In 1989, two young men who called themselves Tom & Tom—Tom Scott and Tom First—set up a ragtag little business named Allserve on the island of Nantucket. They would go around Nantucket Harbor in a twenty-two-foot Boston Whaler selling coffee, muffins, juice and other provisions to yachting folk who would otherwise have to lower a dinghy and ride over to the docks. Freshly graduated from Brown University, Tom & Tom shared a love of Nantucket, which still struck them in those years as “a fishing village at the edge of the world” with its weathered charm and larger-than-life, salty characters who seemed to leap straight from the pages of Moby-Dick.
Oddly, Tom Scott didn’t quite get the word “entrepreneur.” He thought it a flowery way of saying “huckster.” That he could have had this misunderstanding says something about the era, when smart young Ivy League grads went almost automatically to Wall Street or to the higher branches of the corporate jungle. One thing they did not do was start things. They certainly didn’t plot lucrative careers from fishing villages at the edge of the world. But whatever you called Tom & Tom—wharf rats, romanticists, entrepreneurs—there was nothing they wouldn’t do to improve their floating store. In fact, that was their slogan: “Ain’t nothing them boys won’t do.” They even learned how to pump out yacht sewage. “That’s what those tanks are,” Scott says, pointing to a photograph of the Boston Whaler on the wall of his office in central Greenwich. “See those tanks? That’s me at the wheel, and that’s the, uh…” He nods, shrugs. “The irony of food and shit on the same boat was not lost on us.”
But the story gets more appetizing, and not just because Tom & Tom acquired a second boat for the dirty work. Most success stories have an element of serendipity to them, and in this story the serendipitous twist has Tom First going to Spain and nonchalantly ordering a bottle of peach nectar at a café. While sipping the nectar—here we imagine sunshiny mental vistas opening up—he reflected that, stateside, there was nothing quite so rich and lovely. Back in Nantucket, Tom First approximated the Spanish nectar by mixing peaches, water and sugar in a blender. The Toms then added the peach concoction to their wares, and Nantucket Nectars was oh-so-humbly born. How big did they think it would get? Big enough to invest in a $170 bottle-cap hand press.
By 1997 Tom & Tom were presiding over a $60 million, multi-flavor juice-drink empire whose calling card was authenticity, and whose down-home marketing sounded a personal, anti-corporate note akin to Ben & Jerry’s. “Hi, I’m Tom, and I’m Tom,” went their popular radio ads. “And we’re juice guys.”
The casualness of their approach was anything but an act. The Juice Guys showed up to record their first radio ads without a script, chatted off the cuff for a few minutes, and then had an obliging editor patch it all together. The finished product sounded the genuine note they hoped it would and won them a coveted Mercury Award for radio advertising. “You go in [to the awards banquet], and these two young kids show up looking like these lucky sons of bitches, I’m sure,” Scott recalls. “I remember thinking, we don’t fit in here, because we’re surrounded by New York agency people who are hired to make these things. And we won! I was like, ‘What is going on here?’ Well, it was the authenticity.”
The Toms’ regular-guy ad personas reflected the naturalness of their juices and juice cocktails. It’s easy to forget, but in the early nineties, “natural” did not exist as an important consumer value; foods and drinks were maximally processed with the unpronounceable additives that some of us have since learned to avoid. Even pure juice was made from concentrate. “We weren’t rebelling against the old way; we were never in the old way,” Tom Scott says. Eschewing the lessons of the “New Coke” debacle of 1985, Tom & Tom were always tinkering with their flavors, say, by replacing California oranges with tastier Florida oranges. “We were constantly evolving our products—we would call it “the quality juice evolution solution”—which was novel. Everyone else just made what they made and that was it.”
True to their dressed-down natures, the Toms conducted research and development in the office kitchen of Nantucket Nectars (by then headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts). This remained the case even after 1998, when Tom & Tom sold a good chunk of their company to beverage heavyweight Ocean Spray. Then, in 2002, the Toms and Ocean Spray sold Nantucket Nectars to Cadbury Schweppes for $100 million.
Tom & Tom, still in their thirties, were set for life, and free to dream up grand second acts.
That is the short and pretty version of the story. Much of the stuff that matters, Scott himself will tell you, isn’t really covered in the success story. “Now it has the stamp of success,” he says of Nantucket Nectars. But the anti-fairy tale is that Tom & Tom were two kids who knew nothing about juice or business, let alone the juice business; who ran out of money; whose credit line was then withdrawn; and who squeaked by on luck and sorely tested passion.
WELCOMING THE THINKERS
Today Scott lives on the Greenwich waterfront with his wife, Emily, a cofounder of J.Crew, and their two young sons, Walt and Hank. Each day, Tom drives ten minutes to Mason Street and heads up to the second floor of an old clapboard house—the unremarkable Greenwich base of his remarkable present venture: The Nantucket Project (TNP).
