Chapter 6 of 22: First-hand experiences

After a crash course in the basics of tea, I decided to focus my search on diuretic herbs. The goal was a reduction in bloating and improved digestive function, so it didn’t need to contain herbal laxatives to be effective. After working my way through a shortlist of herbs, my original blend essentially wrote itself: an oolong base with dandelion and lotus leaf for their diuretic properties, along with jasmine for flavour and hawthorn berry for colour. I was going to market it as a weight loss tea, but I had no idea if the tea was going to do anything. I was a snake oil salesman. I had no way of sampling different herbs before ordering, so I had no idea what the blend would taste like. I also had no idea how much of each herb I needed since I couldn’t make up a sample blend. I decided to guess and wrote out my order: 16kgs of oolong, 5kgs of dandelion, 4kgs of lotus leaf, 3kgs of jasmine, and 2kgs of hawthorn berry. A total of 30kgs. The worst-case scenario was that I would be left with a life-time supply of tea, and that was something I could live with.

It was late afternoon in Auckland, but early afternoon in Melbourne and Sydney when I called the four other companies on my list. Each call ended the same way. Not a single company shipped to New Zealand. Having lived in New Zealand my entire life, I wasn’t surprised, but I was deflated. I slumped in my chair, unsure of what to do next. It was the first time in my life that I was responsible for my own minute-to-minute decision making. I didn’t have someone telling me to call more companies until I found a supplier. I didn’t have someone telling me that I couldn’t go home until it was done. I only had the voice in my head telling me to give up.

In the spirit of risk taking, I decided to do something reckless. The following week I travelling to Melbourne to stay with friends for a few days. My solution? Have one of the Australian suppliers send the tea to my friends’ house in Melbourne. I would then be able to repack the tea into two suitcases and take the tea back to New Zealand with me. It was a temporary solution, but it would allow me to get things off the ground for a few months while I found a more suitable supplier.    

Based solely on the customer service, I decided to go with company number one. I had no idea how much it would cost and I knew nothing about the company, but what I did know was that the woman I spoke to had a nice voice. Her name was April. I called back the company and April promptly answered. After a short exchange, I read my order aloud. I was put on hold for a few minutes while the quote was prepared. “Ok”, April came back on the line, “I have just emailed the pro-forma invoice through to you.” Moments later the email appeared in my inbox. I opened the email and downloaded the attached pro-forma invoice– a grand total of A$723.68. I knew that I was going to accept the quote, but I pretended to think about it for a few seconds. “It’s a little bit higher than we were expecting, but it otherwise looks good April. We would like to proceed.” I always used the collective “we” to sound more legitimate. The conversation lasted no more than five minutes. By the end of it, I had the beginnings of a mediocre business. I was ecstatic.  

The trip to Melbourne went off without a hitch. Everything arrived the day before I was due to fly out and I was able to pack the tea into the two empty suitcases I had with me. I had two suitcases full of herbs, no big deal. Nothing unusual about that. Everything was fine until I started filling in my arrival card shortly before landing at Auckland International Airport. I got to part five where it asked whether I was bringing into New Zealand any of the following: “Plants or plant products: fruit, flowers, seeds, bulbs, wood, bark, leaves, nuts, vegetables, parts of plants, fungi, cane, bamboo or straw, including for religious offerings or medicinal use?” I was carting 30 bricks of tea, so I ticked ‘yes’. My mind then started to race. Was I doing something illegal? What if I was breaking biosecurity laws? I finally convinced myself that I was nothing more than a common drug mule. As I got off the plane and made my way towards customs, I was terrified that they were going to X-Ray and open my suitcases. I had no idea how I was going to explain away 30kgs of tea. No-one needs that much tea. I joined the line for customs and fortunately had 20 minutes to think about my actions. As I neared the front of the line, my palms were sweating and my heart was racing. I was next. I walked up to the customer officer. “Anything to declare?” The customs officer was staring directly into my eyes as he asked. “Ah, yes, I just have a little bit of tea.” I was playing it cool. “Is that it? Just tea?” I had almost been strip searched when I forgot declare five teabags 12 months earlier upon entering Australia, so I had a deep-held fear of customs officers. “Yep, just some tea. That’s it.” Still keeping it casual. I was a natural. Maybe I could be a drug mule. “Ok, go straight out. No X-Ray. Green lane.” With that, he discarded my arrival card. I was free. I did it. It was the first time I had avoided an X-Ray when entering New Zealand. It was also the first time I happened to be carrying 30kgs of loose herbs.

