a snowboarding weekend and we were having a conversation that was just going around and around. We were saying that it’d be great for us to all do something in business together. We had already done stuff together at university and we’d been having this same conversation on and off for years.
We decided that as we were together for the whole weekend, we ought to try and see if we could come up with a decent idea to work on. If we managed to do this, then we could really go for it seriously - and if we didn’t, then we needed to stop having the conversation and move on with our lives and careers. So we spent the weekend trying to come up with a business idea and fortunately, we got lucky and came up with an idea that we couldn't find a good enough reason not to do.
At what point did you know that it was going to take off and be a real success?
There were different milestones; shortly after we spent the weekend together and had come up with the idea of fruit smoothies, we all got back to London and sat down and said, “Look if we’re all going to do this; who’s going to do what?”
Luckily each of us wanted to do different bits; Rich wanted to do the marketing, Adam wanted to get out there and sell it and I wanted to work out how you made it. So, I realised then, that we all had a different complementary set of skills that was really important for it all to work - that was a great moment.
And obviously, there’s the first time that you put the stuff on a shelf; people (other than your friends and family) come along, look at it and actually pay money for it - that’s hugely rewarding too!
Have you had any tricky times where you've doubted yourselves whether the business wouldn't be a success?
Well, as with anything; where you have the highs, you often have the lows. The good thing is though, that there are three of us, so however bad it may be going for one of us in one area, at least one of the other two would be saying, ‘Well hang on, there’s good news over here so it’s not all doom and gloom.”
There were certainly moments when we were setting it up when we were just looking at the economics of the things and trying to fill a bottle with juice that doesn't have any of the traditional ways of making stuff cheaper in it - no concentrate, no water and no sugar; you know, if you're doing it properly, you suddenly realise it’s a hell of a lot more expensive than everything else out there - that was a wobbly moment.
Soon after the launch, I remember our bottle supplier turning to us and saying “Look we've had a huge order of bottles from a much bigger drinks company, so were going to have to stop making them for you; we’re going to have to use the machine just to make bottles for them". Of course, without bottles, you can’t really make the drink! So that was pretty terrifying; fortunately, another company stepped in and helped us out at the last minute and they kept our business for a very long time afterwards.
Even after the business had been going for 10 years, we came into 2008 and the credit crunch. The dynamics of the market changed in terms of the way consumers were shopping and with the price of fruit and the foreign exchange, it was a difficult time for us. So, having spent 10 years building a business that we thought was a winner, we came within days of losing it; so it goes to show really that at any point you can have the rug pulled out from under you.
Where would you say in the world are your Smoothies the best seller?
Innocent is a European business and the UK is now similar in size to France and Germany in terms of the size of the population so actually everybody across Europe has taken to it but it took a lot longer in some countries than others.
Can you tell me the importance of charity being linked with Innocent Drinks?
Yes - two things happened, one being that Innocent began, and after 4 -5 years, it started to be profitable and make some money. We were feeling a bit more secure then and we were getting further up the supply chain and out into the countries and the villages and the communities that were growing our fruit. We then realised that while we may all be becoming successful back in London, that doesn't necessarily translate back to prosperity in other places; even places where we were sourcing our fruit. So we needed to start working out what was the best way to put some of that success back on our fruit growers and communities.
We started doing that informally but as with anything, if you want to do it well, then you have to do it properly; so we set up The Innocent Foundation with a mission to do just that.
So we had to recruit the right people with the correct expertise in order to help us do that. 13 years on from that moment, Innocent Drinks still gives 10% of its profits to The Innocent Foundation, which then gets distributed out to help the world’s hungry.
If you talk to anyone on the team at Innocent, and what motivates them to come to work each day; it wouldn't be top of the list for everyone, but certainly at least in the top three for everybody would be The Innocent Foundation and sharing the success is one of the things that they are most proud of. It has been a real key part of it.
The tone of voice and comments that you have on your drink’s cartons - were you one of the first companies to do that and how has that helped your brand?
Yes, at the time it was a very different thing to be doing and packaging was, on the whole, all very similar. All of the large companies were all adhering to the rules and regulations with glossy slogans on the front.
I remember when we were designing our first label, we sat down in front of the computer in our office and wrote down all of the legal stuff; nutritional information, ingredients and how to look after the product and then there was just a big blank space so we thought we ought to think of something interesting to fill it!
We just thought we’d use it to say what we wanted to say like ‘Hello - do you like your product? If you do let us know and more importantly, if you don’t, definitely let us know…!’
After that it progressed to the way that we naturally spoke to each other in the office and that made it onto the packaging as well, which just gave us a bit more of a human aspect that we hoped would engage people and keep the natural humanity which can sometimes be lost in companies or offices.
Am I right in saying that you sold the business to Coca-Cola?
Yes, in 2013 we stepped out of the business and Coca-Cola took on ownership. The team that runs the business is the team that was working with us back in 2013, so that company has remained the same and is in the same building; just as a company which is now owned by Coca-Cola, rather than a division or department.
Was that a difficult decision for you to make at the time?
It was a journey we had started back in 2009, when we took some investment from Coca-Cola; we needed the capital to expand across Europe which was becoming expensive and you ultimately know that once you take on a strategic investor within your industry, that the business is eventually going to end up as theirs.
So really, we took that decision back in 2009; so by 2013, it felt like a natural time as we’d been working together for 4 years; we’d doubled the size of the business together and we had a great team in place which we could hand it onto. We had been in the business for 15 years and had young families and it seemed like a natural time to do other things.
So, how hands-on are you and the other co-founders now - are you all doing different things?
The three of us left together and pretty much within a few months we had set up a little office and started JamJar, which is investing in early stage businesses - other people trying to do the next Innocent and build a consumer brand. The three of us do this together and that’s the biggest chunk of our time. Where Innocent Drinks is concerned; we are non-execs, so we do sometimes get involved and try to help where we can.
Are all of you, as a family, fairly health-conscious?
Coming into it, I wasn't. I thought that Innocent was a great opportunity because I was a guy working hard in an office and grabbing a takeaway on the way home and I was very aware that there was a ‘fruit and veg’ message out there - but one that I was only meeting perhaps if I went home for Sunday lunch!
So I was trying to find a quick fix about it and of course, once you start getting into that world, you learn more and more about the importance of diet and exercise and everything that follows on from that - I guess you begin to get older and wiser! I certainly wouldn’t hold my family up for too intense scrutiny, but we are aware of it and do the best we can.
How would you like to spend your perfect day?
Well, as you know, I’m staying at your brother’s house Leobo at the moment out in South Africa and I would say that’s pretty perfect for me! Being amongst nature and being able to hike up some hills - and when you get to the top, have a good lunch before you wander down is pretty perfect!
I also enjoy being amongst friends and family and I’m really fortunate to be able to spend some time doing that. The stay here (in South Africa) is part of our trip around the world; we are taking a family sabbatical for a year and we are trying to do it at a slow pace so we can really enjoy it.
This is our second month; we started in the Alps with 4 weeks of skiing and now we’re here and then we head to Rajasthan in India. We were then planning on going to live in Tokyo for four weeks but with the Coronavirus outbreak I feel we may have chosen the wrong year to go around the world; I think we will just continue on though and see what happens!
Jon, thank you so much for telling me all about your fantastic journey, I hope you enjoy the rest of your trip and it's not hampered by this ongoing virus situation.
Grapevine is a trusted network of private members, linking kindred spirits from town or country. Members promote, sell or buy goods and services within the network.
Grapevine also believes in supporting young people to get a strong start through internships and work placements. We also help a number of charities including Heads Together and The Injured Jockeys Fund.