Every leader was once a person with an idea, a belief, a principle or a conviction. They were someone that relished the thought of one day bringing that idea forward and sharing it with the world.
Oddly enough, leadership is usually not the first thing on one’s mind when embarking on that journey. Typically, it’s the passion, confidence, trial-and-error and mastery over time that seems to create the template or set the standard for others to follow and appreciate in any industry or walk of life.
In my own entrepreneurial journey in the tea industry, this seemed to play out that exact way. Ten years ago, I TEAsed myself with the idea of creating a fun, funky and experiential focused tea company that would make it’s quirky mark in the tea industry in a way that would leave a lasting impact on all who encountered it.
A few years later, I began to carve a respectable name for myself throughout the industry, eventually receiving awards and recognition and being invited to top industry events to share my experience and insights. To be honest, I started out just wanting to drink some good tea and share it with others in a fun and exciting way.
Little did I know, there was actually a kind of “strategy” at work. And looking back, I can now confidently share with you these steps or tips for being a leader in the tea industry:
1. Challenge the Industry Norms, Respectfully
2. Infuse Personality to Your Products and Services
3. Be a Good Storyteller
4. Be Humble and Transparent
5. Be Focused on People Before Product
Here are some insights on each of the strategies or steps that worked for me – all of which may help you with your journey to being a leader in the tea industry:
Strategy No. 1: Challenge the Industry Norms, Respectfully
When delivering presentations to companies who are looking to cultivate an atmosphere of creativity and ingenuity throughout their organization, I often refer to what I like to call “The Great Dilemma.” This is simply the idea that we usually don’t find great success until we challenge what is normal. However, we usually don’t challenge what is normal until we find great success. This creates the great dilemma.
When I looked around the tea industry before starting my business, I saw the big players, I saw the culture and the temperature of the industry and, to me, it appeared to be concrete, unbreakable, and fastened together by years of tradition. The scary part is that it seemed to be working, which then caused me to ask the golden question: How will I be any different? Or, how can I become a leader in an industry that is so set?
Here’s what was certain for me. I had no real experience with tea, and I was not the savviest business professional. I did, however, have a lot of experience in the music industry, as I had been an aspiring artist since I was 13. I asked: What else am I good at or interested in? Fashion, I thought! I love fashion and I’m heavily inspired by the well-known fashion brands. I also love acting and exciting things! Suddenly, it dawned on me. I thought, why can’t music be incorporated into the tea industry? Or, why can’t fashion be a part of how tea is marketed? Or, why can’t tea be presented in an exciting, experiential way rather than the traditional Zen, relaxing and calming way that I was used to seeing everywhere with most tea companies? I had struck a golden truth and found my entry point. And this was the approach that what would help me to become a leader in the tea industry. By doing things in my own unique way.
Ask yourself: What rules in the tea industry do you accept as fact? Why do you follow them? If the answer is, “That’s the way it has always been,” then it will be difficult for you to reach the next level of success in the industry… or any industry. It’s this ability to question authority without disrespect that makes one more likely to be successful or to become a leader.
Strategy No. 2: Infuse Personality into Your Products & Services
In strategy No. 1, we mainly talked about YOU challenging the norms and differentiating yourself in the tea industry. This next step brings the focus on to your products or services. To be a leader in the tea industry, one should infuse all their personality (which is so uniquely… YOU) into your products.
Once I discovered my “Aha” moment – which was simply that the tea industry could use a brand with a non-traditional approach, incorporating fashion, music and excitement into the experience of drinking tea – the next step was natural. I decided that I was going to infuse the same characteristics into all my teas, my website, my branding and business cards, etc.
All the external aspects of my business needed to have a big voice on their own, to compensate for the times where I couldn’t be there to “light it up” myself. At that time, I decided that tea names like: Chocolate Lava Cake or Dan’s Apple Pie would have a better chance at standing out in the market than the basic “Black Chocolate Tea" or “Herbal Tea with Apple Pieces” (no offense to anyone). The teas that you carry in your company will most likely not be the No. 1 differentiator for you as a business, as many tea retailers can get access to the same tea products or very similar products. This means that the character, color and personality of the products will become a very important point of distinction.
The point here is simple: Do whatever you can or whatever is real to you, when coming up with strategies on how to market your products and services. The industry leaders are usually the people who do a great job capturing a specific theme, personality or identity, and then they share it with the world in a captivating way.
Strategy No. 3: Be a Good Storyteller
Leaders in the tea industry must be able to tell great stories. Since the days of night lights and boogie-man dreams, we have always enjoyed a good story. An appreciation for this form of communication is embedded in us since childhood, so there is no doubt why it remains one of the most effective ways of communication today. I think marketing gurus of the world would agree with me when I say that a company’s job is to tell stories about their business in creative ways for 365 days a year, every year.