In my delirium, I walked straight forward and unconsciously lined up for an X-Ray. After a few seconds, I realised what I had done. “Fuck!” I started having a conversation with myself in my head. “Do you think I can just walk out of here?” one voice asked. “I mean, technically you aren’t meant to be in this lane, so you probably should,” the second voice added. Both voices were telling me what I wanted to hear, so I made my move. After three steps, an officer yelled out at me from behind the X-Ray machine. “Excuse me sir, may I please see your arrival card?” He began to approach me. I was flustered. “My card? I, um, I don’t have it.”  I turned and pointed at the customs officer who had seen me minutes earlier. “You see that guy? He took it. I was actually meant to go out there.” I gestured towards the clearly marked green lane to my left. “Oh, never mind, sir. We will just take a look at your bags anyway. It will just be a few minutes.” He was right. They were very efficient and my bags were indeed loaded onto an X-Ray conveyer no more than 2 minutes after this conversation. For the life of me, I could not think of a single reason that would explain why I was carrying so much tea.

I had resigned myself to the fact that I was either going to jail or would have to pay a large fine. No matter how irrational and unfounded these fears may have been, the thought of either prospect made me incredibly uneasy. The first bag went through. There were no fast movements. There were no whispered discussions between the customs officers watching the X-Ray screen. The bag slid down the other side of the machine. A complete non-event. My anxiety began to ease. The second bag was loaded onto the conveyer and made its way through. Just like the first bag, it slid down the other side in a matter of seconds. I began to boast to myself: “What kind of amateurs can’t spot 30kgs of tea?” The victory lap before crossing the finish line. I stepped towards the bags and loaded them onto my trolley. As I started walking towards the exit, an officer called after me. I turned. The three officers were now huddled around the screen inspecting the image of my second bag. “Excuse me sir, can you tell me what these are?” the officer asked, pointing at the screen. I knew immediately what he was referring to. It was a 2kg brick of hawthorn berries, that looked conspicuously like an actual brick of drugs. Of course, in that moment, my mind went blank. This was my verbatim response: “Uh, they are berries… for tea. I can’t remember the name, but they are freeze dried if that helps.” What an idiot. All I had to do was think of the name and I couldn’t even do that. To my complete surprise, the officers were apparently satisfied with my response. “Ok, that’s fine. You can go through.” In the moment, I realised two things:

1.           I didn’t have what it takes to be a drug mule; and

2.           I now had enough tea to start a business.

The weight loss tea market was a modern-day gold rush and I was one of the first to stake my claim. Just like any gold rush, first movers have a huge advantage. If a business can make enough money in the beginning, before the market becomes crowded with new entrants, it will be easier for it to compete long-term as competition increases, trends change, and returns diminish. At least, that’s what the management text books tell me. I knew there was no time to waste. The day I arrived back into Auckland, I drove straight from the airport to the supermarket to purchase mixing and storage containers. I filled up an entire trolley with containers and made my way to the checkout. The checkout operator joked that my doomsday preparations were coming along nicely. It was surprisingly witty. I laughed. Just one month before, I was a normal and functioning member of society. Now, I apparently looked like someone preparing for the end of the world. Was this the start of something big?  I had no way of knowing, but I assumed it was. I had already began writing my autobiography in my head. This was the part where I would write about buying so many containers that they didn’t fit into my rusting maroon 2001 Honda Accord, so I had to walk back into the store and return several containers before going on my way. It didn’t help that the two suitcases full of tea were taking up all of the space in my trunk. 

That night, I moved all of the herbs into the storage containers I had purchased. I placed a metal mixing bowl in the centre of the table and started testing blends. I wrote out each blend on a piece of A4 paper, along with short tasting notes:

Blend 1: 2 tbsp oolong, 2 tbsp dandelion, 2 tbsp lotus, 2 tbsp jasmine, 2 tbsp hawthorn.

Tasting notes: Taste 6/10, tastes fine – very drinkable

Blend 2: 3 tbsp oolong, 2 tbsp dandelion, 1 tbsp lotus, 3 tbsp jasmine, 2 tbsp hawthorn.

Tasting notes: 7/10, similar to blend one

Blend 3: 3 tbsp oolong, 3 tbsp dandelion, 2 tbsp lotus, 3 tbsp jasmine, 2 tbsp hawthorn.

Tasting notes: same as above

To my unrefined pallet, each blend tasted more or less the same. I must have had at least 20 cups of tea that night before I decided on a blend I liked – blend no. 10. I didn’t know it at the time, but well over a million cups of this same blend would be consumed within the next three years.

