My name is Rebecca Domorev and I am the managing director and co-founder (along with my husband Alexei) of Tielka.
Over the last 10 years, we have created a collection of organic, award-winning handcrafted teas and supply to specialty cafes and retailers Australia-wide and tea lovers all around the world.
Tielka was founded in 2009 with strong initial growth, followed by five years of a plateau. In 2018 our sales decreased significantly with the arrival of our third son who brought numerous unexpected and ongoing medical challenges. During this downturn, we managed to muster up renewed strength and purpose. We entered our tea collection in the Golden Leaf Awards and won 8 medals. I started a new personal blog, BrollyBlue, to complement the direction of our business. We commenced print advertising, were selected for a Food Accelerator, shifted strategy and direction and are now experiencing 45% growth.
What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?
Before I founded Tielka, I had completed a Bachelor of Music and launched a small creative arts academy in a local school. In 2008 I was a stay-at-home mum while my husband Alexei was working full-time and completing his MBA at Melbourne Business School.
Be patient, don’t quit your job straight away.
I wanted to create a business that I could run from home and an eCommerce business was the most logical solution. As I was considering different options, my sister-in-law told me about Fairtrade, the coffee industry and that while there were plenty of Fairtrade coffee options available, there were virtually no Fairtrade tea options. Indeed the tea options in Australia were generally of very poor quality.
This struck a chord, as I had a dormant tea passion that originated in a visit to a Polish cafe in 2002 (see below). The cafe had a dedicated and extensive tea menu, I had never seen tea treated with such respect. After sampling some varieties, I was hooked. Unfortunately, the some-what lacking Australian tea market didn’t see this develop further for some time.
Back in 2008, I discovered that in Australia there were no loose-leaf Fairtrade organic tea companies. After extensive research, I found two Fairtrade tea gardens in the high-mountain tea growing regions in China and received samples. The tea was divine. Fresh, handcrafted, hand-harvested with complexities and depth of flavor that were nothing less than intriguing. We created a focus group to select the varieties we would offer and created Australia’s first Fairtrade organic loose leaf tea collection.
Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?
The process of getting where we are today has been long and with frequent pivots and turns.
We commenced the business model with direct-sales - not unlike a Tupperware party, we held tea parties. And while these parties were financially a success, the direct-sales culture jarred with me personally and I didn’t see it fitting in with our lifestyle long-term.
We then discovered that when it came to tea, cafes were very poorly supplied. We found that if we could convince a cafe owner to change their low-quality teabags to our organic loose leaf handcrafted option, the result was very positive. Tielka started to grow.
And while the supply of our loose leaf tea was gaining traction in cafes, it was continuously difficult to move our retail products in cafes and retailers. Indeed only 10% of tea sales are a loose-leaf - the rest is in tea bag form.
We also found growing sales in the hospitality industry very challenging. Cafes frequently changed hands or went out of business. While there was demand in tea, it was no-where near coffee demand and we discovered for the business model to be a success, we would need hundreds and hundreds of cafes using our tea. It would be a forever uphill battle.
In 2017 we invested in a $60,000 AUD pyramid teabagging machine. Uptake was initially slow and business was hit heavily by our personal situation with the birth of our third son, who required surgery just after birth and was diagnosed with multiple medical issues, including Down syndrome.
Just prior to the birth of our son, we had commenced testing sales of our pyramid tea bag in a supermarket setting and upon sampling, sales were strong and consistent.
In late 2018, we entered our teas in the Golden Leaf Awards and walked away with 6 golds and 2 silvers (see pic below for line-up of award-winning products). We commenced full-page ads in Peppermint Magazine (see below ad). In February 2019, Tielka was selected for Sunshine Coast University’s Food Accelerator Program (see below newspaper article), which opened many more doors into the food store space.
Another big shift that occurred during this period was the influence of my personal journey through giving birth to a child with unexpected ongoing medical challenges and the impact my tea-drinking, faith-driven lifestyle had on this journey. I began to realize the profound and powerful way this story through my business could impact others. This began to drive changes in the way I expressed our brand through social media, articles, etc. I began to tell a story around tea-time, me-time - the powerful ceremony of drinking tea for a joy-filled, peace driven life, regardless of the circumstances. A new personal blog, BrollyBlue, was born out of this to complement this shift.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today, Tielka is experiencing a season of long-awaited strong double-digit growth. Tielka has been (just) profitable for a number of years, although, during the period of a plateau, we were unable to break through the ceiling of only just covering costs into paying ourselves a wage.
