My co-founder Barry Nalebuff celebrated his 50th birthday last week. Since we started the company almost exactly 10 years ago, the occasion gave me the chance to reflect on our partnership. I remember when I told my Yale School of Management classmates that I was going into business with our former professor. They were puzzled, to say the least.
Barry had a reputation as a cold-calling, occasionally heartless egghead who was a genius with numbers and strategy and less adept with interpersonal skills. I had a reputation as almost the polar opposite. And though neither reputation was completely accurate, we were -- and still are -- a study in contrasts, or as Barry likes to say, complements.
Before we launched Honest Tea, I traveled up to New Haven and spent the day with Barry at his kitchen table talking about our hopes and dreams for creating the business. For Barry, it was a chance to bet on his own ideas, as opposed to consulting for others. For me it was the chance to create an organization that could be an agent of social and environmental change. So our motivations weren't exactly the same, but they were easily aligned and ten years later I can say that it has been an almost perfect partnership.
Over the years we have each had to draw on our different skill sets, sometimes to offset each other. When Barry's bluntness alienates a prospective investor or customer (his attempts to get HT sold at the Yale cafeterias ended with shouting and slammed doors and phones), I am usually able to smooth things over. My tendency to trust people at their word and hope that things will work out has occasionally resulted in production headaches and cost overruns. But Barry comes in with his hard-nosed analysis and occasional tirade to get things back on track. Our CFO Jonathan and I joke that when a banker or a supplier is being a little inflexible, we offer to arrange a conference call with Barry to explore different solutions, and they often cave before the call even starts.
As Chair of our board, Barry has the benefit of familiarity with the business and the luxury of not being involved on a daily basis. This helps gives him the opportunity to ask insightful and creative questions. One of the most important ways that Barry's creativity paid off has been with respect to our equity structure. He devised a capital structure that gave us warrants as we grew so that we could maintain control. As a result, we never fell prey to investors who wanted to take a more intrusive role in the company (and there have been many over the years). I especially appreciate this fact because I have seen lots of beverage entrepreneurs lose control to heavy-handed investors calling the shots.
Of course there have been disagreements -- usually around label messages, with Barry leaning toward intellectual, snarky language and me leaning toward more down-to-earth wording. But having endured more than our share of challenges over the past ten years, I wouldn't trade Barry for all the Fair Trade organic tea in China -- unless it came at a really good price.
See the special Black Forest Barry label we created for Barry's birthday.
Last updated: Jun 19, 2008
SETH GOLDMAN is the President and TeaEO of Honest Tea, the company he co-founded in 1998 with Professor Barry Nalebuff of the Yale School of Management. He's preparing the September release of a graphic novel titled Mission in a Bottle. @HonestTea