I sat down to do some basic costing. Other companies were selling weight loss tea at A$35 for a 14-day supply, which worked out to be approximately 60g of tea. The total price for 60g of original blend herbs was NZ$1.44. If I sold the tea at NZ$35, which was the price set by Australian weight loss tea companies, that would leave me with NZ$33.56 to pay sales tax, transaction costs, hosting, shipping, packaging, and other expenses. My best guess was that I would be left with roughly $18 profit from each sale once these expenses were deducted. Despite the fact that I hadn’t sold anything, I felt incredibly guilty about the idea of charging $35 for a bag of tea. If I had set the price without market guidance, I probably would have charged $20 or less. However, this is where simple consumer psychology comes into play. If I charged less than the market price, there was a chance that customers would think that my product wasn’t as effective as a competitor’s and/or that my product contained lower quality herbs. I didn’t know how effective the tea would be, but I certainly didn’t want customers to summarily dismiss the tea without trying it because the pricing wasn’t correctly calibrated. Customers were prepared to pay $35, so I had to charge $35.

There is something incredibly powerful about learning through experience. There are so many things that I have read over the years that have resonated with me. I realised, however, that everything I read was either quickly forgotten or relegated in my memory to surface-level reference knowledge. I found it impossible to internalise information and have it available for on-demand recall, unless I could attach that information to a real-life experience. With context, knowledge tends to stick. My theory is that, when it comes to learning, there are two types of memories that someone can have: first-hand memories that are gained through real-life experiences leading to an original thought or realisation and second-hand memories which form when we act as voyeurs and piggyback on the experiences of others.

A first-hand memory I have is jumping on my bed as a child and falling off and injuring my wrist. As a result of that experience, I came to the realisation that it was unsafe to jump on my bed. The lesson became cemented in my mind because the act of jumping on a bed is forever attached to the memory of falling off the bed and the pain I experienced first-hand (literally, wink emoji), as a result. The lesson stays in my memory for instant recall.  If I ever think about jumping on another bed, my mind immediately takes me back to my childhood bedroom and reminds me that it is unsafe. There are two key components with a first-hand memory: experience and realisation. If I had fallen off the bed (experience) and never had the realisation that it was unsafe to be jump on the bed, the experience would have been quickly forgotten and the behaviour repeated. This behaviour is likely to repeat until there is a realisation that it is unsafe to jump on the bed, which attaches itself to a memory, or there is an untimely death – whichever comes first.

Second-hand memories involve a realisation but lack the accompanying first-hand experience. We get second-hand memories by reading or listening to the advice or experiences of others. The experience I had as a child, injuring my wrist, is a first-hand memory for me that I will carry for the rest of my life, but it will only ever be a second-hand memory to anyone who reads these words. In this moment, you know not to jump on a bed because it could be dangerous. However, the story, along with the lesson will fade over time. If you can’t tap into a lesson as needed so that it can guide your decision-making in certain situations, it hasn’t been internalised and won’t be of much use, other than recounting a story to friends or colleagues.   

Prior to falling off the bed, my mother had told me on numerous occasions not to jump on the bed because I could injure myself. I had, what was in effect, the realisation that it was unsafe, so why didn’t I listen? As is the case with most second-hand memories, something that deterred me in one moment, was quickly forgotten the next. My mother’s words failed to influence my behaviour. The words didn’t have meaning until I fell off the bed and had the realisation on my own that it was an unsafe activity. Second-hand memories live under the surface. They excite, motivate or instruct us in a moment and lay dormant in our short-term memories the next.

Setting the price for the tea became a first-hand memory for me. I had read all about pricing in the past and studied finance and economics throughout high school and university, but I never internalised or fully understood what I was doing. Having a chance to apply that external knowledge when setting the price for my own company gave it meaning. The knowledge came alive with context. The fact that you should charge customers what they are prepared to pay is now forever attached to any pricing decision I make.

With every decision in business, came another lesson and another first-hand experience. My empty-calorie business books were packed up and placed into storage. I figured that the only way to start making money was to start making decisions and start making mistakes. I was in a rush to launch. After 13 years of dreaming, I wanted a business set up in a week. In one day, I designed a logo and packaging, set up a Shopify website, and set up company bank accounts. I didn’t have product photography, so I stole images from the websites of other companies. After being so judgmental of supplier websites, I naturally came up with a website design that looked far worse than anything I had seen. I knew that the poor design would invariably turn away potential customers and lead them to question the safety and efficacy of the product, but there was nothing I could do about it. I was helpless. I simply didn’t have the coding competencies to make the right changes to the website. I also had objectively bad taste when it came to design. I knew what looked good when I saw it, but I couldn’t create something that was aesthetically pleasing to save my life.