We are working on product margins with the now more attainable goal to abide by the 30-30-30-10 rule (30% on materials, 30% on labor, 30% on overheads and 10% on profit), although our materials push towards 40% and the costs of overheads are often stretched by factors including significant licensing fees and our remote location which impacts on freight. We allocate around 5% of budgeted sales towards direct marketing costs (print advertising, sampling, brochures, etc).
Social media is currently not a huge part of our business operations, with just 2200 followers on Facebook and around 800 followers on Instagram. We have not had success with social media advertising, with the cost of ads being equal to revenue generated from sales.
We recently opened up our market to deliver worldwide to retail customers, which is now attracting new customers from USA, NZ and Europe.
Short term, we are working on maintaining the same growth, building our presence in specialty food stores with continuous instore and take-home sampling. We are also working on increasing online sales to customers all over the world. Long term, we hope to see our products regularly stocked and sold in specialty food stores and cafes Australia-wide and to have a presence in homes worldwide.
Other plans include strategizing ways to further spread my personal journey through the last couple of years to encourage others into the ceremony of tea-time and to create a space where joy and peace can thrive, regardless of what life throws their way.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I think the biggest mistake I made was I did not research the trends of my customers effectively. I pursued a business idea solely motivated by the fact that a product didn’t exist like it in the category (Fairtrade organic loose leaf tea) and that I was passionate about it. It seems strange to say something like this, but the reality is that just because I am personally passionate about something, it may not gain traction in others. There is also a reason products in a category doesn't exist. The trends may be headed in a completely different direction, so there isn’t any demand! It’s not that I didn’t have a business idea that has value, but if I had taken a different approach, I would have tweaked it slightly differently according to some very important principles. The results would have come sooner.
One of the most important principles in launching a business idea is to find a “pain point” that exists in a definable group of people (e.g. busy, professional mums). The product is then created to bring relief to this pain for these people. A customer recently told me that one of her favorite tea brands had shortened the length of the tea bag string (no doubt to cut costs), which meant the tag fell in the mug when she poured boiling water over her tea. Anyone who uses teabags hates this! She was now on the lookout for other teas. I was very pleased that we had inadvertently chosen a tea bag fabric with an extra-long string!
A second and very important principle is to recognize trends. It’s all well and good if carrots are by nutritional value a “super-food” just like kale, but if the trend involves kale, then you would be stupid not to follow that trend and sell carrot cookies instead of kale cookies. People naturally spend money on products that fit in with a trend and that’s where your business will flourish.
Finally, the third principle and possibly the most important, is to establish your “why” - why does your business exist? What is your story? For us, our “why” has grown over 10 years and only come together very recently through my personal journey. Our “why” is summed up in three words - Indulge in Life. For us, this means that regardless is whatever life throws your way, it’s still possible to know joy and experience an underlying peace. And this can be achieved by the simple act of tea-time, me-time. I believe this will be the most powerful tool Tielka has for long term impact.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Over the last 10 years, we have established a strong mix of tools to support Tielka. We use Xero for accounting, which integrates with our CRM program, Capsule. For production, inventory and order management we use Unleashed software, which integrates with Xero. We use two Shopify stores to manage wholesale and retail orders, which integrate with Unleashed software. And we have recently set up StarShipIt which integrates beautifully with our eParcel shipping service well with Unleashed Software.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
My husband Alexei completed an MBA early on in the life of Tielka and his knowledge and experience gained has made a huge difference to the direction and formation of Tielka.
A couple of books I have read that have influenced the way I think about business and sales are To Sell is Human and Profit First. I never considered myself a salesperson, but reading “To Sell is Human” helped me realize my natural capacity to influence and move others towards using our products. “Profit First” help me rethink the way I approach our spending, with the goal of paying ourselves and cutting back on unnecessary costs, as painful as it may be.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
If you’re starting a business for the first time, it’s important to know that persistence is the key. They say it takes 5 years to grow a business. My experience says it takes a lot longer. Be patient, don’t quit your job straight away. Once you have your product (based on trends that answers a “pain point”), make sure you become a grinch with business expenses and focus on sales, sales, sales.
And absolutely, take time for yourself! Give yourself time to rest. Sit down with a beautiful cup of tea and enjoy this wonderful life you have been given.
Indulge in Life!
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