Sashee Chandran is the founder and CEO of Tea Drops, an organic tea company that has disrupted an age-old industry with its' creativity, quality, and convenience. But, success didn't come easy. Sashee talks candidly about her experience of starting and funding a venture-backed business, how the changes in digital marketing are impacting D2C brands, and the importance of mental health.
This transcript has been generated by an AI tool.
00:05 - 00:47
Welcome to Women in Wealth. I'm Beata Kirr, co-head of investment strategies at Bernstein, and this podcast aims to educate and inspire women to make the right choices for their wealth. Sashee Chandran was just 28 when she plowed money she saved for her MBA into a startup. That startup sold loose leaf tea and used fair labor and sustainable packaging, and though she lacked connections, she more than made up for it with sheer persistence. My colleague Brian Housing discussed her fascinating and purpose driven journey in a recent episode of his show The Inflection Point. And I thought our listeners would also enjoy hearing it today. Enjoy.
00:48 - 00:53
Sashee, thanks so much for joining me today. I really appreciate it.
00:53 - 00:56
Thank you, Brian, for having me. I've been looking forward to this discussion, too.
00:56 - 01:15
So you left basically a career to do this. And it takes a lot of courage, takes a lot of thought and strategy. And I'd love for you to start with what was the impetus for actually getting this thing going and leaving maybe something that was a little bit more comfortable and entering the stage of entrepreneurship?
01:15 - 02:01
Yeah, I think it's definitely a situation that a lot of entrepreneurs face, you know, leaving something that seems pretty secure to jumping into a passion project or a business. And, you know, for me at the time, I had a really fulfilling career at eBay in Silicon Valley. I was working in marketing and market research, and I was on this rotation program and really just kind of going up that corporate ladder and on the side, you know, I always had this passion. T was always part of my upbringing. My dad was from Sri Lanka, my mom's Chinese. My dad was actually born on a tea estate in Sri Lanka. So, you know, as a beverage, I was always served in my household to guests and at family gatherings and something that I came to love as more of a touchpoint to my community, you know.
02:01 - 02:37
. And so as I grew up, I always knew I want to do something in the tea space. I always thought it would be owning a tea shop when I retired. I never thought it would actually be part of my life's work. But as I started working in this more formal office environment, I would always brew tea at my work. And one of the things I realized is the art of making tea is actually a very long process. It involves a catalyst strainer. The tea leaves ties deep, the tea leaves. And so that's not very conducive to a fast paced corporate environment. And that was really the first light bulb moment that, oh, you know, something like this doesn't exist. So a quick way to make loosely a cup of tea.
02:37 - 03:09
So after I created the prototype and shared it with friends and started selling it, farmers markets, I think that point out of deciding to leave eBay just became clear and clear because it's kind of that feeling you have when you have one foot in one boat that's going in one direction and another sudden another boat that's going a different direction and you're feeling split into two. And both are very demanding and both require a lot of time. And so I think for me it was just building the confidence to like leap into this business and actually call it a business.
03:09 - 03:32
I hear what you're saying in a lot of ways. You were being maybe a little bit more protective of yourself in that you were sort of leaning into it, but you weren't like making a complete jump at that time. Wanted to make sure that perhaps there was like a proof statement out there. But what gave you the confidence to ultimately say, I have a good idea, people are reacting to this in this way? What was.
03:32 - 04:00
. That? I think it was a couple of things. You know, I was doing a lot of these artisan shows on the weekends, those open markets, farmer's market type of shows. There's one that my friend had invited me to to do in her neighborhood. BLOCK And so I brought all my tea drops there, the prototypes I made. And on the side, I also had this other floating business idea of basically baking cookies on the spot. It's like unrelated to tea drops, but really it was my gateway to making tea drops, the business that it was.
