Who cares about the ins and outs of the beverage business? Certainly not I, I thought, when I picked up this book. And as for Honest Tea—all I knew about it was sometimes I drink the Moroccan Mint and that Barack Obama has a predilection for the Black Forest Berry. It was generally available in my slightly higher-end/hippie-leaning grocery stores, and had been since the mid-to-late-2000s. I didn’t buy it all that often, but I generally associated it with a delicious treat for when I just needed a little bit of sugar without feeling too awful about myself.

And indeed, reading Mission in a Bottle: The Honest Guide to Doing Business Differently—and Succeeding, I found that I am basically the target market: an upper-middle class consumer with a small, though happily-spent disposable income, a discerning palate and a “just a tad sweet” tooth. But how did the drink make it from Seth Goldman’s brain to my thirsty mouth? By way of a decade of some dead ends, a few false starts, a great amount of work on the part of the Goldman and co-founder Barry Nalebuff, and some lucky breaks. Honest Tea has become not only one of the best-known organic tea brands, but one of the best known tea brands period, and this book sets out to explain why in plain and simple terms.

And now, having written that, I feel like I’ve written a sales pitch for the tea—and perhaps there’s a bit of that to this book—but it’s a very effective, complex, and thoughtful pitch. The narrative is a comprehensive case study, similar to those studied in MBA coursework, of how the business started and succeeded. It was the brainchild of a Yale alum and his older, slightly kooky professor, who saw an opportunity for a mass-market beverage that was significantly less sweet and more healthy than soda or Snapple. It is an impressive tale of how they started from the ground up, locating tea suppliers and renting line-time in existing factories, delivering and promoting the product themselves, and generally putting their hearts, souls, and livelihoods into developing, expanding, and improving their brand. From a business perspective, there’s marketing, supply chain, and operations lessons to be learned here.

But it’s not all promotion and positive image; we’re not simply asked to feel good about the “honest” mission of Honest Tea. Goldman and Nalebuff repeatedly approach and analyze financial matters necessary to keeping Honest Tea afloat. They discuss the financial aspects of the price of a bottle of tea on the shelf, broken down to its component parts, and the challenges and risks of making projections of the company’s worth, as well as the tricky business of negotiating with investors who want controlling stake. It becomes even trickier because of Goldman and Nalebuff’s commitment to conscious capitalism. They’re not interested in making an inferior product (“diluting their brand”) just to make money, green-washing non-organic or unhealthy products, or letting go of their commitment to recycle and reuse. In some sense, this book is a study of how you can bring your principles and morals to capitalism and still be successful, and this book is a great argument that it can and needs to be done.

Of course, the concept of conscious capitalism is not for everyone. Companies like Honest Tea, Whole Foods, and Tom’s, for instance, trade in non-essential goods, providing opportunities for more to those who have enough, a topic not addressed in this book. It is, in essence, preaching to the business-friendly choir. But it’s a noble effort to bridge a serious divide between business-types, who need to better understand the importance of businesses and a clearly defined social conscience, and the rest of us, for whom what business-people do is shrouded in an unnecessary and potentially dangerous layer of mystery. Mission in a Bottle manages to be dense and informative while also being entertaining and easily understandable—no small feat for a book full of facts, figures, and investment lingo. If nothing else, for those more capitalism-shy among us, it’s at least an entertaining demystification of how a business is built.

Integral to the success of this book is the precise yet playful art of Sungyoon Choi, whose American Widow artwork still haunts me a decade after reading it. The main players are well-defined and full of life. Nalebuff’s goofiness and Goldman’s earnestness are played up at just the right moments and at one point Nalebuff gets cutesy hearts-for-eyes that made me chuckle for pages. Furthermore, label design comes to life, sugar content is visualized to great and gross effect, and facts and figures gain power through simple, effective graphs. It’s not too technical, but Choi’s skills blends more number-heavy explanations with more human ones seamlessly—it’s eminently readable due to her lively renderings.

Mission in a Bottle is a surprisingly good and, moreover, an important book. Even if you’re a tried-and-true socialist, even if it feels like greenwashing capitalist apologetics, it’s an important text for understanding the motives and actions of “conscious capitalism.” It’s also a good opportunity to understand a growing piece of the economic system we’re living in. And the illustrations make it an entertaining, memorable, and funny personal story too. You’ll learn something from it no matter your feelings on (or blissful ignorance about) business ethics.

Mission in a Bottle: The Honest Guide to Doing Business Differently–and Succeeding
by Seth Goldman, Barry Nalebuff
Art by Sungyoon Choi
ISBN: 9780770437497
Crown Business, 2013

  • Emilia Packard

    Past Reviewer

    This reviewer is not longer actively working on our site, but we would not be here if not for our many dedicated contributors over the years. We thank all of them for their reviews, features, and support! Emilia has been reading graphic novels rabidly since her best friend handed her Craig Thompson’s Blankets over winter break during her sophomore year of college. From that day, her fate was sealed — at Grinnell College, she created, edited and drew strips for a student comics magazine called The Sequence. As an MLS Student at the University of Illinois, she spent way too much time filling up her backpack (and her roommate’s backpack) with the treasures of the Undergrad Library’s comics collection — never less than 40 books at a time. Just in the past few years, she’s worked at libraries and archives in Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Indiana, and Austin, Texas and consumed their graphic novels collections with great gusto. She has been drawing her stick-figure avatar, Flippy-Do, since she was about 10 years old.

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