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Reflecting on the 2013 World Tea Expo

Last week we attended the World Tea Exposition in Las Vegas. By “attend” I mean we were dunked into a whole new world (I’m resisting cheap jokes about steeping, but it isn’t easy) of tea, and fortunately, we don’t intend to surface anytime soon.
The week began with some really good news: during the first session of the first day of the New Business Bootcamp, I received a call to say we were awarded the Wild Gift grant. This assures us one year of mentorship and startup financing, both of which will transition our planning into doing. I wanted to do call Keith, Megan, and Kory to celebrate, but instead bottled the excitement and went back into the presentation. The news definitely set a good theme for the week, though, and the happiness carried through the next few days.
Day one was filled with educational presentations on what it takes to start a tea business, and there were around 100 other new companies in attendance. One of the biggest realizations was that tea companies usually begin with 60-90 different teas in their collection. Other lessons were that flavored teas (i.e. blends) generally sells better than true teas, and the highest priced teas generally earn stores the smallest margins.
Day two was also heavily education-oriented, but dedicated to tasting teas from the countries that make them best. Tea, like wine, is a regionally-specific crop; the elevation, soil type, rain fall patterns, and other growing conditions make each tea unique to where it is grown. So we ventured our way through Japanese greens, Taiwanese oolongs, Chinese whites and puerhs, and blacks from Sri Lanka, Kenya, Nepal, and of course, India.
The highlight came while drinking Taiwanese oolongs, presented by a charming husband-wife couple. They began by leading us in a chant of “We want tea! We want tea! We want Taiwan oolong tea!” Pounding the table with my fists, I made eye contact with an elderly woman across the table, and the absurdity of the whole situation was too much for either of us; we cracked up and chanted all the louder.  If this is initiation, I am into it.
Then at the graduation reception for the Bootcamp, Keith met up and we shared our first toast as business partners. He had spent the last few hours in the hotel’s business center printing our business cards, battling various font and printer issues. It was worth it, though, because it further solidified the reality of our plans.
The next day, armed with our business cards, we met up with Megan and ventured onto the trading floor. The first pass through was overwhelming: Importers! Merchandise! Packaging! And Oh, the glorious glorious samples! It was also our first shot at presenting ourselves as a company, which was really satisfying. Some people took us seriously, others didn’t, and the process of having to try sticking ourselves out there was good for us to go through together.
My favorite memory came when the three of us were looking at merchandise we could sell alongside our tea. We have been discussing the qualities that make a good cup for a few weeks, and walking around the booths, we came across the one cup to rule them all. Watching Keith and Megan get excited out over the beautiful double walled glass cup with its perfect roundness, I had a moment of deep excitement and happiness.
That night, my friend Nate joined us and after meeting Elvis in the hotel lobby, we went to the Strip. It was fun to see the fountain show in front of the Belagio, but we didn’t stick around for long. Back at the hotel, after losing about $2 to a penny slot named Kitty Glitter, we called it a night.
The next day Keith headed back to Indiana and Megan, Nate, and I went back onto the trading floor. Then, an interesting thing happened. The fatigue of the last few days started to set in, and I began to feel panicked by my inability to fully grasp what was happening and how we fit in. What should we be focusing on, when there was so much to learn? Who should we meet and what exactly should we say? Had we made the right first impressions with the industry titans?
We stepped out of the hall, and took a few breaths. I reminded myself to be patient, to be calm, and that led to an important transition in our approach: this was about information gathering, not decision-making. We couldn’t make the right decisions until we had learned enough to think through things, and while the veterans were placing their orders for the year, we shouldn’t hold ourselves to doing the same.
Taking that break was the right decision, and that evening sitting by the pool with the soft croons of Justin Beiber in the background, we recharged and realized that we had already come quite a long way.
The next and final day, I felt ready to again dive back in. We learned about packaging, followed up with a few of the distributors we were interested in, and said good bye to the people we had met. Following lunch in a bizarre Ethiopian restaurant, Nate headed out and Megan and I recapped the weekend while watching basketball and eating pizza.
We discussed how our original idea of exclusively direct sourcing was going to be difficult in the beginning, given that we would need to offer a variety of teas and don’t have many direct connections. Therefore, we built a strategy of sourcing as much as we can directly, and filling in the remaining gaps in our collection with teas from distributors of different sizes. In addition to rounding out what we can offer, this will give us experience dealing with various players in the industry. Our long-term goal will be to slowly replace these distributors with direct sourcing, a process that will take years and wonderful years of drinking tea.
Now I’m on a plane back to India. In the next few weeks, I’ll be visiting the southern Niligiri region to tour estates and learn how the auction system works. We’ll also focus on choosing the teas to make up our collection, organizing a tasting circle to get feedback on our tea selections, and meeting more people, including a historian of the Indian chai industry. Now that we have the Wild Gift (!!) we can also pick a few mentors and work on version 2 of our business plan.
We have business cards and we aren’t afraid to use them. Each day, things feel more real, and happily, more right.

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