Innocent founder Richard Reed's management tips for start-ups

The multimillionaire entrepreneur says small businesses need to advocate risk-taking and be willing to let people go.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 25 May 2016

Few recent British entrepreneurial successes have attracted quite as much attention as Innocent Smoothies. Founded in 1998 by three university friends, the brand’s bold branding and reputation as a (relatively) healthy alternative to fizzy drinks got consumers going and it expanded rapidly to become a global brand.

In 2013 its founders sold the last of their stakes to Coca-Cola in a deal that valued the company at a cool $500m (£330m). At this week’s Microsoft Future Decoded event one of those founders, Richard Reed, shared his key management tips for entrepreneurs following in their footsteps. 

Have a sense of purpose

Businesses need a ‘North Star’ that guides everything they do, Reed said. ‘At Innocent we talked about keeping "the main thing" the main thing – this idea that we have one thing you stand for, one thing that everything was about. We were in the business of trying to make it easier for people to be healthy. That was the reason we started the company, that was the reason people joined the company.’

Recruit ‘A Types’

Reed shared some advice he had gleaned from a former head of talent at Google. ‘He said, "at Google, we only recruit A types, because A types go on to recruit A types. B types go on to recruit C types, starting a long, slow descent into averageness."’

‘There’s a fundamental truth there,’ Reed said. ‘Great people want to work with other great people, and great people want to help other great people succeed. Less good people, less so – they’re a bit more worried about where they are in the hierarchy, whether they’re going to get that next promotion or not.

‘You’ve got to find people that are ambitious, and find people who are altruistic. And you’ve got to merge those two beautiful, sort-of thrust engines together and they’ll give you a tremendous amount of human power and dynamism.’

Encourage risk-taking

Trying new things is a critically important part of growing a business, and it’s worth encourahing your staff to do the same. ‘A little phrase that was on every wall in every toilet at [Innocent HQ] Fruit Towers was this: "If you’re 70% sure then go for it",’ Reed said.

‘We weren’t saying make reckless decisions, we were saying just think about it, maybe run a few numbers, but don’t try and get to 100% confidence. Much better to commit, make a call, see how it’s going, correct if it’s not right.

‘People would not get through their first week at Innocent without me sitting them down and saying we will genuinely always back the person that tried something, rather than the person who didn’t.’

Care about ethics

Behaving ethically and emphasising the importance of such behaviour isn’t just a good thing to do in its own right; it also helps attract the right sort of people. ‘I think that really helps, especially in this day and age and especially if you want to recruit fully-realised, clever, switched-on, socially engaged people - which of course you do,’ said Reed.

Build a community

Business isn’t about technology or buildings, it’s about humanity, said Reed (and every motivational speaker ever). Building a sense of community is an important part of a business leader’s job. ‘We’ve just got to get really good at psychology; we’ve got to spot the people with the values that chime with the organisation, the people who’ve got the right vibe,’ he said. ‘And we’ve got to - through the workplace, through the places that we hang out in, through the things we endorse - we’ve got to create that sense of community.'

Be prepared to let people go

A business’s values are vitally important, Reed said, so you need to be willing to cut people loose if they aren’t a good fit – a mistake Innocent made in the early days. ‘It was a stupid and naive thought, but I thought there was something unethical about firing people. We were called Innocent for god’s sake, so we can’t ever fire people.

‘But of course that’s not how you build a great business, it’s not how you keep great talent,’ he said. ‘It’s gonna be a natural phenomenon in any group of human beings – there’s going to be some people that aren’t really contributing, that aren’t really doing their share of helping drive the bus. Those people... are the ones to get rid of first.’

And if you’re worried about finding a replacement? In the words of a former Apple recruiter Reed met, ‘better a hole than an asshole.’

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