Gooder Podcast featuring Sashee Chandran
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“Luck is hard work and opportunity meeting.” – Sashee Chandran
This week on the Gooder Podcast, I had the pleasure of talking with Sashee Chandran, the founder, and CEO of Tea Drops. We discuss the historical colonial influence in American tea culture and how her diverse background has encouraged her to create something new: Tea Drops. We also learn about the tea category shaking innovation of Tea Drops’ products and some of the trends her brand is leveraging. Along the way, we get to hear the inspirational story of a diligent and humble entrepreneur who transforms the traditional way of enjoying tea.
In this episode we learn:
- About the history and inspiration of Tea Drops.
- The surprising A-ha moment of her product idea.
- About her go-to-market alternate channel strategy, and why it worked.
- Where Sashee’s passion and drive for risk-taking come from.
- What Tea Drop’s give-back program has been doing to tackle the global water crisis.
- Diana and Sashee’s personal stories about their love for tea and how tea has helped them connect to their loved ones.
About Sashee Chandran:
Sashee Chandran is the founder and CEO of Tea Drops, which creates bagless whole leaf teas using a patented process — shedding about 15% less waste than traditional teabag packaging. Tea Drops has become a favorite among new and experienced tea drinkers alike, launching innovative tea experiences that merge flavorful blends, food art, and edgy design. Tea Drops an omnichannel brand, selling D2C and also available in 1,500 retailers — loved by Oprah Magazine, Chrissy Teigen, and former first lady Michelle Obama. Sashee is a 1st Place $20K Women Founders Network pitch winner, 1st Place $100K Tory Burch Fellow Grant winner, and the 1st place $50K PepsiCo WomanMade Challenge winner. She has also raised over $3.5M in VC funding for Tea Drops.
Guests Social Media Links:
Loose leaf tea is tea that does not come pre-packaged in tea bags. Because the leaves are not crammed into a tea bag, the tea maintains a higher quality and aroma while offering the best possible health benefits.
eBay Inc. is an American multinational e-commerce corporation based in San Jose, California, that facilitates consumer-to-consumer and business-to-consumer sales through its website. eBay was founded by Pierre Omidyar in 1995, and became a notable success story of the dot-com bubble.
Bubble tea is a tea-based drink that originated in Taiwan in the early 1980s. It most commonly consists of tea accompanied by chewy tapioca balls, but it can be made with other toppings as well.
The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is an agency in the U.S. Department of Commerce that issues patents to inventors and businesses for their inventions, and trademark registration for product and intellectual property identification.
Tory Burch Foundation competition Designed to provide women entrepreneurs with the tools and platform necessary to grow their business.
8Greens is an effervescent dietary supplement tablet, packed with enough superfoods to give your healthy diet a green boost.
United Natural Foods, Inc. is a Providence, R.I.-based natural and organic food company. It is the largest publicly traded wholesale distributor of health and specialty food in the United States and Canada. UNFI is Whole Foods Market’s main supplier, with their traffic making up over a third of its revenue in 2018.
Nordstrom, Inc. is an American luxury department store chain. Founded in 1901 by John W. Nordstrom and Carl F. Wallin, it originated as a shoe store and evolved into a full-line retailer with departments for clothing, footwear, handbags, jewelry, accessories, cosmetics, and fragrances.
Neiman Marcus Group, Inc., originally Neiman-Marcus, is an American chain of luxury department stores owned by the Neiman Marcus Group, headquartered in Dallas, Texas.
The Thirst Project is a non-profit organization whose aim is to bring safe drinking water to communities around the world where it is not immediately available. The Thirst Project collects money and builds wells all across the continent of Africa where villages do not have immediate drinking water.
Diana Fryc: Well, welcome again to The Gooder Podcast, I’m your host, Diana Fryc, as partner and CMO of Retail Voodoo, an award winning a branding agency, I have met and work with some of the most amazing women in the natural’s industry; food, beverage, wellness and fitness. As such, I decided to create The Gooder Podcast to interview these great people and subject matter experts and have them share their insights, expertize and passions to help businesses all around the world become gooder.
Now, today we get to talk about tea, cultural fusion ish and community building and I’m excited to tackle these topics and more with my guests today, Sashee Chandran, the founder and CEO of Tea Drops, a bag less dissolvable tea blend or blends designed for the modern tea drinker, which if you guys haven’t heard about this, I’m super excited, I geek out over things that most people wouldn’t expect me to, but I’m a big tea drinker, so this is super exciting for me. Welcome, Miss Sashee. How are you?
Sashee Chandran: I’m great. Thank you, Diana, for having me. This is such a joy to be on your podcast today and share my story.
Diana Fryc: Great. How is that L.A? Are you in L.A. today?
Sashee Chandran: I’m in Encinitas, which is near San Diego County. It’s about an hour and a half from Los Angeles but our headquarters are in L.A. And either way, it’s a sunny, beautiful day here in SoCal. Thank you.
