Seth Goldman is a successful business owner, having grown beverage company Honest Tea from a scrappy Bethesda start-up to a flourishing subsidiary of Coca-Cola. But on one recent Thursday, Goldman found himself working as a tour guide.
“And this is our wall of discontinued products,” he said, gesturing toward a shelf holding dozens of bottles of now-defunct beverages. “We think of them as branches on a tree. Some thrive and some don’t, but those that don’t fertilize the ground for the others.”
Absorbing his words were a team of 10 employees from the Motley Fool, an Alexandria-based company that provides investment advice. In an attempt to glean best practices from other businesses, for the past few months Motley Fool’s executives have been sending teams of the company’s employees on a “Great Idea Hunt” to area companies.
The field trips are part of Motley Fool’s overall educational mission — the company has a “university” where employees instruct each other, and the executives regularly invite other business owners to staff luncheons in order to pick their brains. (Motley Fool contributes a column to Capital Business, On Small Business’s parent publication.)
“We’ve gotten really good at learning from each other, and I wanted to add an outside learning component to that,” said Matt Trogdon, whose role at the company is to connect Motley Fool employees — they call themselves “Fools” — with mentors from other businesses. “The more influences you can get, the smarter you can get.”
The groups are visiting companies such as Affinity Lab, National Geographic and even Delaware’s Dogfish Head brewery, documenting their voyages and making videos to be shown at an April company meeting.
Each business was chosen for a different reason — Dogfish won for its storied positive office culture; at National Geographic, a chief sustainability officer will show the Fools how to green-ify an office building. Despite the differences between their industries, Trogdon said his company shares a similar culture to Honest Tea.
“Honest Tea is trying to be transparent about what they put in their drinks,” he said. “At Motley Fool we are trying to be more transparent by providing advice people can understand.”
Back at Honest Tea, the Fools gathered around an island in the company’s kitchen, where one fridge holds employee sack lunches and the other holds test batches of Honest Tea’s new formulations. A product developer stirred red potato powder into a jar of water to show how the company tints its organic teas without artificial coloring.
Goldman passed out tiny cups of a new green tea formula, adding that the company doesn’t rely much on focus groups.
“Everyone has a say in product development,” explained Debra Schwartz, vice president of human resources at Honest Tea. “We literally go from desk to desk so that people can try new products.”
Their spartan approach quickly became a theme throughout the presentation. On trips, employees are usually asked to share hotel rooms. In a video message, one worker said he slept in his car to escape his roommate’s snoring.
“It points to what a young, entrepreneurial business they are,” said Vienna DeGiacomo, who works in blogger relations at the Motley Fool. “They’re always looking at the bottom line. Sleeping in the car, though, that’s not something I’d want to do.”
Honest Tea also leaves its employees well enough alone for most of the day (the majority work remotely.) All company updates, holiday and other announcements come in a once-daily newsletter they call “Afternoon Tea” — a concept that appealed to the Fools.
“We were inspired by their afternoon tea idea and may try to come up with something similar,” Trogdon said.
At one point, a Fool asked if the company culture had changed since Honest Tea was acquired by Coca-Cola in 2011. Schwartz said both companies knew what they were getting into and haven’t butted heads much.
“You can think of the Coke deal as a three-year engagement: We got engaged in 2008, and we got married in 2011,” Schwartz said. “By the time we made the final deal with Coke, they knew we left the dishes in the sink, and we knew they left the cap off the toothpaste. It’s my job to maintain our culture — if that means pushing back on them, that’s what it means.”
Goldman, who refers to himself as “Tea-E-O” instead of CEO, told the story of how he once stood up to Coca-Cola executives when they asked Honest Tea to remove the words “no high fructose corn syrup” from its juice packages. Goldman refused, and Coke execs eventually gave in.
“I like that they’re unyielding in the face of the industry,” said Rex Moore, a stock analyst with Motley Fool. Many of Honest Tea’s competitors have rolled out lower-sugar and lower-calorie products as the company has become more prominent. Honest Teas have between zero and 40 calories per 8-ounce serving, fewer than some other brands.
“They have the industry bending to the way they’re doing instead,” Moore added. “It did help remind us that it’s something we’re always going to have to watch as we grow — staying true to what we are.”