Sometimes, the best solutions are right in front of us, but require a bit of a journey to reach that conclusion. At least, that’s the challenge that faced online entrepreneur Andy Hayes, the founder and creator of Plum Deluxe, based in southeast Portland’s Buckman neighborhood. How did he get started? In his own words:
“I left a toxic work environment to start my own business. What I realized along that journey was that while I wanted to create a better life for myself, I could use my online platform to help other people do the same. Along the way, people kept telling me that if I ‘made’ something, they’d buy it. Finally, I started to listen to them.”
A published author, marketing consultant, and website designer, Andy is no stranger to the pivots and evolution of a nascent small business. Plum Deluxe, in its infancy, was a sponsorship and advertising-based website, but the writing on the wall for that business model was clear.
”It was soon obvious that the types of companies wanting to sponsor us were not the types of companies we wanted to partner with, and having an ad-based business would be a never-ending marathon of chasing capital investments and page views.”
Andy decided the slow road might have a better view. After a failed attempt at retail affiliate promotions, digital eBooks and downloads, and hosting for-profit community events both in Portland and Seattle, there was only one option left: make their own physical product.
Birthing an online tea empire
If you take a look at the plethora of content available at Plum Deluxe, the ethos of slowing down and savoring life is a consistent theme. That’s why, Andy says, choosing tea as their first physical product was an easy choice — a product that encourages one to slow down for a moment, connect with themselves and those around them, and perhaps take time to scan through the latest article or how-to posted on the website.
“I was lucky enough to have a mentor in the tea industry that helped me get started, and lots of encouragement from fellow entrepreneurs. Tea is a huge industry with some very big players, so I knew in the beginning the key was to have unique, innovative concepts, so I spent all of my time focused on creating and testing recipes of the types of tea blends I wish were available.”
The site carries a rotating selection of teas, both seasonal and year-round favorites, with unique themes such as “Reading Nook” or “Afternoon White Tea.” Plum Deluxe also boasts their proud Pacific Northwest heritage with locally-themed offerings, like Oregon Breakfast Tea or Portland Rose City Chai.
As it turns out, however, Plum Deluxe’s most popular concept is their tea of the month club — perhaps unsurprisingly, given today’s popularity of subscription services. The club model is simpler than most: members pre-pay (from $10/month) for an opportunity to receive a monthly surprise blend made only for the club, as well as free shipping and discounts on other products. Blends are formulated for the season—a recent spring blend included blueberries, almonds, and lavender, for example—and the exclusivity of the selection garners an intimate, community feel. The company already has multiple subscribers in 40 out of 50 states, plus Canada, proving that food artisans do not need retail distribution to have a sustainable business model and reach customers beyond the Oregon border.
“Although of course I had a strong feeling about the type of subscription offering I wanted to put out into the world, the speed in which it has grown—doubling every month or two—really surprised me. The beauty is the product itself is a conversation starter, so each new member tends to share a tea moment with someone that leads to a new member. Who knew we had built in that kind of virality?”
Having an inherent share factor and an existing platform to market to certainly didn’t hurt, but the Plum Deluxe tea journey wasn’t free from pitfalls, as Andy explains:
“To be honest, the biggest challenge was getting off the starting block. For example, most people sell loose leaf tea in tins. Tins which arrive from China in palettes of 5,000. I was trying to launch in my home studio in southeast Portland with a shoestring budget. So, I had to improvise, and what I did is turn my weaknesses into my strengths. In this case, I used muslin bags as packaging (cheaper, easier to source, lighter weight) and it’s become one of the hallmarks of our offering.”
“I’m not sure if I would have been as successful without that initial mentoring, because finding suppliers in this industry is a challenge. Some companies spend thousands of dollars flying around the world to visit each farm, which isn’t feasible for me right now. Many suppliers won’t work with small businesses, or have such high minimums to make them unaffordable. I found most companies just didn’t return my call. Thankfully, with time, I’ve found some good people with good raw product, and I’m making sure to build a good rapport and relationship, because I couldn’t do it without them.”
Steeping the tea
As products like tea, organic food, and locally-produced artisan goods become more and more popular, Plum Deluxe is in a great position to cater to tea enthusiasts and responsible shoppers alike. All of the tea is hand-blended in small batches using fair trade, organic ingredients — some of which are grown right in Oregon.
So what’s next for Plum Deluxe? Andy says he’s keeping his focus firm for now.
“Our community wants more signature blends, as well as a few other tea accessories—like honey—so we’re working on that first. Otherwise, we’re going to perfect our processes so that customers continue to have a great experience with us. People have asked us to do tea parties and events, coffee, and other tea-infused food products. Those offerings might come someday, particularly for our enthusiastic Portland followers. But just like a good cup of tea, some things just can’t be rushed.”
Title Photo Credit: http://www.subaholic.com/. Thanks too to Carrie Keplinger for her help and support on this piece.