From Failure to Flavor: How Ben and Jerry Turned a Small Business into an Empire
News Household names Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield never forgot what it’s like to be one of the small guys.
Early career failures churned into sweet success for entrepreneurs Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
“We were failing at everything we were trying to do,” recalls Cohen, whose dreams of selling his pottery derailed, while Greenfield was rejected from medical school.
With little training other than a $5 ice cream making correspondence course and business pamphlets from the Small Business Association, they scraped together $12,000 to invest in their business.
Back to the drawing board
“Home made ice cream was having a rebirth. We did research on college towns that didn’t have ice cream parlors and the only one we could find was in Vermont because it was so cold all the time,” jokes Greenfield. At age 26, they opened in an abandoned gas station in Burlington, VT in 1978. Sales soared in the summer, but chilled in winter.
That’s when they decided to package their ice cream in pints marketing them to mom and pop stores. Cohen was both truck driver and salesman with a simple pitch: if it didn’t sell, they’d take it back.
They didn’t have to worry about sales. Their signature flavor chunks, clever names and whimsical packaging catapulted Ben & Jerry’s from a small business into a $500 million company with distribution in thousands of retailers and 600 shops in 35 countries. Favorites such as Cherry Garcia have been joined by the new Cores collection with a “thick vein” of flavor running down the middle of the concoction.
Business with a conscience
It was never just about the ice cream for the duo. From the beginning, Cohen and Greenfield believed doing the right thing was just as critical as the perfect flavor. Among their causes are a Children’s Defense Fund they established, marriage equality and the elimination of GMO’s.
“I think people need to understand that you can run a profitable business based on your social values and you can integrate those values into how you do your work. You can set up a business to make money or you could set up a business to make money and support the community at the same time,” says Greenfield.
Both encouraged “people to vote with their dollars” and support smaller, local businesses, which help spread the wealth. That theory worked for Ben & Jerry’s even when their original dreams didn’t. Adds Greenfield, “It was a blessing in disguise because if Ben had become a potter and I became a doctor, look how much poorer people’s stomachs would be.”