The First Drop: Where the Gut Checks Happen

 

I’ve spent the last few months working as a volunteer mentor with Boston Chai Party – a brand started by a pair of tea entrepreneurs living in the Boston area. Part of my work has been focused on helping them get better distribution, branding, sourcing and strategy. You know, the basic self-importance of the low-impact advisor.

While I won’t be with them long enough on this project to truly gauge the final outcome, one thing that the experience has confirmed for me is the huge importance of connections. Over a brief period in March, for example, I was able to arrange for my advisees to get consultations with a branding expert (thanks, Fred Hart); to hear pricing advice from a CPG veteran (thanks, Neel Premkumar); to explore sources for organic tea leaves (thanks, Seth Goldman) and to reach out to several grocery store buyers I’ve encountered in the course of my travels. I’ve been able to reach out to operations pros about co-packing questions (thanks, Paul Pruett!) and to dairy processing experts about the options for extending the shelf life of an almond milk or dairy milk blend (thanks, Darold Sauber!)

It’s been refreshing to find so many people willing to share wisdom and advice with a pair of rookies (as well as a longtime industry observer who knows that there are so many mistakes to be made). But it’s also bone-chilling, because no matter how much good advice a brand can get, ultimately, the decisions and positioning require a leap of faith on the part of the entrepreneurs to put that advice into the format that they think will perform the best in the market.

That uncertainty is one that many entrepreneurs must feel, particularly starting out: is the product ready for prime time? How do they face the potential for rejection that will accompany even the best-planned product strategy? How do they face the inevitable negative feelings that come when the crowds don’t flock to their drinks?

The guys, the indefatigable Rushil Desai and Vishal Thaipur, have reported disappointments back to me: in one instance an engagement at a health food store failed to inspire the same number of sales as it has in the past. I tell them the weather had to have an effect: we did have a Nor’easter around here that same day. In another, they waited out the long decision process of several grocery retailers, and were forced to swallow the decision that they weren’t quite ready for those chains.

Those rejections add even more gravity to the mounting key decisions that remain to be made: For the direction of the product, do they add a nut milk based SKU for a non-dairy option? Do they push forward with a zero-sugar spiced tea? Do they cut sugar more, or add more, to enhance the taste profile and give consumers the training wheels they sometimes need for an unfamiliar product?

A buyer I met told me he was concerned that chai was “over.” I disagree, I don’t think it belongs to a category that booms and splats. I think you want the best possible expression of a product that’s drunk the world over. But at the same time, things are shifting – that best possible expression might have to be delivered via the internet, and the guys aren’t yet at a scale that could provide easy fulfillment of that kind of enterprise. But it’s early days, the tea is sweet and spicy, and their determination is strong.

I think, seeing these two feel their way along, I’m once again getting to understand how brands find themselves, even after several years on the market, as still-incomplete propositions. There are always so many questions to be asked and answered, so many problems to solve. Some fires, you know you have to put out right away – but I’m starting to see that it’s more about the entrepreneur’s ability to learn which ones you can let burn more slowly, while you try your hardest to contain them, that will eventually determine how far these groups can go.

It’s an amazing thing, this willingness to embrace risk and do something new. The near constant questioning that follows reveals for me the sureness one must have in the proposition. Because even if you can answer them all, there’s still so much lying in the path forward to trip you up.