Do you want to start a tea business? Maybe you blend your teas and would like to sell them online but don't know where to begin. Here's how to start an online store.
You may love drinking tea and even started experimenting with making tea blends. At first, the blends are just for your pleasure.
Then you decide to get your tea blending certificate and start making custom tea blends for others. The next thing you know, you're looking into marketing your custom blends and opening an online tea shop.
Starting an online business is a tremendous entrepreneurial dream. It sounds easy, but to be successful, you need a solid plan.
Where do you start?
Start a Tea Business
What are you going to sell online?
The type of tea business you start depends on your skills and expertise and the market's desires or voids.
Perhaps you have a favorite tea from your home country, but it's not easy to find where you're currently living. You might not be the only one missing that tea. You might even be successful in introducing your tea to others who are not familiar with it.
Consumers always like to try something new. It happens all the time. The story of Oregon Chai is a perfect example.
Twenty years ago, masala chai was not very popular in the United States. When American college student Heather McMillen went on a trip to India, she discovered and fell in love with the ancient spicey milk tea called masala chai.
Upon her return to the United States, she introduced the delicious tea to her family and friends. Heather desperately wanted to start a tea business and bring her beloved chai to all of America, and the journey of Oregon Chai began.
The co-founder of Oregon Chai, Tede McMillen, wrote a book about their journey entitled "Nirvana in a Cup." The book was later re-titled "Million Dollar Cup of Tea."
It's a fascinating story that takes you on the journey of a mother-daughter business team. It describes how Oregon Chai created and grew a beverage brand from a kitchen recipe to a $75 million-dollar company in ten years.
It's a great read if you're interested in tea entrepreneurship.
Follow these six basic steps to start a tea business.
Before you start a tea business, figure out if you can be profitable; that's your most important step. Your profit plan always comes first. It's critically necessary to create a positive cash flow business.
Research all of your costs, including salaries. This is where a comprehensive business plan becomes important. It forces you to outline all of your costs, find your competition and set up your business legal structure. The most common business types are sole proprietorship, partnership, limited liability company (LLC), and corporation.
Three books I recommend to start a tea business:
- Small Business for Dummies - perfect for learning about basic business structure, business plans, and financing.
- Profit First - teaches you to look at your business from a profit-first vs. profit last accounting perspective. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is!
- From Kitchen to Market - a guide for selling specialty food and beverages includes marketing, distribution, and profits.
An excellent way to turn your idea into something marketable and profitable is to separate yourself from your competition. What is the market missing? What need can you fill?
If you can't think of anything to do differently, you already lost the battle. It could be something as simple as a marketing or packaging gimmick, but you need to find it.
Make sure your market wants what you are offering them. Do some research to set a reasonable and profitable price point and make sure you're going to have a gross profit margin to cover your expenses.
Don't try to beat your competitors' prices. You can't. But you can sell a better product or a different product and provide better service. Stick with a premium product and a premium price point. Make your product stand out because it's better, not because it's cheaper.
Online tea websites like Adagio Tea, and The Tea Spot, are top-rated. They are your competition, as is every other online tea website. Get to know these sites and others like them before you start a tea business.
Know your competition and offer something better or different. Take a look at the very comprehensive list of online tea companies by RateTea. There are at least 700 online tea businesses listed.
Who Is Your Customer?
Too many people start a tea business by trying to be all things to all people. Find your ideal customer and craft a unique mission. Then perfect it. Does your tea customer buy $25,000 Honda's or $80,000 Jaguars? Do they like Katy Perry or Bach?
If you try to please both customers, you'll fail to make either happy. Your customer needs to feel special. They need to identify with your product.
Tea and functional herb-based offerings are widely popular in this space of wellness, often touted as nature's elixirs of youth.Maria Uspenski, founder The Tea Spot
Identify exactly what you are offering before you start your tea business for the best results.
Tips to finding your ideal tea enthusiast customer:
- To be successful in the tea business, pick a customer and a tea niche and rock their world. Be the go-to brand for that specific tea. It might be Puerh or Japanese Green tea or unique tea blends. Be the brand your customers share with their friends.
- Differentiation can make all the difference to your long-term success.
- Always provide the best product, beautiful packaging, and excellent customer service. Curious customers buy, loyal customers return. Give your customers a reason to return.
- In the specialty tea business, the grocery store tea buyer is not your customer. You can not and should not compete with grocery store tea. The customer who is passionate about specialty tea is a rare but growing breed.
- Be authentic. Many brands can attract a loyal audience by being very narrow and focused rather than appealing to everyone.
- Most importantly, the only way to become the queen of your niche is to serve a particular type of tea customer better.
- Create or procure a product that gives the customer a remarkable experience, different from anything else they can find. Develop a story around your brand that resonates with your ideal customer.
- Find your people, your tribe, and make a lasting impression. To be the best, you need to help your customers. Remember you help them; then they'll help you by purchasing your products and telling their friends.
