I went to make myself a coffee and came back to my laptop. I opened Google Analytics. “Not long now and I should have my first visitor,” I thought to myself. As the thought was forming in my head, it happened. My first visitor. I almost leapt off my chair in excitement. I had been online for less than five minutes and someone was already on my website. Is this how the internet works? If so, it’s amazing. Ok, they were on the homepage for a few seconds and then went into a product page. I sat there, transfixed, staring at the screen, waiting for movement. They have been on the product page a few minutes now. I guess there is a lot of information on the page. They are probably taking their time reading through everything. I know I would. A few more minutes passed. No movement. I wondered if there was something wrong with the site. I went to the open tab in my browser. Fortunately, it was open on the same product page. I looked through the text and everything seemed fine. I went back to the home page and clicked back into Analytics. That’s odd. The person moved back to the home page too. Why isn’t my visit to the website registering on Analytics? I was momentarily confused. Then I figured it out. I was my first visitor. As embarrassed as I was at the time, I am not ashamed to admit that I did this several more times over the coming months before I learnt my lesson.
After a few more hours staring aimlessly at the screen, I realised that I had to do something to get people to the site. It wasn’t just going to happen. Customers have no way of finding the website, unless they typed www.omgtea.co.nz directly into their browser. All of the weight loss tea companies seemed to have a big presence on Instagram, so I decided to set up an account. Unfortunately, @omgtea was taken at the time, so I went with @omgteatox. Teatox is a portmanteau of the words tea and detox and it was how everyone was marketing their products. It wasn’t 60g of detox tea; it was a 14 day Teatox. That’s why it wasn’t sold for $10; it was sold for $35.
My first Instagram post was a jpeg of the original OMGTEA logo in white text on a baby pink background. “New Zealand’s first teatox is now available from www.omgtea.co.nz #teatox #detox #weightloss #fitness #tea”. Before Facebook started playing around with Instagram’s algorithm, it was a great tool for businesses to directly access customers. Despite the fact that my post was awful, I received five likes over the next 30 minutes. My confidence and mood started to improve. A little endorphin spike with each new like. As soon as one came in, I wanted another one; I needed another one. After spending a month getting knocked down, I finally felt in control again. Exactly 42 minutes after my post on Instagram, I got my first order: 1 x Skinny Teatox 14 Day for $35.
A lot of people get lucky in business. At that moment, when my first order came through, I felt like I was one of the lucky ones. A complete stranger had given me their hard-earned money for a product that I had willed into existence. They probably had no plans of spending any money that day, but my post had prompted them to act. After my first order, my mind started to wander. What if I don’t have enough stock to keep up with demand? Should I start thinking about getting a warehouse and hiring staff? Should I expand into China or America first?
Delusions of grandeur are common for first-time business owners. I thought I was on track to take over the world after making $35. I had been conditioned to think that way. I had no exposure to real business owners. My only touch point with anyone in business was through the books I had read or the shows I had seen on CNBC. I had read about the experiences of CEOs and the founders of some of the world’s largest companies. That was the goal, right? To start a business, grow it for a few years, go to IPO, and become fabulously wealthy. Like most people, I had spent my whole life following the herd. The herd was telling me that I needed to be rich like Rockefeller, not moderately wealthy and living a comfortable existence like my neighbour who owned a successful scaffolding company. In my mind, it was a choice. You can either choose to be comfortable or you can choose to be rich. I never stopped to think about what I actually wanted or whether it was possible, given my station in life. I just knew that, given those two options, only a fool would choose not to be rich.
Business books like to say that customers will vote with their wallets. Put simply, if a product makes money, it’s a good product and if it doesn’t, it’s a bad product. Did that mean that I had a good product? Obviously, it wasn’t good from an ethical or moral standpoint – weight loss products never are. It also wasn’t lost on me that the world didn’t need another tea company. Products satisfy basic needs or wants, but the products themselves don’t typically create their own demand. In most cases, the demand exists and products are created to match that demand. With respect to weight loss products, there has and will always be a market. Our collective need to have the right body size and shape to match societal expectations makes sure of it. I had simply placed myself in a position where I was able to take a small slice of an ever-expanding pie. I’m sure drug dealers and pornographers make the same arguments to themselves when trying to quell the little voice in the back of their heads: “If they don’t spend their money with me, they will spend it somewhere else, so it may as well be me.” I wasn’t going to get recognition for taking the moral high ground and shutting down my business because of the unsavoury nature of the industry. I also wasn’t going to get rewarded for changing the way the product was marketed. It was a weight loss tea. That’s why the price point was high. That’s why customers didn’t compare the price to the price of tea in supermarkets. That’s why the customers kept coming back.