Diana Fryc: Are you in the 80s yet?
Sashee Chandran: It feels like it today. That’s why I took off my sweater right before we started because it’s getting warm in here, but I think it’s like mid-70s.
Diana Fryc: Nice. I love that. Well, before we kind of jump into some of these topics, I really wanted you to maybe start a little bit about yourself and Tea Drops, like the way you like to talk about Tea Drops. So tell us about yourself and why Tea Drops exists?
Sashee Chandran: Yeah, well, there’s a lot in there, but I would say most important to me is that this was really created – Tea Drops was created out of a sincere passion of mine and I would say also owed to my own cultural heritage. And culturally, like my background, is that my mom is Chinese and my dad’s from Sri Lanka so both of those countries have a very highly engaged tea culture. At what point in history those two countries were the largest exporters of the world. And my dad was actually born on a tea estate in Sri Lanka and my mom; also an immigrant came to the US.
And so my parents met in L.A. at UCLA. I was born in Los Angeles, raised in Los Angeles and probably different than most other friends households is tea was always a staple at gatherings and it’s something that really connected with me to my relatives and my parents friends because both my parents were immigrants here, didn’t really have a lot of family around. So it’s not like I grew up with a ton of other I guess like cultural communities where people kind of immigrate together. They formulate a community. I really grew up as a true, typical American childhood. But my household was different in that we had certain beverages as in tea, but also different types of food at the table, but my relationships with my uncles and my aunts, my grandma really centered around a cup of tea and so that’s was my exposure of tea really being this point of connection with your heritage connection as far as almost a vehicle to kind of have an open and honest conversation.
And one of my best memories as a kid was having tea with my mom and she would give me different types of tea for different reasons. So if I was sick, it would be a chrysanthemum Chinese herbal tea. When it was just more of like a girls chat, it would be an English breakfast tea with milk, enjoying a British style and my grandma made a certain type of tea when I would go over her house. So I have all of these memories and they’re very sensory around tea and I can get cash and carried through with me. When I graduated college, I started working at one of my first corporate jobs. I tried to still take that tea ritual with me and make tea at work and if you’ve made loose leaf tea before then you know there’s a lot of steps involved. The kettle strainer, you have to sip the tea and it’s a lot of time involved. And for someone that kind of was on a very fast paced corporate route.
That was just not a reasonable ask to make tea that way every day and tea bags itself were just never as flavorful or aromatic and they just lacked a certain experiential component too that I felt was very important to tea culture. So a long way of saying that I felt there was a lot of opportunity here in the tea category, the space itself, I also felt from the tea brands I purchased from I feel this like brand connection.
My relationship with a lot of those brands really stopped at the shelf because I would buy something because I like the tea flavor or variety. But where was that connection to the brand? Did they understand that tea was really the sacred ritual to me that I really love the community aspect of tea and I didn’t see that and I also didn’t see real innovation in the category either. So that really those two things were kind of the inspiration to at least start experimenting with different tea brands and varieties and see if I could figure out a more convenient and better way to tea.
Diana Fryc: Yeah, it’s so interesting. My parents, immigrants from Central Europe, met each other in Los Angeles as well. I was born in Santa Monica, though, and I grew up; and we lived in Thousand Oaks until I was in about the third grade and then we moved to Seattle. But also my parents were from Central Europe, from small countries and everything from our name to the foods that we ate were all unique, especially when we moved to Seattle, we were like the Russian family, even though that’s not where from. We were like the only other in the whole school, it was very bizarre. But my mom drank coffee because it was imposed on her when she moved here as an American ritual but my dad was very much a tea drinker and kind of the same way. It was you drink it in this way or like each kind of tea had its own moment in the day and in the time. And then living in Seattle, I got heavily exposed to Japanese and Chinese culture because we have a lot of those communities around here and the food and the people that I worked with and a lot of Filipino families, too and tea was very much part of that socialization. And so it became really important for me, too. But as I was drinking it, first of all, people thought I was bizarre for drinking tea, but it was almost pretentious in a way, like you’re bringing your own Loose-leaf tea just to get some Lipton’s or something and throw it in a thing and let’s roll and it sounds like what you were running into.
Sashee Chandran: Definitely, and I’m almost jealous because I know that the Seattle tea culture is a lot strong. I know it’s a coffee…
Diana Fryc: It’s still a coffee town, but the tea is pretty strong here.
Sashee Chandran: I find that in more the Pacific Northwest, there’s just more of a ritual tea or like an acceptance around tea that I don’t necessarily feel it here in California. But yeah, I feel the same way that that’s what I was attracted to. For me, it wasn’t like the pretentious thing, I actually liked a lot of different tea bags, but it was just learning more about what’s in the tea bags, and learning that all tea bags have micro plastic in them or are bleach. At some point when you realize that it’s really hard to turn back and still use tea bags and there’s been a huge progression in the industry and that’s changed. Now a lot are making possible tea bags, but during that time, that was definitely true and so that turned me off.
