Steeped in Possibili-Tea
Episode 62
July 13, 2021

Steeped in Possibili-Tea

with Sashee Chandran, Founder and CEO of Tea Drops

Sashee Chandran is the Founder and CEO of Tea Drops. Named one of the fastest growing DTC brands on Shopify with a 350 percent annual growth rate, Tea Drops are bagless, organic, dissolvable tea blends for the modern tea drinker. They are playfully shaped blends of tea leaves and spices, essentially bath bombs of tea that dissolve in your cup. In this episode, Sashee shares with us her entrepreneurial journey from growing up in Los Angeles, working at her mother's crystal store, to working in marketing at eBay, to inventing Tea Drops in 2015 and recently closing a five million dollar Series A round, led by Brand Project. She talks with us about how she bootstrapped the business, overcame her fear of public speaking, and built a successful brand loved by Michelle Obama, Chrissy Teigen, Tory Burch, and Oprah magazine, among others.

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this episode sponsored by

In This Episode You’ll Hear About:

  • How growing up with entrepreneurial parents taught her a lot about hard work and hustle and why she was always interested in creative type careers
  • What types of jobs helped her learn how to run a successful business and why her time at eBay was impactful in her experience with marketing, which is helpful today as she has been marketing her own product
  • Why tea has always been an important part of Sashee’s life and how that became a pivotal part of becoming a Founder and creating Tea Drops
  • What the impetus was for getting her to prove the concept and build her company  on a solid foundation that led to more opportunities
  • Why she is thankful she had to bootstrap this business in the beginning and why it helped her make great, strategic decisions early on 
  • What struggles Sashee and her team had to overcome in the beginning of building Tea Drops and what struggles still occur now
  • What fears she had to overcome, including the fear of public speaking, which she has now conquered and actually been rewarded for great pitches by PepsiCo and Tory Burch
  • How she’s grown as a leader and what great advice she has for other Founders and operators who are wanting to build a successful business while maintaining a healthy life/work integration
To Find Out More:

MyTeaDrop.com 

Quotes:

“I got exposed to email marketing, digital marketing, our social giving platform called eBay Giving Works at the time. And so I was exposed to a lot of different facets of marketing and that all was very useful when the time came for me to actually start marketing my own product.”

“Growing up I was always exposed to tea culture and not just from a functional standpoint, that tea is a functional beverage that's good for you, but very much so that tea is this communal beverage that connects you to your culture, connects you to other people and connects you to your family.”

“I loved every aspect of it. I loved the challenge of it. I loved not knowing what was happening next, but really working on something that I felt needed to exist in the world.”

“Don't get me wrong, I was very scared. But I also knew that if I didn't try it now, I would have a sense of regret about it.”

“Everything is nice in theory, but when you actually have to put it into application, practically do it, it's a whole different ball game.”

“What bootstrapping does is it provides you with a certain discipline. You have to make hard choices and you have to do it with your own money.” 

“I grew the brand organically to probably 500K in revenue just from these boutique retailers before I took in capital, and that was really just a function of building a close relationship with the retailer early on.”

“I think the challenge is more so just keeping an eye on what is your end goal and objective and not being so dissuaded or deflated by the feedback that people are naturally going to have, especially with something that's new.”


Lee: [00:00:03] Welcome to Episode 62 of The Stairway to CEO podcast. I'm your host, Lee Greene. And today I spoke with Sashee Chandran, the Founder and CEO of Tea Drops. Named one of the fastest growing DTC brands on Shopify with a 350 percent annual growth rate, Tea Drops are bagless, organic, dissolvable tea blends for the modern tea drinker. They are playfully shaped blends of tea leaves and spices, essentially bath bombs of tea that dissolve in your cup. In this episode, Sashee shares with us her entrepreneurial journey from growing up in Los Angeles, working at her mother's crystal store, to working in marketing at eBay, to inventing Tea Drops in 2015 and recently closing a five million dollar Series A round, led by Brand Project. She talks with us about how she bootstrapped the business, overcame her fear of public speaking, and built a successful brand loved by Michelle Obama, Chrissy Teigen, Tory Burch, and Oprah magazine, among others. Tune in to hear all of this and more. If you like what you hear, please don't forget to subscribe to the show, and leave us an awesome review. We hope you enjoy this episode.

Lee: [00:02:01] Hi Sashee. Thank you so much for being on the show today. I'm super excited to hear your awesome story in building Tea Drops . Thanks so much for joining us.

Sashee: [00:02:10] Thank you so much for having me, Lee.

Lee: [00:02:12] Let's start from the very beginning. I'd love to hear your story. Little Sashee. You know? What was your childhood like? Where are you from originally? Do you have siblings? Let's hear it.

Sashee: [00:02:21] Yeah. So I was born in Los Angeles, California, and born to two immigrant parents. My mom is Chinese and my dad's from Sri Lanka and their back stories... My dad was actually born on a tea estate in Sri Lanka. So very cool for my full circle moment.

Lee: [00:02:39] Yeah.

Sashee: [00:02:39] And my mom was born in China. She came here when she was eight years old. My parents actually met at an international student dance at UCLA, and the rest is history. And so I was born in Los Angeles, and I also have an older brother. He's about four years older, and we grew up in Los Angeles and had a really great childhood, I have to say. I mean, my parents were, I would say, probably the first pair of entrepreneurs I ever knew. They worked really, really hard, and even though they had... They went to UCLA and had graduate degrees, they always had side hustles. And we were exposed to that from an early age. So my mom, she ran a crystal store, like crystal vases, on the weekends. So she would raise us during the week and then still tend to this business on the weekends. And my dad dabbled in real estate. So he would go to real estate seminars, learn more about buying properties, being a landlord, and I would go with him to all these site visits and tenant visits. And so I just kind of was exposed to first hand hustle, I guess you could say, from an early age. And so was my brother. And we were put to work very early.