TNP is about as far away from juice as you can get. It’s an “ideas” conference held each September on Nantucket, where leading thinkers, artists, technologists, futurists, businessmen, politicians, and rabble-rousers—geneticist J. Craig Venter, Apple pioneer Steve Wozniak, ex-Google chief Eric Schmidt, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, poet Billy Collins, director Julie Taymor and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange comprise but a brief sample—gather to provoke thought and not a little dispute before an elite audience. It’s sort of an East Coast version of the conferences that inspired it, Vancouver’s TED talks and the Aspen Ideas Festival. The Nantucket Project soon branched out TED-like as a film production company—TNP Labs—with the aim of bringing its speakers’ ideas to a wider audience. (Scott founded TNP with Nantucket-based Kate Brosnan, who once hired him to tend bar and shuck scallops at the Straight Wharf Restaurant on the island; in turn, Scott and First hired Brosnan to run the philanthropic arm of Nantucket Nectars.)
Scott, at fifty years old, resembles a veteran surfer with his broad-shouldered, rangy physique, tousled blond hair graying at the temples, and blue-gray eyes. But the set of those eyes is so deep and the gaze is so intense that it partially erases the surfer image and hints at something far more complex.
His beginnings were happily ordinary. He grew up a lawyer’s son in Springfield, Virginia, and Chevy Chase, Maryland, towns he likens to the classic suburbia of The Wonder Years. (The TV show’s setting derived partly from a cocreator’s memories of Silver Spring, right next door to Chevy Chase.) Anyone of Tom’s generation living in the then-bleak shadow of Washington, D.C., will recall an amplified sense of America’s unraveling: The Vietnam War, Watergate, the oil crisis. But young Tom, self-reliant from the start, neatly found a place in that world, selling juice, coffee, muffins and newspapers to cars inching through mile-long gas lines—an uncanny foreshadowing of his Allserve days on Nantucket Harbor.
But his intellectual gear-work would grow more intricate over time. “Tommy has always been a big thinker with big aspirations,” Tom First observes. “He has a renaissance-type brain; he’s interested in a lot of different things, always has been, from media to books to philosophy. I think that’s one of the reasons he got a little tired of the [juice] business.” (“I was toast,” Scott himself once said.)
Scott’s friends describe him as less a nuts-and-bolts guy than an idealist and a visionary. “He doesn’t see things as they are; he sees things as they can be,” remarks Michael Crooke, a former head of the Patagonia clothing company who now teaches advanced business strategy at Pepperdine and the University of Oregon. “He sees beyond the horizon.”
Trying to see even farther than that, he is enrolled at Yale Divinity School, the better to explore the mysteries of human existence. “Spiritually, I think there’s a greater than 50 percent chance that there’s something else,” he says. “That’s enough for me. If you think there’s probably something greater, a god, then you should check it out: What is organized religion? What is the Bible, this incredible book that’s so powerful?” Yet in a region where many set store by material values, Scott has felt a certain cold-shouldering of these matters. “I kind of feel like it’s taboo around here, and that makes me all the more curious.”
Scott is ravenously curious about many things. Conversation with him roams from The Grateful Dead to the The Waltons, from motorcycles to poetry—but at the moment he’s a little distracted. “Sorry,” he says, glancing repeatedly at his open laptop. He’s waiting to hear from Neil Young’s people. It’s a couple of weeks before TNP’s 2015 conference, and Scott has invited him to speak about one of Young’s favorite subjects—the lousiness of digital sound as most of us experience it. Supposedly, the average-quality MP3 bleaches out 95 percent of the sound. “So you think about our theme,” Scott says. “Our theme is sort of the relationship between science and art, art and commerce, creative and operational. Neil Young would argue that the digital takes the emotion out of music. And when you take the emotion out of music, that’s why kids don’t create a soundtrack to their lives the way we did. It’s just not the same sound anymore.” On Nantucket, Scott hoped, Young would tell the audience his entrepreneurial answer to the problem: a high-resolution digital media player and download service called Pono.
The anticipated email comes through, and Scott dials the number he’s been given. “Great, great,” he says into the mouthpiece, coolly and calmly, though his heart’s pounding in his chest: He grew up on Neil Young, back when rock stars with something to say were cultural demigods. Scott hangs up the phone, grinning: “He’s in.” Then he taps a couple of keys and the first rumbling (and digitally diminished) chords of “Cinnamon Girl” fill the office. Scott carries the laptop into the main room, where young employees doff the virtual reality goggles they’re wearing (they’re in virtual Africa) to applaud and whoop at Scott’s announcement.
Back at his desk and flushed with excitement, Scott asks, “Now, where were we?”
THE POWER OF NAIVETE
We might as well pick up with passion. If Scott could utter a single word to aspiring entrepreneurs, it would be that. Tom & Tom were two bright young guys when they started out, but—he stops his questioner mid-sentence. “Can I just say, though? You said two bright guys. If we were bright, it was in our enthusiasm. We were really enthusiastic. We were never-say-die kind of people.” Here he unpacks a tricky Robert Frost quote, which will lead him to a key point. Frost had written to a young B. F. Skinner that one should write “strongly and directly from some unaccountable and almost invincible personal prejudice.” (By personal prejudice, Frost meant approximately “strongly held subjective truth.”) “The problem, Frost said, is that most people take on the prejudices of other people. That rang so true to me.”