There’s this ritual component to it that’s very hard to verbalize. But a year of scooping a cup of loose leaf tea, putting it in a kettle, boiling the water, hearing that water pour over the tea leaves. There’s something that you cannot replicate that with the tea bag experience. And so I still wanted with Tea Drops to keep that sense of ritual alive and sense of experience alive, but conveniently cut down the time a little bit more. So that was the aspiration.
Diana Fryc: Well, Tea Drops was – as I was doing a little homework, I think it was officially considered a side hustle at the time and what I’m wondering was, was it something that you intentionally set out to do or was it an opportunity that was presented to you or was it both?
Sashee Chandran: I think it was a little bit of both. I think it was hard for even me to call it like a real business until maybe a couple of years into doing it.
Even when I decided to quit my job, which was six months later after I started making this in my apartment kitchen at the time, I was socializing it with friends, colleagues at work, having them try it. I was doing these small time artisan shows on the weekends. It’s still very hard for me to say, oh, this is business. I think there’s a certain association you make when you see it’s a business, there’s a lot more pressure involved. And so, even when I quit my job and said I want to do this full time, I remember being, like, scared to tell people, yeah, I’m doing this business full time.
I would say, like, I’m working on a project. I would dance around that word and so it really wasn’t even though people knew, like okay, project business, you’re basically leaving. I was working at eBay at the time to do this. So because I always just wanted to safeguard that and you internally have to get comfortable with that idea. So it took me a while to be comfortable with that idea. Like I’m leaving to start this business and treat it like a business and believe in yourself that you can run and have a business. So all those things are you’re also internally figuring out.
Diana Fryc: I’m curious here, where do you line up in the child line up? Are you the oldest or youngest middle? Are you the only?
Sashee Chandran: I’m the youngest. I have an older sibling brother, he’s four years older than me.
Diana Fryc: Do you feel like this kind of I’m calling it a project; do you think because your parents are immigrants, because you’re a woman, or was it just you?
Sashee Chandran: I think that my parents were very supportive. They asked the normal questions like, are you sure you want to leave? But once I was like, no, I want to do this, I have to say that they were very supportive and I think that’s because my parents were really the first entrepreneurs I ever knew though I got higher education and pursued master’s degrees, they always still came to this country with nothing. And in order to supplement income, my mom would have a Crystal Vase store on the weekends so she would take care of us during the week, do that on the weekends, and my dad would go to real estate seminars on the weekends and learn about this real estate. Real estate wasn’t too big of a mystery as it is now. So this idea of buying properties, being a landlord, he would do that and then save, save, save and buy us properties. So in their own ways, they had side hustle and I think through them the foundation of what it takes to be an entrepreneur. And so for me to do this, they saw themselves in me and so it was very much natural like we support you in that, but we want you to know what you’re giving up on.
Diana Fryc: It’s a natural manifestation of the work that they’ve been putting in.
Sashee Chandran: Yeah, absolutely. So it wasn’t that. It was just more of — for me, taking on that label business, it adds a certain level of pressure that because you just don’t know and you know this well, how something is going to go at all, like you have no- Think about it, I left a market research kind of marketing role to go into a food industry, beverage industry doing nothing about, I don’t know manufacturing. I have zero contacts in this industry. So that was all I think I play like, who do you think you are type of thing in order to do that?
Diana Fryc: I think those tend to almost be the most innovative and successful business owners simply because you don’t come in with a defined boundary and it’s really, Tea Drops and we talk about this right now, your approach to Tea Drops or your approach to tea and the category is disruptive in every way, shape or form, everything from product formulation, delivery mechanism, packaging, flavor profiles, even channel strategy, all of this. You’ve basically said, hey, traditional British, hey traditional Asian methodologies of tea.
That’s what we have in the store. I’m going to do this my way and that’s what you did.
Sashee Chandran: Yeah, you hit on the head and now I’m so appreciative I didn’t come from any background. I think that was part of the intimidation that I experienced was like, I don’t know anyone in the tea industry. I have contacts through my dad, because he was born on a tea estate. But like, he actually didn’t tell me he was born on a tea estate until I started business. I didn’t know any other tea brands, like, I just had no contacts. And so that felt very intimidating.
But now I’m so grateful that that was my journey because it really allowed me to think so differently about tea. And my perspective was I just wanted to make tea accessible. And you and I have had this conversation around the roots and the foundations of tea culture, tea history, the role it plays in American history, colonial roots and like tea itself, high tea being a very high brow experience. When you think of British tea culture, you think of refined and like very uppity in a sense and I just wanted to really dismantle that in my own way and because I felt tea should be this very accessible, ritual and form of self-care in a way. So it allowed me to kind of think about that whole experience in my own way.