04:00 - 04:34
. But on this particular day, it was going to be 95 degrees. And so obviously I knew very little people would want freshly baked cookies at this show. So I brought my tea drops prototypes just as a backup in case I could sell them. And I put it on a plate. It wasn't anything fancy. I didn't even have packaging for the tea drops. I honestly was packing it in Ziploc bags, but people started buying them without really having much context to it. They're like, Oh, tea that melts in hot water. Cool, that's an awesome idea. And ended up selling 5060 of the prototypes I had brought with me in total. I maybe had 60 or so.
04:34 - 05:12
. So just from that initial sales push, I kind of knew that this was something interesting. You know, I didn't think it would be a full fledged business, but I knew that this was something I should latch on to and figure out. So I figured that was one moment. And then I think the second thing was I was very lucky at my corporate job that I had vacation stocked up. My manager at the time gave me Every five years you work at eBay, you get a sabbatical. One month paid time off. He let me. Take that earlier than the five years, because I had floated that, hey, I was thinking of leaving to do this idea. He kind of was like, Well, why don't you take some time to explore this?
05:12 - 05:42
? First, fully anticipating I would do it, I would come back and that would be the end of this. But that time I was given both my vacation and then the sabbatical. It allowed me to fully dive into the experience of working on this idea day in and day out. And after experiencing that, it's almost like you really do get the entrepreneurial bug. I couldn't turn back. That was it for me. Even though I couldn't justify it with sales numbers, I knew that I'd found something I would love to do, and it was really hard to turn back at that point.
05:43 - 05:54
Yeah, I can tell for you a lot of this was almost convincing yourself that this was the passion project you wanted to follow even more than maybe what a customer or a potential audience might say.
05:54 - 06:16
Yeah, I think it was that. But I also needed to have validation from people, you know. And so the sidebar of that is like I launched Teardrops on my 28th birthday and I said, I didn't call it a business, I just said it was a project. I knew that at that time, the amount of traffic you got on your Facebook page was on your birthday because everyone had to go to your page at that time. Happy birthday.
06:17 - 06:57
So right, that was when I was getting most traffic to my own personal page. That's the day I announced it saying, Hey, I'm like, starting this thing. I'll send you guys samples of it. If you provide feedback, I'll send you a survey. Just give me feedback on it. And I had over 70 or 80 friends respond to that. And that also was like the point of validation to say, okay, people are actually giving me pretty decent marks for this. Yeah, they have feedback on packaging and like certain taste notes, but overall, like, I do think I have a product market fit. And I also knew just from my own experience as a tea drinker, this was a gap in the market for sure, that product validation plus like my own desire to really jump into this, both fueled the decision.
06:57 - 07:25
Yeah, that's absolutely understandable and clear in your story. You know, I know you have a passion for tea. I know that based on what you said, it wasn't easy to do it in a fast paced world. But how did you come up with this idea? Because this idea actually got a patent recently. And I saw a photo of you on social media with that final approval, like I got this, which I think probably was pretty meaningful to you, but I'd like to get an idea of how you came up with it and what this patent really does mean to you at this stage of the business.
07:26 - 07:58
Yeah, I never thought I would be inventor of any kind that wasn't in the cards for me, but I started experimenting with different tea blends early on my kitchen at the time after work. And as I was thinking about this idea of a more bagless and instant tea experience, and one thing led to another. And one day I think I was honestly in the in a bath. I was inspired by a bath bomb, which is like you drop it in hot water, it kind of dissolves. And I couldn't get that out of my head. And that was like what I was trying to make, even though I didn't know how I was going to get there.
07:58 - 08:26
How do you even go about creating something like that? But I started experimenting in my kitchen. I contacted some food, scientists got their insight, and honestly, this was all derived in my kitchen. Over the course of a year and a half, the approach I took was very much like the scientific method you learn in seventh or eighth grade where you have a hypothesis, you test scenario observations, you go back to the drawing board and iterate. And that's kind of the approach I took until I created this bomb of tea.