Lee: [00:03:58] Awesome. Good parenting.

Sashee: [00:04:00] Yeah, very kind of, even though I had older brother, we lived on the top of a hill too. Fifteen to twenty minutes from any true civilization. So a lot of my childhood I was like making up games basically with myself or with my brother. And so that kind of forced me to be very creative in the things I did. And so whether that's like smashing flowers to make perfume or just climbing rocks or plateau creation. So I think that's also where I got my interest and more creative aspirations.

Lee: [00:04:36] Awesome. And so is there anything that you remember that you wanted to be when you grew up? Were you like, "I want to be a school teacher,?" Or was there anything that kind of stuck with you?

Sashee: [00:04:45] Yeah, I don't think it was the typical, "I want to be a doctor." I was really drawn to fashion designers from an early age and color. And so even the idea of being an artist or being a fashion designer, I remember was stuck in my head for a long time until I realized, like, oh, you can't draw and you really can't sew either.

Lee: [00:05:09] {laughter} Scratch that.

Sashee: [00:05:10] Scratch that. So I think I was always drawn more to creative type of jobs and careers.

Lee: [00:05:19] Yeah. So when you went to school like high school, did you have any early jobs before going to college?

Sashee: [00:05:25] Yeah. So I was put to work from an early age, mainly at my mom's crystal store that I told you about. From the time I was eight or nine I would go with her and she would put me to work by either dusting all of the crystal or putting price tags. At some point she trusted me enough to leave for a little bit. And so I would negotiate with the customers coming in. She tells a story about how she left for a little bit and I was maybe seven years old and a customer came. And when she came back, I was basically negotiating with her on price. And so from the time I was that age, I was unofficially working and then had babysitting jobs from the time I was 12. I worked at a local gym by the time I was fifteen. And then through college, I always had a job because I was grateful that my parents paid for my tuition, but I paid for housing and I paid for food. So I was always working some kind of job from an early age.

Lee: [00:06:29] And where did you work during college?

Sashee: [00:06:32] During college I worked on campus. So there was Campus Village, which was the student housing. So I worked there and I also worked at a Marriott property nearby as a front desk associate.

Lee: [00:06:45] Awesome. And so I know you were studying economics. Where did you end up getting your first job out of college?

Sashee: [00:06:52] So I worked at a market research firm based in LA, and I actually found the job at a student fair. I was walking through one day, and usually when you graduate with economics and a minor, I had a minor in management too, all of my peers were going into management consulting or one of the big four finance accounting firms. And I went to a couple of interviews. I remember one I made it past another round and one I didn't get. But the more I learned about consulting in general, I just hated the idea. I hated, like, how insane the hours were. I didn't find the work interesting. [00:07:37] I was always drawn, like I said, even though I had an econ degree, to more creative type of jobs and within social sciences and humanities. [00:07:48] I was always drawn to sociology, psychology. And so I came across this field called market research, which is really bridging some of the more quantitative kind of studies that I had, but also pairing that with customer behavior or how people think and make decisions, and so that felt like a natural fit for me, and so I ended up having my first job in market research.

Lee: [00:08:14] Awesome. And I know you worked at eBay for quite a while. Can you speak to your experience at eBay? And what were some of the takeaways that kind of helped you as a Founder?

Sashee: [00:08:23] Yeah, I think when you work at a big corporation early on in your career, you get a great sense of what you really like about that environment. You know, the fact you're exposed to so many different departments, so many different types of people, but you also recognize the things that you might hate as someone who's younger, who really wants to move fast. And that is there are... You know, and this isn't just true for eBay, but so many larger organizations. It's just harder to make decisions because it's unclear who the decision maker or owner of something is when there's so many. I think eBay at that time had over fifty thousand employees globally. So there is just a lot of checking in or things that are elevated as a P1 or P0 priority. And you work on it all night. You maybe put together a great presentation, and the next day it's old news and it's never implemented.

Lee: [00:09:20] Right.

Sashee: [00:09:20] So I think that was frustrating for someone who really likes to move fast and who likes to make impact. So I took that experience away. But I also took away some amazing aspects of a big corporation, which is the fact that there are certain disciplines and structures you learn by putting together key metrics, having a certain level of accountability in a large organization like that. So those are some of the elements I took away. And frankly, for me, how that translated to what I do at Tea Drops is I got a good marketing foundation. I was early on put in a rotation program. So I spent six months in different areas within marketing at eBay. So [00:10:01] I got exposed to email marketing, digital marketing, our social giving platform called eBay Giving Works at the time. And so I was exposed to a lot of different facets of marketing and that all was very useful when the time came for me to actually start marketing my own product. [00:10:17]

Lee: [00:10:17] Awesome. And so walk us through kind of how that worked. How did you go from eBay to Founder? What was the process like? What was that aha moment that you had where you're like, "This is what I want to do. I want to focus on tea?" Why tea?