Diana Fryc: I remember when we were talking about this in both you and I just had a moment where like, oh my goodness. Like we talked about American culture and how American sweet teas predominantly are through the lens of the British. Of course, we all know about the dumping, the tea in the harbor. But then even that the British colonialized much of the parts of the world that created tea because that ended up being something they wanted to own and then they changed that culture. And then on the opposite end, we’ve got the different Asian cultures and their tea cultures, but they are steeped in heritage and properness and what we’re missing is what’s the American version? We’re living these two different tea versions and I feel like yours is there. I feel like Bubble tea has a little bit of that in there, too. Americans have really like the Boba tea. This is fun and kind of crack the door open a little bit to say tea doesn’t have to be proper or snobby or regal or royal or special. It can just be a moment to just chill with your friends.
Sashee Chandran: Agreed like it eliminates Boba tea too and definitely eliminates the seriousness of it all. And I think that we try to do like on our packaging, on our cylinders, we have very playful puns and like saying and we kind of promote this whole magic tea, tea leaf reading the tea fiber that’s at the bottom of your cup. So it’s like it’s just silly as part of it’s like very silly, whimsical and that’s kind of what we wanted to do with the cultures, because it doesn’t have to be either extreme, which you really articulated so well that it’s either steeped in tradition or it’s very stuffy highbrow, like national in its own way. Why can’t there be an experience that’s just accessible? You don’t feel intimidated by it? I don’t feel I need to know the difference between a green tea, a white tea or a black tea or it’s tea time or when to have a tea drink. I just boil in my hot water 30 seconds or less later and I have a great tasting tea.
Diana Fryc: Yeah, I just do this shameless little plug here. You sent me this amazing little sampler kit that basically had one of a bunch of these options. So you make it so easy for somebody who’s new to this to just kind of try it without committing to 40 servings or, you know what I mean? Like, you can just try one and see how you like it and that’s still more of the breaking the category convention. And then I even want to say, like kind of go into this; you’ve referenced it is this bath bomb approach and for those people that don’t know and I might even go step off camera real quick and bring it back so that people can see it. Okay, so even this delivery mechanism like just so that people can see this. We’re in this little bag and this is a little sample kit and then for those that haven’t seen this in those of you that are listening, you can’t see this.
But those of you that want to see it they’re like this and you just put it in one of my 17 cups of empty tea around here and pour some hot water in it, or if it’s a cold tea, you put it in a bigger glass and you’re done. That’s like there’s no waste. You’ve got your single pouch that’s recyclable and you’re one and done and I love it. It’s just super simple and makes it easy for people to try it. And because it’s easy to make, you don’t have to steep it for three, five minutes. How much do I put in? It’s just single serving. You’re one and done and I love it.
Sashee Chandran: Thank you. Yeah, that was a whole idea. I’m glad that that resonates the way that we presented what we sent you, the ultimate sampler kit, which is just more of an experience, like figure out what you like and it’s listed out for you what the tea varieties are…
Diana Fryc: But I’m assuming this is dehydrated right into a form like where did you stumble across that? Where were you? Were you in the tub and like literally it could be...
Sashee Chandran: I think that was it. I was in the tub; I saw Bath Bomber using a bath and was like why can’t this be done with tea? Or you see those fun shaped sugar cubes and stuff and you’re like, can’t that be a tea also done for like a tea experience? And so that was definitely the genesis of asking that question and then working in the kitchen and trying to figure out a way to put this together. And it took about a year and a half or so. I was like taking what I learned from seventh or eighth grade and the scientific method hypothesis of experiment and did over and over again until I came up with something that I was like, okay, I think this is it. I think we’re close.
And then I ended up going to a retired attorney who is working at this business resource center. And I was just getting some guidance and he’s the one who said, “You actually have some IP around here, like all the things you’re telling me that you’re doing to make this. Think about protecting it.” And that was my first thought that, okay, maybe I should pursue a patent and ended up writing my own patent over the next few weekends and he reviewed it. He’s a retired attorney, so he reviewed it and then I submitted it on the USPTO site. So that first basis of a provisional patent is what we use to secure the patent that we now have utility. We have now around the process of how my jobs are made.
Diana Fryc: That’s so fun. I really do. I love that you’re just busting out the category all together. Well, this might seem like a really boneheaded question, because anybody who does a quick Google on Tea Drops or on you yourself are going to see some high profile names associated with Michelle Obama, Christie Teigen, Tory Burch, I think Oprah even and now I know you can’t really speak for them, but because of their visibility and we all know that these folks have a process by which any time they talk about any brand, they go through a process of making sure everything’s taken care of. Can you share your insights and thoughts and their people connected with you, what were they saying? Why are they so excited? What are they telling you?
Sashee Chandran: Yeah, it’s a great question, and I don’t know the full answer. We would have to ask them. There’s a few of them where I got introduced just because I truly think it was luck. We can get into this, but one way I didn’t know how to raise capital or what that meant. I didn’t have contacts there. So I would just to kind of get my feet wet and I would see that some of the judges on certain pitch competitions were institutional investors or notable people and those, I guess, without having like a Rolodex of people I know, I think that’s the way to get in front of people.
