Longtime legacy member Seth Goldman is the founder and TeaEO Emeritus of Honest Tea, a healthy, organic, and fair-trade beverage promoting sustainability. He is also the Executive Chair at Beyond Meat, the world’s first plant-based burger that resembles beef without soy or gluten. An industry veteran, he sits down with us to talk about his journey towards entrepreneurship, what key elements are necessary to create successful, responsible businesses that scale, and how the food and beverage world has changed since he started out twenty years ago (hint: nothing is the same). Read on to learn more about his point of view on what it takes to level up:
Can you tell me a little bit about your journey towards entrepreneurship?
I was always starting things up. In elementary school, it was the school newspaper, and I also had this golf ball business with my neighbor. We sold golf balls and lemonade- we sold to thirsty golfers who needed an extra ball to finish their round! In high school, I always started up different clubs and initiatives, and I felt that I was always in a creative process of building something. I was also inspired by my father, who, although he was a professor, was very entrepreneurial. He was always putting together different programs, conferences, and ideas–basically acting on the things he was excited about. That was something I learned early on from him, so it felt like it was the natural thing to do as I started my career.
What did you do before you became an entrepreneur?
I was working at Calvert Funds/Calvert Group, and though I was enjoying that work, I always felt a step or two removed from the impact. I found the work meaningful, but felt like I wanted to get closer to creating tangible change, as opposed to investing in companies that did so. As an investor, I saw that you could support what entrepreneurs are doing, but you aren’t the one creating the energy in the idea. As I got closer to seeing the work of entrepreneurs, I was inspired, and thought, that’s something I’d love to do. Then it was just a question of finding the right idea.
You now have two successful companies, Honest Tea and Beyond Meat. What would you say are key elements that have created success in both companies?
It starts with the fact that you really have to have a significantly different and better product. If you don’t have that, you’re not going to get started. Honest Tea was significantly less sweet than what was on the market. It was organic and fair-trade, and that’s what gave its points of difference. Beyond Meat provided a step-change difference in terms of the quality and taste of a plant-based burger- it’s not at all comparable to what’s been out there.
I think another element is, do you have a brand name that helps to clearly communicate what the product is, so it’s easy to understand? But also, is that brand name scalable? For example, I’ve seen certain companies with a brand built around a specific ingredient. Well, that can be very limiting. If you create a company around one particular ingredient because it’s a trend, you’ll struggle if you get boxed in.
With the name Honest Tea, we realize our name wasn’t powerful because of the word ‘tea’. It was about the word ‘Honest’. With Beyond Meat, it’s a whole platform. It’s not only about veggie burgers, it can be about so much more than that.
I think products have to have a forward-looking, forward-leaning concept. Do people intuitively understand why this makes sense for the world and for themselves? Honest Tea speaks about transparency, authenticity, and real taste, and it’s hard to argue when those will ever go out of favor or out of preference. I think with Beyond Meat, people certainly can understand why it is good both for their health and the health of the planet, and why it would be in their best interest to cut down on their meat consumption. In both concepts, it’s easy for people to get excited about them and get on board with.
What is different about the food and beverage industry in this day and age in comparison to what the market and the world was like when you first started?
First of all, consumer’s access to information has changed drastically. Today, they have the ability to gain much more information. In addition, they have an expectation about what they’re entitled to know, (which is basically everything!). I think companies might have said in the past, “Well, consumers don’t need to know that”. Well, companies don’t get to decide that anymore. It’s consumers that decide what they want to know, and how they want to receive that information. The power has shifted.
It used to be that consumers had a limited set of options. You’d go to the store, and there was a network of suppliers that dictated what was available, and on top of that, there were only three main television channels. The information (and therefore the products) you were exposed to was once very limited and consolidated.
Today, consumers find out about brands in a way that’s dramatically different. It’s not anarchy, but it’s much more free and open in terms of information access. As a result, any company that tries to withhold information from consumers, or restricts choices of consumers, will put themselves at risk. It’s not a smart strategy for a company. In this market, transparency is important.
You also talk about partnerships between non-profit and for-profit organizations. What do you think is necessary for these partnerships to be successful?
This is something I advocate strongly for. A lot companies miss the chance to find non-profit partners who share the same goals. When you see a non-profit working hard on a cause, it’s highlighting an inefficiency in the market that companies are failing to address. We’re seeing it now in the restaurant industry: we’re seeing some organizations lobbying different restaurant chains to carry more plant-based protein. So with Beyond Meat, we see that as a way to respond with a solution.
For the partnership to be successful, you have to look at the goals they have. You then look at your business model, and your impact, and see where you can both align on a shared mission.
When I was starting out 20 years ago, there was a group lobbying the Coca-Cola Company trying to convince them to offer fair-trade certified products. I thought that while it was a worthwhile cause, it didn’t feel like the right approach. A company can’t just start carrying a product because someone asked for it, you have to prove there’s a market opportunity for them to follow through. Readers can find more about my thoughts on for-profit and non-profit partnerships, and how entrepreneurs can make real change, here.
What inspires you about being a part of SVC?
Making things happen in a big way, and seeing those people grow and succeed–while really feeling connected to them–was very impactful in my journey.
Join Seth and other mission-driven leaders in our #theNEXTEconomySVC campaign! See how here. You can also find them in our membership circle and our conference. For more exciting sustainable food leaders, check out the One World Hacking Food event tomorrow, July 24th, in Redwood City, California. We will be there as well!