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Justin Guilbert and Douglas Riboud are the minds behind Harmless Harvest, Whole Food’s best selling coconut water and the first 100% raw drink of the category ever reaching a supermarket shelve. Sustainable success is something that the two had been envisioning since their college years. The common ambition of changing the way people do business is what brought them closer.
FDL caught up with the visionary entrepreneurs to find out how they turned the reputation of one of America’s most fashionable superdrinks upside down, without spending a dollar in marketing.
What’s your professional background?
Douglas: I worked in the finance industry for many years until deciding to use the skills I had developed there to generate positive systemic change.
Justin: I hopped from banking to software development to consumer goods marketing, all of which helped me to define a functional progressive business model when the time was right.
How did you come up with the idea of creating a food venture?
We created Harmless Harvest in 2009 with the mission to promote positive consumerism and natural capitalism, genuinely caring as much for the people and plants at the source as the people who put their trust in us when they buy our product. We looked for an overhyped product category, thriving on branding and where the products were the result of a commoditized low-quality big agribusiness system. The coconut water category was perfect as a first step: unknown to most people just a few years ago, it appeared in the US and was suddenly coined a miracle natural alternative to energy drinks. By capitalizing on ideas of exotic faraway lands and with little or no regard for the real product, the absurd differences that existed between those products and the real thing went relatively unnoticed. This was an opportunity to prove our concept, but to get there we needed to build a supply chain, develop a group of sources, and define a whole new manufacturing method in order to genuinely deliver on the ubiquitous promises that brands were making: “Tastes fresh from the coconut.”
Breaking through the mainstream market without making any marketing investment sounds quite utopic. How did you succeed in it?
We decided to shift the baseline by creating superior manufacturing practices and focusing on the quality of our product. When quality is required, the allocation of resources toward a marketing budget proves economically unviable. Therefore, we needed to believe that the product would speak for itself in a sea of over-heated, overrated alternatives. Our company grew from roots that were sustainable and socially responsible, and that solid root system is a key to our success.
How much do people know about what they eat food today?
Using ourselves as a benchmark, it’s safe to say that regardless of how health conscious we thought we were becoming, we were consistently being tricked by marketing promises. Even today, we get fooled. All we know is that we don’t know. It’s the responsibility of the food industry to stop misleading its customers and correctly define what they’re putting into people’s bodies.
You decided to invest on wild harvested plants. How do you explain this approach?
Let’s clarify what we mean by wild: it’s attractive and simplistic to define wild as opposed to “civilized.” In our humble opinion, we believe that wilderness is intimately intertwined in the fabric of the ecosystems we live in. We have the ability to support, conserve and foster nature in its wild state for the benefit of all. If we can concentrate on that, then we can help dissolve the man-made dichotomy between “wild” and “civilized," or “nature" and “mankind.” Take the blueberry - organic or not, if it is mass-farmed it has a substantially different flavor, appearance, and nutritional makeup than what you can find in the wild. The same is exactly true for coconuts.
Which are your personal food ethics?
You are what you eat.
Which are the personalities that you most admire for their approach towards nutrition?
Douglas: Gary Hirschberg, one of the founders of Stonyfield Organic, for understanding that organic is not only better tasting, but can and should be available for all.
Justin: Jacques Cousteau, one of my idols as a child for, among other greater things, spending a lifetime on a boat without ever eating a fish.
Which will be your next product?
The categories founded in low quality and high promises, similar to coconut water, and deliver the same shattering punch. Take your pick!