Entrepreneur Jules Quinn has turned two ideas into big business and she explains to Paul Robertson how it all started after a bad experience on a work placement.
I started on tea, but it wasn’t strong enough, so I moved on to alcohol,” jokes Jules Quinn as she reflects on the remarkable growth of her businesses. Having started TeaShed on leaving university in 2011, her idea to “pimp drinks” really came to fruition two years ago with the launch of Popaball, creating filled flavour bubbles to add a bit of bite and taste to all types of beverages – but primarily alcohol.
The success of the product has enabled Quinn to move into a 10,000sq ft building on Benfield business park in Newcastle with plans to take over an adjoining site. Worldwide orders are flooding in online and Popaball products are now stocked by the likes of Fenwick, Lakeland, Harvey Nichols and Selfridges, as well as independent outlets.
Turnover has grown fourfold over the past two years and is set to grow a further six times by the end of 2017, something for the soon-to-be 60-strong workforce to toast. It has been a remarkable journey for the 29 year old who moved to Newcastle from Leeds as a teenager and has never looked back.
While studying for a bachelor of arts degree with honours in fashion and marketing at Northumbria University, Quinn went on work experience at a fashion house in London and it proved to be the inspiration to unlock her entrepreneurial spirit.
“It all started as a rubbish work placement where I was always making tea for everyone in the office,” she says. “I didn’t even like tea at the time, but got into drinking it to drown my sorrows as I was so bored. But then one of the designers had a Chai tea and I just fell in love with it – it was so aromatic and I could drink so much of it.
“I had been sent to the supermarket to buy some more teabags and I noticed the selection of coffees was much wider than tea. I thought this is really cool – I had always wanted to start my own business and it was drinking that Chai tea and the visit to the supermarket that convinced me to start TeaShed.”
Quinn began researching how she could be different in the tea market, doing her final year project on what was to become her business and gifting is what she decided would make TeaShed stand out.
Sourcing the tea personally, predominantly from Sri Lanka, it is shipped into Newcastle, wrapped in silky pyramid bags, packaged and distributed – one brand but available in nine flavours.
“I entered a few business plan competitions and won some money, which allowed me to buy stock,” recalls Quinn. “I bought off the shelf packaging and printed labels, we started as a small craft business but when Fenwick became the first retailer to take it we were able to grow pretty quickly.”
The recipe for success was followed in creating Popaball and, while it was a more complex business to get up and running, the effort has been rewarded.
“It took a long time to test the stability of the products to ensure they had at least a six-month shelf life, which is the least the retail market demands,” she says. “So, it was a long time getting that right with different machinery and processes but we had some money in the bank with the build-up of TeaShed to help us develop.
“Again, the early days were often at home working with the neighbours – who called themselves the Blue Peter club for pensioners – as they were always wrapping and sticking things together.”
The bubbles are manufactured in Taiwan and while bubble tea was obviously created, it is the wider drinks market that Quinn is eyeing and already soaking up.
“Little juicer balls are used in cocktails and the spherification process was being used in some bars and food service outlets but not widely available. I created a retail version so people could use them at home and we get fantastic feedback. People just love it.”
Don’t just take her word for it – there are plenty of happy customers sharing their stories on the company’s Facebook and Instagram pages. Basically, you put the bubbles into a drink and suck them up with a straw provided with the kit and when you bite them the juice comes out adding texture and flavour to your drink.
I try one – without the alcohol – and it was a pleasant experience. It comes in flavours like lemon, peach, cherry, raspberry, blueberry and mango to name but a few. Another product launched earlier this year was “Shimmer” for prosecco – a raspberry-flavoured glitter that you sprinkle into your glass of bubbly.“It turns it a pink, raspberry glittery colour,” says Quinn. “It is really pretty.”
As separate businesses now, Popaball accounts for more than 50% of the revenue despite being the younger sister. Together, TeaShed and Popaball are manufacturing more than 20,000 units a day, seven days a week with demand meaning the figures need careful handling.
