October Book Club Pick: Mission in a Bottle
At long last! A book for entrepreneurs that even I can get through without falling asleep on the subway. (I say this as someone with a fine arts degree who has little patience for reading business books that seem geared more for the overachieving MBA candidate.) And what about this month's pick earns such high praise? Mission in a Bottle has the distinction of being one of the few business books we've encountered that comes in graphic novel format! Perfect for my (admittedly low) attention span and (decidedly limited) appetite for books that are "good for me." For those of you who crave bit more content than what you might expect to find in a graphic novel, rest easy knowing that this book packs in a lot of info - there are still portions of the book devoted to text that outlines major takeaways.
Mission in a Bottle: The Honest Guide to Doing Business Differently - and Succeeding recounts the story of Honest Tea, which you might be familiar with from your local grocery store, as told by founders Seth Goldman and Barry Nalebuff, with the help of illustrator Sungyoon Choi. An inspiring story for entrepreneurs of all stripes, Mission in a Bottle guides those who might be interested in starting their own business through all of the phases of a company's development, from start-up struggles, through the growing pains of an emerging brand, to how to handle success as you see your work come to fruition. I found the book supremely applicable to arts organizations for a few key reasons.
Mission in a Bottle provides a very real example of what it means to find your niche as a business. Seth and Barry set out to create the product that they wanted to consume: bottled tea with an authentic taste that was not over-sweetened like so many products that were available on the market back in the late 90s (and continue to be found on the soda shelves of supermarkets today.) They knew that they weren't going to be able to please everyone - obviously there would still be consumers who prefer super-sweet beverages - and so they didn't try to. Too many start-up arts organizations fail to identify their target audience (hint: it's not art-lovers everywhere) or what makes their product unique. If you're not able to identify these crucial pieces of information, you're going to have a hard time making out of the start-up phase.
Another thing this book does really well is show how important clearly articulated organizational values are to any organization. Whatever work you create expresses some kind of larger outlook on life and the things in the world that you value. The creators of Honest Tea valued healthy beverages made from authentic recipes from around the world using the best ingredients (organic, fair trade) possible. This outlook on life informs all of the decisions that they make as a company - not just those related to the creation of their product. Keeping honesty and integrity at the front of their minds helped Seth and Barry weather some serious turbulence as their business grew. For example, they discovered that bottles filled during a certain thirty day period were more likely to shatter. Not only did they recall all bottles from that month's production, they recalled the product that was sent out previous to that month as well, just to be on the safe side. Compromising your values for profit or expedience often ends up biting you in the end. Another beverage company that discovered a similar problem with defective bottles didn't go to the same lengths to recall product that was potentially affected and went out of business soon thereafter.
Finally, Mission in a Bottle succeeds in painting a realistic portrayal of the investment - not just of money, but also time, energy, and sacrifice - that goes in to chasing your dreams by starting a business. There is a significant toll that this kind of venture takes on a person and this cost often comes as a surprise to those who follow this road - especially artists. Don't expect any part of your life to be exempt from the kind of major lifestyle changes that starting a business entails - including your home and family life. But fear not - Mission in a Bottle is not a cautionary tale, but one of success. If you're willing to put in the work, enduring the myriad obstacles that life puts in your way, holding yourself and your company to the highest standards, then starting your own company is not a fantastical dream but fully within your grasp.