Early last year I quit my job, my cushy career to spend all of my life’s savings on a product and a category that didn’t exist – in an industry I honestly didn’t know much about other than as a consumer and the general understanding that all curious MBAs have about businesses in general.
As romantic as the idea maybe, it is anything but, in reality. So, from chauffeur driven car and air-conditioned cabin, I was back to commuting in autos and sitting in the ‘flexi’ area of 91 springboard because I was bootstrapping and didnt want to spend a penny more than absolutely necessary. Its been over 1.5 years without a ‘salary’ for the first time in a long time & if you are used to one fuelling your lifestyle, this one is not easy. Throw a couple of babies (I have two aged 3, 6) in the mix and it sure seems like all hell should break loose.
Entrepreneurship and childbirth are more alike than you would think at first. If you remembered how painful the birthing process is, you could never love your child let alone attempting another one. Thankfully we are genetically hardwired to not remember the pain of birthing and are able to not only love our child, we possibly go on to have another one. It’s the same for startups – it’s painful, unpredictable and absolutely amazing all at the same time.
The seed of this idea was planted in 2015 -16 when I was in Japan for a few months. The unsweetened, traditional Japanese tea & herbs-based beverages were everywhere – vending machines, train stations, 7/11s. They were so well loved that they were being bought by the liter, sometimes 5 liters! People drinking them through the day and swearing by it for its health & beauty benefits & it was calorie free.
Back home the only mainstream options available on retail shelves were the sugar loaded juices, colas & sports & energy drinks. (we did a study of packaged beverages on Indian shelves and the sugar ranges from 15-40%, details in another post perhaps). With India leading the world in Type II diabetes, including my own parents who have been managing diabetes for over 20 years, this was more than just a business proposition. We were not just creating a new product but creating a category. Beverages with intention – the nourishment of Ayurveda in a ready to drink unsweetened beverage. No funky sweeteners, colors & zero shortcuts.
We incorporated in Feb 2019 and were able to quickly build an R&D team who would develop the initial formulation. We are so grateful to the Ayurveda masters currently working with us – for their belief in what we are creating. For the next 4 months we were sourcing teas from different parts of India & Srilanka and brewing up a storm in the kitchen. Another 2 months and we had our 3 formulations locked in. Each had 15 super herbs extract for body & mind wellness. What next? The flavours.
We approached every leading flavour house global, Indian – you name it. Every single one of them said – Indians don’t like unsweetened drinks, you must add sugar and boatloads of it. Except one. They were as excited about this category as we were & they are the world’s biggest flavour house. It was an immediate confidence boost. An overload of sugar in the beverage masks every bad aspect of the beverage – any bitterness owing to chemicals, preservatives, lapses in process, any after taste. It also makes it easy to crank up flavours and acidity and make a strong-tasting beverage. In the absence of sugar, it takes a real scientist (we think an artist) to make the drink flavourful. For the next 3 months we did 78 iterations with liquid extracts, powdered extracts, brewed herbs - you name it to get the right palette & actives. Products were now ready.
Since our teas needed to be brewed, we couldn’t bottle the beverages at any juice filling plant. We were able to identify the right filling partner who would be willing to make alterations to his plant to allow brewing of teas, grains & herbs.
A leading design school had very graciously lent their students & faculty to design a beautiful, minimalist looking bottle for us. (we did at least 50 iterations, at one point we may have been at each other's throats. We both are proud of the bottle though!) Our licenses were in place, packaging design was ready, bottling partner was in place. We were good to go.
We made a pilot batch of 2000 bottles in Jan 2020 and shipped to everyone we wanted to work with or just show off to because the bottles looked so chic. I met the teams at all the leading retailers – Future Group, Nature’s Basket, Food Hall, Pharmacy chains. Post product trials we were overwhelmed with the response. They couldn’t believe that unsweetened beverages with such functionalities could be so richly flavourful. Black tea with 4% cane sugar was everyone’s favourite. They were in love with our packaging & label design too. Almost all of them wanted us on board and one of them wanted to launch us exclusively!
On cloud 9, we were going to crush 2020! I was interviewing for on ground sales teams and getting feelers from early stage investors. Our commercial batch was going into production on March 28th. What could possibly go wrong now?
Enter Coronavirus induced lockdown.
This was a bolt from the blue for us like it was for every small business. The raw materials already purchased were gathering dust and all retail stores shut down overnight. The next few months were incredibly tough because we were moving ahead full steam and suddenly we were left twiddling our thumbs. I have worked with VC funded startups for half my career paying salaries & rent for large offices when revenue was still only on the horizon, and that hurt. But paying bills and being fair to your people is doubly hard when you are small, self-funded and your future is uncertain. We were unable to honour the offers we rolled out and thats one of my lesser moments as an entrepreneur. But you do what needs to be done.
We have lived to tell the tale but so many I personally know, haven’t. Companies that guided me early on in this space have folded and few others are going in fire sale (you may read about them in a few weeks). This is a sobering reality but entrepreneurs are an irrationally optimistic breed & I am no different. They say it takes a village to raise a child. It takes no less to raise a business. I am incredibly thankful to our people who stood by us, believed in us, we wouldn't have gotten anywhere without them - The team, investors, mentors, friends, vendors, clients, springboard folks. If you reach your hand out with intention, you will be surprised how many strangers reach back to help your journey.
Today I am sharing with you, our labor of 1.5 years of research, of more iterations than we can count, of anxious days & sleepless nights, of absolutely amazing ride to create our maiden line of products under the brand TEAFIT. Please do support the page. We will keep you posted (hopefully more regularly) on our progress.
PS: This article was penned a month ago. It is hard for some people to share their story on public platforms and thats just the way it is. Even if this story lifts one person who is having a rough time in life, it was well worth the effort. Know that things will get better, they always do.