- Offer amazing products and customer service.
How to Start a Website
The first thing you'll need when you start a tea business online is a domain name and a website host. Bluehost is one of the top website hosting companies.
Bluehost is a great web host to start. I used them when I first started and had a great experience with them.
Bluehost is the perfect choice for a hosting company for an e-commerce site. They also offer an inexpensive and easy way to get you up and running with your blog on WordPress. Bluehost has free domain name registration, is amazingly affordable, and is the perfect place to start.
The whole thing can be confusing at first, but they have excellent support and tutorials. BlueHost offers a free domain name for the first year, including an SSL certificate (a secure server). Their prices start at $5.95/month.
You will want to signup for the 12-month hosting plan through Bluehost. You'll get a better price and free domain name registration. If you want an even better deal, the best value would be purchasing a 36-month plan for $3.95/month.
As you grow and get more visitors to your online store, you'll want a full-service website host. I highly recommend BigScoots as you expand.
BigScoots also offers starter plans. You can opt for shared hosting, perfect for personal sites, early-stage startups, and small communities, for $5.95/month. You can upgrade to a fast fully managed WordPress Hosting plan for $34.95/month.
Please take a look at both BigScoots and BlueHost, compare their offerings, and decide from there. For improved site speed and great technical support, I recommend BigScoots. I recently switched this website over and am very happy with their service.
Both BlueHost and BigScoots offer secure website hosting and domain name email as part of their service.
Every business needs a website and a logo. Your logo is your brand's face and the first thing customers see when they come to your website. You want a logo that's eye-catching, engaging, and quickly tells the customer what your brand is all about.
Most new businesses are on a tight budget and don't have a lot of money to pay a graphic designer for logo design. Probably the cheapest place to go for a logo is Fiverr. There are many logo providers there that will create a logo for $5-$250. The fee varies based on the designer experience and how fast you need it. Look around, read the feedback, and see if the designer creates logos with the appearance you want to convey.
Fiverr connects you with freelance graphic designers to design your logo. Also, Fiverr has services beyond graphic design. They offer everything from web design to copywriting and more. You can find just about any freelance service for your business on Fiverr.
As soon as I had the income for a professionally designed logo, I hired a Fiverr graphic designer. He provided all the digital files and formats I needed. The transaction was very smooth, inexpensive and I'm so pleased with my logo.
How to Start an Online Business
Which website builder should you use to start a tea business?
Building an e-commerce website is much easier today than it was ten years ago. Some platforms have all-in-one packaging offering everything from website themes to processing payments for you and depositing them directly into your bank account.
The two big platforms that I've used and found the easiest are Shopify and WordPress. Before these, I've used other platforms that I would not recommend. Be sure to select WordPress.org and NOT WordPress.com if you plan to monetize your site. WordPress.org is free and gives you full control of your website.
Shopify is impressive and is the service I use for my e-commerce site. It's much more user-friendly than any other platform I've used.
Shopify makes it easy to open an online store by providing all the tools and help you need. If you are looking to start an e-commerce site, Shopify is the way to go. I currently use Shopify for my e-commerce site. You can even try Shopify for free.
Why Choose Shopify?
- Shopify has all the basics for starting a new business and starts at $29 per month. The turnkey platform includes an e-commerce website and blog.
- Shopify allows you to sell on online marketplaces and social media. They offer competitive shipping rates from USPS, UPS, or DHL Express.
- Shopify also offers credit card processing using all payment providers.
- Payment processing is the biggest reason I switched to Shopify. I didn't have to worry about card fraud and payment gateways.
- When you start an online store, you want to make it easy for people to order. You also want to track everything and see if you are retaining customers. Shopify does this.
The only drawback to Shopify is it's not great for blogging, although they do have a blogging platform. I prefer WordPress for running a blog. A lot of new e-commerce sites will use Shopify for e-commerce and link to their WordPress blog for content creation. This is the way to go before going all out with a full custom design costing thousands of dollars.
How To Start a Blog on WordPress
Bjork Ostrom runs FoodBloggerPro, and his wife Lindsay runs the popular food blog PinchOfYum. If you have no idea how to set up a blog or a WordPress site, you might want to check this out. Tea is in the food category, and you should follow FoodBlogger Pro.
The step-by-step videos walk you through every step of the way.
They make it VERY easy for a beginner. Their community forum is a great place to get questions answered by other food bloggers. It's how I started this blog.
You may want to add a blog at some point when you start a tea business. It's a great way to connect with your customers and advertise your brand. Many online tea businesses have a blog.
I spent a lot of time researching blogging platforms, but I found myself overwhelmed. Information overload is real! I had so many questions, but I didn't know who to ask. After doing some research, I discovered Food Blogger Pro.
