Four years ago, Justin Guilbert (above left) and Douglas Riboud (right) were corporate types with zilch experience in the food industry. Today, they run a beverage business that employs 300 people and nabbed shelf space at Whole Foods from the day of its launch. Harmless Harvest is a line of organic teas and raw coconut waters sourced from Japan and Thailand, bottled ethically and sustainably. The pair just released Namacha, a low-caffeine, energy-boosting tea. Their story is a great lesson in how a unique idea, good intentions and serious resilience can kick traditional experience’s ass.
How did you guys transition from button-down corporate jobs to a gig of your own?
Justin: We followed pretty traditional careers for the first ten years of our careers. Douglas was working in investment banking. I was working in cosmetics marketing. While we were good at that, there was always this underlying frustration that we were working on the wrong side of history. There seemed to be a perversion in consumer goods: So much money is allocated to marketing and creating these brand, and all these resources were essentially being taken away from the intrinsic value of the product. Our idea was, “Let’s turn our backs on marketing communication and focus really on making, not marketing.”
Fifteen years ago, you wouldn’t get the time of day from big retailers. Today they’re like, “Wow, two dumb guys with a crazy idea may just be able to do it right.”
Why coconut water?
Justin: I’d like to say we were walking through the jungle one day and coconuts fell on our head. But there was no creation legend; it took us two and a half years to develop it. We analyzed markets and said, let’s focus on food, because it’s essential, and you should care about what’s inside. In coconut water, we saw a profound disconnect between the brand and the promise. You could drive up to Alaska and ask somebody what they think of coconuts, and it would only be positive. Yet very few people know what coconut water tastes like.
What gave you the edge to get through that R&D period?
Justin: When you’re considering entrepreneurship in general, I think we came with a huge advantage. The first is we’re two, not one. We have a unique relationship, a mutual understanding and respect. There is no ego trip, and we’re committed to working on a project together. The second piece is we chose an industry where we’re experts by default. Everyone’s a food expert by the simple fact that we eat every day. And we have no background in this food industry, so we thought we could do anything. We didn’t have that built-in “Oh, that’s been tried before, it’s impossible” or “You can’t do that” or “Rules are like this.” We just said, “Why can’t you?”
How fast have you grown?
Justin: We started as two guys in 2009. Today, we’re about 300 people. The first day we were on the shelves, we launched in every Whole Foods in America overnight.
Justin: The power of enthusiasm, confidence and belief in what you’re doing. We met a few folks from Whole Foods at trade shows in the year-and-a-half before we were ready to launch. Essentially we’d catch them and say, “Listen—here’s our idea. There’s no reason why food shouldn’t be better. Organic and social progress are defining values to create a better-tasting product.” That was compelling to them. Fifteen years or 20 years ago, if you weren’t a big guy on the block, you wouldn’t get the time of day from all these big retailers. Today they’re like, “Wow. Two dumb guys with some sort of crazy idea, they may just be able to do it right.”
What’s the key to selling yourself in a pitch meeting?
Justin: In our case, it was simplicity in the message. You can have a lot of layers, but if you’re talking about a product, bring the prototype. Make something that’s going to be as close as possible to the final deliverable. If it’s a food, have them see it. If it’s a garment, try it. There’s nothing that tells your story better than what you’re going to be making.
What was the big mistake or setback you guys had to push through?
Justin: At first [before launch], the product was going rotten in the containers. [Farmers] were taking us for a ride, delivering the wrong product. What needed to happen was for us to be on the ground, literally up to our knees in mud outside the factory, working with the people and figuring it out together. Our biggest mistakes were when we lacked involvement. It doesn’t mean we want to micromanage everything, but you need to know what you’re talking about. You need to be hands-deep in the mud in every situation.
What part of this whole thing are you proudest of?
Douglas: That we’re running a factory that processes hundreds of thousands of coconuts a day, employs hundreds of people. One of the greatest things we’ve managed to do is create these jobs and continuously improve with them.
How important was the “harmless” component of your business?
Douglas: Our fundamental idea was to have this harmonious kind of business model. The idea was anywhere that we have an impact, do no harm. You take into account the welfare and benefit of the source, whether it’s the farmer, even the plant, the soil, the ecosystem. You don’t necessarily have to destroy the resource in order to obtain the output. The more you’re going to benefit it, the more the consumer is going to have a better-quality product. Our idea is to demonstrate that you can have constructive capitalism.