One Year Update
I published my first tea review on June 25, 2018. It’s been about a year since then. This post will provide a summary of some important milestones during that time period. Of course, I have dozens of video updates on my youtube channel as well if you’d like to delve deeper and see what I was thinking as things were happening. This post will be written without much editing, straight from my brain. But without further ado, let’s get started!
How It Started
I have been drinking loose leaf tea using the gongfu method casually since 2015, around when I started college, and tea bags even longer. Despite that, I really didn’t know much about tea. I would only drink tea every once in a while, and only had tasted a very limited number of samples. In May of 2018, I graduated college and received some green tea as a graduation gift from my siblings. I started drinking tea every day as a result of that and all the extra time I had. And like every college graduate, I had to ask myself what I was really going to do with my time from that point onward.
It was difficult for me to think of a career that I would enjoy. I had majored in studio art, and was passionate about a modular 3D printed planter I had designed during my time in college. I purchased a 3D printer and spent some time developing it further, hoping to eventually sell it online.
However, as this was happening I was also beginning to think more critically about the environmental impact of my lifestyle. I had been vegan for 3 years at that point, so I was vaguely concerned about the environment even then, but it had never become truly important to me to reduce my waste and my carbon footprint. Now that I had begun thinking about it, however, it wasn’t something I was going to ignore. This was a turning point that led me to pursue a low-waste lifestyle.
But guess what? 3D printers make plastic objects that will eventually end up in a landfill. Even the recyclable filament will most likely not be recycled at the end of its life. It was disheartening to realize that my ethical values were now at odds with a passion of mine, a project that I had been working on for years. I really loved this project, and had actually thought I would be working on it for many more years down the road. If I continued pursuing it however, I would be sacrificing my ethical values and would be living out of alignment with those values. So, it didn’t take long for me to realize it was no longer a viable option.
And then the question returned: what should I do? Well, one day I asked myself that and then myself responded with “drink tea and read books everyday”. While that was a nice answer, it wasn’t really practical. Was it actually what I wanted to do everyday? Yes. Would it ever make me any money? No.
A few more days went by before I actually started taking that answer seriously. Why not try to create something that would allow me to drink tea everyday? I had no idea how it would end up making any money whatsoever (and I still am not so sure haha), but I knew I wanted to at least try.
I don’t remember the exact order of events, but at one point I filmed a video of me drinking some of the tea my siblings got me to show them my appreciation and that I was actually enjoying their gift. I think that may have helped put the idea of video tea reviews in my head. I had also been watching some of Gary Vaynerchuck’s content, thanks to one of my brothers, and he did a wine review show when he was starting out. His entrepreneurial energy also helped me get started.
So a culmination of events and influences all happening around the same time led me to start filming tea reviews. I didn’t have any long term goals, I just wanted to start and see where it went.
So I set up a little corner of my room to film some tea reviews. I had my phone to record, a small white ikea table, a glass infuser, and some tea. I was all set! Filming these reviews was very hard at first - I didn’t know how to comfortably talk to a camera, I was taking notes and reading off them awkwardly, and overall the videos were pretty terrible. And I knew they were terrible to some degree. I didn’t know anything about tea or making videos, so why would they be good?! However, it’s not like more than a few people were watching, and I don’t get embarrassed too easily. I also knew I needed to make a lot of bad videos before I started making good ones.
Eventually I moved off the floor and onto a table. That was a nice upgrade. Then I painted my walls white and rearranged my room. Then I found some better lighting in my basement. So the production quality improved incrementally over time.
The first 50 videos or so were just me reviewing tea. I would feature a certain tea from a certain vendor, drink it, and talk about it. I actually did not like a lot of the tea I tried. Part of it was that I had and still have very specific tastes, and part of it was that my palate was very inexperienced. But making 4-5 videos a week during that period really helped me improve my tasting skills, my vocabulary, my knowledge about tea, and my skill at talking to a camera in a relatively short amount of time. I was not an expert, and still am not one, but I was making noticeable strides forward in all those areas.
After a few months of filming reviews, I realized I wanted to focus my efforts on more educational videos, not just reviews. While the reviews were fun, I didn’t like how all my efforts were just focused on discussing some company’s tea. So I started making more videos about different types of tea, comparing different kinds of tea, and whatever I could come up with that would go beyond just reviewing one specific tea sample. These videos also helped me learn a lot, and I would often do a fair amount of research beforehand.
Around the time I was making this switch, I also made the decision to open an online tea shop! This also helped motivate me to shift my content away from reviews, since I didn’t want to be insulting someone else’s tea while selling my own tea - my intentions would be very dubious at that point.
Sourcing tea directly from China, from Chinese producers or tea-makers became a fascination of mine. I wasn’t planning on flying to China, but I did spend a lot of time researching methods for doing this online. Many producers and even farmers have an online presence, however small, so it isn’t impossible to find them if you spend hours and hours searching for them.
The decision to begin preparations for opening an online tea shop was an interesting one. It was initially motivated because I had tasted a lot of tea I really didn’t like at that point, and I figured I could do better than that! However, I questioned whether I really had the necessary knowledge and experience to open a shop. Maybe I should wait a few years, I often thought. But I decided against that.
