An Entrepreneur Creates a Company That's Unquestionably Her Cup of Tea
There's an old adage that you shouldn't be working in your business. You should be working on your business.
That can be tough when you're a startup, but some entrepreneurs can pull it off, and so far, Alissa White is. If you want to do the type of thing she does, you should pay attention to her. White is the founder of Matcha Source, an online retail store selling matcha powdered green tea from Japan. If you have no clue what matcha powdered green tea is, you aren't alone, and that, of course, is part of White's challenge. If you're selling sofas, the public understands that. They get it. If you're selling matcha powdered green tea, a little education is in order.
The easiest way to explain is as a powdered tea made from shade-grown tea leaves. It's gained some traction in the US because of its apparent health benefits. It's full of antioxidants and fiber, for instance, and it's sugar free.
Anyway, White, who describes her age as "old enough" and "keep 'em guessing," discovered matcha powdered green tea several years ago when a friend brought some over. She was instantly bowled over. "It was love at first sight," says White, dreamily. "You open the tin for the first time, and this matcha smoke powder wafts out. It has this jewel-like green color and is really quite beautiful."
It wasn't long before she started mulling over the idea of trying to get her fellow Americans to fall in love with this Japanese tea. But she didn't jump into starting her own green tea retail company. She already had a perfectly fine career as a partner and co-founder at a Web development firm in New York City.
But in 2005, her father, Dr. Seymour H. White, who had been a diabetic and had had health problems for a while, passed away, which is how Alissa found herself back at home in Los Angeles.
It was going to be a temporary visit, but she decided she just couldn't go back to live in New York City. "After he passed away, I had a 'life is short' moment," says White, "and I knew above all, I was unhappy and unfulfilled in my work life at Media Farm. My partner and I had a great run. We met in graduate school and formed our business while still in school. For 10 years, we worked with a diverse range of clients and managed staff of extremely talented creative and technical professionals. We met and worked with piles of startups and had a beautiful top floor office with southern exposure and sunset views. That said, after 10 years, I was burnt out on meetings and e-mail and wanted something else."
There was also something else keeping White from returning to New York City. Her older brother, Judah, was ill, suffering from Hodgkin's Lymphoma. White decided to stick around to be near Judah; her younger brother, Benji; and her mother, Martha. She split the debts and assets with her partner "and called it a day." Her former business partner still runs Media Farm.
About a year later, White's brother died. He was only 39.
In her grief, White began nurturing an idea she had had for some time: that of selling matcha powdered green tea. If nothing else, she liked the idea of selling something healthy, perhaps because both her father and Judah had been physicians, specializing in internal medicine.
Eventually, White decided to go for it. She would start another business, selling her favorite beverage.
Making Matcha Source
White considered names like Matcha Merchant and Matcha Shop, but finally decided on Matcha Source. She liked the name, and the URL address seemed a good fit. She has noticed in phone orders that it's easy to mangle. "I've got customers saying everything from Macho Source to Matra Source," says White.
Still, the name was obviously the easiest step in creating her business. She had to actually find someone to make her tea. Flying out to Japan to raise shade-grown tea plants wasn't practical.
She began importing Japanese matcha powdered green tea and put stickers on the packaging, since it was all in Japanese, and she wanted her customers to be able to read what they were buying. "But then I thought, 'This is insane. This should be my own brand,'" says White, who found a vendor in Japan that specialized in making green tea.
"They have contracts with farmers in the region," says White. "The leaves are handpicked, air dried and stored in this site, where they eventually are in this dried, parsley-like state until they are grinded on stone grinding wheels that were hand carved by master carvers over a hundred years ago. It's a pretty elaborate process, and it takes about an hour to process 40 grams."
The company then packages the matcha powdered green tea and ships it to White. That is, they did ship it directly to her. Recently, however, she found a real fulfillment center.
The Virtual Entrepreneur
"The tipping point came at the end of last year," says White, who found herself overwhelmed with shipping orders from her brother's bedroom, which had become something of a warehouse as well as her office. "That's when I started to really pound the pavement and look for a fulfillment center."
She found it largely by searching through Google. "I had asked for some referrals, but it was really finding fulfillment centers on the Internet, then picking up the phone and asking, 'Can I visit your facility?' If they said, 'No,' then I knew that wasn't going to be a great option for me. I had a list of criteria I was looking for, and one of them was being able to be close to my product."
White says some entrepreneurs don't have that luxury -- if the product is heavy to ship, for instance, they may have to go for a more far-flung fulfillment center if that center offers better pricing. But green tea doesn't weigh much, and she felt certain she could find a fulfillment center in Los Angeles that would be a good fit for her. She ultimately had to choose between two, and, after using the prices they gave her and making end-of-year projections for her company, she determined that with one of them, she would make a healthy profit, and with the other, she wouldn't.
All this helps explain why White is an entrepreneur to watch. Customers can now order White's tea without White having to be involved. "The goal all along was to be as virtual as possible," says White. "It's about building a system, creating a work flow that worked without my involvement -- which doesn't mean me not working."
True enough, because White still has her work cut out for her. White's main function right now is to work on marketing her product, striking up deals with distributors, overseeing the system of work flow that she has constructed, devising new recipes, providing excellent customer service and, as she says, "scaling up and continuing to do it with excellent customer service and making sure everyone has a compelling experience, whether in ordering online or on the phone to when they're drinking the tea. It's all about creating an awesome experience."
And there's definitely room for growth. Right now, White gets about 350 orders a month. Not bad for a startup that began in an entrepreneur's little brother's bedroom, but it's a good bet if the executives at Lipton Tea read that number, they would giggle.
But that's okay. White appears up for the challenge of scaling up, and she has an advantage over a lot of entrepreneurs. If she ever gets stressed by everything on her to-do list, at least she can relax and feel good about where she is while drinking a nice cup of her very own product. Entrepreneurs who manufacture things like floor polish and antacid never quite have that same luxury.
Geoff Williams is a frequent contributor to AOL Small Business. He is also the co-author of the new book Living Well with Bad Credit.