Posted on June 29 2016
This week's Wednesday Woman is Canadian tea sommelier Sheena Brady, founder of Tease Tea. Sheena transferred her skills from the world of hospitality to tea and is also a trusted "Tea Expert", regularly appearing on TV and radio shows. Read her story here:
Danielle Newnham: Can you tell us a bit about your background, what you were like growing up?
Sheena Brady: Growing up, I had a very non-traditional upbringing. My parents split up when I was a year old and in my early school days, my stepfather had a job that required us to move a lot. This built up my agility and adaptation to change rather quickly. I lost count though I think I attended six different elementary schools in different small towns. I also went to three different high schools.
This made building friendships a bit challenging though it also encouraged me to become an extrovert and make friends quickly. I've always enjoyed meeting new people, learning about them and, to this day, I think that's why I've always valued networking and relationships.
Newnham: Can you tell us what sparked your interest in tea, and how you came to start Tea?
Brady: After spending 10 years in hospitality with a serious appreciation and love for food, wine and service, I'd always thought I was destined to own a restaurant. It's funny how quickly your dreams and goals can change. Towards the end of my career in hospitality, I worked for a luxury hotel where I was asked to create the biggest, most extensive, tea program in Toronto that celebrated the culture of tea from around the world. I worked with the Tea Association to become a Certified Tea Sommelier and curated a tea library that featured over 75 different teas and a number of tea ceremonies.
It was then I realized that there are so many similarities between wine and tea, and my passion translated entirely. For example, like wine, all tea comes from the exact same plant. Various climate and soil conditions, in addition to harvesting methods, are what create the many types of different teas. I also loved how enjoying tea with family or loved ones is considered a gesture of hospitality around the globe.
Newnham: What have been the biggest challenges starting up your own business and how did you overcome them?
Brady: Money & time. I started Tease Tea with a $500 investment from my savings account and though am proud to be debt and investor free to this day, it's taken a lot of creative navigating and solutions to work around cash flow limitations. To really deal with these limitations, we try to take on any opportunity from selling online to tradeshows, restaurants, hotels and retail.
As we grow, we will likely scale back on these different sales channels however, and in the meantime, we can't afford to not consider any possible sales opportunity so long as it does not conflict with our brand. That said, this has worked in our favour - we are now the exclusive tea supplier to many venues and a few shops and this often brings traffic back to our website, generating loyal customers.
In terms of navigating around time constraints, a lot of people don't know this but I actually have another job in addition to running Tease Tea. I work with an incredible team at Shopify, where I essentially help other entrepreneurs optimize their commerce needs. This means I literally need to make every minute count in my day in terms of ensuring my job or my business doesn't suffer.
I chose to work at Shopify because they are so respectful and supportive of me having a business - in fact, they encourage it. That definitely helps.Shopify is a company with a culture like no other that I've ever experienced. They live, breathe and celebrate entrepreneurship, while also building teams that constantly inspire everyone to do their best work . I essentially make commitments to myself and make specific time blocks in my day to get things done. Tools like my Productivity Planner I couldn't live without.
It's important that whatever your circumstance, you make changes so that your environment compliments your business goals. In my case, a 70+ hour/week career in hospitality wasn't going to help me achieve my goals. I'd left a well-paying career and started my way up at the bottom of Shopify earning significantly less in the beginning though felt more inspired, empowered and motivated to achieve my business goals while doing great work for Shopify.
Like Sheryl Sandberg says in Lean in - Your career shouldn't be a ladder, it should be a jungle gym. I truly don't think my business would be as successful as it is today if I hadn't made that life changing decision to move from hospitality management to an entry level tech position in order to feel more inspired to build my business.
Newnham: What advice would you give to other women looking to start their own business?
Brady: The hardest part about starting a business is literally starting it. Throw caution into the wind and just do it. Do not worry about problems that do not exist yet.
Focus on your top line revenue as long as possible before focusing on the bottom line. This means that you should not expect a profit until you can prove that people actually want to invest in your product or services. Operate a break even or small loss if you can afford to, until you have built credibility and have had your brand and offerings validated with sales.
Newnham: What advice would you give a younger Sheena starting out in her career?
Brady: Listen more, talk less. Act with more vulnerability. I had a huge issue with this in my early career - many thought I was "emotionless" and hard. I actually prided myself on that, and felt that's what was required for me to climb the corporate hospitality ladder as a young woman. (I was the General Manager of a busy restaurant in NYC by the age of 24) It makes me cringe thinking about it today. I feel I compromised a few professional and personal relationships as a result, and wasn't really living as an honest version of myself.
Newnham: Finally, what / who inspires you?
Brady: Authenticity and vulnerability inspires me. There is nothing more motivating than creating habits and making decisions based on your honest feelings and thoughts. Those are usually the best decisions you can ever make. Being around people who are also authentic and not fearful of vulnerability is equally inspiring.
Tease Tea Website / Sheena Twitter