Sashee: [00:10:31] Right. Well, it's always been a pivotal part of my upbringing and something I was always drawn to in terms of a hobby growing up. I should mention, you know, [00:10:43] not only was my dad born on a tea estate, but at one time both Sri Lanka and China were the largest producers and exporters of tea in the world. So from both of those cultural influences, growing up I was always exposed to tea culture and not just from a functional standpoint, that tea is a functional beverage that's good for you, but very much so that tea is this communal beverage that connects you to your culture and connects you to other people and connects you to your family. [00:11:12] So that was always... I was inspired by that early on, and as I grew up, I loved having tea around because it gave me that sense of comfort. And so at my work desk at eBay, I would have an arsenal of equipment from a tea kettle, to my tea leaves, to a strainer, to all of this equipment just so I can brew looseleaf tea. And it would take a long time, seven to ten minutes to properly heat the water, steep the tea leaves, add your cream and sugar, and then go to your meeting. And with tea bags, I was never really satisfied with the taste. And so I would brew at my work desk but realized it's such a cumbersome experience. So that was kind of the the light bulb moment of, hey, why isn't there an easier way to make looseleaf tea? And I looked at my local shops, grocery store. I couldn't find anything that really mimicked and still provided that taste of true loose leaf tea, but just the convenience of something that's just more quick in nature. And so that was really the aha moment for me to start experimenting in my kitchen. And so I spent the next year and a half just playing around with different teas and learning more about their properties. And one thing led to another. And I came up with this bath bomb type of experience for tea.

Lee: [00:12:36] It's such a cool thing. The bath bomb of tea. I mean, it dissolves in your cup. It's such a cool looking Tea Drop. I mean, how did you come up with that? It's such a cool concept.

Sashee: [00:12:46] Thank you. I honestly think it was inspired by a bath bomb. I forgot the context, but either I was in a bath or I saw it, one of those boutique stores, and I just thought it instantly hit me. Why can't you make this type of format but for tea and still integrate the full looseleaf tea into it? So that was the point of inspiration for me to start experimenting. And I did this all in my kitchen, and I took it very seriously. My weeknights and weekends I would come. My friend flew up, my good friend, and she kind of put more discipline around my experimentation and was like, "Hey, remember seventh grade when you learn the scientific method? We should really follow that," where it's like you have a hypothesis, you test it, you write down your learnings and then you iterate on that. So I did that for a while and it came to a point where I finally developed the Drop, and I started circulating and sharing it with my colleagues and my friends and went to a local business resource center called Score. And there I met a lot of different mentors, but one was a retired attorney, and he's the one who kind of suggested I patented the idea. And so I obviously looked into how much it would cost to patent something and it was way more than I had. So it was basically I was quoted 15 to 20 K to fully go through a patenting process.

Lee: [00:14:12] Oh wow.

Sashee: [00:14:13] And that was just like out of the question. So he's the one who said, "Well, look, if you kind of write your own provisional, I'll just kind of review it, and you can submit it." And so that's what I spent my next few weeks doing, is writing my own patent and submitting it so that there was IP protection around the process of how to make it.

Lee: [00:14:34] That's awesome. So that was I think in 2015 when you invented Tea Drops. So what was kind of the next step from there? How did you validate the concept? It sounds like you shared it with a bunch of friends and family, but did you have any kind of metric for success that kind of said, OK, this is going to sell on the market? It's not just cool and a really awesome invention that I've made, but it's also something that people will buy.

Sashee: [00:14:57] Yeah, I wasn't sure about that. So I remember I launched this kind of on my 20th birthday. I knew that on Facebook you get the most traffic to your profile page on your birthday. So I sent on my 20th birthday, I just said, hey, I'm thinking of starting this new concept. If you try it, I'll send you a free box. And also included in that package will be a survey. So I sent that to maybe one hundred or so different people, friends of friends or direct friends. And I got feedback on it. And I kind of knew, based on what people were saying, that it was a good idea. It needed refinement, of course. But from there, I just started selling at farmers markets and artisan shows and getting more and more feedback from people of how people interacted with it and liked it. And from there, it kind of snowballed into this situation where I was spending a lot of time making this in my kitchen, selling on the weekends at shows, also like working a really demanding job full time, obviously at eBay, and coming to this point where I just kind of had to make a decision of what do I want to do? And at that time, I actually took my GMAC because I was on track to actually get my MBA and start school.

Lee: [00:16:14] Interesting.

Sashee: [00:16:15] And I just figured I was actually given a great opportunity where I had vacations stacked up. And every five years at eBay, you get a sabbatical of one month paid sabbatical. And I was just shy of that five years. But I had talked to my manager just saying, you know, I'm thinking of leaving to do this. And he's the one who said, "Why don't you take your sabbatical earlier, tag on whatever vacation you have and try it? And if you don't like it, you can come back." And I think his idea was that I would definitely return just based on the fact, because I think he said, like, "OK, so you want to leave this to do like tea pressed into shapes?"

Lee: [00:16:59] Right. {laughter}

Sashee: [00:16:59] That really was the question. "Let me get this straight: tea press into shapes?" But you know I understood, I was kind of laughing at it, too, because it was silly. So I go back, I do the startup thing, and I don't even call it that. I kind of don't even tell anyone. I'm just like living and breathing, making this, manufacturing it, figuring out all the pieces, like, OK, creating packaging for it. All right. Like, how do I scale this? Sign up for more trade shows and artisan shows. And I have to tell you that a month and a half was just like I loved it. [00:17:37] I loved every aspect of it. I loved the challenge of it. I loved like not knowing what was happening next, but like really working on something that I felt needed to exist in the world. [00:17:47] So after that month and a half, I just knew this is my path and not in a... Like I was scared. [00:17:56] Don't get me wrong, I was very scared. But I also knew that if I didn't try it now, I would have a sense of regret about it. The money I had put aside for my MBA could be my startup capital. And I figured, OK, if this fizzles out, I would have learned a lot and I'm still young enough where I can figure out my next move. I can just get a job or something. [00:18:16]

Lee: [00:18:17] A lot of people in that position, I think, would say, "I should get my MBA first and then I'm qualified to start a business." Like there's a lot of that thought process out there. I love that you went for it. I don't think you need an MBA at all to start a business.

