Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield like to joke that they became friends because they were the two slowest, fattest kids in their seventh grade gym class. That friendship continued on through high school and was interrupted only by their individual attempts at going to college. Ben dropped out first and became a potter; Jerry ended his college career when he failed to gain admission to medical school. With bleak prospects on both sides, the two got together and decided to start a business.
Since they were both enthusiastic eaters, they decided on a food enterprise. They considered bagels, then pizza, but settled on ice cream thinking it would be something they could make themselves. They also decided to relocate to a college town and ended up in Burlington, Vermont—a place that seemed unlikely to generate much interest in ice cream during its long, hard winters. They rented an abandoned, unheated gas station and began whipping up their frozen treats.
The first few years were difficult. Besides learning the business, Ben and Jerry had to deal with regular breakdowns of their used ice cream-making equipment. But it was also a time when they honed their folksy, humorous approach to doing business. Unwittingly, they became a classic example of a bootstrapped business.
Paul Hawken, an enthusiastic advocate of bootstrapping, explains why this is the path to building a strong enterprise: “Bootstrap businesses will act like a malnourished child. With low overhead, frugal means and fragile budgets, you can’t buy your way out of problems. You have to learn your way out. The creativity and tenacity you have to develop will make it hard for you to be put out of business.”
These self-proclaimed hippie capitalists believed that good vibes made for good business. They recall, “Right from the beginning, even though the business wasn’t making any money, we were always thinking up new excuses to give away ice cream. When we opened we had our Grand Opening Special: buy one, get one free. Then we started giving away cones at random to people waiting in the ice cream line. Then we had free cones for all mothers on Mother’s Day. Visibly expectant mothers got two. To promote winter sales, we held the Penny Off per Celsius Degree Below Zero Winter Extravaganza, thereby turning a liability (being located in a very cold winter town) into an asset.”
As the little business grew, the founders delighted in giving their ice cream whimsical names like Chunky Monkey, Chubby Hubby and Phish Food. Their Web site says, “Some folks think there’s a huge difference between fun-related stuff and work-related stuff. Whatever you’ve been led to believe, we’d love to show you all the fun stuff we actually get paid to create. Which, when you think about it, is what Ben & Jerry’s is all about.”
As if inventing Cherry Garcia wasn’t a big enough contribution to life on this planet, they tithed 7 1/2 percent of their pretax profits to the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, which then distributed it to not-for-profit organizations and charities, making it one of the most generous corporate donation programs around.
At benjerry.com you’ll find more of their ideas about the role of responsible business and, even, a useful article called 50 Ways to Promote Peace. Visit their site and you’ll come away thinking that the ice cream was just their attention-getting device.
You need to integrate the needs of your heart, your mind, and your soul in order to achieve happiness and contentment. Those needs cannot be met through money. ~ Ben Cohen
Barbara, I love your blog! Thank you for the Ben and Jerry story. I’d like to use it in my “First Steps for Starting a Business” class here at the UW-Madison. It will be a great addition to my profile on “Life Is Good”. What do you think? Dee
Dee, but of course! I’m also going to be posting (in the next few days) another piece about resources that show the creative process from seed to success. (Oh, that might be my title.)
That may be a fit for your First Steps class too.