So I started pitching a lot of women founder, pitch competitions and one of the pitch competitions I entered was Tory Burch Foundation competition and the top 10 got to fly to New York. At the time it was 2018. We went through a whole great curriculum and at the end we could pitch in front of Tory Burch and her panel of judges for $100,000 and we ended up winning the $100,000 grand prize and yeah, it was amazing. Tory Burch was like right there;
Really saying amazing things about the product and we’re sitting across from her dinner one of those evenings. She’s the one who voted us really to win that year and I think she could see a couple of things. I think not only was the product innovative for the category, but she really liked our social brand mission. For us we have a partnership research project which focuses on clean water aid and so for every box we sell, we donate what’s equivalent to your supply, clean water to them. So that mission component, the fact we have a very female food supply chain by making sure all of our teas are fair trade, organic, and plus our team. I think all of those components really resonated with her as obviously an amazing female entrepreneur.
For some of the others, same, I think, luck situation with Michelle Obama. We were at the right place, right time. We gifted her something. She was a speaker at one of these conferences and a few months later, I get an envelope that says office of Barack Obama, and it’s one of those things were like, “it’s definitely a scam,’ and you know one those things where I tossed this one of those things. It’s like you just think that’s where my mind went. But we ended up opening the letter and it was this amazing and thank you from Michelle just thanking us for the Tea Drops, telling us how innovative she thought our product was and our brand was.
So that was just very fortuitous. We had tried we always thought Chrissy Teigen would be a dream ambassador for us and I had through a network like talk to one of her representatives and he was like, well, you don’t even think about it unless you turn $50,000 for a brand partnership. And then so we didn’t go that route. But that I think I can definitely say my team, we ended up sending product wherever we could, wherever we thought could get an address for her and you kind of goes into this black hole. We don’t know where it goes. But six months later, as a fellow who runs our social just running down the hall screaming like someone died and she shows her phone and like I read this tweet from Chrissy Teigen, that it says a few things, but it says, “Whoever I interact with, whoever comes to my house. You’re hearing about this tea it’s amazing.” It still doesn’t register that that happened to us because that was the best outcome we could have asked for, for that relationship. It’s even better than a paid endorsement.
So some of those things are, I think, luck. Some of them are luck paired with just persistence of trying to reach someone. I would say the same thing is with Oprah, like we’ve tried over and over again. I remember when I first started every quarter I would send a box. You don’t know where it goes, but yeah, you just keep going.
Diana Fryc: I think you might be underselling yourself. There’s a quote out there that says that luck is hard work and opportunity meeting or something like that. So, yeah, something like that and I think that might be lucky, but that’s you being persistent and knowing what you want to do and I always feel like the word lucky is like it’s happenstance. Like you’re walking down the street and here comes Michelle Obama. You were doing your work.
Sashee Chandran: Well, here’s the thing and this is what I really do believe that there’s a quote out there that says, the harder I work, the luckier I get. And that is true. It’s like, that first year, a couple of years, I did 25, 35 shows, trade shows myself. Can you imagine like hauling all your crap, selling, getting feedback, getting rejected by buyers or people.
Diana Fryc: I don’t get it. Why isn’t it in a bag?
Sashee Chandran: Going on a limb, I happened to be at this conference or participate in this conference where Michelle Obama happened to be speaking and I remember it was like very last minute they had an open slot. I had another event I wanted to go to that weekend, but I just gave that up in order to be there. And then this happened very accidentally. But you’re right, the harder you work and nothing comes of nothing. So I do take ownership of the fact that, like, yes, we work hard, but I also know there’s an element of grace that’s involved when I first get some of these opportunities.
Diana Fryc: Well, let’s talk about, I’m going to call this channel strategy for a moment. So, yes, I know you’re mostly DTC. There’s some brick and mortar that you’re in our e-com, maybe a little bit of mix.
But I’ve spoke with 8greens recently and they kind of had a similar approach and I didn’t know if it was intentional or not, but Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Tory Burch, I get that relationship. But going in through retail, through those channels is not a typical go to market strategy for a Tea Brand. How did that happen?
Sashee Chandran: Yeah, I mean, we have a very nontraditional story, like I said, I think I was fumbling kind of in the beginning to figure out where our fit was because I found the food and beverage space to be very overwhelming when you’re first starting out, getting grocery store brokers, slotting fees, all these things I never heard of. So I had our original packaging of Tea Drops. And it’s still one of our hero products is in this really beautiful wood box. It’s branded it can very well be in a more boutique store setting, basically. And without having any capital to hire brokers or sign up with UNFI, one of the big national food distributors, get your product in store, I had to figure out years to still sustain the business. And I soon realized that a lot of these gift shops could be great opportunities for us because they pay net 30. Sometimes they pay right away.
