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Honest Tea – The Breaking Bad of Earth-3 From NYCC

Paul Gullas writes for Bleeding Cool:

Last month, 10.3 million TV viewers watched as the entrepreneurial venture of Walter White came to its violent, bloody end. Last Friday afternoon, at a lively and engaging panel, New York Comic Con attendees got to hear the real-life story of another teacher who launched a multimillion-dollar company with his former student, only this one produced a healthy product, and had a much happier and successful exit. Honest Tea co-founder Barry Nalebuff and artist Sungyoon Choi (AMERICAN WIDOW, THE EMPEROR'S POETS) were on hand at the Javits Convention Center to promote MISSION IN A BOTTLE: THE HONEST GUIDE TO DOING BUSINESS DIFFERENTLY–AND SUCCEEDING, their graphic novel which acts as both the story of the company, and an instructive guide for aspiring entrepreneurs. (The Book Trailer)

honestteapanelI was already somewhat familiar with the story of Honest Tea from business school. I had done a case study on the company in a Venture Capital class last year, and many of the details stuck with me due to their charm–how co-founder Seth Goldman was inspired to come up with a "just sweet enough" drink after a jog in Central Park, which led him to call on Nalebuff, his old professor at the Yale School of Management , to ask for his help in launching a new business.

So as a comics fan with an MBA and some NYCC panels to write about, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the two Honest Tea founders had written a graphic novel about their experiences starting the company, and I was curious to find out more about the book and their approach to graphic storytelling.

MISSION IN A BOTTLE covers Honest Tea's entire history, from that thirsty Central Park jog in 1997 to their struggles in launching the business, to finally, the company's acquisition by Coca-Cola in 2011–the happy ending I mentioned earlier. There are also a number of "Lessons Learned" text sections (with illustrations) throughout the book that summarize and elaborate on the business lessons being depicted. The book was written by both founders (Goldman remained as "TeaEO" of the company after the acquisition and wasn't at the panel), and illustrated by Choi, herself a teacher in illustration and cartooning at New York City's School of Visual Arts.

Moderator Heidi MacDonald (Publishers Weekly, The Beat) said that as a former comics editor, "the first time I saw this book, I was so impressed," and praised how they were able to make "a really engaging and charming comic," while teaching about numbers and profit-and-loss forms. She opened the panel by saying that it was "a really great example of what Scott McCloud calls 'applied comics'" .

Indeed, Nalebuff, whose experience and skill as a lecturer was evident throughout the panel, said that they chose to write the book as a graphic novel because they wanted to get a new set of people to read books about entrepreneurship. He compared the book to a bottle of Honest Tea itself: the packaging is attractive, the drink is delicious, "little do they know it's healthy. It's good for you. [The book] is entertaining, it's amusing, it goes quickly. But you learn something in the process"

"Just like the world didn't need another beverage, it didn't need another business book."

They also found that people retain information much more easily when they see it visually. Nalebuff recounted that people were able to remember complicated details of the story, such as the company's capital structure, "because of [Choi's] brilliance."

"Our generation is not always so good about educating the next, in terms of inspiring them, of how to go and create something to achieve their dreams…People who buy this book and leave it on their coffee table–their kids end up reading it. That starts all sorts of interesting conversations."

Over the course of the panel, Nalebuff played several short videos, recorded during the process of creating the book, of himself making suggestions as he sat with Choi at her computer while she worked using her digital drawing tablet. These were interspersed with stills and animated segments from MISSION IN A BOTTLE, such as a scene where he meets Oprah in a yoga class and provides her with cold samples of the product. Why did he happen to have samples with him that day, he posed to the NYCC panel audience. "Always be prepared," came a response from a gentleman in the second row, for which he received…a cold sample of Honest Tea that Nalebuff brought with him.

He showed a page from the book that covered warrants as an example of why was important to them to be able to convey complicated financial concepts to would-be entrepreneurs in an easy-to-understand format. With a traditional book, "I might get the hardcore Wharton MBA, who is all about finance. But I'd say that a lot of places where young entrepreneurs go wrong is bad capital structure."

There was also effusive praise for Choi's work on the book.


MacDonald pointed out again that Choi incorporated a lot of Scott McCloud's theories in her artwork, such as drawing Seth & Barry in a less realistic style, allowing readers to more easily engage with the characters as "we follow them on these capital structure adventures."

Nalebuff mentioned that a lot of the scenes in the book are dialogue scenes that take place in offices or in the classroom, and could have been visually uninteresting. Choi explained that she used her imagination to add some visual flair to these scenes such as drawing Nalebuff sitting on a bubble while he's discussing carbonation with his students.

Choi also admired how easy it was to collaborate with Nalebuff and Goldman. "Barry's an amazing student. It was [his] first time writing a script for a graphic novel. He did a lot of research what [comics] he really likes." I don't think I ever worked with a client who knew so well what he likes. A lot of times, [other writers will say], 'Oh, just give me something'. With Barry and Seth, they were very specific. It was a great experience for me. "

Producing the book had its share of challenges, though. MISSION IN A BOTTLE is Nalebuff's sixth book, and several of his previous ones have been business bestsellers. Some of the publishers that he's been with in the past, didn't know what to do with this book, includes W.W. Norton, which publishes a line of graphic novels. "In spite of that, Drake McFeely–I'm naming names–the President of Norton was my editor. My book Thinking Strategically helped launch his career. Zippo from him."

They ended up with the business division of Random House, not the graphic novel division, which published Choi's AMERICAN WIDOW.

Getting used to a new writing style was also something Nalebuff had to deal with. He had to write something closer to a screenplay than what he had been used to for his previous business books, though he did read graphic novels such as LOGICOMIX, PERSEPOLIS and the works of Alison Bechdel.

When asked whether a sequel was in the works, he replied that there were other books that he would love to do in this format, hopefully with Choi. "before other people scoop her up."

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Dan WicklineAbout Dan Wickline

Has quietly been working at Bleeding Cool for over three years. He has written comics for Image, Top Cow, Shadowline, Avatar, IDW, Dynamite, Moonstone, Humanoids and Zenescope. He is the author of the Lucius Fogg series of novels and a published photographer.
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