It’s a difficult position to be in and probably sums of my entire time in business. I always knew what to do, but never knew how to do it. When it came to execution, I was lost. It’s so easy to be critical of the achievements of others when you have done nothing yourself. I had an idea of how I wanted everything to turn out, but there is nothing simple about execution. The Picasso in my head looked like a child’s painting when I lifted my brush from the canvas.

I imagine this is how most creators feel. A fashion designer doesn’t want to create an ugly dress, just as a writer doesn’t want to write a bad book and a director doesn’t want to make a second-rate movie. It happens, of course, but it is never the intended outcome. Poor execution doesn’t just come down to poor taste. External factors play a far greater role in whether something is executed well, than the creative deficiencies of the work’s architect. I have no interest in defending anything I have done. I will be the first person to admit that I made a lot of mistakes and most of those mistakes were entirely my fault. There were, however, often things that were completely outside of my control or otherwise things that I couldn’t change about my circumstances that affected how well each part of the business was executed.

Something as simple as finding a suitable sticker supplier turned out to be a 3-year process. When I first started looking for suppliers, my only requirement was that they made good stickers. I had no idea what “good” meant, just that I wanted it. I had never paid much attention to the packaging or sticker quality of other products, so I didn’t know what to look for. When you have no connections and no industry knowledge to fall back on, the natural starting point is Google. Each Google search shows companies that have paid to be featured or otherwise rank highly based on the algorithm Google uses. It doesn’t necessarily show the best suppliers and more importantly it doesn’t necessarily show the best suppliers for you.

I picked a sticker supplier at random from the first page of my Google search results and gave them a call. I assumed that I would be in the driver’s seat. I would make one phone call, they would love me, and then proceed to beg me for the five hundred dollars’ worth of work I was about to send their way. I would play hard-to-get, maybe call a few other places and get additional quotes and play them off against each other to drive the price down. This business school strategy works if you are dealing with pre-existing relationships and multi-million dollar contracts, but it doesn’t work if you are dealing with reality.

The first call lasted as long as my first sexual experience. “Hi, Big Stickers, Katie speaking. How can I help you?” Katie sounded confident. I did not. “Ah, hi, yes, I was hoping to speak to someone about having a small batch of stickers printed.” There was a pause. I recognised that pause from my calls to Australian tea suppliers. “Ok, sure. How many were you hoping to get printed?” I had no idea how big or small these companies were based on their websites. I assumed that no job would be too small because, money is money. I came back to Katie, “Well, I want to do an initial run of 500 and then a much larger run with my next order.” How big? No-one knows. I mean, I knew. It wouldn’t have been much larger at all. You have to always leave them wanting more. Katie responded with a laugh. I was used to working in an environment where lawyers made secretaries cry on a regular basis. Now, here I was, getting laughed at by a girl working part time at the front counter of a sticker company. My how far the mighty have fallen. The reason for Katie’s reaction became much clearer to me a few years later. I had inadvertently picked one of the largest sticker companies in the country. The company later became one of my suppliers and I had a chance to tour their factory. They run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Their average sticker run is over one million stickers. They print stickers for almost every beer and wine company in New Zealand, along with most other consumer product companies that requires stickers. In this moment, Katie composed herself and continued: “The smallest run we do is 20,000 stickers, so you might be better off finding a smaller company to work with.” That was that. She thanked me for my call and hung up before I could ask for a recommendation.

I was taken aback. How could a company turn away work? I had never been turned away from a business in my life. Most consumer-facing businesses are desperate for sales and will do anything to attract customers. Trade relationships are different. The relationships can’t be one-sided – they have to be mutually beneficial. What did they get out of working with me? A few hundred dollars and a promise of more work in the future? As resentful as I was at the time, I never once stood in their shoes. Every potential client makes the same promises that never turn out to be true. From their point of view, it is better to focus on converting clients who have established distribution in place and fast-moving products that require a lot of stickers. Beer and wine companies get great stickers and the sticker company gets a lot of money and ongoing work. Why spend that time worrying about a client who may order once a year if you’re lucky?

I was turned down by five other companies before I found a supplier willing to work with me. I had now been back in New Zealand for 72 hours. The clock was ticking. I drove out to their factory and introduced myself. It was a small printing factory run by a father and son team with a graphic artist seated at reception who also answered the phones. I had been beaten into submission. I no longer cared about the quality of the stickers. The fact that someone was open to working with me was all I needed. I agreed to the quote on the spot. I later learned it was astronomically high on a per-sticker basis, but that didn’t matter to me. I knew it was expensive and I knew the stickers weren’t going to be great, but I told myself that a bad something is better than a good nothing.