Tom & Tom, let us say again, knew nothing about juice. But there was a certain power in their naiveté. They knew what they liked, and this bit of self-awareness gave them all the foundation they needed upon which to build an empire. So when, for example, Ocean Spray’s market research told them that Americans had a largely negative impression of guava, a fruit flavor the Toms happened to love, they said, “Hell, yeah! We’re doing guava.” The moral? Instead of writing out of someone else’s prejudice, as it were, they wrote out of their own—and came up with one of their top-selling drinks. “It wasn’t a risk, because we knew what we wanted,” Scott observes. “We knew! When you’re making something for yourself”—that is, to please your own tastes—“you already know the answers. It’s like the old Henry Ford thing: ‘If I’d listened to consumer research, I would have made a faster horse.’”
This is his central message to entrepreneurs: Build on your passion, like an artist does. The passion is the engine, and the daily living of the passion is the accretion of expertise. Many people, Scott says, come at an enterprise from the wrong direction, immersing themselves in the business-y stuff before there’s a beating heart at the center. “I think when you get into business plans, series A and series B, finance—then you’re lost,” he says. “If you know what you love, do it. Just do it! An artist isn’t thinking, ‘What’s the business here?’”
THE SUCCESS OF “FAILURE”
Tom First took his beverage industry expertise and founded Owater, a successful sports drink company based in Concord, Massachusetts, where he lives. Tom Scott took a flying leap into the unknown. In 2004 he started Plum TV, a cable network targeted to affluent audiences in Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, the Hamptons, Aspen, Sun Valley and Miami. “Plum TV was built to be the for-profit PBS. That was the original idea,” Scott says. Despite several Emmy nominations and one win, the network never built up a head of steam. Headlines like “Plum TV Dying on the Vine” began appearing in 2011 as the Great Recession droned on, and Plum filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
Should Scott have seen it coming? It’s hard to say. “Most businesses walk the edge of going under,” he says. Nantucket Nectars might have fizzled any number of times: “If you came on the right day, you’d think we were crashing into a wall. There was the time that the Bank of Boston took away our line of credit, which was our demise. We just ran out of money. Then we got lucky that Fleet Bank stepped in. But we had to profit by March—this is 1994—or Fleet was gonna leave, too.”
Plum TV had no comparable lucky break. But there’s something in Scott that checks his regret. As he begins to explain, Janelle Ferri slips into his office. She’s a chief operations person at The Nantucket Project who used to work at Plum. “Janelle, did Plum succeed or fail?” Scott asks with genuine curiosity. “Be honest.”
“We failed. But we got some great people out of it,” she says, noting that Plum people form the core of TNP.
“I don’t disagree,” Scott says. “But I think there were places where we succeeded—wildly. And places where we failed.”
Janelle nods. “I think we were really great storytellers. We didn’t hit our numbers. But locally, people loved Plum.”
Depending on one’s point of view, Plum either died quietly or it morphed into the butterfly that is The Nantucket Project. However you see it, Tom Scott’s “product” these days is The Story. “I’m an unapologetic Barnum & Bailey of The Story,” he says. Stories are at once the most important and the most elusive product on Earth. Stories tell us who we are, where we’ve been, where we’re going. They shape how we see the world and how we act in it. “The Story is everything,” he says. “There is no revolution without a story. No president without a story. No Facebook without a story, no Google without a story. I don’t think people realize that everything’s a story.” Though Scott will sometimes speak in terms of The Idea, even it is nothing without The Story, he says. Imagine the Bible without stories. Like fire without oxygen, it wouldn’t exist.
Here’s a small but suggestive story. Julian Assange, long sought by Sweden for alleged sexual assault in 2010, appeared at The Nantucket Project in 2014. “Assange is the one I take the most heat for,” Scott says. Of course, the heat owed less to the Swedish charges than to Assange’s publishing of highly classified documents, including embarrassing U.S. State Department cables. Acts like that make him a hero to some and a villain to others. In a way, he is the ideal Nantucket Project presenter: a man occupying a controversial gray area on the world stage, wrestling with issues of media manipulation, secrecy and the limits of free speech—issues that await us in our increasingly virtual future.
“I don’t think I like Julian Assange,” Scott allows. “Mostly I disagree with him. Which is why I want him to be there.” The point for Scott is to present stories that matter, regardless of what we think of the messengers. “You know, we’re not giving him an award. This is no different than if he wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times. Do you get mad at the Times for that? So that’s all we’re doing—we’re asking him to come, and you judge.”
Assange was living then (as he is living now) under asylum at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, while police waited outside to arrest him should he be foolish enough to step outside. Yet there he was, sitting on a stool on the stage of Nantucket’s Dreamland Theatre. How could this be? Scott arrived at the theater before the crowd was let in. “He was behind a curtain, waiting, and I walked through the curtain and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, there he is; this is happening!’” Scott says. “Julian Assange is right in front of me, in three dimensions, from a prison, essentially.”
Yes, but how could this be? “He was a hologram,” Scott says. “You could put your arm right through him.”