I don’t think anyone is ever prepared to do something the first time they do it. I was woefully unprepared to film tea reviews, but I did it anyway and they got better with practice. Was I woefully unprepared to open a tea shop? Perhaps, but it will get better as I gain more experience, the same way it did with the videos.
One thought I kept coming back to was: if I’m going to open a tea shop in 5 years when I have more experience, why not just open it now and have a 5 year head start for when I truly do feel prepared? I hope that makes sense because it is the crutch of how I was making these decisions. Sure, maybe I’ll make some mistakes, but I don’t think any of them would ever outweigh the benefits of a 5 year head start. And the version of me that opened the shop now will be so much more prepared 5 years from now than the version of me that waited.
That was my reasoning, and so around August I started delving deeper into sourcing tea while documenting that process and continuing to make more educational videos.
So my videos were improving bit by bit (in my mind at least), and I was busy finding tea to sell. At first, I just wanted to sell whatever tea I could get my hands on that I enjoyed. I remember getting samples, liking them, and thinking: this will go in my shop. Most were terrible, granted, but some were good. And that made me happy! I felt like I was making real progress. Often these teas I was sampling would come from middlemen, tea shops, or large producers. I never really knew who exactly was making them. But they were cheap enough that I could mark them up and they were good enough that I could still sell them for a fair price in the western market. It never got that far, of course.
Eventually I realized that I didn’t want to do things that way. I don’t remember how exactly my goals for sourcing starting changing, but one early motivation was to find tea grown without chemicals. This was in line with my newfound environmental passion. So that meant I had to be a little more picky with what teas I sourced, and at the very least I had to be confident in how it was made. Eventually my goals changed to only selling tea that I purchased directly from the people who made it. Anything else felt disingenuous, as I didn’t want to be buying from middlemen.
My mission for the business was evolving as well. I knew I wanted to have direct relationships with the tea makers. I knew I wanted to focus on the packaging - to be as environmentally friendly as possible. My goal was for this business to be as ethical as possible. My goal was for this business to be ethically aligned with my own lifestyle. I wasn’t and still am not sure if that is even possible given the nature of selling tea from across the world. But it’s not clear enough for me to stop just yet.
Eventually I found two tea-makers, both in the same mountain range but in different villages, that made tea I liked and tea that I thought was unique. The logistics of payment and shipment were annoying but eventually I had the tea shipped to my house. And then came the work of preparing those teas for the website.
Even before I had plans for a tea shop, I wanted a website to host all my videos and to be able to publish articles. I started working on this website in November, and at first it was essentially just a place to host my videos. But I knew it would eventually become the location of my online shop, as well as even more content outside of the videos. My background in freelance web design and user experience design was very helpful as I started working on this site. I use Squarespace, and that makes everything a lot easier too.
Writing articles is less fun for me than shooting videos, but I also believe some types of content are much more well suited to articles as opposed to videos. At first it was very hard to write a useful article, and I still haven’t written too many, but I think they are getting better (notice a pattern?). Articles are better suited for topics related to botany/science, I think.
I also started working on helpful resources for those new to tea. You can view the latest versions of those in the resources tab in the navigation. My goal throughout all this has been to provide genuinely useful videos, articles, and resources. Although I do recognize the inherent business value in creating that sort of thing, I find it best to focus first on how it will be useful to viewers.
I also attempt to be as genuine as possible with this website, in the same way I try to be with my videos. It’s why I don’t use the royal “we” like so many businesses do when in fact it is just one person doing all the work. I am not a team, and I don’t need to make people think I am to improve my perception. I am one man, doing my best. I am also okay with things not being super polished - it’s better to actually publish relatively good resources and good videos and good articles even though none are perfect.
And since I had the first round of inventory, I also started taking photographs, writing copy and designing the storefront and product pages. This took a lot more work than I thought it would, and I wanted to focus on being as genuine as possible. That meant trying to be as objective in the descriptions as possible, as impossible as that is. I ended up going back and changing things so many times. But it was finally good enough to be published, and the online shop was opened just about two months ago.
The first few products consisted of one tea sample set, and three different types of recycled textiles. All have been taken down as of writing this. I sold about 10 sample sets and two tea mats. I was incredibly surprised by how supportive people have been. I didn’t expect anyone to buy anything - remember, these first 5 years are just practice! It helps to think about it that way at least.
I decided not to sell the textiles going forward. I really love them, and they are made from recycled materials which I love. But ultimately reusing local textiles from a thrift store or from around your house is much better. Plus I’d rather just focus on the tea.
Overall, I have learned an incredible amount from this first round of shipments for the 2018 tea, and from this first year focusing on tea in general. I am so glad I started this shop, and I look forward to learning more and sharing more good tea.
I am working on preparing 2019 tea. I will publish a more polished, business-focused update later this year that will cover farmer-relationships, sales, packaging, my mission, and more.
I think the most important lesson I have learned so far is how important it is to start doing something even without a concrete plan in mind. I loved tea, so I started making reviews. Then I wanted to make educational videos. Then I wanted to sell tea. Then I actually sold tea! There is absolutely no way Noah from June 2018 could have predicted what I would be doing in June 2019. None of those things were planned from the beginning, they simple evolved as my experience and motivations and beliefs evolved with them.
Now my goal is to create the most ethical tea shop in the world. But who knows what will happen next?