In a recent Washington Post article, it was noted that you walked away from a six-figure salary at Northrop Grumman to become an entrepreneur and follow your dream of becoming your own boss. How did you know it was the right time to start your venture?
It’s hard to know in any startup when it’s the right time. There is of course the best time, or a target that would be nice to transition to working on a startup full time - but I’ve found, personally and from the startup community that you don’t get to that point unless you make the jump completely. You have to live and breathe your startup every day, all day.
When deciding to leave my steady job, I did a lot of soul searching. It definitely helped that I had the Kickstarter campaign under my belt and had received lots of great reviews from our early adopters.
However, much of the decision came down to me not wanting to debate what would happen 10 years from now. I knew the product was unique (and still is) and I never wanted to look back and regret not giving it a full effort - and that decision is paying off now.
Tell us about your business. What inspired you to pursue this idea?
True Honey Teas is at its core a natural beverage company. The idea for True Honey Teas isn’t something that I woke up one day and decided to do. It started as an idea and grew progressively to samples with friends, to a Kickstarter campaign, to a legitimate company listed on Amazon Prime and Whole Foods. My passion for the company grew as well over time as my personal belief and philosophy for natural foods intertwined with the company’s mission.
We are the only natural beverage player in the single serve space. True Honey Teas believes deeply in the quality of organic ingredients and in healthy sweeteners such as honey. We work with as many local apiaries as possible to use a very high quality honey in our pods as well as support the local community.
Why did you choose Kickstarter to fund your business?
I’ve always loved Kickstarter. It is an amazing platform to test your ideas and build your early adopter community. After a few months of tinkering with my prototype honey teas cups, I wanted to see if the world really thought it was a good idea, and that is what Kickstarter is great for -- testing new ideas and validating your assumptions.
Was that your only funding source?
True Honey Teas is one of the stories you hear, founded on maxed out credit cards. When I started the company we had the money from Kickstarter, my personal credit card and a home equity line of credit which gave the initial funding to build our machine and order the cups, lids and other supplies. We still have not taken outside money. Getting money for your ideas is always the hardest.
What other financial knowledge has helped you grow?
Something that has helped us grow a great deal is cash flow management. For us, being a self-funded lean startup, being disciplined with accounting and knowing what is going out / in, has really enabled us to grow. It’s easy for costs to run away in a startup, but I find it important (and necessary being self-funded) to be cash flow positive and stay there. I think it also helps to make cost decisions that avoid waste and make your organization efficient from the beginning.
A frequently asked question from our clients is how to create a business plan. What was your process and what continues to be the effective strategy and planning method for you?
Honestly, True Honey Teas has a business plan but it’s still in draft form. I am a big proponent of lean startup methodology and techniques. As the company was growing we were testing so many different techniques that we didn’t have a solid document that outlined exactly how we do business.
From the beginning we had a business model canvas and used that as a template to test different channels of business. Now in 2015 and after a TON of business channel testing I am finalizing our business plan. I’d honestly recommend for most startups not to create a formal business plan but instead focus on a lean startup / business model canvas approach early on. It helps immensely in developing the details of how the company does business; who the customers are, what are the key resources and what is the real value of the product or service being delivered? True Honey Teas didn’t develop a business plan because we were still working on some of these type of questions. Now after a year of testing I know what our business is, what our channels are, how to grow, etc. - now it’s time for the formal business plan.
What were some hurdles that you’ve had to overcome in starting True Honey Teas?
I could talk about hurdles all day! When the company started, I had no experience in the food industry, so we faced many hurdles. I’d say our first main hurdle was supply chain management: finding and securing a source of all the lids, cups, filters, tea and quality honey needed for the product. Another main hurdle was finding out the how the wholesale purchasing chain works, from our facility to the shelves at Whole Foods. It isn’t simple.
What has been your most effective marketing strategy? And, alternatively, what do you believe hasn’t worked for your business?
I can say without a doubt that hiring a marketing company does not work for small and startup businesses. I’ve tried many professional avenues for marketing including hiring a marketing firm and it just doesn’t work on a small scale. My advice for anyone with a startup is find a way to get in front of as many actual human beings as possible. Our most effective marketing has been from direct human contact and sales. Professional marketing techniques work but are way more effective on a larger scale, larger budget - at least from my experience.
You have said that you work about 16 hours a day, tending to practically every task involved in your company. How do you manage your time to ensure you are meeting your goals?
Well that’s a hard one and something I work at all the time. It’s hard when you are the CEO of a startup because you have to be very self-motivated and create your own goals. No one is going to tell you how to grow your business.
I am very diligent with my calendar. I never was much of a calendar person but now everything is booked. Almost every 30 minutes of my day is planned. If a task ends up going unfinished then I book more calendar time another day. For example if I need to make a call to someone (something that happens 5 times a day), instead of putting it on a to-do list, I book 15 minutes in my calendar to make the call, then it actually gets done. It’s so easy for things to get pushed aside if time isn’t made for a goal / task. Discipline is key. It’s easy to become to relaxed and just have daily “to-dos” lists that may not get finished - what’s hard is setting time and getting the job done.
As your company continues to grow, in what ways do you measure your success?
A big measure of success for us is our repeat customers. For many product-based companies, you sell a device and it’s a one-off thing. But in the food industry, we want our customers to come back, and come back often. So a big measure of our success is our repeat order rate which right now is at a very good level, even with the large amount of new customers we have each month.
How do you stay ahead of your competition?
For us right now, it is to keep innovating. There is so much area to grow in the single serve space, and we are coming up with new ideas all the time. We keep attending expos and events, talking with customers to hear what they want and getting feedback on ideas we come up with. Even in an area as simple as the tea business, you always have to look for the next big thing.
What’s next for True Honey Teas?
A lot! This year was are growing into new tea flavors and additional product lines. We will be moving into organic hot chocolates, vitamin, and even organic energy pods. We will be launching another Kickstarter campaign soon for a completely biodegradable and compostable pod - it will be a real game changer in the industry.
At SCORE, we encourage all entrepreneurs to connect with a mentor. Have mentors helped you on your road to success?
I have many mentors in my life. There isn’t a particular one that I’d introduce as my mentor, but I look to many people for counsel and advice. Some are entrepreneurs I’ve met at networking events and become close. Others are friends I meet that have expertise in a particular field. I’m not sure if it happened at random or I do it unconsciously, but I have someone I can confidently look for advice in almost every field -- legal, accounting, sales, etc. In general, I’d advise having a network of mentors to get lots of advice and different perspective for your business.
I would encourage any starting entrepreneur to make sure they have at least one mentor for their industry. A lesson learned for True Honey Teas and myself was not actively trying to find a mentor or council in the industry (food / beverage industry). We had to learn a lot of hard lessons that could have been avoided with knowledge passed on from a mentor.
What advice would you share for those on the fence about quitting their own jobs to start a business?
I’d say to them, there is nothing like living your dream, but make sure you are ready for the tough times.
The part of entrepreneurship that isn’t discussed much is it’s a lonely profession. You are really on your own building your business and that part of it is tough emotionally. There are also lots of ups and downs. I swear, some days I feel bi-polar, being completely depressed in the morning and then thinking that I can conquer the world by the afternoon.
But hey, even with that stuff, entrepreneurship is very satisfying. It’s always exciting with new things happening every day. Growing a business you start yourself is absolutely thrilling.