Sashee: [00:18:37] Right.

Lee: [00:18:37] What are your thoughts on bootstrapping? We talked a little bit about this earlier before hopping on the show. But, you know, there's a lot of different ideas about what it takes to start a company. And I think a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs delay that process because they really just don't feel they're qualified enough or they don't have enough connections. They think, just like we were saying, they think, "Hey, I have an idea now I'm going to go get funding." What do you have to say, about feeling qualified and bootstrapping in general?

Sashee: [00:19:09] I think it's definitely one of the hardest parts of this, that feeling like you're like who are you to come and have zero experience in food manufacturing, consumer packaged goods, you have zero connections to anything... What makes you qualified to do this? And I think it's a question that you don't answer right away. You may not know, but you also, for me, I knew that there was this feeling that if I didn't try it now, the moment would pass and the fear of that was actually much more scary to me than not trying. And I also had a great conversation with my dad, who has an MBA, and my mom actually has an MBA, too. And I was telling him this conundrum I was in when deciding to do my MBA or not. And obviously I also didn't want to disappoint them in a sense, but I don't think that was, I knew that they wouldn't care either way. But more just have a conversation around what they thought. And my dad said, you know, "There's no better training than on the job because everything is theoretical." And I think he knew for me, I'm a very hands on learner. I don't learn by theory. I learn by doing.

Lee: [00:20:27] Yeah.

Sashee: [00:20:28] And it was at that point when he kind of mentioned that I was like, "You're right. I'm going to learn much more practicing these principles, creating a financial model, because it'll be my financial model for my company, and I will care a lot more." So I think for me that was the answer, because [00:20:48] everything is nice in theory, but when you actually have to put it into application, practically do it, it's a whole different ball game. [00:20:56] And so I think for me that made the most sense. And I could channel, when you have finite resources, I could channel whatever I was going to spend on my MBA and put it towards a business. And so that's what I ended up doing. But yeah, I think you also made the point about bootstrapping, and I was lucky that I actually didn't even know what the term angel investing was prior to me starting a company.

Lee: [00:21:20] You're like, "Wait a minute, I could have gotten money for this?" {laughter}

Sashee: [00:21:22] Yeah. I didn't really understand like angel investing or venture capital. I think I knew venture capital because you're like, "Oh yeah, those companies that want to grow big do that."

Lee: [00:21:30] Uh huh.

Sashee: [00:21:30] But I didn't know that was the route I was going to take. I knew this could be a big idea, but I honestly didn't know if I necessarily had that skill set or... I don't know. I don't really think I thought much about, like the future per se. So I think in not having that, all I had was some savings, and I had just purchased a house, so I pulled a home equity line of credit and used some of that towards funding the business in the beginning. And I think a lot can be said for having to bootstrap, because I think you're right that there is the sense that you have an idea and you should go raise money right away for it. But [00:22:11] what bootstrapping does is it provides you the certain discipline. You have to make hard choices and you have to do it with your own money. So it's that much more painful. And if you can do that and any kind of be more disciplined with your finite amount of resources, it sets you up for success down the line because you then are forced to really focus on what works, what doesn't assess that quickly, and double down on it. [00:22:40] And so that's what I ended up doing, is just using my own resources to fund trade shows. And if there was something that didn't work, I'm like, I'm never doing that again and redirect the resources towards something that was working well. And for me that worked well because traditionally in food, consumer packaged good companies, you're told you want to get into Whole Foods right away, you want to get into grocery retail, and that's usually the path. But that path for many smaller brands can be very expensive because there's a lot of middlemen involved. There's a lot of upfront fees you have to pay. And knowing that I didn't have that type of capital, I had to think of other avenues to sell my product. And that's how I stumbled upon a wholesale gift shops, like gift boutiques. Doesn't sound sexy. Isn't the most, like it's not like the Whole Foods, but you get paid Net 30. You know, they're the ones who were most receptive to my products in the beginning. And that's how I built our account brick by brick in the beginning. And that created a whole new channel of opportunity I wouldn't have even thought of had I not had to do it on my own.

Lee: [00:23:54] Yeah, that's really interesting. And now you guys are in over fifteen hundred retailers, including some really big ones like World Market, Costco, Whole Foods. You know, talking about that next step, you started with these wholesale gift shops, but how did you go from there into the big guys? Like what did you need or what advice would you have for entrepreneurs out there building a brand, really dreaming of being in those type of retailers?

Sashee: [00:24:18] Yeah, I mean, I think it's also just just doing well with the retailers you have in place. And so we had from the beginning, I just focused once I kind of figured out, OK, for the resources I have, to get paid kind of in a timely manner, I'm going to focus on these boutique retailers. And so I would go door to door on some of these retailers or go to these gift shop trade shows that they had and where a lot of buyers from these smaller boutiques would come and source products for their stores. And I think the secret was developing a really great relationship with these retailers, making sure they knew I was there to ensure that they were successful with my products. So I would create little merchandise signs so that they could explain what the product was very easily in-store. So signage. And then I also for anyone who is in the local California area, I would do in-store demos for them. So I would drive to their store location, set up a table, demo my product and help them be successful with that. So then within the community, people started saying, "Oh, these Tea Drops. It sells really well for me," because they do talk, a lot of the gift boutique retailers. And then that's how I grew the account was really word of mouth. And so [00:25:38] I grew the brand organically to probably 500K in revenue just from these boutique retailers before I took in capital, and that was really just a function of building a close relationship with the retailer early on. [00:25:56] And then that gave us credibility so that when one of the bigger accounts we got was Anthropologie at first and then Uncommon Goods. They saw us enough at these trade shows and we had refined kind of our look and feel of our booth that it was just they had seen us a few times. So there was a recognition of what we were doing.

