First question first – do you ever drink coffee?
I used to drink coffee to keep me energised and motivated in the face of corporate hours and I always felt really anxious. When I started the business I consciously cut coffee out and I didn’t realise how much of an impact it had had on the anxiety of running a business – for me it was really noticeable.
And in our office for the entire time I’ve run the business we have had a policy to not keep coffee in the kitchen. We may do a run and buy some coffees, but we have really kept it to just tea in the kitchen. It is partly about the smell of coffee as it dominates everything – and having it there is a bit of a temptation! Instead we have a beautiful array of tea for a bit of a pep/pick up. Tea still gives you a choice around mood and energy state, but it’s less aggressive.
What inspired you to start your business?
I had been working in corporate marketing, big multinationals until I around 40. In between that I’d done some travel. But I wanted to get out of the big corporate environment. I could play the game and I learnt so much, especially about discipline to run this kind of business successfully. But the constant watering down of ideas and the focus on costs and cost down around food was just not for me. It was a hard job to get out of – you are well paid and there is lots of energy. I started off by moving to a part-time role, but then fell pregnant and in a sense that gave me the permission to disconnect enough to make it happen.
My mum is French and my dad loved to cook. I love quality things, I love quality food and authentic experiences. So making good quality tea was about that and wanting to do something different. After I had my daughter I started looking at the tea in the supermarket. At the time (20 years ago) there was very little choice – the options were very limited. It was really just like Lipton or Twinings and Tetley.
I had a very strong marketing reaction to the lack of options and I believed that people deserved better and I knew how to do this. My background was taking brands that had been commercialised to the max and reworking them to lift the quality of experience. T2 was already in existence so that was the beginning of the revived loose leaf experience and people were beginning to grasp all the different cultural rituals around tea.
So I got a bit carried away! And I think you have to have something that gets you pretty excited to follow through on what it takes to build a business. My daughter was one year old at the time and I said to my husband, “I want to start a tea business…” and he said, “Yeah sure.”
We had no idea what we were in for!
How long have you been running the business?
I started in 2007 with a year of planning. I had years of marketing training to know that you can’t just jump in and start something. You need to think about the brand, do the financials and check that your model can work. It was always clear that I wanted to launch into supermarkets. I knew that from my past work experience that I understood the language and what people wanted. I could see that tea in supermarkets wasn’t growing.
I went to the local shops to recruit people for research focus groups in my lounge room. I asked people “Do you drink tea? Would you come back to my house and do a focus group?” I needed to understand what tea drinkers wanted and where there would be opportunity. The feedback I got was that everyone always drank paper tea bags yet had a real nostalgia for loose leaf tea.
Around that time, my husband found a pyramid tea bag in a cafe in the city; and I saw that and thought “this is the thing”. And that was ‘the thing” and I knew I had something viable, a real point of difference. I wanted to sell a more enjoyable and satisfying tea experience. I knew this was the story I could give the supermarkets – that if we elevated the experience, people would be willing to pay a bit more for the product.
When I presented my concept to the supermarkets I included proposed pricing, financials, maektin gplans and pretty pictures of the packaging. In thinking about the brand I spent a lot of time looking at the existing brands and realised they were quite masculine and English and old-fashioned. My market research suggested an opportunity for abrand to be a more feminine and a bit more Australian.
Was it a full-time job straight away?
I was lucky because while I was putting way more than full time hours in the beginning, I was also still on the last few months of maternity leave. After that my employer offered me the chance to stay on with unpaid leave. After a few months of that I decided to cut the cord. I had spoken to Woolworths and they said they’d take my concept and that it would need to be ready in 3 months, for the next category review. The beauty of that was that my first order was large enough that if I managed everything wisely I’d still have a little bit of cash. I spent a lot of time negotiating payment terms for suppliers to make the cash flow work, because that is key to starting a business, keeping the cash cycle flowing.
How big is your team?
We had 12 people in our team until a couple of years ago I made the decision to downsize. The business was becoming really complex, we’d started supplying supermarkets, hotels and airlines. I made a decision to simplify and have it be a little less stressful for me personally. I have retained full ownership for the entire time. I am the sole director and do not have investors. That has wonderful benefits but it has taken up a lot of energy over time.
We now run a really nice model. We are 6 in the team and we work a lot from home. We know each other well and enjoy working together. Managing team and creating a good culture is a challenging part of business.
What do you love most about what you do?
- The camaraderie with the team
- The knowledge that there are thousands of tea drinkers who really love the brand and our tea, for the tea itself and the extra personal touch we have always brought.
Who is your customer – do you have a sense of them?
Largely female , 85% are women, 15% are men and I call them ‘modern men’. They are usually from a tea drinking cultural background, or generally younger men who just really like that relaxing myriad of flavours and style of tea. Age wise it can really vary but the core is 30-40. They’re also a little bit more urban. We are not the cheapest tea to drink (around $6 a packet) and a lot of people consider that to be a luxury. However most feedback we receive is that our product transcends where people live.. It’s more about giving oneself a little treat, being a bit more ‘foodie’, liking and being aware of flavours. Madam Flavour drinkers like a little bit of romance and appreciate the detail. They might be buying the product in a mass environment but it feels personal.
What inspires the flavours you create?
My personal travels and experiences inspire the blends, and I talk about those on each pack. Australian native ingredients are also something I am really interested in. I am in the Gippsland region of Victoria that is very, very green and we are surrounded by 40 acres of temperate rainforest, koalas and lyrebirds. On this land grows the mountain pepper that we use in our chai. It made total sense to me to include Australian flavours in our teas. For example, a traditional Earl Grey uses bergamot (a citrus from Italy), so I decided to combine it with native lemon myrtle in our Earl Grey, which I think is among the best in the world.
Why do you love the most about tea?
Tea is healing, soothing, connecting, it’s the opposite of an aggressive experience.
Do you have a favourite flavour in your range?
I’m loving our new Deeply Relaxing blend. It is made from relaxing herbs, like lemon balm, chamomile and lavender, I also included some Passionflower in the recipe which is used in traditional herbal medicine to calm the nervous system. It’s working for me.
Where to next for the brand…
I love the business as it is and the desire to be bigger and bigger has just kind of gone for me. That’s surprising to me! But it’s a peaceful feeling to just be really happy with what I have and what has been built. That doesn’t mean I just sit back as there are always challenges, but I am content.