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Innocent Drinks

How four mates quit their 'grown-up' jobs to start a smoothie company

Innocent's grassy vanDan Germain's three university friends Rich, Adam and John had always talked about schemes for starting businesses, but when they left Cambridge they all went into what he calls 'grown-up jobs' for several years.

'Grown-up jobs' did not dampen their appetite for enterprise, however, and by the time they were twenty-five, they had decided to start a business making smoothies. Uncertain whether to give up their day jobs, they kept them, but spent �500 on fruit and made it into smoothies, which they sold from a stall at a small music festival in London.

They put up a sign saying 'Do you think we should give up our day jobs to make these smoothies?' and provided a 'yes' bin and a 'no' bin for the empty bottles. By the end of the weekend, the 'yes' bin was full, so on the Monday they all resigned.

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No messing about

Quote�Like most new babies, it took nine months before the birth, and innocent was launched.�End Quote

That was in 1998, but like most new babies, it took nine months before the birth, and innocent was launched. This was much longer than the enthusiastic trio had expected. They encountered barriers, including various experts who told them their idea would not work. The product's shelf life was too short, they said, and innocent should add preservatives or additives to lengthen its life.

Ignoring most of the expert advice, innocent created a range of smoothies made from 100% pure and fresh fruit and nothing else. Careful production and high-tech packaging gave it the longest possible shelf life, but they had not compromised their principles by what Dan calls "messing about with it". Dan joined the company at around the time the range was launched, in April 1999.

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The first twenty bottles

Their first foray into the market was very modest. 'Out to Lunch', the local sandwich shop round the corner from their office in Ladbroke Grove, agreed to stock a few of their drinks. They supplied twenty bottles and, when they checked later, found that the drinks had sold out. Dan admits that this was cause for a disproportionate amount of celebrating at the pub on that first day!

Most of their early sales were through local delicatessens and sandwich shops, but it was not long before Coffee Republic, also a young and growing business, agreed to stock innocent drinks in their eight or nine shops. Since then, innocent have grown steadily, at a rate of 50-60% a year, and now supply most of the major supermarkets, but they are still careful to keep their original small shops happy.

Recipes created in the high-tech kitchen at their London offices are tested on people in surrounding office buildings. Once approved, the drinks are sold in outlets across the UK and Europe. According to Dan, though, there are still plenty of people who have not yet tasted innocent drinks, so there is some way to go before innocent can claim to be 'Europe's favourite little juice company', as they would like to be able to do.

Fruit is sourced from all over the world, and regular sampling conducted in the test kitchen to ensure that only the most flavoursome varieties are used in the innocent drinks. New product ideas are tested, too, and innocent has expanded its range from the original 100% fruit smoothies, adding fruit juices and yoghurt-based drinks.

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Keeping it simple

Quote�Our focus is on taste and enjoyment, and we want to keep it simple.�End Quote
Dan Germain, innocent

Some new product ideas have been rejected on the basis that they are too far from the main focus of making 'great-tasting drinks'. Despite the current fashion for adding vitamins and other medicinal-sounding ingredients to drinks, innocent's management have decided against it. "We want to stick to what we're good at," explains Dan, "We're not experts at medicinal things, our focus is on taste and enjoyment, and we want to keep it simple."

Asked how the company seems to have grown so dramatically and yet apparently avoided all the potential pitfalls of growing a business, Dan replies, "Our growth was carefully planned and steady. We didn't take on anything we weren't capable of doing. For example, with the big supermarkets, we only took on a few of their stores to start with. It's too easy, when you have a great idea, to get carried away with enthusiasm. The mechanics of turning your idea into a route to market are often much more difficult and much slower than you expect."

To find out more about innocent, visit www.innocentdrinks.co.uk.

Read how innocent saved money with software services.

What next?

Innocent's name fits their business well. Here's how to choose a name for your company.

Young people are the future of the UK business world, writes Alexa Tilley. The Apprentice star reveals the opportunities that exist for obtaining first-hand experience of business.

The Feel Good Drinks Company once teamed up with Breast Cancer Care to launch a "Naturally Fundraising Pink Grapefruit Juice Drink". Read more about charitable alliances.

Go back to basics to keep your customers happy. Read about good, old-fashioned customer care.

There are more retailers who go bankrupt because of how they managed inventory than any other single reason. Read more on inventory management.

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Essential Business Guide

This article features in the Essential Business Guide, the 'single source' handbook for UK small businesses and startup companies, published in June 2005 in association with Microsoft. For more information on the guide, and to buy your copy, visit www.essentialbusinessguide.co.uk

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Innocent's Dan Germain says:

"Put together a solid business plan and review it regularly. Work with people you trust. Don't run before you can walk, and be prepared for a slow start, which may mean living on savings and borrowings for a while. Always listen to advice - you don't have to take the advice, just listen. And finally, don't be afraid of failing: treat it as a learning experience to help you get things right next time."

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