Teforia Closure a Lesson in Understanding Custom and Customer?

The announced demise of Teforia, a high-tech tea brewing system for consumers is both surprising and mildly disappointing to anyone involved in the tea industry. Despite a reported $15 million in venture capital backing the electric brewer, clearly something went wrong. Second guessing Teforia’s tea-passionate team and core technology serves little purpose, but a few points are pertinent in lieu of such a major fall. While higher tech kettles and tea brewers are becoming increasingly commonplace, the single biggest question within the tea trade—and perhaps among consumers as well—is how much technology is desirable—even practical—when it comes to optimizing tea preparation at home? Kettles that shut off when water has reached preselected temperatures and brewers that adjust for varying tea types have morphed into brewing systems managed by mobile devices and other exotic tech-twists. On top of a retail price that was clearly in the ultra-premium home appliance realm, Teforia touted its ability to produce a superior cup of brewed tea. Tea connoisseurs prefer a more hands-on approach to brewing while the tea consuming masses are generally content with tea bags and simple infuser-style brewing for loose tea preparation. Perhaps Teforia was seeking a sweet spot between these two groups, but regardless, a hefty retail price and the initial requirement that buyers use Teforia’s preloaded tea cartridges might have turned off key consumers the company targeted. In the same year that Starbucks decided to shutter its Teavana chain, the news of such a deeply funded tea brewer collapsing early in its roll-out has turned more than a few industry heads. Is any of this indicative of softening within the specialty tea industry? The answer is a resounding no. Teavana’s downturn is largely attributed to the slow “death of the American mall,” where many Teavana outlets are located. And in the case of Teforia, perhaps failure was not so much a reflection of its technology or marketing efforts as much as consumers remaining quite content with simple, economical ways to brew their daily tea. The specialty tea industry continues to expand worldwide with new shops, devices and brands. Yet as competition becomes more intense, greater due diligence on the part of entrepreneurs and investors is becoming paramount. The ever-popular business rhetoric of “disrupting markets,” while apt in some cases, has not yet occurred in the tea brewing accessory space as happened with K-cups for coffee. Ultimately the time-honored process of brewing a great cup of tea with the manual accoutrements of antiquity may well remain the preferred technique for generations to come. Brian Keating is founder of Sage Group, a Seattle-based tea industry think tank.