Richard Reed | ‘It’s been a pretty enriching experience’

Interviews

Richard Reed, co-founder of Innocent Drinks, ascribes the success of the multimillion- pound business to the way the brand’s “joyfulness, creativity and friendliness” managed to “connect with people”. The same could be said for Reed himself, whose exuberance, excitement and genuine interest in the people around him has enabled him to compile a collection of the best advice from some of the most “remarkable people” in the world.

Ten years ago, Reed vowed that he would ask the exceptional people he came into contact with—and as an entrepreneur he meets many—for their best piece of advice. Sixty-two of these encounters are collected in self-help/business/travel book, If I Could Tell You One Thing: Encounters with Remarkable People and Their Most Valuable Advice (Canongate, November).

Described as a “series of adventures in advice”, Reed intends for the book to encapsulate the whole “spectrum of human experiences, stories and emotions”, including stories from media mogul Simon Cowell; Auschwitz survivor Lily Ebert; philanthropist and presenter Katie Piper; and anti-Apartheid activists Ahmed Kathrada and Denis Goldberg.

Reed says: “[The book] goes from the sort of person who is having the best of times to the person who is having the worst of times and it’s really interesting to see what have they learned from their experiences. There is a guy in the book who suffered horrific sexual abuse as a child; there’s Katie Piper, who had acid thrown in her face. Just to understand their take on life and listen to what they have learnt has been an incredible thing.”

The elevator pitch

Reed first pitched If I Could Tell You One Thing to his agent as a simple book of quotes from his chosen subjects, coupled with “maybe a description” and their pictures. However, at the advice of his agent and publisher, the book became the tapestry of encounters it is now, beautifully illustrated with “lovely pen portrait watercolours” from artist Sam Kerr.

Indeed, despite Reed intending to be “the janitor behind the scenes, just arranging the words”, it is his own take on the encounters that elevates the book above the mere advice or self-help title. The exchanges Reed describes add depth, body and character to his interviewees’ words, and his passion for the project is felt throughout. “Every one I came away from buzzing, or feeling like I’d really learned something super cool,” he says.

“I’ve enjoyed it so much because basically for the past six months or so I’ve been meeting some extraordinary people and hearing their stories and getting their wisdom. It’s been a pretty enriching experience.”

Dench’s bench

One of the stand-out encounters for Reed was a “healing experience” he had with the actress Dame Judi Dench on the day of the result of the EU referendum. Reed describes driving down to Dench’s house feeling “dazed and confused and sad and tired”, then seeing her “sat in this beautiful little garden dressed in white [and bathed] in sunlight, and she’s as sad and as depressed as I am and there’s no sort of, ‘I’m the writer, she’s the actress’. There are just two human beings, consoling each other.” He adds: “She was such a warm, kind, funny, lovely person, and we ended up spending hours there. I went in feeling really sad and she made me feel a lot better. She was amazing.”

In contrast, another of Reed’s favourite encounters was his rather difficult, slightly agonising experience trying to persuade Canadian author Margaret Atwood to divulge some of her best advice. After a lot of back-and-forth, and what Reed calls a “verbal fencing match with one of the greatest writers alive”, he manages to wrest from Atwood the following: “When it comes to cacti, it’s the small spikes that get you, not the big ones.” Reed says: “What’s so good is that it’s so bad… She would just not give in, and I totally lost the duel. But she was a great person to have lost to.”

Putting himself in the shoes of his interviewees, Reed says the advice he would give can be summed up in one word: “contribute”. “In whatever situation you’re in—be it friendship, business, social—contribute,” he says. “In work, your career is going to be much better if you’re the one who proactively suggests things and proactively does things, or offers to do things. It also means giving time or money or energy to charity if you’re able to; that is going to benefit the world, which will benefit you internally. So I like the idea of contributing.”

Giving back

This desire to contribute feeds into many of aspects of Reed’s life: his businesses, his friendships and, accordingly, his book, the royalties of which will go to charities that help with social inclusion and mentoring. “I’ve been the beneficiary of some really great advice and some really brilliant role models, but I’m conscious about how lucky I am to have had that,” he says.

“I’m lucky enough to be in the room with these people in the first place. And I know that for a lot of people, they are not necessarily getting the chance to be in the room with people who give them good advice, so I thought there would be a certain congruency to the book if the money goes to charities that help people with mentoring and social inclusion. It can get them into places where they can hopefully get access to better advice and opportunities.”

He continues: “In my experience, wisdom, work ethic, talent; they’re all evenly distributed among all human beings, because we’re all the same. But opportunity isn’t evenly distributed. It’s a function of geography, it’s a function of economy, it’s a function of parental guidance and a whole lot of other things. This book isn’t going to change any of that, but at it’s heart is the sense of, ‘We’re all in this together, let’s help each other out as much as we can and share it out a little.’ That’s kind of the Innocent vibe as well.”

Reed hopes the book will be “the first of many” and has plans to create a “shared global commons of advice”, a place “where people can contribute to and take from a well of information, wisdom and insight”. He says: “There are seven billion people on the planet and in one way or another, every one of us is remarkable. So I want this project to really be the beginning of trying to create a shared global commons of advice, [and I hope there will be] multiple volumes and international editions of the book.”

First published in The Bookseller magazine in 2016.

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