Tea drink tale offers some refreshing perspectives

Stories of American business start-ups are a dime a dozen, which makes margins on them very thin.

This might be why this graphic book about Honest Tea from its co-founders, Seth Goldman and Barry Nalebuff, feels like their products — a little unsweetened and, well, honest.


The book follows Goldman and Nalebuff conceiving a company in Maryland that makes high-quality, tea-based drinks with less sugar and a truer tea flavor based on a mission-led business plan to make the world better one bottle at a time.

The result is "Mission in a Bottle: The Honest Guide to Doing Business Differently — And Succeeding," published by Crown Business. It is a from-scratch look at modern entrepreneurialism, economics, a bit of Zen and the art of supply-chain maintenance.

Like any good entrepreneurial yarn, it has its twists and turns. There are the close calls with failure, and moments of breakthrough and triumph. The book conveys the personal toll that starting a business exacts and the company's commitment to socially responsible business.

Some of the sections are a bit repetitive. By the end, you need no reminder that Honest Tea's drinks are brewed with real tea leaves and that no animals were harmed in the making of this book.

Graphic representations give the book heart and warmth while making it a quick read. Simple but sharp illustrations by Sungyoon Choi add personality to the story, especially considering that her source material involves business meetings and tea brewing. The format also helps push along a story that at times ends up in a tangle of bottling challenges and distributor arguments.

The story of the product — a line of bottled teas and other drinks — takes the reader into the competitive world of beverages and its winding supply chains, as well as providing a window into the growing markets for organic, health-conscious foods and socially responsible business owners.

The narrative is at its best when balancing the personalities of the founders: Goldman's socially conscious side and Nalebuff's economic expertise.

Brief economics lessons from Nalebuff, a professor at Yale, help broaden the picture.

Unfortunately, Honest Tea as a product just isn't that interesting, but what its success says about the modern business world is — inefficiencies still exist, people are still important and you have to be careful around private equity investors.

Goldman has a different perspective — that the quality of the ingredients should match the company's mission. His drive to create a beverage group that makes the world a better place gives insight into the advantages and barriers of socially responsible business.

A bit of nuance feels missing because of the graphic format. Scenes conveying emotion end up feeling stunted, but complex business problems are given a fresh perspective.

"Mission in a Bottle" might make for a more compelling read in a classic word-only format, but the economics and visual explainers give life to otherwise tedious topics such as the math behind four cents of tea selling for $1.39 a bottle.

What the book does not lack is a personal touch. The story is interspersed with the first-person perspective of the authors telling readers what they learned, things they wish they could have done differently and the reasoning behind their moves.

The book succeeds as a raw account from authors who went out of their way to write their story being true to themselves and the business they created — no artificial sweeteners added.


Reviewer Jason Abbruzzese is a New York-based editor and reporter for the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.