Tuesday 26 September 2017

We get the scoop from ice cream mogul on how startups can cream in the big dough

Ben & Jerry's founder offers young Irish entrepreneurs a taste of success with €10,000 prize, says Roisin Burke

Ultimate hippy capitalist Jerry Greenfield was in London last week preparing to grill young start-up entrepreneurs -- including three Irish contenders -- for a €10,000 prize.

The Irish hopefuls in with a shot are: hip young entrepreneur network Archipelago; Rothar, a non-profit that rescues and revamps unwanted bikes; and Biochar, which makes a product that converts waste materials into a soil fertiliser.

This trio were plucked from over 100 hopefuls, now whittled down to a final 25.

As well as the prize money, the winner gets mentoring for their business and their company name promoted on tubs of Ben & Jerry's ice cream.

On the judging panel along with Greenfield is Irishman Paul O'Hara of the international social entrepreneur organisation Ashoka, a former astronaut turned green energy researcher and a world skateboarding champion turned ethical clothing retailer, among others.

The maker of ice cream flavours like Phish Food and Karamel Sutra started out as a peace and love inspired hippy venture in the Seventies, but Ben & Jerry's has been owned by the big faceless corporate conglomerate Unilever for yonks, bought out for $326m (€260m) in 2000.

Greenfield doesn't retain an executive board role, but he leverages support from Unilever for the sustainable business ventures that are close to his heart and are still strongly associated with the brand. And Unilever knows that backing them is good for business.

This correspondent has never been hugged by a multimillionaire former ice cream mogul before. Not in an interview setting at any rate. Jerry Greenfield's greeting is a great big bear hug. He is cuddly and super cheerful, as chilled as a tub of B&Js.

In contrast there are five or six corporate types sitting around the table, monitoring his every move, and a zealous handler parks himself almost between us, timing our interview to the second.

Not a serial entrepreneur, Greenfield's adventures in ice cream were his one and only business win. "I've made a lot of bad investments along the way," he confesses.

"Ben & Jerry's is actually the only venture I've been involved in that has ever been successful. I invested in a soul food restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio, that specialised in chicken and waffles and it's out of business. It did not fly."

His advice for budding entrepreneurs is characteristically homespun.

"I always tell people you should do something that you really believe in, that's a passion of yours. Not just that you think might be a good business idea, but something that has a mission.

"I always tell people to start small. Many people have grand ambitions and they try to get a lot of money into the business, and I don't think that helps. If you start small with not a lot of resources, then you'll learn all the different aspects of what you're doing, you can't just throw money at problems, you have to actually figure things out."

Contrast this with the frequent ambition of young startup types to quickly flip or float or franchise and to lure in big investor cash ...

"I'll tell you what Ben [his childhood friend and Ben & Jerry's cofounder] always said his father told him: 'Do well the things that are close at hand and great things will come to thy hand to be done.'"

Great things did come to Greenfield's company, but so did challenges. As it grew, Ben & Jerry's had pretty big cut-throat battles with giants like Nestle to get into freezer cabinets in stores. Nowadays it's even tougher to get newbie products on shelves. Can he suggest one stand-out thing a startup can do to win product retail space?

"There's two ways to get on shelves. You can either pay a lot of money to get the stores to put things there -- that works if you have a lot of money.

"The other way to get things on shelves is to have customers demanding it. The stores will respond to what customers want. So you should be going out in communities, going to wherever you can with your products and services, making it very personal, and when you create customer demand, create a track record, something to show, then stores will feel like they need to have you.

"There's the 'push' strategy or the 'pull' strategy -- pulling is what works."

So er, basically, it comes down to 'make something good that people want to buy'? I posit. He loves this.

"Make something good that people want to buy!!" he booms. "You should get in front of the camera and say that! Come on, get over here! This is how it's done!"

I gingerly move front of camera (he is being filmed by a PR agency) and perch on Jerry Greenfield's knee.

"How do you get your product on the shelves?!" he prompts. "Make something good that people want to buy!" I chant, sheepishly. Jerry is delighted. "I think that's a keeper, don't you think?"

I think I need some ice cream.

The competition winners will be announced in August. See joinourcore.com to follow the Irish hopefuls

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