As soon as my first order came in, I cleared everything from my kitchen table apart from a single Ziplock container, a mixing spoon, and the five containers full of herbs. With my blend notes at my side, I carefully scooped up the herbs with the mixing spoon and gently poured each spoonful into the Ziplock container in the centre of the table. Once all the herbs were in the container, I mixed everything up and spooned the tea directly into a pouch. I took a photo of the shipping address with my phone, grabbed my keys from the hallway table, and made my way to the post office. Once inside the post office, I picked up a $4 mailer from the wall display and took it to the table that was free in the back corner. In my best hand-writing, I wrote out the address on the front of the mailer. My heart was racing. I stood up from my seat and I took the mailer to the front counter to pay for the bag. I could hardly contain my excitement. In less than 24 hours, my first customer would take their first sip of omgtea.
I sat patiently at my kitchen table over the next few days, constantly refreshing my email, waiting for the “thank you” email from my first customer. My expectation was that she would try the tea and then email me within minutes to thank me for all my hard work and tell me how effective it was. I half expected to gain some sort of telepathic connection with the customer by virtue of her consuming my tea. That would allow me to experience what she was experiencing as she took her first sip. That never happened. I never heard from her again. I don’t know whether she liked the tea or hated it. Maybe she liked the tea, but forgot to place another order or she hated the tea and made a conscious decision to never order again. I wasn’t prepared for how detached the customer experience was. How could I improve the product and the experience if I didn’t get immediate customer feedback? I was completely in the dark.
After successfully getting an order on my first day of business, it took another five days for my second order to come through. My posts on Facebook and Instagram weren’t working, and I had no idea why. From what I could tell, other tea companies were posting pictures of puppies and exotic holiday destinations and somehow getting sales as a result. I couldn’t understand it and I couldn’t get a single person to my website. After the excitement of taking something from an idea and turning it into a partially functioning business, my role had changed. It was no longer about procurement and building supplier relationships, it was about marketing and selling a product. How do you move a product? How do you get your product in front of a customer and then have that customer purchase it? I didn’t know the first thing about marketing. I hadn’t ever thought about it. I just assumed that you put a website up and customers somehow found it.
In the days and weeks that followed the launch of the website, I got a taste for what it was like to actually run a business. I didn’t have outside funding, so I was accountable for every single decision I made. Every decision had to result in sales. I couldn’t adopt Coca-Cola’s strategy of blanket advertising or try to create an emotional connection with customers. I had to adopt a transactional strategy. I needed sales and I had to find a way of getting customers to the website and converting them. There was no honeymoon phase for me. It’s easy to look back, with the benefit of hindsight, and know that at that moment I should have put all of my time and money into marketing, but that wasn’t clear to me at the time. The process wasn’t linear or intuitive. I thought that good execution would have been enough to take me from A to B, so I put all of my energy into making incremental improvements to the product. I focused on all the wrong things. I wanted to convert every customer who came to the website rather than getting more people to the website to improve the overall chances of conversion. I didn’t know that most ecommerce stores convert less than 5% of the customers that visit a website. I was completely off track and there were no sign-posts to guide me.
The day-to-day work was emotionally draining. Every day, I would sit at my desk for hours, trying to come up with captions for Instagram and Facebook posts that I knew would receive no engagement. The downtime was excruciating. The voices in my head both motivated and tormented me. I would post and then have to wait for hours to see if anyone would purchase. That was the formula, as far as I could tell. My competitors didn’t seem to have any problems gaining new followers and getting engagement. I assumed that that in turn translated into sales. The work was inane and demoralising, but I was determined to find my place on social media. If social media posts were the only thing standing in the way of making hundreds of thousands of dollars a month, I was prepared to put in the work. There was a clear link between how much money I made on a daily basis, and my feelings of self-worth. On days where I received no orders and no engagement, I completely shut myself off from the outside world. My anxiety and self-doubt would swell, only to ease slightly when an order came in. The highs were intoxicating and the lows, devastating.
I had no idea whether what I was experiencing was normal. After four months of business, I started to burn out. There was absolutely no correlation between effort and reward. Some days I worked 20 hours and made $50 and other days I worked 30 minutes and made $500. I thought about the business around the clock. As a lawyer, I was always emotionally detached from the work. I was a role player and nothing more. I would play some part in securing the financing for a $200m hotel construction, but I didn’t care if the project ever got off the ground. My job was to charge out my time, make money, and move on to the next client. It involved long hours and was physically draining, but I found it relatively easy to stop thinking about the work as soon as I walked out the door. Now, my physical exhaustion was replaced with mental fatigue. I spend hundreds of hours trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. It felt like I had one more piece of a puzzle to put into place, but I couldn’t make it fit, no matter how much time I spent thinking about it.
I came to the conclusion that my sales were slow because of the product and not because of the marketing. I had had over 50 orders, each from a different person. I hadn’t received a single repeat order. Maybe I was overthinking it, but I was impatient and I expected immediate success. I felt intellectually equipped to run a Fortune 500 company, but completely out of my element when it came to running a simple social media-based business. Until I figured out a marketing strategy that worked, I had to sit on my hands and wait for sales to trickle in.