Sheena Brady is the founder and CEO of Tease Tea, an all-natural and sustainably sourced loose-leaf tea company based in Ottawa, Canada.
Brady started Tease Tea in 2013, and today she has grown the company into an award-winning business that serves customers in more than 30 countries around the world. But Tease Tea serves up more than just delicious cups of tea. Through the company’s Charitea program, a portion of the proceeds from every Tease Tea purchase supports programs that are dedicated to empowering women and young girls. From shelters to startups, Tease Tea has contributed more than $150,000 in product and financial support to date.
Brady is also the founder of The Founders Fund, a four-month digital program that gives women entrepreneurs access to funding, mentorship and resources to grow their businesses.
World Tea News chats with Brady to learn more about her company, how she launched the business, and her mission to make every sip count.
Question: Hi, Sheena. Thanks for your time! When did you first discover tea and learn to appreciate everything about tea?
Answer: Excited to be doing this interview! I had worked in hospitality for a decade and that journey led me to a prominent, luxury hotel in Toronto where I was asked to build the biggest tea program in the city. I was expected to not only manage a library of over 75 different teas from around the world, but to also train our service team on cultural tea ceremonies that our guests may ask from time to time. At this point in my life, I was a six-coffee a day person to get through the 10 to 15-hour shifts. I didn’t even drink tea. I knew I had my work cut out for me.
Fortunately, I discovered the Tea & Herbal Association of Canada, where I took an eight month journey to become an accredited Tea Sommelier. It was through their program that I learned about the entire industry from bush to cup. From there I realized how relatively simple it was to begin experimenting with creating my own tea and herbal blends out of my then tiny condo. I launched my business Tease Tea not long after in 2013 with $500 in savings and a Shopify store to sell online. We’ve since grown into a company that has sold over a million units of tea to date, with customers in over 30 countries.
Question: So you started blending teas out of your tiny Toronto condo, as a creative escape from a demanding career in hospitality leadership. What attracted you to blending teas?
Answer: I became fascinated with tea particularly because no matter how you feel, there is always a tea for that. Coffee for example, would give me the energy jolt I needed but also the inevitable crash and decline. With tea and herbal blends, if I wanted to reduce anxiety, improve sleep, increase energy, focus more, etc., I could always find a blend to compliment my goals and desires. Tea simply made me feel good and empowered. When I drank a cup of tea to compliment my mood, it felt like an investment in my overall wellbeing.
Question: What have you learned about blending teas since then?
Answer: I’ve since learned that in addition to blending teas that compliment your goals and desires, tea can be a fun, seasonal creation. For example, one of the best parts about my job is curating blends for seasonal trends: Summer iced tea blends, Fall spiced and cozy inspired blends – we even create blends such as Chai Love You for Valentines day, etc. I think that’s what I love most about our business: We are seasonally appropriate, 365 days a year, in addition to being your one-stop-shop for wellbeing centric blends.
Question: What led you to launch Tease Tea in 2013?
Answer: I didn’t see a lot of representation that spoke to me in 2013, online or offline. In the offline retail space, you had big brands in every shopping mall that fell into one of two categories: The store was either mainstream, where several teas contained artificial flavors/ingredients speaking to every demographic from children to grandparents; or, the other type of store that carried and celebrated beautiful teas from around the world but were almost unapproachable to some because the intense focus on origin, history, processing, etc. was information overload and could be overwhelming to many.
I knew I loved tea simply because it made me feel good and I was investing in myself with every tea choice I made. At the same time, my personal values include being a part of support systems for other women given my own complicated challenges throughout life. So, I created my entire business around this idea of investing in your wellbeing while investing in women by combining my passion with purpose.
Question: What challenges and hurdles did you encounter when you launched the business?
Answer: Just because you build it, does not mean they will come. Tease Tea began as a modest side hustle and it took me three months to get my first sale from a complete stranger. I had to work incredibly hard and creatively to get our name and brand out there. Tactics included running my own PR strategy, hosting local events, and eventually opening up two pop-ups in NYC.
Question: What advice do you have for others who want to start a tea business?
Answer: Tea is a very crowded space. Focus on your differentiator early on. For us, that was not only focusing on the idea of investing in your wellbeing, but also investing in women.
When you look at Tease Tea, you see a very women centric tea brand that gives back with every purchase targeting conscious consumers. When I was getting started, there were no other brands that I was aware of taking this approach with tea. We also evolve our sustainability efforts whenever we can and highlight that. We haven’t had everything figured out since day one, but we’ve been learning since day one.