Lee: [00:26:20] And so kind of speaking about fundraising, you guys have raised a total of 8.4 million. You recently closed a Series A of five million. Congratulations. That was led by Brand Project. A bunch of other great investors were in that round. Can you kind of speak about some of the challenges you faced in fundraising?

Sashee: [00:26:39] Yeah, I mean, we could spend a whole hour just on that piece alone. There are a ton of challenges raising. And that's not to discourage anyone. It's just to say to kind of be prepared. I think the more prepared you are that the norm is rejection and a very finite amount of the time is successful pitches is like a good way to start the conversation when talking about the challenges of fundraising. And I think I mentioned to you I didn't really understand what an angel investor was versus an equity raise. So a book that really helped me early on was one called "Venture Deals," by Brad Feld, and I read that thoroughly to really understand what the different financing instruments are, how they work. And I almost walked into like a few predatory deals. I think there's that piece of it where once you actually get a term sheet and it took me maybe 80 plus meetings to finally get there, you have to evaluate is this a good deal? Like what does this mean for the longevity of my business? And that to me is actually more stressful than the pitching part, because I think with pitching, it's like you at some point, the first couple of times you take it personally because you're like, oh, my God, like this feedback. I feel so bad...

Lee: [00:28:03] Yeah, like ouch.

Sashee: [00:28:03] But at some point you're just like, all right. Well, it's kind of like a numbers game at that point. And you're like, I don't have to take this personally, But take what people say, their feedback, to heart. If there's merit to something, you're hearing it a couple of times. You probably should take a look at it and see if it makes sense. But I think, like, once you kind of build that armor and you go through the pitches, the more heart wrenching part is like evaluating. Is this fair? Does it seem right? I mean, how do you determine valuation? There's no guidebook on how you determine these things or like what certain terms mean in a term sheet. And so hiring good counsel early on, even though it's expensive, is something I would recommend. Having a good group of Founder friends, of people who've been through that journey, I've found way more value in that community than any other community. It's something that's very helpful. But [00:29:01] I think the challenge is more so just keeping an eye on what is your end goal and objective and not being so dissuaded or deflated by the feedback that people are naturally going to have, especially with something that's new. [00:29:18] I mean, like I joke about it, but it is really like looseleaf tea that's pressed into shapes. So it's like people obviously thought it was just a novelty product or like a gimmick product. And that's feedback I got pretty consistently early on, but I just had to stick to this bigger vision like, no, this is a more convenient way to actually drink looseleaf tea and if it was more convenient we would have more people consuming tea. And there's a bigger vision here and like having to stay true to that even while going through, like, all of the periods of rejection.

Lee: [00:29:52] Right. Painting that big picture, that big vision is so important to fundraising. I think a lot of founders get caught up in the day to day and they're kind of like, this is what we are today and this is where we're headed. But they're not thinking five, ten years down the road. What could this really be of a monster of a business? Like what's the big thing that we're selling to investors?

Sashee: [00:30:12] And even as a Founder, you might not see it right away. And that's OK. That's going to be discouraging. I actually think in more of the conversations you have with investors or even with other people, then you're like, oh, it could be that. And then you head down a path and you're like, oh yeah. Like this is way bigger than I originally thought. And so I think some of those conversations actually can help you solidify the bigger vision.

Lee: [00:30:35] So it sounds like some naysayers kind of said that it was gimmicky or whatever else that they said. I'm sure there's tons of things that you've heard and you just have to kind of maybe roll your eyes or shrug it off and move on to the next conversation. But how do you, you mentioned putting on your armor after a bunch of these pitches, you kind of grow this armor or shield. So describe, I guess, how that works. Like how do you kind of... Is it through practice that you are more and more confident? How did you start to detach yourself emotionally maybe from the feedback? Because I think that's something that a lot of Founders deal with. I think especially as a solo Founder. I was a solo Founder, and you're the only one kind of making all of these decisions a lot of the time. And so this feedback can be really harsh. And unfortunately, a lot of investors don't realize that. So they speak to you as if...

Sashee: [00:31:31] Very candidly, right? Why your idea is not going to work.

Lee: [00:31:34] Exactly. They pick it apart.

Sashee: [00:31:37] I just poured my heart and soul into this.

Lee: [00:31:38] And it's like, "No, worries, guys. I just spent the last five years of my life doing this, so go for it."

Sashee: [00:31:45] I think it's this odd balance because you don't want to be so shut off that you're shut off to feedback. Like feedback is actually really great. And if an investor is willing to tell you no and here's why, that's such a blessing. I really value when investors would say no, but also provide a lot more clarity and insight. But I think to your original question of emotionally detaching, I think there was at some point, you know, the first five or six are very hard, just like anything. It's almost like you're building a muscle because you're like doing it. And it's not like these eighty four pitches I did were all because people didn't get my idea. It's also like a lot was spent on me refining my pitch. The first six are painful because you're not quite sure how to communicate it. You maybe aren't as confident in delivery. You might be questioning or second guessing a few things. So it's going to be a little bumpy in the beginning. But once you kind of are like, OK, well, this is the story. This is the narrative. This is how I want to present it. And you done that a couple of times to the point where, like you said, it is practice. It's a lot of practice, actually. It's so much practice that it looks seamless. But because behind it, there's like an insane amount of work.