08:26 - 09:20
And at that point I went to a local business resource center called Score. They provide free mentorship. It's a lot of retired execs, etc., that give back and provide business insight and resources to new emerging businesses and business owners who are just starting out. So I went to a score mentor and he's the one who really inspired me with the idea. Like, I think you actually do have something that's defensible and you could consider patenting it. And I didn't have that knowledge of how to go about doing that or, you know, it's such a costly endeavor. So I remember him saying because he had some legal experience before, he's like, look, if you write your own, it's called a provisional patent. Anyone can write one, you can submit it to the USPTO. I'll look at it and review it, and then you can submit it. And that at least gives you one year to secure the idea. And if you really want to pursue it after a year's time, then you go down the traditional path of patenting the idea.
09:20 - 09:45
So I didn't know anything about writing a patent or how it works, but I went and spent a weekend on the USPTO site. I looked at kind of all the other existing patents and the format they use and the drawings and all that stuff. And I just took a stab at like writing down my idea and everything, all the components that were involved in it and ended up going that route of, you know, writing it. He reviewed it. I submitted it on the USPTO site. So that was the beginning of the journey.
09:45 - 10:33
Obviously, it took over five years from then to to really defend your patent. And the fact that this is a true unique invention, I honestly never thought that it would go through. I was just like going down this path because I'm like, well. I guess it is a unique invention. I should try to defend it, but I think it was something where I didn't actually think it would happen. So to actually get the USPTO patent papers last week and see that it is really a recorded invention is just kind of blows my mind because it's nothing I set out to do. But it's it's obviously a really gratifying feeling to have that under our belt and also to prove that like I did go through a ton to just defend this idea and that now there's a reward for it.
10:33 - 10:54
Yeah. And congratulations again. An amazing accomplishment. So now you have this idea, you have a consumer audience that is giving you good feedback, showing you that there's some efficacy there. But now you've got to scale this. You know, a lot of businesses, they're able to maybe get they have a little bit of money themselves or they're able to get some friends and family.
10:54 - 11:06
Talk a little bit about how you got there because the whole idea of fundraising around T drops is a big part of the story and I'd love to hear a little bit more about that.
11:06 - 12:01
I always preface this because I think everyone's journey is so unique. And so when you talk to other entrepreneurs, I think everyone has this I have this business idea now. I should go out, raise money and go to any VC I can to raise this capital. And I would just preface it with there's so many ways to approach this that you don't have to necessarily go down the path of raising traditional b, c, there's a lot of different lenders, alternative financing and also depends on the type of business you want to build. For me personally, I didn't have a lot of connections to the VC world. I didn't actually didn't even know what Angel Investor was when I first started. The first capital I use was my own. I had my savings. At the time I was thinking about doing an MBA. I had secured some savings and they also had just purchased a home. So I took a line of credit on home to use both for the home, but also in case anything happened with the business. So with that in hand, that's what I use as my startup capital.
12:01 - 12:45
And in the meantime I started just educating myself on alternative financing options. So I read this book called Venture Deals by Brad Feld, and there's another co-author to that which talks about what the various financing instruments are from a convertible note to an equity raise to bridge round, etc.. So I kind of understood the language a bit more, but I think the hardest part obviously is knowing where do you find investors if that's not naturally who you're networked with? And so that was the hardest part, I think finding them, but then also convincing them that I had a scalable business because I think before when you look at my product, it's super cute. So people were thinking it's a novelty item. How are you going to scale it? Right. It's going to be a full time million dollar business, right? So I think there was a lot of convincing of that.
12:45 - 13:21
But then secondly is like, where do you find these so-called investors? So for me, I just started pitching and I would realize that there are, you know, startup pitch competitions and there are specific ones that might be related to your industry. So for me, it's the consumer packaged goods world. It's being a woman founder. And so there were a couple of different pitch opportunities I came across. And what I noticed is that the judges on the pitch competitions are oftentimes VC managers or notable angel investors. And so if you can get in front of them, even if you don't win, it's a great gateway to just get a conversation going, get an introduction.
