In The Beginning…
That’s how the Bible starts. That’s also how the Walker Tea Company starts too but not quite as dramatic as the beginning of the universe.
For the past 3 years, I have worked on birthing a company from a simple idea I got from listening to an audiobook while cruising through the cornfields of Indiana. I was listening to the book “Crush It” by Gary Vaynerchuck, one of my many entrepreneurial heroes. At the end of the book, he talks about 5 great ideas he has but can’t get to them because of the crazy success he is already having from being the online wine guy. He said to take one and see what you can do with it. The one that catches my attention is tea.
It’s going to be big Gary says. It has the complexities of wine, healthy for you, and people are drinking fewer sodas and high sugar drinks now. It’s growing like crazy!
OK, that’s what I’ll do. It was just that simple. Heck, I’m from the south and I practically grew up with sweet tea in my baby bottle. I’ll create a multi-million dollar specialty loose leaf tea company. Well, that’s the plan anyway. I didn’t want to build a small business. I had already done that with my photography business of 15 years. That business was great until the digital revolution made everyone a photographer.
Back to School.
I am currently an online college student at The University of Alabama finishing my Bachelors in Business and Commerce while living in Louisville, KY. Try to explain that one to grandma. As my wife finished up her degree in teaching for her second career she thought it would be a good idea for me to go back and finish too. Thanks, honey, great idea. We have 5 kids, we both work full time, active in church, kids sports and the oldest about to get married. I wasn’t quite sold on the idea yet, but on a beautiful fall afternoon while watching the Alabama Crimson Tide destroy yet another team on the gridiron I got this brilliant idea, or so I thought.
I grew up watching coach Bear Bryant with my dad and grandfather so how cool would it be to graduate from UA. I was born not too far from there anyway. They have an online bachelors program in business, everything can be done online, and I look pretty good in houndstooth. It was set. The next week I sent my application in and started the spring semester. Too late to turn back now. At one time our family had 4 enrolled in college and the youngest in 4th grade. So for the next several years date night consisted of working on homework together at the dining room table. Productive yes, romantic no.
They Liked It in Alabama.
In the fall of 2013, there was a contest on campus for new business start-ups. Send in a 2-minute elevator pitch for your business concept and we will get back to you. Of course, I’m not on campus so the odds of me even getting noticed are pretty slim. Remember, I’m the old guy back in school competing against a really smart group of on-campus students with a few MBA’s mixed in too. Having a start-up is cooler now than being in the band when I was their age. You are perceived as a real rock star. When I was their age I just wanted to play guitar like Eddie VanHalen and sing like Steve Perry. If you are too young just Google them. I am going to compete with 20 something’s that are starting their own companies and I don’t stand a chance.
Well somebody liked it. I was chosen as one of 15 finalists out of 100 to compete on campus in front of a panel of judges. The night of the competition I walked into the waiting area to see some very sharp dressed students ready to destroy me. We all waited in the lobby area while a few of the contestants nervously talked about their start-ups.
The conversations went like this… I have an advanced algorithm that will allow my app to do amazing things…I have an orthopedic device that will revolutionize the healthcare industry…I stared at the ceramic mug that I bought for a prop and said…well…I have tea. Didn’t seem to have the same ring to it. I thought this is going to be a short night. Can I just slip out the back door now and we will just pretend there was a mistake in the preliminary results? I really don’t belong here.
Apparently, I did belong there because when the winners were announced the next morning Walker Tea Company had taken 1st place. I convinced the judges there is a fast-growing market for a really great cup of tea and that Walker Tea could compete with the big boys. About this time Starbucks had just purchased Teavana and announced plans for over 1,000 tea bars across the US in the next 5 years. I would say that was a pretty good exclamation point to a memorable weekend.
So That’s How the Walker Tea Company Started.
A simple idea and a tremendous amount of hard work. I have tasted over 200 teas, traveled to trade shows to look at the latest teaware from around the world, had Skype conversations with tea farmers from China and India at 1am in the morning, and even took 2 semesters of Mandarin in college (I passed because they felt sorry for me I think). I am now nowhere even close to being an expert in tea and question the self-proclaimed experts that claim to be, but I have curated an amazing set of great teas and some of the coolest teapots, mugs, infusers, and kettles on the planet. I look at myself more of a museum curator of great tea and art than a shop owner. So now in the words of Seth Godin, another entrepreneurial hero of mine.
“Go make a ruckus”. Thanks, Seth, I think I will.
P.S. The original name for my project was the Walker Tea Company but after research I found, it is difficult to trademark a Surname for a company so the name was changed to SOMO which means really, really, really, great tea.