Sunday, September 11, 2011

We Shall Never Forget

I was not born in this great United States of America and although I have since become a naturalized citizen, I sadly oftentimes took for granted all the great privileges this country had provided.  I was able to attend and graduate from a great high school, college, graduate school and ultimately start a successful business.  Today has been a day of great personal reflection.  While I did not know anyone personally that lost their life on that tragic day on September 11th 2001, it opened my eyes to the realization that the things which we cherish the most can be easily attacked.  If it were not for the open arms of the United States of America, my family would not have been given the opportunity to pursue the dreams that we all had in our hearts and in our minds to achieve.  I pray for survivors that they may one day find peace in their hearts.  And for those that wish to destroy that which we cherish the most, may they fail in their endeavors.  God bless the United States of America and protect those in our military, police and firefighters who protect our freedoms!      

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Business of Tea: The Challenge and Struggle.

You usually don't hear about the business of the tea industry or the challenges that require creative solutions in order to stay relevant and top of mind. Tea is a $9 Billion industry and deserves some attention. As a result, today we'll take a snapshot of what it's like in the Tea Biz.

Here is a common misconception: once you have a product line and find a customer you start making money and ultimately over time you'll succeed if they keep buying. Sadly, that couldn't be further from the truth. Here is the make money you need money. This is a poor capital market where angel investors are acting like private equity companies and private equity companies are acting like venture capitalists. It's a true bane on many small companies that need constant cash infusions to remain competitive. There are even greater challenges with banks and their ability to lend. Small businesses are not seen as good opportunities for investment by traditional financial institutions anymore.

Small business owners make very difficult decisions based on a desire to want to see the business succeed. The typical capital infusion decision tree is either to give up a large percent of equity to support the vision or depend on an organic but slow growth in an industry where innovation is the differentiator. Village Tea has been fortunate that we're still new, unique and have a national foot print but there is always an opportunity for growth.

The challenge: Long lead times on product development combined with short retail delivery times. Depending on the product line and time of year, the lead times on production could be as far as 60 days. However, retailers ask for 30 day delivery and with long lead times you can imagine where you spend a majority on your money - inventory. A quarter or more of your cash is usually invested in inventory.

The struggle: Keeping the consumer engaged. As a new brand, no one knows who you are and people buy items in 3 ways:

1) what they are familiar with
2) what their friends tell them to buy
3) new and shiny things.

Unfortunately, the volume generated by #3 is about 1/16 of the total which means that "new" isn't sustainable long term. What is sustainable is a forced exposure that generates trial at the store level. However, demo's are expensive.

I write this to encourage the angle investors, who sit on the side lines looking to jump in but at a price where the business owner has to give up his life's work, to be kind. I write this to encourage, the private equity group that always "likes" the business but wants to see $1M in EBITDA before they jump in, to simply jump in. I also write this for my entrepreneur colleagues. Keep your chin up. It'll get better for all of us. Maybe you'll get a bunch of dedicated consumers like this young tea lover below and capital won't even be an issue anymore.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Monday, August 8, 2011

Even Gangsta Dogs Love Tea - Our Official Dog

If you had told me that dogs enjoyed drinking green tea a few days ago I would not have believed you.  I should have known better.  What's good for humans is usually good for some pets and now we know that tea works for dogs at least.  Roxy the dog knows good tea and so should you!

Here is the story. One of the partners of our fantastic PR team (Crier PR) in Los Angeles was walking her dog at the dog park and came across Roxy.  She spoke with the owner and complimented him on his dog's  beautiful  fur (mane? no idea).  The gentleman looked up and said "yeah, it's because of all the green tea that I give her".  In amazement, they continued to talk and ultimately identified that it was the antioxidants in the green tea that was resulting in the dog's youthful look.  We sent him some Village Tea because even dogs should enjoy a premium loose leaf tea as well and she really enjoyed it!

We saw this as a fantastic opportunity to have Roxy taste our green tea and see if it was up to par with the other tea that she had been drinking.  Roxy is now the official dog for Village Tea Company.  She and her owner both love the green tea and now use it regularly.  Now how she became a "gangsta dog" I have no idea.  I just do what I'm told.