13:21 - 13:48
So that's what I did because I didn't know anyone in this space. So I started entering pitch competitions. We would make the top ten. Some of them we would win first place. And honestly, that's how I rounded out my first set of investors for my seed round was going down this route. Out of the four institutional investors I have three of them I met through a pitch competition. So that is like my advice for people who don't have any connections is just figure out a way you can get in front of these guys. And that was my way of getting visibility.
13:48 - 14:07
So now you have this capital and obviously the expectation is to continue to make this bigger. And so what does that look like for teardrops? Because a lot of what you're doing right now is direct to consumer. But there are, you know, obviously a lot of other options. What does that look like for you in terms of the growth?
14:07 - 14:53
So we actually didn't start out to be direct to consumer. I was selling to boutique retailers, mostly corporate sales and grocery retail sales were now in Whole Foods Midwest, where instead of Costco in Southern California. But honestly, that started first and then we started seeing this huge opportunity online. If you look at the T category, there really isn't much out there online. And so I saw this huge opportunity for us to build a very unique experience and also a tech community. And so that's where I started focusing our efforts around 2018 ish. And so since then we now become, you know, 75, 80% of our revenue comes from direct to consumer online. We have a whole set of products. And I think the grounding element in all of this is the brand and community aspect of T drops.
14:53 - 15:22
. So our mission is to create magical T moments that connect you to what's important. And when we say what's important, that means connection to oneself, connection to one. Community connection to one's family. So there is this element that a lot of our tickets, etc. are experiential and to be shared. And so that's why we've been seeing this huge surge on direct to consumer, especially during the pandemic, because people like really craving that. So I think that will continue for us. That direct to consumer is going to be still a huge source of growth for us.
15:22 - 15:47
But we also see this insane potential to obviously grow the omni channel experience and T drops, whether that's in-store retail, but also internationally, the tea categories is huge globally. Tea consumption is actually in the US is actually fourth or fifth when you compare it to the rest of the world. And so we have a lot of untapped potential that we can pursue internationally and that gets us really excited.
15:48 - 16:36
Yeah, and to do that, I think you have to obviously build the brand and you've got a great emerging social media platform, but that world is changing a lot. Like where do you put your marketing dollars and which platform you decide to find and use and the influencers and all of that. It's a big topic that I wanted to discuss with you because I think there are a lot of people that are maybe not quite where you are, but they're grappling with the fact that Facebook and Instagram have changed their algorithms. And it's not as easy to do what you used to do before, and you can do YouTube and there's all these different things out there. So I know it's a big topic, but maybe we could dissect it a little bit by talking first about your marketing experiences. What you see are the challenges out there. What you see is the opportunity.
16:36 - 17:31
Well, I think you're right. And we touched upon it a bit last time, just how the paid digital marketing landscape has completely transformed the last several months. And if you're a DTC brand, I'm sure you feel as to where Apple has made some privacy changes, which is affecting your ability to really target your end consumer, both prospecting so acquisition, but also retarget your customer on Facebook and Instagram. That has completely challenged our business so much. But I also think that it's also force brands to be really clear about their messaging and who their target customer is, because it's no longer a situation where you can just spray across the board and see what sticks. You have to be super intentional about your brand and your messaging and who you're targeting. And so for us, that means that we're trying to really assess our whole acquisition funnel where our customers are.
17:31 - 18:23
. Also have a clear sense of who this, you know, for our our customer base. She's primarily a woman. Her average age is 36. You know, she has certain characteristics and hobbies, etc.. So are we really reaching her in the right place? And is the messaging that we have in our offering, is it really adding value to her? So I think the best brands that can really deliver high value to the consumer, but also they're really clear on who they're serving. So I think you have to be just a lot more intentional about who your customer and then subsequently how do you acquire them. It's no longer that for us personally. We're going to invest a lot more in the Facebook channel. If it's a situation where we we actually can't really target our core customer, it's driving us to actually be really creative and think outside the box of alternative channels, both online and offline, of how we're going to reach this and consumer.