Just as well then that Quinn’s fiancé, Andrew, is the company’s finance director, while her supportive parents help out and sister Tanja manages the e-commerce side of the business.
Popaball plans to double production next year and continue to expand with new products and into new markets – Europe and Germany in particular is proving strong for customers while the products are finding traction in the United States and Canada.
Like many businesses, the outcome of Brexit negotiations may have an impact on Quinn’s plans, but she won’t let it get in the way. “When the decision to leave the European Union was made, the pound was very weak against the dollar and overnight it added significant costs to the business as we import so much – it seems to have recovered now and we will just have to deal with the outcome, whatever it is.
“I would never leave Newcastle – it is my home, a lovely city and lovely people to work with. We have a fantastic workforce, the business community is great and very supportive, it is a cool city centre, 20 minutes from the coast and 20 minutes from the countryside.
“My focus is on expanding and providing jobs. We have quite a few people whose previous employer went bust – I can see how heartbreaking it is when a business fails so to be able to provide security and jobs is amazing as well as scary.”
While there are no plans to leave the North East, Quinn is looking at whether she needs a base overseas to support distribution or to do it through outsourcing, but stresses this would be additional to rather than in place of the Newcastle facility.
“To grow at the rate we are growing you need very good people who can learn and put new systems in place quickly and be flexible to adapt to dynamic change.
“I don’t want to lose the team spirit and don’t want to adopt a big company mentality – I haven’t changed, I am still the same person with the same values – and I want my businesses to be the same.”
Quinn is also proud to be an ambassador for Children North East, a charity dedicated to improving the lives of disadvantaged children in the region. “I love spending my time supporting young people,” she says. “I work with a school that caters for children who don’t get on so well in mainstream education – it is about supporting them, showing them if they work hard at school they can get a good job. I go and talk to them and bring some of them to come and work with us.”
It is this ethos that she is keen to bring to the TeaShed business on a wider scale. While sales are still healthy and will remain the focus, Quinn is keen to use her experience to give something back.
“TeaShed – was a fantastic starting point for me in learning about business,” she explains, “and because I have less time for that now I want to do something educational to help other people start a new business. It wouldn’t be for profit – it would be about TeaShed evolving as a business and training young people.
“When you start learning about business it might be something like a cupcake stand and you’re not really understanding it so to get into an existing business means you learn far more.
“I tried doing various things, like selling random stuff, but it takes so long – attracting investment, basic start-up costs and so on – but the exciting thing is when you have something to work with and push it to the next level.
“The harder I worked in jobs nothing happened. Especially when you are young it takes a long time to progress.
“While you’re still young is a very good time to start a business, you don’t have the overheads such as rent, you can still live at home and not be embarrassed about it – with no mortgages or kids. As a student you are used to having no money and slumming it, used to late nights and getting out of bed not feeling worn out. I have met loads of people and every day something different is happening and I have achieved a lot.”
Quinn admits she has little time for anything other than business – “I tried surfing, it was OK but there were no waves” – the constant focus on generating new ideas and products is all the fun she needs for now. “It might make me sound sad but I just love working,” she says.
Pimping drinks hot or cold, alcoholic or not, consumed at home remains the main focus, though progress is being made on expanding into restaurants and bars. The company’s success is certainly being noticed. In 2016 Quinn was singled out as one of the top new names in European business with inclusion on the first Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe list.
The prestigious publication has launched its list to highlight key movers and shakers in Europe, shortlisting 300 people from a list of thousands of nominees to feature in 10 sectors. And this year she won the regional HSBC Forward Ladies Award for SME growth and was shortlisted for the NatWest national scale up award.
“When you get an award, it tells you people think you are doing well because no-one else ever tells you,” she says, “It is lovely, but it is particularly nice for the team. They are all very proud to be from the region and to be a big part of our success.”
I’ll drink to that.