“We’ve never hid the fact that the whole purpose of this project — from day one — has been to demonstrate that you can have a super high quality product based on organic sourcing, socially progressive labor practices and an ultra-premium experience for the consumer and still be mass market,” Guilbert said.
Guilbert sees Southeast Asia as the region where the company has begun to establish proof of its concept. Harmless Harvest sources its coconut water and houses its production facility in Thailand, and though unrelenting demand may eventually require the company to look elsewhere for its liquid, the company is continuously working with coconut farmers in the country to transition to organic practices and gain organic certification for naturally growing coconut fields.
“The improvement of our scalability is really allowing us to reach our dream — [and] it’s not a dream anymore as much as a reality – to get to that tipping point of critical mass, meaning that we’re able to deliver products for a very broad audience and do it with the same amount of quality in terms of the ingredient, which is the organic practices and social practices, which usually are kind of the deal-breakers when you want to reach the mass market scale.”
Guilbert called out Harmless Harvest’s relationship with Whole Foods (which is the top-selling retailer of the coconut water brand) and Costco as critical its development in the company’s quest to reach mainstream acceptance. He cited a synergy between the two retailers in their desire to offer scale and volume to high quality brands.
“For us, critical mass is less about a dollar value or units sold or share of market,” he noted. “It’s more about brand ubiquity. It’s more about availability, accessibility. That naturally translates into a multi-channel approach. And a multi-channel approach means that you need be an expert in very, very different ways of selling product. And for that, you need to develop very strong relationships and partnerships with each kind of figurehead in each channel, whether it’s Whole Foods in the natural channel, Costco in the club channel… you need to be as educated about them as they are about you.”
As might be expected, with expansion often comes the need for new funding. Guilbert said that Harmless Harvest remains a company that relies on internal resources, noting that “most private equity or venture capital firms are looking at a 4-6 year” turnaround on investment. That timeline doesn’t fit the framework nor will help meet the lofty goals of Harmless Harvest, a company that Guilbert once referred to as “a borderline NGO.”
“A lot of the investors that we’ve spoken with are great guys… but, unfortunately, we know that they have a responsibility toward their investors, as in funds, to deliver a return or liquidity to them in a horizon that doesn’t fit for us,” he said.
Guilbert explained that Harmless Harvest has instead leaned on “a very close-knit group of individuals and institutions” that understand the company’s vision and “don’t put any pressure” on its leadership and team. While Guilbert was reluctant to name any of the company’s investors, it’s widely believed that dairy conglomerate Group Danone, whose CEO Franck Riboud is the uncle of Harmless Harvest co-founder Douglas Riboud, holds a minority stake in the company.
Earlier this year, it was revealed that Stonyfield Farm co-founder and chairman Gary Hirshberg is also an investor in and advisor to Harmless Harvest. Guilbert said that Hirshberg, a long-time and well-known proponent of the organic food movement, has been “a supporter since pre-day one” and that his role in the company is less about investment as it is about his contribution in technical expertise and knowledge in organizational development.
Commercial and critical success has come rapidly, but Harmless Harvest is nevertheless spending heavily to secure sourcing and infrastructure, which again underscores its long term plan, according to Guilbert: to have a measurable and quantifiable impact on the source of its ingredients and make its products available to a broad range of consumers — a passionate and well-publicized following among trendy and affluent individuals notwithstanding.
“It doesn’t need to be the privilege of the few and sophisticated,” he said.