And we slowly started building our reputation and our channel in boutique retail. So that first year I did a lot of these artisan or boutique trade shows. I did 25 of them or 27 of them. There’s the Atlanta gift show, the San Francisco gift show, the Dallas gift show, New York now has a gift show. So I just did all of these and amassed during our first 500 accounts and they happened to be very boutique retail. But what’s great about them is they paid the bills right on time. There’s no like lag in getting the capital. So I could then in turn be able to pay my interns at the time or just pay for more inventory. And once we build a reputation there, then Anthropology and Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom saw like, oh, yeah, they kept seeing us at these trade shows and that’s how that relationship happened. Would I say that was like the plan the whole way? No, but I soon realized we couldn’t make headway. It was so capital intensive to be in grocery from the start that I had to figure out other channels for us to break into.
Diana Fryc: I really think this is brilliant because first of all, part of this whole what tea allows people to do, those that are not familiar with tea culture in general, like there is this component of rest and relaxation is like, somebody like me, I drink tea for energy in the morning and then a different tea in the afternoon for relaxing and I’ll experiment with it just like wine or for those people that are really fussy with their coffee, kind of similar type of thing. But tea has this element of outside of function, like there is this giving yourself a moment time. And we’re kind of in a culture right now where self care. You mentioned this earlier. Self care and beauty are very heavily in our interlaced with each other now is getting tighter and tighter. We’re starting to see functional foods, functional beverages that are about making you beautiful from the inside out, we’re seeing beauty be more diverse. We’re seeing the removal of the mandatory makeup in order for beauty to be there and all sorts of thing. And so to see tea come through that channel, I’m just like, again, it’s an upending of the category of like, well, this ends up being almost a beauty brand in some way, shape or form. And I just found that so fascinating.
Sashee Chandran: Yes, no, I think you’re exactly right. I think I was able to catch on to that relatively early on in our, I don’t know, you wouldn’t call it like in the beginning that tea could be positioned. And that’s why I designed the wood box because I want it to be elevated experience. I paid homage to the tea chest of the 16 17th century while elevating it and making it modern like suited for the modern day tea drinker. So I felt it wasn’t a stretch for us to be in these boutique stores, etcetera, that are more geared toward luxury, that are more geared towards like taking a moment. It felt like a natural fit.
But it also definitely was like, well, I just don’t know how we’re going to do in grocery right now. And it’s too risky. I started making kind of more investments in grocery soon, realizing this is very expensive. So it gave me the opportunity to still perfect the product, still perfect a lot things and have a channel that I can really depend on.
Diana Fryc: Well, so then what’s next? Are you going to continue your channel strategy, or you’re going to try to move into grocery, is there different kinds of products coming out in the future? What’s the future look like?
Sashee Chandran: Yeah, so this was a many years ago, I would say, three or four years ago when we had the boutique grocery store, boutique retail strategy. And then ultimately that enabled me to I knew was a means to an end Diana that like I needed to protraction somewhere so that I could either raise money or find more capital. It wasn’t my end goal to be retail, it was my end goal to ultimately build what I had mentioned earlier, which was a tea community and an experience. And I felt I can best do that online because no one really in the tea space was — I felt this was a huge opportunity. No one was really developing that online. I already had kind of a background in marketing and digital marketing and I felt like that’s something I felt comfortable doing.
So once I could get certain traction in boutique retail, that’s what I really use to raise my first seed round. And then the idea was to take that and really build the foundations of our e-commerce experience and our community. So now today we are 80% direct to consumer in terms of what our businesses and 20% is still like some of that boutique retail, like some of our original partners are still with us, which is amazing. But it’s also slowly expanding more into grocery retail. But now we’re armed with a lot more online data, online knowledge about who our customers are, where they live, what they buy, so that we can now go to the buyer. And instead of us always knocking on doors and just having such a hard time getting in, we can now say, well, this is actually where our customers live and this is what they’re buying. And now we have a really, I think, very compelling story to tell to buyers. And so we’re able now to choose which retailers that make the most sense for us at this point in our journey.
Diana Fryc: Retailers really love that. We advise as much as we can. We advise our clients when we’re working on rebrands to kind of leverage those relationships. Oftentimes, they can feel a little bit competitive or adversarial. And I think it’s just a matter of kind of their job is to sell as much product as possible. And if they’re thinking that your products are not going to be a good fit, don’t take it personally. But when somebody like yourself comes in armed with data, it’s kind of hard. It’s kind of easy for them to then go, “Oh, well, that is our target demo.” And that makes it really easy for them to make a commitment. So it’s really just continued use of your experience and background and leveraging that in, building your relationships, moving forward. I do want to add we talked about that. I mean, I mentioned this earlier, but I remember us talking about it for a few minutes when we were prepping for this call around this whole Boba Tea or Bubble Tea, depends on who you’re talking to right now in the marketplace. But you have that component too, as part of your tea family. How has that been going? Are you getting a good response from that?