I finally found a site that covered all the fundamental principles I needed to grow my blog. It's literally like a "paint by numbers" for blogs; it's that easy.
Food Blogger Pro has hundreds of video tutorials. You can pick and choose which topic you need to learn without going into every single one. Especially if you already have a blog started. The videos make it easy to learn technical skills.
I built my blog as I watched each video. It's almost like having someone sitting next to you and showing you what to do next. I would watch the tutorial, pause it, apply the step instructed, and continue like that until I had my blog complete.
What tea are you going to sell?
Product development is a category unto itself. I spent a year researching and developing my tea products before I made one sale. It's the most critical process. But you don't have to do it alone or spend large amounts of money on product development.
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Research the business licenses or certificates you'll need. Make sure your tea meets any requirements set forth by any governing parties.
Tea is a food product. You'll have some FDA packaging and labeling criteria to follow and Board of Health guidelines to follow if you are manufacturing or warehousing the product yourself.
Cornell University has a Food Entrepreneurship program. They will send you all the guidelines you need.
I also took courses on Food Entrepreneurship at the Rutgers Food Innovation Center in Bridgeton. They are very knowledgeable, and I recommend them to anyone who wants to start a tea business.
You don't have to use the universities I mentioned. But I do recommend reaching out to your state university system about starting a small food business. They often have food development programs and incubators to help the food entrepreneur.
Manufacturing and Packaging Tea for Resale
Manufacturing and packaging loose leaf tea for resale is a separate and complex process itself, depending on where you live and what you are selling. You have many options.
- You can blend and flavor your tea yourself in a commercial kitchen or have a co-packer manufacture and custom blend and package for you. There are tea manufacturers with private label programs that will do everything for you.
- Universities can help you and sometimes have manufacturing facilities as part of their program. When processing a food product, it's crucial to follow the strict Board of Health and FDA guidelines.
- Rutgers University has two facilities in New Jersey, and Cornell has several in New York. As an alternative, once you decide which teas you would like to sell, the tea vendor you purchase your teas from may provide consumer packaging before shipping to you.
- Once you have your product packaged, you can rent a commercial warehouse space that is certified to store food products. Sometimes your co-packer will offer warehouse storage for you, but then you need to consider the logistics of shipping if you are shipping to individual customers yourself.
- If you're buying tea in bulk from a reputable tea importer, you will have to package it according to FDA and Board of Health guidelines.
- In New Jersey, you cannot do this in your home kitchen. It would be best if you used a commercially approved kitchen. Each state has different guidelines. Research and follow your sates guidelines.
How to Market Your Product
There are two significant ways to get the word out without spending a lot of money on advertising. When you first start a tea business, you probably won't have an advertising budget. As you grow, you will want to incorporate paid advertising.
Grow Your Business Online
Social media is a powerful marketing tool and the least expensive way to advertise online. Adding a blog to your website and writing articles about your tea is another way if you don't have a blog offer to write a free essay for a blog or website about your business.
It may sound old school, but press releases still work. You can write and send your own. Send out press releases to your local magazines and newspapers. Look into HARO Help a Reporter Out. Journalists and reporters are always looking for a good story, and you can pitch them for a story or a mention.
Grow Your Business Offline
It sounds counterintuitive, but advertising your online e-commerce site offline is a great way to get the word out. Yes, you are on the internet selling nationwide, but you can still garner plenty of online customers offline right in your local area.
- Your main avenue might be your online store, but you should be doing promos and demos locally at farmers' markets or gifting to friends and family to spread the word.
- Tell everyone you talk to about your product. Give out samples with your business name and website on the packaging.
- You're talking about entering a very saturated market both virtually and physically, so you need to be thinking outside the box.
- If you make branded blends go to local restaurants and sell them on the idea of having their branded tea blend.
- Or maybe find a restaurant that will carry your entire catalog of blends and put together a list of pairings with the foods they offer, which they can include as an insert to their menu or as a tabletop display.
Tea is trending, and many restaurants are beginning to curate better teas. It's a lovely alternative to the bland stale supermarket-style tea bags that you usually get in cafes.
The costs involved in starting a tea business online can vary a lot. You can start a small website offering 25 teas and accessories for just a few thousand dollars. This might be the best place to start.
A full-fledged custom e-commerce tea website offering 300 teas and accessories can cost more than $100,000 to build.
Tea Business Success
Starting a tea business online is a lot of work but also provides a lot of rewards. The Book Bootstrapping an Online Tea Business by Tony Gebly may be a beneficial introduction.
If you can, I highly recommend attending the World Tea Expo. It's a tea trade expo with many learning opportunities open to both the trade and the public.
There are many tea vendors from around the world, providing you the chance to taste their teas and learn about their origins. This will help you decide where to source your tea at the wholesale level.
The World Tea Expo provides many workshops and events for tea business owners in addition to the trade show.
I wish you the best on your entrepreneurial tea journey.
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