Lee: [00:33:02] Yeah.

Sashee: [00:33:03] And refinement. And so once you have that and you have your pitch like that, it takes maybe six to eight times to get there. Then once I had that, it was kind of like, well, I know from an objective standpoint this is a good idea. Like it just didn't make sense to me that in my case, this tea market is a sixty five billion dollar global opportunity. Second to water, tea is the most consumed beverage in the world. There hasn't historically been an easy way to prep tea. The last innovation was the tea bag. This needs to exist in the world, whether it's me or someone else. Like I truly believe that. And so [00:33:39] once I objectively felt like, no, this is actually a good idea, it was easier then to just be like, all right, this is going to be like a numbers game. Someone is either going to get it or they're not. [00:33:50] And it's kind of like I quickly dialed into, like, who gets it right away from just talking to someone for maybe three minutes. If they're asking, how is this different from a tea bag? You're like, OK, you're not going to be my person. That's OK. And then move on. So I think that is kind of the process it took to get more comfortable.

Lee: [00:34:11] And I think Founders too often don't filter enough for the investor. They don't ask enough questions. They're not you know, it's really important to also vet the investor to see if they're the right fit instead of just letting them pump you for information to then, like, you know, compare with other competitors or whatnot, you know, not to speak so poorly about investors. And they're not all bad, but...

Sashee: [00:34:33] No. And I think similarly, it was funny because once we were at the term sheet stage for the last Series A, one of my investors, I asked them for references and she had said, "In the forty eight deals I've done, no one has ever asked for a reference. You're the first." And I thought that was shocking. I'm like, how do you not? They're doing so much diligence on you. Why would you not do the same?

Lee: [00:34:58] Yeah.

Sashee: [00:34:58] And I understand sometimes it's like you're in a desperate position as a Founder. You need the capital. I totally understand those scenarios as well. But, you know, some investor company relationships last longer than marriages. And so you really want to make sure you have the right, as much as you can. Obviously, like any dynamic, sometimes it's like a dysfunctional relationship. But your family, so you make it work. Like that happens in certain Founder/Investor dynamics. But you also have to recognize this is a pretty serious relationship you're getting into.

Lee: [00:35:31] Absolutely. So what's been one of the biggest challenges you've face just in general in building your business? With a building a startup, there's so many ups and downs. You know, it's easy to look at a company especially like yours that's had so much success and has been named one of the fastest growing DTC brands on Shopify with three hundred and fifty percent annual growth. That's like these are big numbers and so intimidating, I think, to a lot of Founders who are just starting out and their numbers are going like a rocket ship up and then it crashes down and it's going up, down. You know, and I'm sure you experienced maybe something similar when you started your company, but I'd love to hear, what were some of those biggest challenges that you had to overcome when you were starting your company?

Sashee: [00:36:13] Yeah, we still experience it now. Like we're in it's been a really hard time for marketing, digital marketing right now, with Facebook and their whole iOS changes. And we're experiencing this dip right now that I don't think that that piece ever goes away. There's always ups and downs. But, you know, to your point, early on, I mean, it's like crickets when you first go to a show, a trade show or our turn your YouTube channel on or have your website turned on. I remember the excitement I had when it was like someone I didn't know purchasing from my site for the first time, which didn't come until like weeks later. And so I just think, like, this is a very... It's a long journey, and it's one that's for me, at least, unless you have tons of capital to start with, it's like it's a game of endurance. And just like any sport you don't get well, I mean, you might have innate talent, but you have to practice. That's like every day you're putting in the time you're practicing, you're like crafting things you're learning more about, especially when you start a website and you're like, well, why aren't the people coming in? Then you're like, oh...

Lee: [00:37:28] I built it. Why did they not come?

Sashee: [00:37:30] Why did they not come? You're like, oh, advertising. OK, all right. Facebook ads. Instagram ads. Oh, OK. Like there's now Tik Tok. I could drive traffic that way. It's not like you need to know all these things right away, but you kind of have to be willing to piecemeal these things and learn them as you go. And then you get better and better and then you kind of know like, oh, this person does ads and then you get the help and support.

Lee: [00:37:57] Yeah.

Sashee: [00:37:58] So it's definitely like we've had a lot of struggles with that and the beginning, like we had none of our sales came from online in the beginning and now eighty percent of our sales come from online.

Lee: [00:38:07] Yeah.

Sashee: [00:38:08] So that took like three to four years to really build out. And I'm not saying it should take that long for everyone, but for us that happened to be the journey and manufacturing slip ups where we've ordered a set of boxes and they came printed completely wrong right before you are supposed to deliver on a purchase order.

Lee: [00:38:28] Oh no.

Sashee: [00:38:30] You know, even to launching in certain retailers and realizing like this may not be the right fit for us or it's not grasping on. And that's OK. [00:38:38] Just because you fail in one channel doesn't mean you don't have the right product. It just means you are in the wrong channel sometimes. [00:38:44]

Lee: [00:38:44] Yeah, absolutely. And so when it comes to fear, what are some of the fears that you've had to overcome to get to where you are? I know we talked about public speaking, which is kind of crazy since you've won so many awards from pitches like PepsiCo and Tory Burch. But how did you overcome the fear of public speaking and what are their fears have you had to overcome to get to where you are?