I hope that both of their furs continue to shine.  Village Tea:  More Flavor.  Less Etiquette.

If you are interested in which green tea Roxy was drinking please email me.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Hotel Tea Doesn't have to Suck

It's very rare that I pump my own product on my blog just because it seems very self serving.....however, I think it may be appropriate when this time it's so AWESOME!  It's not a secret that I own a tea company and as such I have been tasting a bunch of teas, exploring new and interesting packaging as well as studying competitive packaging.  Sadly, I have been a bit underwhelmed considering that my category is a $1.3 BILLION dollar category.  What has been most disappointing is what has been presented in most hotel rooms.  

I believe that there should be a consistency in a brand or product that is provided.  For example, you wouldn't expect an upscale steakhouse to serve a delicious steak and then turn around and serve it with plastic ware right?  So, why do hotels that cost $200 a night provide subservient products that don't match the brand or type of room?  You will probably spend, in a 4 star hotel room while on vacation, close to $1000 for a 4 night stay in a good hotel so at least the TEA should taste good.  Ok, if you Groupon then you'll probably spend 75% of that amount.

You've experienced this before.  You wake up, decide on a morning beverage, you choose wisely and pick up tea (thank you for the support), decide on the 3 flavors (usually a lemon black or orange black tea), proceed to tear the square package and put the dusty tea bag in hot water.  Then you watch it color the water.  So, introducing the better way to enjoy tea in the hotel: Village Tea Single Serve.  TINY paper tubes, 1.7 x 1.5 inches made from 100% recyclable paper material with 1 soilon (soy tea pouch that doesn't leach a chemical into your water) pouch which means it's 100% biodegradable.  What's even better is that its 100% whole leaf tea so you get all the best stuff while on vaca.  Now to find a hotel that wants to carry it :-) 

Make sure to visit Retail Partners to see where you can purchase Village Tea in your neighborhood!

Posted by Martin Ekechukwu at 12:55am on 7/22/2011 at home on my iMAC using the new OS X Lion and giddy with it all.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Being Behind the Brand: Lights, Camera, Action, RUN!!

I dislike being on camera. I mean really hate it. The on the fly ad-lib improv stuff and I just don't mix very well. In my current role there is a lot of camera time because I'm the loudest mouth piece for my company - Village Tea . What I don't like the most is the fact that I forget everything that I am about to say right before they start with "so Martin, tell me about.....". As soon as my mouth opens up everything is fine but the lead in sucks and what's worse is when you KNOW you flubbed a line. Case in point:

For The Dr Oz Show, I was a nervous wreck. The rehearsal was great until the audience showed up and the producers said one final thing "oh, we're live to tape so don't mess up". At that point my hands turned into a waterfall and my flight or fight syndrome was telling me to RUN!

I've been trying to get a grasp on why I am so nervous being on camera so much and I have landed on the fact that I am very conscious of how I present myself and concerned that I'll slip and say something idiotic. What's worse would be to not say anything on camera at all which at that point I'll go jump off a bridge afterwards. I don't watch myself after a taping more than 2 times because I turn into super critic and I've been known to pull a Biden before so I try at all costs to avoid a Biden moment.

I'll leave with 3 tips that help me get through a live interview.
1). Get the questions ahead of time and study them diligently.
2). Practice multiple versions of a response rather than a canned response to keep it authentic and smooth
3) Pray for rain if it's an outdoor interview and a power outage if indoors.

This is the only interview in 3 years that I have ever liked. Enjoy!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad2. Am home! Yay!

Location:Uptown,Dallas,United States

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Tea Time on Vacation: When Only The Best Will Do

While on vacation in Miami, my best friend, whom I am visiting, rants and raves about his new Keurig system that he adores. He, an engineer, enjoys a good morning cup of joe or tea like the next guy but the on and on about his system forced me to put it to the test. Now, while I don't partake in the morning joe I chose to find a good tea flavor that I could enjoy. He carried a few traditional flavors that are commonly used by most consumers via Celestial Seasoning. I sat down and prepared a couple flavors and I have to say that it was decent. It's the closest you can get to a fast cup of tea without the steeping process.

