Seth Goldman and Barry Nalebuff on Lessons Learned with Honest Tea

Editor’s Note: Seth Goldman and Barry Nalebuff are the authors of Mission in a Bottle: The Honest Guide to Doing Business Differently — and Succeeding, the story of how they created and built a mission-driven business in a profit-driven world with Honest Tea. Here, as part of Signature’s Lessons Learned month, a month of authors sharing lessons learned while writing, Seth and Barry share the secrets to an honest business and successful partnership. 

We wrote our memoir because, well, we are on a mission. We created Honest Tea to change the world, starting in the beverage aisle. We wrote Mission in a Bottle so we could inspire and show others how to do the same, to create a mission-driven company in a profit-driven world.

There were many business lessons learned along the way, most of which applied to the process of writing the book.

Be Honest, to a fault.

Barry: For example, when most folks write “we’ll show you how,” they don’t really mean it, at least not literally. But when your story is about a company named Honest Tea, when you say something you have to deliver. Our story is told in comic-book format. It isn’t an illustrated book; it is done in graphic format from start to finish. When we say we’ll show you how, we mean it.

Follow your instincts and what you know.

Seth: I fell in love with graphic novels while reading them to my three boys. After trudging through more than my share of sanctimonious green business books, I wanted to tell a story that would come alive. You get to share in our journey, meet some colorful characters, and not take us too seriously.

Barry: You also get to hear our voices. As a professor, I’m used to presenting material in the first person. Thus, it was great to write in the same style as I teach.

Seth: Except the voice bubbles are limited to twenty words, so you have to be concise.

Barry: True.

Bring the right folks on your team and then trust them to do their job.

Barry: This is especially true when working with designers. If you tell them what to do, you end up with what you would have designed, which is never as good as what they would have designed.

Seth: Once Barry and I found a way to develop our narrative we needed an artist who could make the story come alive. We were fortunate that we converged on Sungyoon Choi as our illustrator. In addition to capturing the beauty of our tea gardens and sharing insights into our creative process, she found a way to convert strategic business decisions into works of art!

The key to a successful partnership, whether in business or in writing, is to ensure that the partners have complementary skills.

Barry: For me, the hardest part of writing a memoir is that I have a terrible memory. (At Princeton, I once forgot to give a final exam; now I’m a professor at Yale.) Fortunately, Seth has a great memory, a laptop with old emails, and lots of dusty notebooks.

Seth: For me, the hardest part of writing a memoir is that I have a full-time job (running Honest Tea). This was a case where we got to switch roles and I could put Barry to work.

Stand by your man!

Barry: I had a simple job at Honest Tea: to help Seth be successful. That meant being a sounding board. That meant helping him avoid distractions. That also meant being the bad guy. People had to like Seth, and it helps that he’s a naturally likable guy. But negotiations with suppliers, distributors, and partners can become contentious. If someone had to be blamed for us taking a hard line, it might as well be me. At the end of the day, if Seth was successful, I would be, too.

In the book, I can toot Seth’s horn in a way he could never do without sounding cheesy. And yet it’s all true — remember, we’re the Honest Tea guys.

Seth: When the partnership conversation with Nestlé melted down, it would have been easy to point fingers, especially when I was told that Barry had screwed up my family’s financial future. But Barry and I had worked together for ten years as an effective team, and it was going to take more than one failed negotiation to derail our partnership. I knew that he had my back. I wouldn’t trade Barry for all the tea in China — unless it was Fair Trade and came at a really good price.

For all Lessons Learned articles, visit the archive here.