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30 Digital Champions: The smarter tea startup out to be UK’s top hot drink challenger brand

Acknowledging the changing attitudes of Brits when it comes to healthier lifestyle, t plus is delivering vitamin-rich teas to stores including Tesco, which it hopes will lead to it becoming the number one challenger brand in hot drinks in the UK.
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Securing a place in our 30 Digital Champions campaign with Microsoft, t plus is creating what founder James Dawson calls “smarter tea”.

Having won awards, government funding and space on supermarket shelves, Dawson tells us how the two-person team has successfully achieved scale with the aid of digital services.

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(1) Please give us a brief introduction to the business?

t plus is a range of new generation, healthy drinks. We’ve taken the best of green tea, vitamins, herbs and fruit to combine and make what we like to call ‘the smarter tea’. As big tea drinkers, we grew pretty frustrated with the innovation in the worlds of coffee and cold drinks, but tea (the second most consumed beverage in the world) was stuck in the dark ages.

As more and more health-conscious people looked to green and herbal teas, we aimed to create something convenient, healthy and natural to cater for this new generation of consumer.

(2) What have the significant growth milestones been in the last few years?

We launched almost exactly a year ago and we’ve had an amazing first year. Everyone told us we were crazy to launch a tea brand as its one of the most competitive sectors in grocery.

However, to launch and win nationwide FMCG new business competitions, Great Taste Awards and government grants has been amazing. But, getting our first nationwide listing in 60 Tesco stores through Nutricentre in September was the biggest jump for us and we are soon to hopefully announce some more big retailers.

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(3) What inspires you as an entrepreneur, and how does that come across with your company?

The opportunity to make a mark and disrupt a category is what inspires me personally. FMCG is such a competitive and often closed off sector especially when it comes to breaking into the big retailers.

However, running a small business gives you the advantage of being creative, nimble and proactive in the market and really gives you an opportunity to make a mark. That’s the frame of mind we aim to always keep internally. We don’t have budget to compete with the big boys, but in the age of technology and social media we get to be creative to get ahead.

(4) What kind of obstacles are you encountering as you grow your enterprise?

The biggest focus for me at the moment is building a strong team. We’re currently a small team of two and while we are growing and making great progress, there aren’t really enough hours in the day to manage marketing, NPD, logistics, supply chain and a million other things.

Finding the right people to come on board is a challenge as we need people with an entrepreneurial mindset. However, in the short term we make the most of great freelance people for things like design and digital marketing. Making the most of the wider freelance community and abundance of skills out there has really helped us get started.

(5) For a company that isn’t technology based, how has a digital approach helped you to carve out a bigger market and acquire new customers?

We wouldn’t be where we are today without access to digital marketing and platforms. As a small, non London-based company we have had to use social media, analytics and email marketing to establish ourselves.

We are trying to create a premium, brand-led product, so how we market ourselves and interact with customers is so important. Facebook advertising in our targeted markets has been great for us, as has rich content predominantly through our blog and social media content.

When we get the content right, it is shared and talked about, putting us in front of more customers than we could possibly do ourselves. We are also setting up an effective email marketing strategy for the rest of this year so digital will always be at the forefront of how we market ourselves.

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(6) How is technology helping you to overcome hurdles, and what are the challenges of implementation?

Time is our big problem really due to the size of the team and being pulled in all directions every day. However, there are an abundance of low cost platforms that help us manage our social media or email communications in advance so we can make sure we are always prominent and not going quiet when retailers have us running around.

Being able to analyse and use analytics data either from our website or from the Facebook adverts we put out really helps us narrow down and target exactly where we can be successful. This has been invaluable as it lets us avoid trial and error as we grow.

(7) Do you employ any kind of flexible working, and how does technology fit into this?

Yes, we will always promote flexible working with our staff and we ourselves have to be flexible in that regard. The market isn’t 9-5 Monday to Friday and so we can’t expect the company to operate that way. We may need to work weekends sampling or on events, or late night on social media responding to discussion or developments, but we will always give that time back to staff.

Social media again gives us the luxury of not being location-specific most of the time so working from home or out of the office isn’t an issue for us.

The company whose products you hold without even knowing it

(8) What kind of technology tools can you not work without?

It’s the simple, cost-effective tools that work for us currently. Things like Mail Chimp, Hootsuite and Google Analytics are really the building blocks that our digital marketing strategies are built on.

Creating good content and understanding our specific market is really key for us and flows through to everything we do from events to NPD. As a cash-strapped small company we couldn’t afford expensive, bespoke IT systems so these often free and open platforms are essential for us.

(9) What kind of technology would help you better compete with larger rivals?

We currently run our website on Shopify due to the simple ‘plug and play’ nature which works for us. It keeps the site simple and most importantly low maintenance to allow us to concentrate on other things.

We’ve worked with great designers to give it a fresh, vibrant look that doesn’t exist with a lot of the dull tea companies out there. However, there are some limitations in what we can do. We have lots of ideas about how we develop our website and make it a real hub for the company and attract new customers, however our web platform doesn’t really allow us to be too creative.

Eventually we will look to build something more bespoke from scratch, but accessing the capital to make that happen or the people mean that isn’t something we can pull off in the near future.

(10) Where do you want to take your business in the future?

We want to become the number one challenger brand in hot drinks in the UK. We have a lot of NPD in plan that can keep us at the forefront of innovation in this space and really establish as t plus as a new category in hot drinks.

We’re about to start a new funding round to help us accelerate growth in several areas so we will hopefully be able to put those plans in place soon and keep up our rate of growth.

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About Author

Zen Terrelonge

Zen Terrelonge is the deputy editor of Real Business, specialising in media, innovation, technology and the digital sector. A media professional with eight years worth of experience he has worked for both startup and established publications.

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