Sashee: [00:39:04] A lot of different fears. Yeah, you hit on public speaking, which was a big one of mine. I remember my first or second year eBay, like it was hard for me to present in front of two people. That was like very intense for me. And so I recognized that that was always going to be something that held me back unless I addressed it. And so there's a lot of different solutions out there. I ended up joining a local Toastmasters to just work on getting comfortable speaking in front of people, being critiqued and having to present week over week. And then after that, I just put myself in uncomfortable situations. It's not like I was jumping up and down for joy, wanting to pitch at these competitions. But I knew for someone who didn't have connections to VCs or angel investors, this is my shot, because a lot of the judges on the panels were either venture capitalists themselves or notable angel investors. And I had to get that. I had to get visibility. And that was the only way I was going to do it. And so I've worked with pitch coaches before who've been very helpful, you know, through Woman Founders Network. If you made the top ten, you were given a pitch coach. And I was given a phenomenal one named Lisa Elia, who really... She actually just put the camera in front of me and would film me over and over again until I can really refine my pitch. And so it almost becomes second nature, delivering your pitch so that when the time comes to actually deliver it, it's so ingrained in you. It's like you don't even think about it. You just deliver.

Lee: [00:40:39] And that's how it should be. And I think actually a lot of Founders don't think that they need to actually write a script on what they're going to say on every single slide so that when they go through their pitch deck and they're presenting, because it's a presentation, it's kind of like a performance, that they are really saying things that aren't just written on the slide. And you're telling a story.

Sashee: [00:41:01] Yeah.

Lee: [00:41:02] It's a lot and it's underrated, I think, what it takes to actually pitch. I remember being really intimidated by even the word pitch. You know, it's like I have to throw a ball and hope that it strikes them out, you know, like it's a lot of pressure. And you're like, what does that mean? What does the pitch mean? Well, yeah, it is. It's like a performance and it's a specific thing. So get ready.

Sashee: [00:41:26] Yeah, it was only because I treated it as such. I put so much pressure on myself for these pitch competitions. But at the end of the day, there was not one word that wasn't orchestrated or thought out in the pitches. And this is what Lisa, the pitch coach, kind of taught me that if you have a five minute pitch, and you have to convey everything, every word, every even space, gap needs to matter. It's true.

Lee: [00:41:55] Yeah. If think about if you only can have ten to twenty slides maximum on your pitch deck, that's really valuable real estate. That has to be conveying something very important. And a lot of times it's funny that Founders think that some things might look good when others won't when it's kind of like it doesn't look so great. If you've got tons of impressions on social media, but you're sales aren't that great. Like maybe you don't want to talk about those impressions.

Sashee: [00:42:22] Right.

Lee: [00:42:24] So it's always kind of thinking from the investors perspective as well, getting in their seat. What's the information that they're looking for? There's a lot going on.

Sashee: [00:42:33] You made a great point, because I think that's the other thing that Lisa was great about. She was a savage when it came to taking my pitch deck and being like, "Why do you have this slide in there?" I was like, "Well, it's important because of X, Y, Z." And she's just like, "Not important to your end audience." And so having someone else look at your back and be a source of truth for you is great.

Lee: [00:42:56] Yeah, it's funny. Yeah. I advise a bunch of startups and on their pitch decks I help them with their fundraising strategy, and I go through their pitch decks that I'm like, "Yep,  this information's already been said on this one and this one and this one. We don't need this. This is repetitive. No one cares. Like you have way too many slides on your product. Slim it down. They want to know the financial outcome here, like let's get this shaped up. You can say that in like two slides, not five."

Sashee: [00:43:21] Yeah, but attachment is real. Founder attachment. You really have to, like, be willing to axe that attachment. It's hard.

Lee: [00:43:30] It's true. Yes. So being a Founder obviously involves an incredible amount of persistence. Do you have like a daily routine, mantra, anything that keeps you positive and focused?

Sashee: [00:43:47] My favorite mantra is a Rumi quote, and it's "As you walk, the way appears." And it gave me a lot of comfort early on because I thought similar to what I told you, I just always thought, like, oh, I have these connections. I don't know this person. How am I supposed to get to this milestone, without knowing any of this? But that simple kind of understanding and has been now turned into a truth for me, [00:44:10] you just kind of have to, like, walk the way, take the steps, and then you'll see the next horizon and what you have to do next. So [00:44:17] that's been very comforting. From a daily practice standpoint, for me, I really value introspection and meditation as well. That's been a big part of my upbringing in my life. So for me, it helps a lot if I can just not have distractions or like just have an internal introspection dialog with myself. And that helps me like, actually look at things that I need to either change in myself or my approach to things. So that's been really helpful for me.

Lee: [00:44:49] How have you grown professionally and personally as a leader?

Sashee: [00:44:52] An insane amount. And it still feels like it never ends, like there's so much more to learn. I think for me personally, there's been I think because I'm on the other side of it... When I say that, I mean, there's still so much to do. But on the other side of having this idea, really believing in it, but not really knowing if it could come to pass. I think now seeing like, OK, it is resonating. We have been able to reach hundreds of thousands of customers with this product. I think it's been given me a lot of comfort to know that I didn't have to have all of these connections or this expertise or graduate degrees or whatever you think is holding you down to move forward. It was just purely endurance and willing to, like, move forward and persist in something. And I think that's a great comfort to most people, too, because it's anyone can do that if they want and if they care enough. So I think that's been something that has been rewarding and has helped me personally. I guess going through that journey, it really solidifies that as a fact now.

