Good morning Spence, how are you?
I have just finished my morning ‘kick-up-the-backside’ pot of Assam so I am in good shape. Thank you.
I'm a tea lover, so I absolutely appreciate a genuine brew – when did you have that eureka moment and decided to create We Are Tea?
The real eureka moment came when my wife and I were on a weekend break in Budapest. It was a freezing cold day in March and we stumbled across an old tea house. The tea menu was more akin to a wine list and it really highlighted the flexibility of tea. Coffee is pretty one-dimensional in that it wakes you up but tea can wake you up, help you sleep and everything in between. I was hooked.
I arrived back in the UK determined to break down the barriers to speciality tea and ensure it was more desirable and accessible to the consumer.
Being Independent and Ethically sourced is rare and beautiful. How has this journey developed for you?
My wife and I had a vision – to ethically source, whole-leaf tea from the finest producers on the planet and hand-pack it in the UK. We also wanted to celebrate the British love affair with tea. This is still the vision that drives the business forward and more and more people seem to connect with it.
More recently we have launched a new blend of Darjeeling Afternoon tea, with all profits going to Contact The Elderly – a fantastic charity that combats loneliness amongst the elderly in our society. More and more businesses are becoming a force for good and long may it continue.
You are in stocked in boutique hotels and health clubs, was this always your target market?
Our target market is always the consumer. My view is that the consumer should always have access to great tea whether they are at home, at the health club, in a hotel, at the pub etc so wherever there are consumers, I shall always see this space as a target market for We Are Tea.
You took the leap and decided to pack in the UK and not doing the usual by going to China. Why was this so important to you?
It was important to me to keep as much of our business as possible within the UK. We have a fantastically skilled workforce here and although this skill often comes at a premium when compared to an overseas labour force, I think it is a premium worth paying. In addition, I put a value on being able to drive to see our packing team or our packaging supplier. We are not a faceless corporation. We are a family business with family values and I think that this would be lost if we moved all of our business overseas simply to increase our gross profit. We would lose some of our essence and the real essence of a brand is what it stands for when no one is looking.
Marketing is everything, what advice would you give to others going down the ethical route?
I disagree with the statement ‘marketing is everything’. Marketing is simply one of the many tools small businesses must utilise to level the playing field when competing against much larger competitors. We Are Tea is very much a David in a world of Goliaths and yet we can compete on many levels by focusing on our positives: quality, consistency, customer service, innovation, relevance etc. It is important for small businesses to exploit what they do have and not lament on what they wish they had.
For We Are Tea being ethical is a hygiene factor and although we do talk about it in our communications, we would not lead with it in a marketing strategy.
How did you fund you first batch of tea and what brew was it?
My first really good batch of tea was a birthday present from my wife. She sourced a beautiful white tea called Silver Needle and I still recall my first sip – heavenly.
Do you think having a niche from the beginning is important for startups?
I think having access to good research is more important than having a niche. Some entrepreneurs are so single minded in their desire to start a business, they forget to ask the question ‘will anyone buy it?’. It is really important to do the research and once you are confident that there will be demand for your product or services, go for it. The caveat is that no matter how good your research is, you don’t really know whether there is demand until you launch, so do not let procrastination be the enemy of progress.
You are stocked in Ocado to Whole Foods, I can just imagine how exciting it was to get the first order. Do you remember where you were when you found out?
Our first large order was from Harvey Nichols. The buyer believed in We Are Tea enough to roll the brand out across all of their food halls, which was pretty unprecedented and if I am totally honest, we were not really geared up for it. This resulted in my wife and I staying up until 3am hand packing the tea for collection the following day. We bought in some cold beers to help us through the night so we ended up celebrating while we were packing. Good times.
If you could choose one mentor, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
Andrew Carnegie – an entrepreneur in the truest sense of the word but probably better known for his philanthropy. Way ahead of his time in understanding that business can be a force for good. I could not agree more.
What's next for We Are Tea?
We are continuing our exciting journey in the UK while developing key overseas territories. We are also working on some very exciting product development that should be hitting retailers in spring this year. More importantly we are on track to upgrade 50 million cups of tea by 2017. There are no more excuses. Life is too short to drink bad tea.