Now, there is always room for improvement with anything so I'm not going to do a deeper dive on their product line but the quality of the tea could improve vastly especially with the green tea. Unfortunately, it tasted very processed and needless to say I didn't ask for a 2nd cup. My palette has been slightly more refined in the last few years but most people can taste a good green from an ok green tea.

I thanked him for the morning experience and kindly asked if he had a stove top kettle because I carry my own tea (shocker!!!). He said he did not because the Keurig system eliminates the need for a tea kettle if you buy the pods. He followed that up and said it would dispense hot water through one of it's settings. So, I did the most reasonable thing I could to get my cup of tea for the morning. I put the Mobile Teapot under the system and let it run. I turned to him and said "that's the most expensive hot water dispenser I've seen in a long time". The look he gave me was priceless.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad2 at 30,000 feet Sadly Leaving Miami for Texas.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Diehard Tea Lovers Unite!!

Sometimes it's really good to laugh at yourself and I have to say that I laughed out loud when I found myself really convincing a good friend of mine that it makes absolute sense to travel with your own tea travelers kit. However, I'm not referring to any tea travelers kit but rather the diehard tea lover travelers kit or more affectionately known as the DTK.

I'm a good packer. I rarely check in any bags on the plane and I travel with only the sole essentials. When I travel for more than a weekend I tend to pack a little more and take 2 carry-on bags on the plane which obviously means that I am bringing more items with me. I try to prepare for a few things such as torrential rains by packing a jacket and umbrella, scathing heat by packing shorts and a t-shirt, unknown toiletry situations by packing my own soap, and bad tea by packing my own electric tea kettle, mobile teapot and travel size tea.

The general consensus is that I'm going overboard with the electric tea kettle and I have to completely disagree. On this particular trip I developed a gnarly sinus infection and it kicked in quick! I knew that the only way to naturally combat the sore throat and pain which was sure to come would be with a really hot organic lemon and ginger green tea. Well, rather than having to fiddle with the coffee maker in the room and their horrible selection of terrible tasting teas, I jumped into action with bottled water, an outlet, the kettle was done boiling in seconds and the mobile teapot was filled with tea from the travel size tea and water. Within a minute, I was on the bed giving the sinus infection the finger DTK style.

I only really laughed at myself when I sat on the bed and looked at my tea set up just to realize that either I'm the smartest person in the world or a dork in the making. Either way, the sinus infection had met it's match.

- Posted by Martin using BlogPress from my iPad2 at 9:00pm CST Sitting at 30,000 feet and Happy to be on my way back to Dallas to Sleep in my Bed.

Location:World Way,Los Angeles,United States

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

To Tie or to Bow Tie: That is the Question

I know that most of you typically shun the bow tie experience and until recently I felt the same way. However, after having been forced to put on a bow tie, which my colleagues shoe horned me into, I actually grew to love it and have added it to the wardrobe portfolio of accessories. So, here is my story.

We were recently shooting the new commercial for the Village Tea: More Flavor Less Etiquette campaign and the question of wardrobe came up. In my usual stance against all unnecessary formalities, I wanted to showcase a relaxed image and selfishly suggested my everyday jeans and nice button up. Apparently my suggestion was not well received due to the silence that lingered for an unusually long time. I could hear someone in the back mumble "awkwarrrrd".

My reasoning against dressing up in general is that since I was 22 I have been in a suit and tie or some sort of formal wear within a professional environment. Now, at 34 and in the middle of my own venture, if I wanted to wear flip flops and surfer shorts with a t-shirt to work I feel that I've earned it. I firmly believe that what you wear speaks volumes as to your personal style but ultimately its not what you wear that determines if we'll do business together but rather your attitude.