18:23 - 18:49
So that means a lot more marketing budget is going to go to out of home to just very unique paid channels. You know, Pinterest is now a huge part of us being able to reach out. And consumer Tick Tock is another emerging channel that shows a lot of promise. So this is actually as much as it is a crisis I'm looking at. This is like, whoa, this actually opens up your whole universe of how to reach your end consumer, which is exciting. But obviously the double edged sword is that it's very.
18:50 - 19:32
Very and I think that all the business owners that we're talking to grapple with these decisions, whether you're product or your service, you have to really figure this out. So you've brought this up a couple of times, and I mentioned at the beginning a woman owned business, a female founder, female boss. How have you seen that change since you started? Do you view it right now as an opportunity? What does the landscape look like? Because I go to some of these trade shows and I actually see money now seeking female founders, looking to empower female run businesses. And I love what I see. And so I just was wondering from your impression, how does that look and what have you run across?
19:32 - 20:17
Yeah, I mean, there's no better time to be a female founder than now. And when I say that, I also recognize the certain challenges and hurdles that female entrepreneurs are actually faced with. But at the same time, I'm looking at all these different doors that have been opened, as you mentioned, from financing institutions that just purely focus on woman owned businesses to pitch competitions that are focused on women, to certain conventional programs that cater to minority and women owned businesses. But a lot of the retail partner. As we work with, do want a subset of their vendors to be women owned businesses. So like all of these different opportunities exist for us that we're definitely not there. Even three years ago, five years ago, seven years ago. And so I think we have to recognize the progress that has been made.
20:17 - 21:04
. And I would say the second part of this is that I do think that there are very real challenges women face, whether it's access to capital or some other hurdles. And that is all true. I do think, though, that it's very important to stay focused on the things you can control, which is your own performance and the validity of your business. Any time that I've gone in to have a discussion around, you know, financing for my business or pitching or, you know, buyer conversations, I think the fact we're woman owned and have a women forward supply chain is very important to our brand. But also we do perform you know, we perform in terms of velocity, we perform in terms of our other metrics. And so I want to always have the conversation lead with that and not some of the perceived disadvantages.
21:04 - 21:06
Sure. Yeah. Makes sense.
21:06 - 21:22
There's also another angle to the business that I think stands out, which is there's this purpose driven social impact component that, you know, not everyone may know about. Can you maybe give us like a little bit of a better sense of what's important to you and the characteristics of Teardrop that fit that description?
21:22 - 22:17
Yeah, I think there's a couple different layers to that piece of it. I think that we're really proud, as I mentioned, to have a very woman forward supply chain that carries through from our manufacturers to our warehouse team to our actual corporate team as well. So that's one thing. I think the second thing is just reducing waste when it comes to packaging and packaging in general, and we're on track to really deliver on that. Our cylinders are 100% compostable. So are the wet boxes of the tea comes in and the next frontier is the tea wrappers themselves. So because of food grade reasons, we've had to use a recyclable plastic and now we're moving to a completely plant based material by the beginning of next year. So that's going to make an effect, our entire packaging compostable. So we're really proud about that. And reducing the waste of a tea bag and the associated microplastics in your tea bag, etc. are all being removed. So that's on the sustainability side.
22:17 - 23:12
And then in terms of our mission, we've partner with the Thirst Project, which is a nonprofit based in Los Angeles that focuses on the water crisis. So building water wells around the world, but also investing a lot in youth education around the water crisis. And so they've been a partner with us for the last four years. So for every box of tea we sell, we donate what's equivalent to a year's supply of clean water. We've built, I think, up to four wells with them at this point. We've also now investing in their Youth Legacy Summit, which is providing scholarships for amazing teens that are focused on fighting the water crisis. So I think that's been our relationship. We're really proud of that and it's something that has given us just a purpose outside of the business that without access to clean water, you can't enjoy the basics clean hygiene opportunity, economic opportunity, but you also can enjoy life. Simple pleasures like a cup of tea.