Be it stories about your products, stories about your services, stories about your team, stories about your history, values, mission, community or industry, customers are always on the hunt for a good, authentic story. This truth creates an amazing opportunity for businesses in the early stages of building their tea company. A combination of Instagram launching (or Insta stories – videos and photos that allow you to share quick snippets of your day with your followers) mixed with sharing every aspect of your day (like what you’re eating, where you’re going, special events, how you make my tea, what you’re wearing etc.) creates the perfect storm.
I was quickly given the title of digital storyteller by my customers, followers, audience. So, what does that have to do with being a leader in the tea industry? Well, there’s no doubt that many of us in the tea community are not selling as much tea as some of the big players in the industry. Nor do we have huge marketing budgets to get our brand out there as the heavy hitters do. However, by utilizing the digital storytelling opportunity and by sharing compelling stories and content on social media every day, you can become an “entertainment tea company” in the industry (an area that was not very crowded at the time when I was launching my tea business).
For me, this storytelling strategy within the market helped me and my business climb up the very big tea ladder… very quickly. Yes, good ol’ storytelling actually delivered results for me and my business. And here’s the good news: Your company, your brand, your values, your travels, your daily routines – all these things that make up your story are unique and exclusive to you. If you can start sharing these stories consistently with your customers, friends, followers and fans, you may just open up a new sub-segment in the industry and be deemed a tea leader.
Of course, you don’t have to do what I did and share your entire life (as I have toned that down over the years). However, you should find something that feels natural and meaningful to you, as well as valuable to your audience. And then, my wonderful reader, you will always have great stories to share!
Strategy No. 4: Be Humble & Transparent
Humility and transparency play a huge role in any great leader’s life. After all, you are not a leader because you are perfect, nor are you a leader because you’re better or stronger or faster or wiser than any of your peers. You’re a leader because you’ve willingly accepted the responsibility of guiding others from point A to point B.
If you’re leading a discussion, you’re accepting the responsibility of guiding the discussion from start to finish. If you’re leading a company, you’ve accepted the responsibility of guiding that company towards profitability and towards accomplishing the mission statement.
I repeat, you’re not a leader because you’re perfect. This truth was very evident to me, as I was well aware of my imperfections and capabilities coming into the tea industry (high school drop-out, several run-ins with the law, rapper/ songwriter, very troubled past). I was not the ideal candidate to lead anyone or any venture from a typical standard. Yet, these imperfections were laid out from the start, as I let my customers know all about me. I made it very clear to my customers and to the industry that I was not this polished tea sommelier and that I had no clue what I was doing. I just wanted to build my “spin” on what it meant to create a tea businesses, and I wanted customers (and viewers) to join me on that journey.
When me and my team were unsuccessful, customers and supporters jumped in to encourage and support us. When we were successful, customers and supporters helped us celebrate. This level of humility and transparency can put any business or person in a position to succeed, as the people you are helping to guide from point A to point B will do everything in their power to ensure you get there successfully.
Strategy No. 5: People Before Product
If you travel to the plushest tea gardens in Kyoto, Japan to find a rare pluck, or climb the misty Wuyi Mountains of China to source a fine oolong, or perhaps journey to the Kericho, highlands of Kenya to discover the perfect cup of tea, all of your journeys would have been in vain if you do not recognize the importance of the people you are leading and serving.
Product can never take priority over people. A great leader understands the value of every single person they interact with – their staff, their customers, their community, their suppliers, their competitors and even themselves. Every effort to cherish, build, love and impact these people should be given in order to become a leader in any industry. The leader in the tea industry will never be the tea company that bashes their competitors or publishes their flaws and weaknesses. The leaders will be the people and companies who seek to build the industry, bring awareness to tea, and celebrate all the beautiful people throughout the supply chain. The leader will be a role model for others to follow – the one who sets a positive example on what it means to strengthen humanity. There is no tea good enough, or teapot beautiful enough, to replace the beauty of a single human heart. Understanding this already puts you in a position of leadership.
Daniel Lewis is an award-winning entrepreneur, author and public speaker. His people-focused outlook on entrepreneurship and his experiential business tactics have garnered him and his business nationwide recognition and many awards and honors. Some of his credits include being invited to the ESPY awards in Hollywood to serve tea to celebrities, in addition to serving tea to Prince Charles – The Prince of Wales. Lewis is also a branding strategist, influencer and Certified Tea Master that offers tea tastings for corporate experiences, work celebrations and customer incentives, among other gatherings. Some of his past clients include ADP Financial, Deloitte, Edward Jones Financial, The Wynford Group and The MS Society of Canada. To learn more, visit IamDaniel.ca.