Sashee Chandran: Oh, absolutely. Did we talk about how that whole concept was born?
Diana Fryc: No.
Sashee Chandran: Okay, so basically I kind of had this hunch that all of our teas, I would also service. Why do people gravitate towards Tea Drops? Why do our customers buy from us? And it really started clicking with me a couple of years ago that this is more than just a convenient tea, this is an experience. We’re actually working on what I originally really wanted us to do and be which was having an experiential tea kind of offering. And so when Covid hit, this was March last year, immediately, as with all businesses, we were like, what’s going to happen? Are we going to still buy tea? Should we plan for the worst? What’s going on? I think in that process, what I started doing was looking online and seeing like, what are people even searching for right now as it relates to tea and are people anxious? Are people buying more herbal teas? Are they buying or caffeinated teas? And on Google and on Amazon, what kept rising was Boba tea. Where can I find Boba tea?
And I was like, why? And I realized all the Boba cafes were closed, all people, they were milk tea bars were closed and we had already come out with a Chai Tea and a Matcha latte kit. And I was like, we already have the milk tea component here. The only thing we’re missing is Boba, we should have a Boba offering. So within the month, my amazing team put together this kit which included the Boba pearls, the milk tea, the teas that perform best as a milk teas, the sweetened condensed milk packets that we partnered with Copper Cafe on and put it in this really experiential box. And that became our hero product of 2020, like we’ve sold literally millions of dollars of Boba, this Boba experiences. And that was really due to Covid of really finding an opportunity and also an opportunity that we knew serves what customers wanted.
Diana Fryc: My daughter and I, my daughter is a preteen. She’s in junior high, at her first year of junior high. And she was at a friend’s house and she experienced Boba tea for the first time about a year ago, just before the pandemic hit and the lockdown went down. And she was a huge fan and she didn’t know that I had been drinking it. And so that was an opportunity for us to kind of connect. And then when it shut down, we literally went online to try to figure out how to make it ourselves. And it was too overwhelming. And so we were like, you know what? We’re going to have to wait until it comes back up. And then I think right around the holidays, I started seeing Boba tickets popping up and I was like, “Oh, that’s kind of cool.” And then you and I talked and literally my package arrived yesterday. It’s downstairs and I haven’t cracked it open because she and I are going to do that this weekend and that’s our way to connect.
Sashee Chandran: Yeah, and that’s what we found during Covid, especially because it wasn’t just the tea itself, it’s like, yeah, people miss Boba, but they could create this make the experiences memorable with their family members, and that’s why we share videos of how they’re making Boba with their daughters, with their moms, with their sisters. And then this became something to that corporate like we had some amazing corporate accounts come and being like, we don’t know what to do. We have all these employees who are now at home and we quickly created experiential Boba session. So we would send them the kits then we would come. I would do a lot of the sessions myself of how to make Boba, show them how to make three or four drinks, and create a whole corporate program also from a Boba experience too.
Diana Fryc: If you have not had a Boba tea, just do it. Just go. I’m partial to Lichee however you want to pronounce it. That’s my favorite. My favorite, favorite. So I would recommend that to all y’all out there in the gooder world to give that a go. Wow. Lots of fun stuff. Thank you for sharing. I have a one to start wrapping up here before we end our time together. I wish we could kind of talk a little bit about your give back program. You mentioned it a little bit earlier. It sounds like just the beginning of making some really huge impacts for people who need it the most, fresh water. What’s the name of the program again?
Sashee Chandran: Our partnerships with Thirst Project, and they are an L.A. based nonprofit that focuses on the water crisis and youth education around the water crisis, too. So they have two components to their organization, which is building water walls, but also educating youth in high schools, et cetera, around…
Diana Fryc: And this is in the US and around the world?
Sashee Chandran: No, so we primarily have water wells in Africa. So basically our relationship with Thirst Project, we’ve built, I think, three or four water wells out to date. And so they can serve a whole village for the lifetime of the well. Obviously there has to be some maintenance to it, but that’s the intention with it. So yeah, I mean, you just never know. At first, when I started our partnership in 2016 with Thirst Project, I was like, well, we’re still a small business but I didn’t really envision us being able to build a water well one day. So to kind of have that under our belt now in fact later on today, I’m having a meeting with Thirst Project around how we can sponsor some of these scholarships they have for a lot of their incredible youth across the country.
So, that’s been such a meaningful relationship to us and our team. And now we’ve been able to raise enough money or build enough water programs to support over one hundred forty thousand individuals. So we’re just getting started. But we’re really excited about what we’ve done and what we’ll continue to do with Thirst.
Diana Fryc: That’s awesome. Thank you for that work. So I always like to get some sort of interesting tea or tea fact, some sort of interesting fact that people can share with their friends over happy hour, some sort of like did you know, and I wonder if there’s something about tea or your business that you might want to share with everybody that is kind of a fun fact.