23:12 - 23:18
Right. Great and understandable angle. An additional aspect to a phenomenal product.
23:18 - 23:38
I have one tough question and I hope you don't mind that we will venture into this. But I think in our previous dialogue you were open to it. I get the feeling that you go through the same ups and downs like everybody else, and I'd like people to hear about that. The challenges, right? The mental, physical strain that you go through in creating something like this.
23:38 - 24:16
Yeah, I think what people don't talk enough about is the mental health journey and component of entrepreneurship. And then also that when you're pursuing an idea, it's not that you're just living and breathing your passion day in and day out. You're you're also dealing with scaling a business and the logistics that come with that, whether that's hiring, scaling a team, operational issues. And so those facets come with the territory of pursuing your business and your passion. Those elements can be really challenging, making the right hiring decisions or something.
24:16 - 25:04
You know, I was just talking to another founder this morning who had a recall on our product, in our business and the financial costs of that, the morale cost of that one thing could could happen and completely destroy your business. And so the vulnerability that is your business, it can be very anxiety inducing. And I think so much of entrepreneurship is just weathering that uncertainty, the uncertainty that, you know, something could blow up and destroy your business one day that, you know, your all star employee could leave another day if you're selling a food good that you could have a recall tomorrow. And what are you going to do? Like all of these little things and these are all isolated instance. Says, Imagine like every day there's like some version of that.
25:04 - 25:37
So really what I see, entrepreneurship is just the ability to have a state of equanimity. Like a state, a mental state where you can handle that. And that's a different practice for everyone. For me, it's like being centered, having meditation, having like a there's a larger mission here in reason that I'm doing this other than just like wanting to see this product in the world, want to scale this business. That's not my why, but everyone has to kind of face their why and also build a tool kit to weather some of this because it can be really, really demoralizing.
25:37 - 25:39
I appreciate you sharing that.
25:39 - 25:44
Is there anything more to the why behind this that you haven't shared yet?
25:44 - 26:37
I think it's something I'm continuously exploring because it's like also what I ask myself. I think that there's an element here that goes beyond just like growing a business and scaling it and making a lot of money like that. I understand that there's a journey here, but for me personally, it's really been this process of self-discovery that I don't feel I could get a lot of places. I've had to confront my demons. I've had to be really uncomfortable in this business. Also, like I've experienced the highest of highs, you know, like getting some kind of organic celebrity endorsement or something happening that's like, whoa! Or getting a pen and like, those amazing. So there's like an unfolding and discovery of oneself, I think, that comes through this process. And that to me is like way more fulfilling, in a way more interesting. And so as of today, that's the best way I can articulate my why.
26:38 - 26:46
It's a great way to articulate it. So what's next? Whether for tea drops or maybe other projects you might be working on, what does that look like?
26:47 - 27:21
Yeah, I mean, I think that there's so much whitespace for the tea drops side of things. I think I'm very excited that now we have some sense of validation behind the idea and that we're able to now put the pieces together to really reach a more massive audience and also deliver on that whole self care first experiential tea brand that I've been envisioning for so many years to come to life, and now we have the true ability to really bring that forth. You can find us at Whole Foods at Costco. Giant Foods Natural Grocers will be doing more of a retail expansion in 2022.
27:21 - 27:33
And I hope everybody also follows you on Instagram at Mighty Drop. I am one of your 63,000 followers, something like that. Now 62, 62.7, I think we're at.
27:34 - 27:36
Yeah, I know. It's rising fast.
27:36 - 27:39
Sashee, thank you so much for your time.
27:41 - 27:56
If you enjoyed the podcast and haven't subscribe to our show, please go to Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify or wherever you listen to subscribe and write us. You can also find us on Twitter at Bernstein or find me Beata Kirr on LinkedIn.