This is the beginning of a series of posts aimed at addressing questions from budding and established tea entrepreneurs. If you have a question for Zhena, please send it to AskZhena@tching.com. We look forward to hearing from you!
How important is a business plan in the tea industry and do you think I really need one?
Dear Tea Entrepreneur,
Having a plan is as powerful as imbibing a cup of tea. You must brew your business much as you would steep a cup of precious Pu-Erh or Yin Zhen. The loving care the workers take with the leaves is the loving care you must take with your roadmap to success – that is, your detailed and sincerest attempt at a full-bodied business plan.
When I wrote my business plan, I simply took a template off the score.org website, wrote every little detail of every single way to sell tea that I would undertake, and followed it to create Zhena’s Gypsy Tea. It was a calling for me, but as much as I loved it, I knew that I had to write the entire plan in order to make it work. You see, that first day of having my tea cart was not the total plan, but I knew that it was a step in the right direction in line with my plan. When I think of the power of a business plan, I am reminded of the following story:
“There were three people chiseling away at stones. A passerby asked the first chiseler what he was working at. The worker said, ‘I am making a brick.’ The passerby asked the second worker and her reply was, ‘I am making a wall,’ while the third replied, ‘I am building a cathedral.'”
You see, you must not be simply selling a cup of tea to make ends meet; you must have a bigger plan that puts into context what you are doing on a larger scale. That bigger plan motivates both you and your customer. For me, it was never “I am selling tea.” Instead, it was, “I am ending poverty for tea workers.” And that started out with a plan – and that plan turned into a multimillion-dollar business whose end is nowhere in sight. I wrote a plan to end poverty through fair trade for at least 50,000 workers, and at this point, it will be ten more years before I can rest, but at least I know that because I planned it. Without a plan, you are a ship without a navigation tool.
I wish I would have known then what I know now. I spent too much time, money, and heartache on what I didn’t know, even though I had a thorough plan. So here’s my core advice: write a detailed plan that focuses mainly on your product and your core customer – her attributes, her loves, her desires, her hopes, her income, and her love of new experiences, oh, and especially what she likes to shop for. Detail out how you will fill that love with your time and effort, which is your product. Then, and maybe only then, will you have a chance at succeeding. There is money involved at times – lots of it – and a ton of mentoring that you must be willing to receive in order to rock the tea world. But, if you plan well, and your plan is worked and well written – along with flexible and REAL, meaning you can actually make those lofty numbers – you have a great chance of making it.
Remember, tea is not grown in the U.S. (well, there are a few exceptions) and you have access to the same tea blenders and importers as every other tea company, so what will make you different? That is the reason and purpose and design of a good plan. If you can answer those questions, you’re in business. You cannot succeed without a plan, mark my word.
The business of tea is not easy, I won’t lie. But it’s worth it if you are willing to live for it. I joke that I am the overnight success that took 12 years and 12 hours a day. I definitely am an outlier on that front, but have I made my goal yet? Not even close. Until poverty is eradicated, I am still following that plan I built 12.5 years ago, with the mission to “end poverty for tea workers.” A mission, a plan, and a strong sense of taste are all items that should be in your plan – if you have one and not the others, develop them.
A plan is as critical as the leaf itself. Seems like gravitas? Try finding your way without a plan and let me know how that goes. A great idea is only as good as the plan to execute it.
To your health, happiness, prosperity, and wealth!
Mistress of Tea