In addition, I’d say “Mind your Margins.” Particularly with loose leaf tea, margins are strong but once you factor in packaging, marketing, shipping, advertising, insurance, etc., that can shrink your margins big time. At minimum, whatever the cost of your product is, build a brand that can support the MSRP being at least 5x the cost of product.
Question: Tease Tea is all about empowering women around the globe. Can you tell us about that mission and what you’ve accomplished?
Answer: Most recently, this includes our Founders Fund accelerator program run by our team that we originally launched in Canada. To date, we have raised over $100,000 in non-repayable funding across 18 companies and provided 500+ women identifying founders access to mentorship to elevate their leadership and their businesses. It’s important for us to be a part of removing systemic and traditional barriers that women in business can experience.
In addition to building funding and mentorship opportunities for women founders, we love to get creative with our campaigns. Recently, we did something very cool that our COO Amanda Baker came up with: For Giving Tuesday, we purchased equipment or resources to help make running the business of many women founders a little bit easier, based on their Founder wishlist items they sent to us in advance. We delivered things like label printers, podcast mics, shelving, etc. Seemingly small purchases that made a big impact on the Founders they were gifted to in terms of streamlining how they run their businesses.
Question: What sets Tease Tea apart from other tea companies?
Answer: The fact that we are a women-centric and mission-driven company definitely makes us stand out. We are a brand that speaks to conscious consumers and our values are deeply rooted in how we operate as a business.
Question: Tell us about the tea and tea products your company offers.
Answer: However you’re feeling, we have tea for that. On our website, we curate tea blends beyond what type they are. We have collections based on mood and desire in addition to seasonality. We exclusively work with tea importers that are accredited by the Ethical Tea Partnership, and our tea bags are biodegradable/compostable made of plant based fibers. We also offer a range of modern tea accessories to prepare your tea.
Question: Tease Tea is based in Canada and your customers are all around the world. What creative things have you done to promote your business and build your customer base?
Answer: We love taking risks and trying new things at Tease Tea, especially when it comes to strategic partnerships. We’ve worked with so many partners – from apps who offer products from select vendors to their users, to subscription boxes that are highly underestimated as the lifestyle marketplaces they are all moving towards and rapidly growing into. Bottom line: We get our products in front of as many eyes as possible that are aligned with our demographic. Doing this allows us to leverage their reach and audiences to create strong brand awareness. However, a lot of these partnerships come with the cost of sacrificing strong margins. If you think about it big-picture, though, and set up the right incentives, it can be a strong customer acquisition play to eventually bring that customer back to your website and convert into a life-long customer. Example: We have a large subscription box client we’ve been working with since 2016. This client has grown from curating seasonal boxes to building a massive marketplace. When we sell them our tea, we include incentives for their customers to visit our website. Previously, 80 percent of our customers used to be in Canada. Because of strategic partnerships like this though, now 70 percent of all our revenue is from outside of Canada. Our online store also continues to experience a healthy growth rate.
Question: From your perspective, what’s the tea market in Canada like right now? Are you seeing more and more customers learning about tea and purchasing loose-leaf tea?
Answer: The market in Canada requires a lot of education at times, however, due to general increase in consumers caring more about their health, well-being and self-care rituals we find we are having to do less and less of this educating and storytelling in recent years.
Question: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your business? And have you seen more customers discover tea during the pandemic?
Answer: While I empathize deeply with how many business are suffering during the pandemic, we are doing well overall. Quite simply, I fundamentally believe that many view tea as accessible comfort in a cup. An opportunity to put the world on pause. Our messaging is resonating with our audience stronger than ever, and while our wholesale channel has been negatively impacted, our online channels are growing.
Question: What do you want potential retailers to know about Tease Tea? Do you offer any support to retailers who want to sell your products?
Answer: Yes! We have a separate online portal for retailers to carry our tea that includes our products for seamless ordering, though also includes training videos and information for every single tea. We do virtual staff training and tastings as well.
Question: Thanks for your time. Last question: What advice do you have for other tea-related businesses that might be facing challenges during the pandemic?
Answer: Focus on how your business can be one of two things during these times: a resource or a relief. How can your business be a resource or provide comfort, for example? Or, how can your business be a relief and provide a sense of escapism? Finally, lean on the community or people you admire. If you see a business owner that seems to be doing well during these times – even if they are not in your industry, ask them how. You’d be surprised how much innovation and creativity can spark from these conversations and motivate you to propel them into action. The business owner who is doing well almost always wants to pay their knowledge and success forward, too.
To learn more about Tease Tea, visit TeaseTea.com.