When the stickers were printed a week later, I excitedly rushed out to pick them up. The factory was a 30-minute drive from my house. When I arrived, I quickly shuffled out of my car and made my way through the front entrance. I immediately saw the box marked “OMG Tea” sitting on top of the reception counter. The receptionist/graphic artist was on the phone. I waved. She smiled and pointed to the box of stickers. I picked up the box and mouthed “thank you”. Back in my car, I ripped open the box with all my strength. The cardboard flew into the air like discarded wrapping paper on Christmas morning. The stickers were pixelated and printed on cheap sticker paper, but I was thrilled. Just as any parent loves a child unconditionally, I too loved my stickers. I had created something. I had brought something into this world.

It’s funny in hindsight how quickly I had to adjust my mind-set. In a matter of days, I went from a perfectionist who wanted to world to someone who would have accepted the worst supplier as a bed-mate. In a business sense, my self-esteem was alarmingly low. The idea that “execution is everything” comes up constantly in business books. These books fail to mention or even acknowledge the role that outside factors play in affecting the quality of execution. Even if I had the money and was placing a larger order, there is no guarantee that the better sticker companies would have had the willingness or capacity to work with me. Often trade relationships come down to something as simple as gender. It became clear to me over the years that gender bias is alive and well in the world of small business. Most people I worked with had a clear gender preference. Some men preferred working only with other men and some men preferred working only with women. It went both ways. Some women only wanted to work with men and some women only wanted to work with other women. I know of at least one very important supplier relationship I had that only existed because I happened to be the right gender and skin colour.

Customers don’t care that a business went through hardship or prejudice in releasing or marketing a product. All they care about is that the finished product is easy to get and has some utility to them. Usually, this means that the product (or service) tastes good, looks good, makes them money, saves them money, or helps them lose weight. I always blamed customers for not purchasing my products. When I had good days, it was because of something I did. When I had bad days, it was because customers were greedy and ungrateful. It took me a long time to stop feeling sorry for myself. Customers don’t care about how much money you have risked. Customers don’t care that you have a warehouse full of stock that isn’t moving. Customers don’t care that you are lonely and depressed and drinking heavily. They care about the finished product. They care about whether a burger tastes good or a car runs well or a tea helps them lose weight.

It makes perfect sense. I don’t want to know that three divorces went into making my box of cereal. I just want to be able to walk into my supermarket, pick up a box from the shelf, and take it home. That’s it. My customer experience starts there and ends with me consuming a bowl of cereal. I don’t want to know that 14 people have died collecting coconuts that are used in my cereal. It would make me feel bad. Worse still, it would make me think. Do I really want to be consuming this cereal if people are putting their lives at risk and dying to get it to me? Probably not. I mean the cereal’s good, but it’s not that good. Give me the sanitised version of reality. It’s easier to digest.

I want the Jackson Pollock painting, but I don’t want to think about the fact that Jackson Pollock was chronically depressed alcoholic who died in a car accident while driving under the influence. I want Sylvia Plath poetry, but I don’t want to think about the fact that she killed herself by placing her head inside of an oven and turning on the gas, as her young children slept in another room a few feet away. I want to listen to Kurt Cobain’s music without having to think about the fact that he blew his brains out with a shotgun. It’s easy to say that these people had too much talent for this world. As much as we like to romanticise the dead, we don’t like to think about the suffering that went into creating the art.

When I arrived home with my stickers, there was a package waiting for me. I had ordered 500 A5 sized stock white pouches from an online supplier. It was the final piece of the puzzle. I now had everything I needed to start a business. Excluding my flights to Melbourne, which weren’t technically business-related, I was under budget. All up, I had spent a total of $1427.12. I had enough herbs to make and sell 500 bags of tea. If I sold all 500 at the full price of $35, that would leave me with sales of $17,500. That meant that I stood to make just over $16,000 before taxes and other expenses were taken out. Not a bad return.

That night, I sat at my kitchen table placing stickers on all 500 pouches. While I could have been doing something more intellectually stimulating, it was the most rewarding work I had ever been involved in. I’m not a very emotive person, but it filled me with joy. Within six weeks of leaving my job, I had a business. I stayed up until 3am getting everything ready for what would no doubt be a busy day blending tea and packing orders. I woke up at 7am and logged into the admin area of Shopify. It was time to make the website live. I hovered the curser over the button and clicked. Seconds later, the store was live.