Is This Any Way to Do Business? In a Word, Yes!
BY RABBI DR. ELIYAHU SAFRAN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, BTUS
Mission in a Bottle, Seth Goldman and Barry Nalebuff’s business book, with illustrations by
Sungyoon Choi, (Crown Business, New York) is a book worth looking at. Tellingly, these cofounders of Honest Tea subtitle their book, “The honest guide to doing business differently – and succeeding…”
Certainly many businesses are established with the desire to “do things differently.” But, somewhere along the way, the drive to succeed – to maximize profits – seems to push any idealism out of the way. But in those rare instances when we see a business not only succeed but maintain its commitment to doing business “differently” we should all celebrate because such complete success implicitly and explicitly speaks to our highest values.
The “difference” is obvious in their book as well. Not just another book outlining “how to” create and build a profitable business, this book is a comic book! In format, content and message, Seth and Barry are determined to demonstrate that different can be better.
Seth, a comic book aficionado from his childhood, felt that this would be the perfect way to show that learning about business can be as much fun as making a business successful. After all, who made the rule that said that hard work and fun had to be incompatible?
Seth did not set out to create a successful business. A successful business was, in actuality, small potatoes for Seth. What he really set out to do was to change the world, one drink at a time! The book furthers that mission by sharing the story of Honest Tea’s growth, its ups and downs, its challenges and its resourcefulness. It presents the story in anecdotal form that combines narrative and business advice. In short, the exact book that Seth Goldman and Barry Nalebuff would have liked to have read before they began their company.
While they were both new to the beverage industry, they brought some incredible talent to the task of building their business. Seth was a graduate student at the Yale Business School.
Barry Nalebuff was his favorite professor at Yale School of Management. Their teacher-student relationship was defined by its warmth and caring, and it readily bore fruit. Honesty infuses every aspect of their business and their book. They share embarrassing mistakes (buying a bottling plant that seemed to eat money; mismatched labels; moldy tea; and the errant glass shard!) as comfortably as they note their growth from a struggling start-up to a division of Coca-Cola in just ten years; from $1.1 million in sales in 1999 to $75 million when Coke took control.
Sounds successful to me.
But I have interacted with many successful businesses and executives during my years at OU Kosher and it is not the success of Honest Tea that draws me. It is the “different” that speaks to me.
From the outset, I was struck by the “different” in Seth Goldman and his company, Honest Tea. From our very first conversations, his focus was broader than the everyday concerns of running a business. Even when talking about the most humdrum aspect of the business, his conversation inevitably included his many ideals and lofty aspirations for his company.
Seth’s Spring 2008 article published in “Behind the Union Symbol,” has him giving voice to some of those aspirations in this way:
“Justice, justice shall you pursue…”
I know there are many interpretations of why the word justice is repeated, but the one that appeals to me the most is that while justice is clearly something that we should pursue, it’s also a way of being— how we pursue justice counts. So if we were Honest Cigarettes and we sold to RJR Reynolds for a billion dollars and gave all the money to charity, we have pursued righteousness in one sense but betrayed our faith in another because we would be marketing a product that, when used as directed, kills people.
So at Honest Tea it is important that we seek to express our values not with our profits (which are still quite modest) but with every bottle we sell.
First, we make a product that is healthier — with less than half the calories of most beverages on the market. Second, everything we sell is certified organic by the USDA, helping prevent the use of millions of pounds of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and synthetic ingredients. And finally, many of our varieties are Fair Trade certified ensuring that the people picking our tea leaves are able to invest a portion of our sales into their own community projects.
And of course, it’s been personally satisfying to make a product line that is entirely OU certified — not just so all my family members can enjoy it, but because the OU symbol is another way to guarantee that Honest Tea holds its suppliers to the highest standards.’
As he said, “At Honest Tea it is important that we seek to express our values not with our profits (which are still modest) but with every bottle we sell.”
An amazing young man! He models a kind of menschlichkeit we should all aspire to in life and in business. So, after reading his book, my very first comic book (I think my father would have approved!), I wanted to share how impressed I have been with his values and ideals, values and ideals that should be part of our everyday lives and goals.
Before I did, I wrote to him to find out a bit more. He was gracious and quick to reply to my two main questions, “What was the main point you wanted to communicate in the book?” and then, “You deal with so many important values in the book. How do all of these relate to your maintaining OU Kosher certification for your products?”
In responding, Seth wrote that he sought to speak to the challenges and rewards of a mission-driven business in a profit-driven world. He and Barry wanted to help aspiring entrepreneurs understand that it is possible (though not necessarily easy!) to transform their idea into an actual enterprise. To do so, they need clear beliefs, a strong point of difference, an effective management team and a powerful passion that will enable the team to persist and persevere.
But why a comic book? Not simply because Seth loved comic books but because they knew by doing so, they would reach an entirely new demographic of potential entrepreneurs. For all its fun and creativity, the book is, like Seth and Barry, committed to many important values. It was these values – commitment to quality, traceability, transparency and of course to the ethical mindset that underlies all of requirements – that motivated Honest Tea to seek and gain OU certification – even before gaining USDA Organic or Fair Trade certification!
The values of kashrut standards to the quality of a product and the dignity of the enterprise jibed perfectly with Honest Tea’s mission. And they are on a mission. They chose to title the book Mission in a Bottle because the name highlights their perspective that every time they sell a bottle of tea, they are helping to promote the values they care about.
Of course, not every consumer drinks Honest Tea because of an OU, organic or Fair Trade certification – they may enjoy Honest Tea simply because it tastes great or because they want a drink with fewer calories. Which is fine with Seth and Barry. Even if every consumer doesn’t consciously choose Honest Tea because of its certifications, they are still supporting their ethos with every purchase.
An ethos that OU Kosher is proud to be associated with!
After reading his response, I wrote back and thanked him for his wonderful response. “In all my years at the OU, I have not encountered any company, consistently maintaining such lofty ideas and ideals as they maintain and grow their successful venture. You are truly unique. God bless you.”
RABBI DR. ELIYAHU SAFRAN HAS BEEN SERVING AS EDITOR-IN-CHIEF OF BEHIND THE UNION SYMBOL SINCE ITS INCEPTION IN 1997.