Sashee Chandran: Did you know that all tea comes from the same plant? It’s one type of tea plant called Camellia Sinensis and it’s just has to do with processing and oxidization levels that creates the distinction of a white tea, a black tea, a green tea and really any other type of tea.
Diana Fryc: For some reason I always thought white tea was just harvested earlier. But I guess it’s the same plant.
Sashee Chandran: Yes, same plant. It is the different harvesting times for tea. But I think a lot of people think like, oh, no, like a black plant comes from a different plant. It’s all the same.
Diana Fryc: What other women leaders or rising stars do you see? I always like to ask you in the category categories, but it really could be anywhere, somebody that you like to elevate or just simply crush on right now.
Sashee Chandran: Well, lately, my crush, a female leader crush, has actually not been anyone like you think of as like an insane innovator necessarily. But Lynsi Snyder, have you ever heard the name?
Diana Fryc: I don’t know that name.
Sashee Chandran: So, yeah, a lot of people don’t know her, but she’s basically the CEO president of In-N-Out burgers and she is basically an heiress. It’s her grandparents started the business. So she’s worth billions, probably handedly. And I think what I really appreciate about her is that she is actually under the radar. She doesn’t do a lot of interviews. She’s not in the limelight a lot. That’s why no one really knows about her. But what’s really interesting about her is her dedication to preserving the integrity of the In-N-Out menu. So it’s basically stayed the same as it was since the 1950s. The only difference she’s made is in 2018, she added hot chocolate to the menu. But other than that, there’s been no change.
And I think it actually takes as much effort or more to preserve something than it does to change and innovate all the time. And I also think that there’s a lot more in this culture of like, innovation, fads or making the next Keto, whatever plant based whatever. But I think that there is something beautiful about preserving and protecting the integrity of what you’ve built. And her stewardship is really, that’s her life work is really preserving it. And obviously, they’ve been approached so many times to go public, to be purchased, all of these things, but she’s like, it’s not for sale. I’m just preserving it, doesn’t do a ton of interviews. She just focus on what the core mission is. And in a world that’s very distracting, I find that very refreshing.
Diana Fryc: I like that. That’s very interesting. Sashee, what brands or trends are you watching right now or are you just really focused on what you’re doing right now?
Sashee Chandran: Yeah, maybe this is like to our detriment, but I’m not really tuned in to trends in a sense, I think that there are certain trends that turn into like long term influence in our society that are necessary. Like, we just launched unsweetened line this week for Tea Drops. And that’s because we know that the trend towards less sugar is here to stay. But on a holistic level, like really when we come up with different varieties or new experiences, we’re really tapped into what our customers want. We administer not only surveys, but we have a core group of maybe a thousand Tea Drops customers who I go to for advice. Like I literally ask them, like they actually made a decision on what our brand videos should be all the way to, they co-created our December holiday flavors to right now they’re going to be instrumental to this woman health line that we’re launching later this year.
So that is what my gut check is, anything else, any other fads, that’s not really part of my conscious radar.
Diana Fryc: This seems like an insane question because I know how busy you are, but how are you keeping yourself sane and centered these days?
Sashee Chandran: Yeah, well, I mean, meditation’s part of kind of an ongoing practice I like to keep, and then I tried no matter what during the holidays, I go and watch the sunset. I am very fortunate to live like less than a mile from the beach, so that’s like kind of my reward for the day of just literally watching the sunset.
Diana Fryc: Do you have a favorite tea that you take with you or do you change it up all the time? I’m curious.
Sashee Chandran: I mean, my Chai and True is the first Tea Drop I ever created, which was to Chai Spice, I just love to try Chai and the spices and varieties with that. But no, I mean, I have favorites all the time.
Diana Fryc: I’m really enjoying the matcha, by the way.
Sashee Chandran: Oh, great, people love that one, we work with a Japanese family firm.
Diana Fryc: I love it. That’s a whole another thing that all of your teas are influenced from all over the world. They’re not like from one part of the world. I’d love that. I love it. So before we go, if people wanted to connect with you for any reason, what’s your preferred way? Do you do LinkedIn or do you prefer people reach out to you?
Sashee Chandran: My preference is probably Instagram. At Sashee Chandran, so you can find me there and DM me and I’d be happy to reply.
Diana Fryc: Excellent. Well, Sashee, I really appreciate your time today and the work that you’re doing, and I’m so happy to have met you. Thank you so much for your time.
Sashee Chandran: Same, this was such a fun conversation.
Diana Fryc: This episode is sponsored by Retail Voodoo, a creative marketing firm specializing in growing, fixing and reinventing brands in the food, beverage, wellness and fitness industries. If your natural’s brand is in need of positioning, package design or marketing activation, we’re here to help. You can find more information at retail-voodoo.com. And so there you go. I hope you enjoyed this episode. Thank you so much for hanging out with us today. And if you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to this channel and share with your network. Until next time, be well and do gooder.