Seth Goldman revolutionized the beverage industry, but he’s not about to rest on his (tea leaf) laurels.
Sheila Mulrooney Eldred
Twenty-one years ago, Seth Goldman went for a run in Central Park that changed the course of his career. It was a hot day, so he headed to a nearby shop for a cool drink. Finding only the usual, sticky-sweet options in the beverage cooler, he had to mix a variety of juices and waters to quench his thirst—and to light a fire in him.
That post-run drink hack rekindled an idea for a new type of drink, a drink he’d been concocting in his mind since his days of running track in college, and an entrepreneurial idea he’d been ruminating on since studying the “cola wars” between Coca-Cola and PepsiCo in business school.
“The idea that came out of that was: Why fight on only one plane? If it’s a level playing field, you’re missing a whole other dimension,” Goldman says. “What about a different level of sweetness, or considering origin of ingredients?”
So after that run, he emailed his former Yale School of Management professor Barry Nalebuff: “I’m ready to do something about it.”
After concocting a sample in Goldman’s kitchen and impressing a buyer at Whole Foods, Goldman and Nalebuff launched Honest Tea in 1998, filling in the gap between high-calorie sodas and sports drinks and sparkling water. Low-calorie, organic tea-based drinks were a bit ahead of dietary tastes at the time, but eventually they caught on.
“We put together a brand and a package and formulation that resonated with people,” Goldman says. “It was a brand that made sense. And we were entrepreneurial, aggressive and passionate”—and, before long, using Fair Trade Certified ingredients.
Goldman’s commitment to his socially responsible core values never wavered, Nalebuff says, which helped both the company (he actually visited the farmers and working conditions in India, South Africa and China) and everyone around him (he coached youth sports and made sure there were recycling bins on the streets in Bethesda, MD, near Honest Tea’s headquarters).
“He does the right thing the right way,” Nalebuff says. “So as a result, I find myself a better person when I’m with him.”
Today, Goldman splits much of his time between Honest Tea (where he’s “TeaEO Emeritus”) and another mission-driven startup that he hooked up with: Beyond Meat.
Goldman was able to pounce on both the startup opportunities because he’s always listening for ideas that align with his socially responsible values for making organic, low-sugar, vegetarian foods and drinks accessible.
“Find what resonates with you, where you believe there’s a need that’s missing,” he says.
When he first read about Beyond Meat, for example, the vegetarian fired off an email to the company’s generic info@ address, offering his assistance (they accepted). Being open to new ideas—even after years of experience—is critical for personal and professional development in the entrepreneurial realm, he says.
Work-life balance is critical too. The rewards that come from maintaining a balance that meshes with your values aren’t restricted to people like Goldman, who, in effect, “won the lottery” with such a prosperous company, Nalebuff says. Goldman enjoyed the benefits of balancing life and work long before it was clear that Honest Tea would be so successful.
“He’s still living in the same house, married to same woman, doing the same job,” Nalebuff says. It doesn’t matter that he no longer has to work, because “he had it made even beforehand.”