James Dawson, founder of T Plus Drinks, chats to BQ about his business, her journey so far and why she’s set on improving the humble cup of tea…
Tell us about your business, what does it do?
T Plus is a new, independent company on a mission to make the world of tea a little smarter. We make a unique range of vitamin teas, which combine the best bits of herbal, fruit and green teas with 50% RDA in nine daily essential vitamins. We wanted to bring the benefits of a supplement to a healthy hot drink, so people could get their vitamins in a more convenient method, which effortlessly fits into their lifestyles.
What did you do before you started this business?
Like so many young grads, I fell into an easy job in IT (something I had no interest in whatsoever). Then over the next eight or nine years I progressed in the company and emigrated to South Africa and then the Middle East getting various promotions. It was a rewarding and well-paid job but I always had the feeling that I should be doing something different and testing myself fully. During that time, I racked up countless hours boring friends in bars and coffee shops about my business idea and why it was rock solid, easy to execute and would be a straight-forward success (pre-entrepreneur naivety).
What inspired you to start up?
I’ve wanted to be an entrepreneur since I was a child. I’ve always admired the people that defined and changed an industry like Sam Walton, Freddie Laker or Richard Branson and read all their autobiographies growing up. I think the penny really dropped for me and solidified who I would be and what would define my approach as an entrepreneur, when I read about how Dave Brailsford redefined UK cycling and the method of marginal gains for cumulative benefit. I’m not a cycling fan but the thinking of breaking something down and looking at small, inconsequential gains onto every possible component to give an overall advantage really resonated with me.
I saw the UK and worldwide tea markets as huge, but stagnant and ripe for innovation. I wanted to create a something that resonated with a new generation of health-conscious consumer and evolved the tea sector to make a product that was truly unique
How would you describe your business to your grandma?
To my grandma’s horror, I would explain that I’m changing the previously perfect humble cup of tea into something more modern, healthier and more convenient. This isn’t something that my grandma or her generation would be happy about because the humble cup of tea was something sacred that didn’t need changing but we felt like it was time for a change. Sorry Grandma.
Where do you get advice, support or help?
Starting the business and coming in to this industry I had no contacts, no network, no knowledge. Getting up to speed on the industry and learning the ropes quickly was imperative to being able to build the business, so on launching I immersed myself in every event, exhibition and workshop I possibly could to build a network.
We were lucky enough to win a nationwide food and drink competition early on, which attached us to 3 experienced industry mentors. They became imperative to helping us structure the business and understanding how to position and develop our range. They’ve continued to be a part of our journey as we’ve grown through the start up and start to look towards the scale up stage.
In addition to that, over the last couple of years, we’ve gained a lot of advisors informally in lots of different areas. The food and drink industry is so helpful and there’s such a huge amount of experience and assistance out there. There are always people that have been there, done that and are willing to help. You just need to be proactive and willing to ask for help.
Even as we go on to the next stage of our business we continue to learn from people who have faced the challengers in front of us and have overcome them.
Finance is one of the most common barriers to starting up. How did you access the finance you needed?
In the first six months from launching, we entered a national grocery accelerator competition and won a place on their accelerator scheme and gained investment as winner ahead of 130 other food and drink companies. In our 2 years as a company, we’ve continued to raise funds including an investment from the UK’s #1 vitamin manufacturer Vitabiotics.
What has been your biggest achievement so far?
Getting our first nationwide listing with Holland & Barrett. It was the first real verification of the product and the first real leap for our distribution. We had a lot of confidence in the product, but having a nationwide chain pick us up and back us it was such an amazing achievement for a small company. It confirmed to us that we were on to something and were heading in the right direction.
How do you differentiate your business from others?
We created t plus to evolve the world of hot drinks and make something with a clear, tangible point of difference that would cater for a new tea drinker and health focused consumer.
Tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world, but people are moving away from the traditional breakfast brew in favour of alternatives like herbal and green teas for their health benefits. We wanted to tap into this new health-conscious consumer and offer something tangibly healthier than anything in the traditional tea aisle.
That’s why we created a range that blended together all the best bits of those three growth areas (green, herbal & fruit tea) with the science and evidence- based health supplement sector. This enabled us to create the only tea on the market to have EFSA (European Food standard agency) approved health claims in pack, due to the high levels of vitamins. We worked with nutritionists to blend the right botanical and vitamin levels to create a functional range that could make the claims that no other herbal tea in the market could.
What’s it like to be your own boss?
I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. I’ve always wanted to test myself on whether I could build something from scratch and compete against the giants in their own industries. The ability to make my own judgements, make my own decisions, and forge my own path is something that is hugely rewarding. Obviously, it can be extremely stressful and a lot of hard work, but the knowledge that that I’m building it myself is what I’ve always dreamed of.
Where do you see your business in five years' time?
The business has being going great in the two years since launch and we’re already ahead of our business plan. We’re already in around 900 stores in the UK and export to 4 different countries. We’ve got a lot of plans in place for the next 12 months, looking at new products and new formats and are already in discussions with some large retailers.
In the next five years, I see T Plus being available throughout the UK and around the world through multiple channels. On top of that, we want to have a wide portfolio and be present in multiple categories. New product development is going to be key for us, and to keep innovating in the tea category. That was our mission when we started out so doing something that truly changes the tea category is our goal.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Perspective. My advice is to always maintain and have an element of perspective.
Starting a business is a rollercoaster – if you’ll excuse the cliché. There are incredible win and points of massive progress, but at the same time there are extreme lows and periods of concern and worry. Understanding that both of these phases are part of the journey and having the confidence to move forward with your business plan and not be distracted or disheartened by them is so key, especially in the early years. Keep an eye on the bigger picture, even when what’s in front of you might have you throw the towel in.
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