Needless to say, after much kicking and screaming the tie was on, the suit and cuff linked shirt was on, the dress shoes were on, and while I was being encouraged like a 3 year old that I looked great and didn't look silly it wasn't until I saw the final images that I turned the corner. I am not above admitting when I was wrong so I admitted it via email and quickly turned on my spam filter and added my team's email addresses to the filter for a few days.

Disclaimer: tieing a tie is an art and requires some sort of delicacy which I don't have mastered just quite yet. The image above took us about 30 minutes to create because no one knew how to tie a bow tie and we quickly jumped to youtube to figure it out. Which brings me to another topic: what did we do before tutorials on youtube?

- Posted by Martin using BlogPress from my iPad2 Sitting in my Hotel Room in Los Angeles at 7:30am PST Working

Location:W 96th St,Los Angeles,United States

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Are You Down with OPT?: Other Peoples Tea

I frequently get asked the question, Martin with your tea company do you drink other people's tea? Actually, I do and all the time. So the next question is why? Usually my answer is, well duh! Don't you have to know other people's tea to figure out what to create? My answer has evolved in the last 2-3 years to this. There are other tea companies that really create outstanding tea that I will probably not ever have in my portfolio due to the complexity of the final product. Bottom line: i love good tea and when you find it everything is right in the world. For us, the trick is not to be all things to all people but to find our niche and knock it out the park. Our niche has always been simple teas with robust flavors in earth friendly white packaging and we own that niche.

I remember a time when I was working for a beverage company and our company tennis league was just finishing its tennis match. We went to the club house and I asked for an Ozarka water to quench my thirst. When I turned around with bottle in mouth guzzling the water down as fast as possible the look I encountered was one of astonishment and disgust as though I stripped down naked and walked around the club house asking for hugs. "Why are you drinking Ozarka?" was the first question. I responded "because there was no other water there and I happen to like it". Did I say it with some attitude? Yes, ok but I was slightly offended that I was being questioned about my beverage choice.

After that day, there was an obvious tension in the building and in the league as word got out that I was cheating on the company with another water company. The word rose to the top of the company and the senior vice president asked me to stop.

I took that learning and went against the grain fully with my own company to embrace other tea company products so that I could understand what makes them better and or worse than my product. Additionally, I really wanted to support the industry and it's efforts. Do I want to have customer loyalty? Absolutely and I think I do! Our customers love our product and are staunchly loyal but how will I know why they are loyal until I have tasted what they have had in the past or what they love now? It reminds of the saying "Walk a mile in my shoes and learn my story".

Thankfully, and in my unbiased opinion, my tea has always been better anyway.

"Yeah, you know me!" (the second half of that Naughty by Nature song)

- Posted by Martin using BlogPress from my iPad2 Sitting in the Dark in his Office at 2am Working

Location:Dallas,United States

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

They Sleep We Grind

Not every person works in the same manner as the other.  Why is a 9-5pm work day the staple if your best time to get work done is at 11PM?  It's almost as though corporate america expects this staple to fit every person the same way.  Do you really do your best work in the hours of 9 and 5pm?

For those that know me, they know that I am mostly a night owl.  My business partner and best friend is always surprised when I respond to an email at 8 or 9am in the morning because he knows that I mostly work till 3 or 4am and then sleep until 9 or 10am then reset.  I have been criticized by others that say I am not getting enough sleep or I'm working myself to death and at times I get concerned and ask myself am I really doing myself a disservice?  I run a small business with an outstanding team but even with the team there just isn't enough hours in the day to get everything done so I push myself to complete tasks.  

When I was working in corp in exec positions I found it frustrating that I would get criticized if I wasn't looking busy during the 9 to 5pm time when in actuality I would take the work home and crank it out on my desk in my office without several distractions etc.  Everytime I utilized my method my work was outstanding but the opposite was true when I was in a cubicle that provided no creative juice.

So now with running my own business, I work at the most optimal time that is most comfortable to me.  Sadly, not everyone on my team works the same way which means they have to adjust to me when I send emails at 2am.  So am I creating my own culture and forcing those that work with me to work from 10am - 3am?  Probably.  So maybe I am part of the problem.