What not to do when starting a business and what to do with a shit-ton of matcha.
Last year my friend, Russ, approached me with a business proposition. He wanted to know what I took from my experience in the tea industry: was tea a viable e-commerce product, and would I join him in a tea venture of our own?
I hadn’t really considered it. Up to that point I filed my brief time working at Canton Tea Company under “negative education”. Not negative in the sense that I didn’t value my time there – I took a huge amount from it, more that the experience tutored me in what I didn’t want.
Allow me to explain.
The summer before I started working at Canton I had returned to China with the dream of bringing haute tea to the UK masses. My vision was idealistic. My plan ran something like “if you build it, they’ll come”. Working at Canton freed me from this delusion. During my time there, I realised the problem with opening a tea business in England: in reality, 90% of your profits are generated by tea that – as a tea snob – I didn’t want to sell, and if I did end up selling tea I was passionate about, 90% of my time would be dedicated to education. To the average English person green tea is something they may have tried once and “I’ll keep my milk and two sugars thank you very much.” Even for those accustomed to green tea, I think it would take a bit of convincing to get them to shell out on the type of product I wanted to import.
I knew all this yet, in my initial eagerness to rekindle the dream I forgot this hard-earned realisation and we decided to give the tea business a go.
In tea snobbery, Russ and I see – past noses and pinkies turned skywards – eye to eye. Our passion is for loose-leaf Chinese and Taiwanese teas. We both have supply contacts in Asia and within weeks we’d drawn out some USPs and had drafted what we thought was a fairly compelling brand.
There was one problem: the numbers didn’t run.
Without big corporate clients, there was little money in an online-only tea shop – especially one that only sold ultra-high-end teas. We’d come back to the conclusion that I’d forgotten in my haste to reignite my tea dream.
There was hope, though; one product did seem to work: matcha.
Matcha is a green tea powder produced in Japan. Matcha ticked the right boxes: it is healthy, delicious, and if you approach it in the traditional way, elitist enough to satisfy my inner snob. Vital for us as a business venture, the matcha market is growing and there is still be room for newcomers to make an impact (a fact not missed by Shopify in a recent competition).
Neither of us were obsessed with matcha. I’d come into contact with it at Canton and I enjoy the method of preparing it, and Russ uses it as a supplement. We saw a matcha-only brand as a segway to selling a wider range of tea under a similar brand.
Certain that matcha was the right course, we went ahead.
Within a few weeks we had come far. We’d made a site. We had a bank account. We had registered as a limited company. We had chosen our supplier. And we had designed labels for our matcha tins. We hoped to start trading in time for Black Friday, a mere six weeks after we came up with the idea – wishful thinking, but you can’t fault us for optimism.
Four months later and our first batch came through the door: one hundred Living-Matcha-branded tins containing fresh matcha tea.
But, in the intervening months, while the gears connecting us to our suppliers slipped and struggled to engage, I had moved to Russia and Russ had moved from Thailand to China and back to Thailand again. In short, a lot had changed in the intervening time. And we’d lost momentum. We rallied, though, and we took the last few steps of our action plan. Fifty tins went to an Amazon warehouse to fulfil orders. The remaining fifty tins stayed with us, to be sent out to brand ambassadors.
Our first order came in within twenty-four hours of our tins being listed on Amazon Marketplace. We felt vindicated: our months of hard work and waiting had paid off.
The feeling didn’t last long, however. A couple of weeks trudged by and no one was buying. Furthermore, we couldn’t even give the tins away. Brand ambassadors were less willing than we had expected to exchange nice words for a tin of tea.
…six months into the venture, I was finally focussing on selling…
When I got back to England, I decided my focus had to be on networking and on finding coffee houses and tea rooms. In other words, six months into the venture, I was finally focussing on selling.
At this critical juncture, I realised two things. The first is simple: selling is the most important thing. You need to be selling for your business from day one. Why else are sales teams so incentivised and valued in companies? The second thing I realised was not so obvious – at least not until I had finished procrastinating on branding and a website and it was crunch time: selling is hard. You really have to be incentivised to get on with it. In big companies the incentive is obvious: money and recognition. In a start up, the reward is less tangible. It could be the promise of future wealth or a mission statement which gets you fired up.
It was while I was coming to these conclusions that a third realisation dawned on me: I don’t give a shit about matcha and it will never pay well.
This is not strictly true. I enjoy matcha, but I’m not passionate enough about it. I’m not going to take it to farmers markets and cafes and convince people that they should buy it. Hell, I can hardly sell it to my friends. As for future riches, while I think that there is room in the market for a company to make a lot of money from matcha, it’s not ever going to be Coca Cola.
Both Russ and I decided that we couldn’t put enough time into the project as was needed and we called it quits less than a year after we started the project. We were settled on this decision, but one problem remained: what’s to be done with all this matcha?!
During our early time marketing matcha, I remember Russ saying, ‘Living Matcha sounds like a charity that helps those dealing with some chronic disease… “are you living with matcha? We can help.”’ I couldn’t feel those sentiments more acutely than I do now. All said, I had about 60 tins to play with.
First off, I gave lots away. But there is only a certain amount of matcha that even my friends will accept, and I still have two dozen or so tins on my shelf.
Over the past six months or so, I’ve been experimenting with the ketogenic diet. The keto diet is a low-carb diet, a modified Atkins diet if you will. By limiting sugar intake, you persuade your body to burn fat instead of sugar. It worked well for me, but one thing has been missing.
Keto dieters rave about their bulletproof coffee fix (that’s coffee with a shit-ton of butter and MCT oil for those who aren’t aware. I’m not a big coffee drinker, but matcha is packed with caffeine and other supplements. In short, it is a good replacement for coffee. So I decided to make tea-based variation.
After a bit of experimentation, here it is – Bulletproof Matcha:
1 tsp Matcha
1 tsp Low-GI sweetener
2 tbsp Coconut oil
300 ml Hazelnut milk
Heat up the milk in a pan before adding all the ingredients to a blender. Blitz until frothy and serve in your favourite cup.
Three takeaways from all this
Number 1: go with the passion. A business, no matter what size requires a lot of energy. If you aren’t 100% behind what you are doing, you will fall at an early hurdle.
Number 2: do the maths. Passion is all well and good, but if there isn’t some grounding in reality behind what you are planning, the most wide eyed product advocate won’t be able to vault the first obstacles.
Number 3: try the ketogenic diet and make your matcha latte bulletproof. A great start to the day and might be better for you than bulletproof coffee.