Lee: [00:46:05] Yeah.

Sashee: [00:46:05] And I think professionally, I mean, I made so many mistakes in hiring. And we've been embezzled before our company.

Lee: [00:46:17] What?

Sashee: [00:46:17] There's been like anything you think can be... Like any crazy thing that you think has happened in a company, I mean it's just factual. Like and I say that because I just don't want people to feel alone like of something crazy happens. Like you hire the wrong person or something doesn't work out or things happen. But like I also think that they've been huge growth opportunities of like how I need to shift and change as a leader and not micromanage people, set OKRs or metrics ahead of time and like let people have autonomy to reach them, putting a lot more trust in my team. For me personally, how do I continue to grow with this company and acquire the skill sets, especially the soft skills needed to continue growing? So I think those are some of the key things that I've taken away. Just like relaxing a bit more and basically setting the structure up, pre planning ahead of time so that you worry less later.

Lee: [00:47:12] Yeah. How big is your team now?

Sashee: [00:47:14] We now have seventeen full time.

Lee: [00:47:16] And so it's interesting, you mentioned the change in a skill set as a Founder/CEO. It changes. Your role changes and grows as the company grows. So where were you before and where are you now? What skills have you had to learn to get to where you are?

Sashee: [00:47:30] I think in the beginning it was like I had my hand in everything, you know, like your jack of all trades. You're a generalist, which is what I felt comfortable in, like I had view and a line of sight of everything going on. And as you grow and as your team grows, you realize like, oh, you can't have your hand in everything anymore. And there's like a certain you have to relinquish that responsibility. And this is why you hired these amazing, talented individuals who know more than you in this particular area and you have to let them run with it. You set up the structure, set up the goals ahead of time. So everyone's aware, but let them run with it. And that's bee a huge learning for me and something I continue to have to let go of. And not that it's been... I think it's actually been easier for me than a lot of other Founders. But at the same time, [00:48:21] you want to deliver the highest quality experience as when you start in the beginning. And so there is a certain emotional attachment to the outcome. But at the same time, there has to be like a trusting relationship on your team and culturally what you're building. [00:48:37] So I think that's been a big shift for me personally.

Lee: [00:48:41] Yeah, mental health and growing a company as a Founder is a pretty interesting topic because it's very tough to build a business. How have you work to maintain personal relationships while running a high growth company?

Sashee: [00:48:55] I think it's one of the hardest aspects that I don't think a ton of people talk about is the mental toll, emotional toll this on takes you, because you live and breathe this every day. And it's not like it's something other people understand. It's not like you can expect your best friend to understand it, your parent, even a significant other. And just like anything else, there's sacrifices to be made. Like if you're going to choose to become a parent, you know, inherently, oh, I can't do this. I can't go to this social event. But you don't ascribe the same requirements of when you're a startup Founder. And I think there's this idea like, oh, I can do it all. I can have it all, have a really successful relationship, b a great parent and run a super high growth company. And I do think that there is a way to integrate it. It's not necessarily work/life balance, per se, but it's just more of like shifting your mindset that this is more of, I don't know, work/life integration rather than balance, and some days are going to be heavier than others. And so, you know, I feel like there's definitely relationships that I feel like either my partner didn't really understand the sacrifices that were necessary or I was so absorbed in it that I was absent as a partner. And so I think that moving forward in my current relationship, it's something I really want to be mindful of and that, I think is just important to bring up, because I feel like especially in this culture, we were like, oh yeah, you can have it all. And you're like a boss babe. And like a guy doesn't understand it and he's not for you. But I just also think, like, well, you can't be so absorbed in something that you kind of forget, like the world around you.

Lee: [00:50:37] Right. You have a personal life to maintain as well. And the sad thing is, sometimes there are the founders that sacrifice everything in their life for their startup. And maybe they were married and they got divorced because of them never being around. And then the company tanks and they lost both the partner and the company. So, you know, companies come and go. If you have something really special going on with a partner, I mean, you have to prioritize it.

Sashee: [00:51:05] Yeah.

Lee: [00:51:06] Yeah. It's tough. Like you said, it's like an integration. It's hard to find balance, but it's important.

Sashee: [00:51:12] And also just know, like there's waves of this journey, like you said, that are just up and down. And so almost developing a more embracing mindset of like, oh, I should expect problems. They are going to happen a lot and not be like ticked off every time something does happen. I think that also alleviates a lot of your quality of life, I guess you could call it.

Lee: [00:51:38] Right. Just know things are going to go wrong and roll with the punches. So do you have any, before we wrap up here, any other final advice for Founders, aspiring entrepreneurs, business operators out there that have been tuning in?

Sashee: [00:51:54]  [00:51:54]Things are going to go wrong, and that's OK. And also that you don't have to have all of these conditions in order to do something. I think just like the aspect of being consistent and persistent about something actually does get you farther than you think. [00:52:11]

Lee: [00:52:12] And so what's next for Tea Drops? What can we see next? Do you have anything exciting you can share?

Sashee: [00:52:19] So we are yes, we do have an exciting collaboration coming out. I can't drop like exactly what it is, but it's happening in October. And then we're also developing a woman's health line focused on menstrual health and hormonal balance. That's also coming out in the new year, which we're very excited about. And in between that, there's a lot of holiday launches where we have a pretty robust seasonal business. And so we'll be coming out with some seasonal varieties as well for holiday that we're right now in development of and very excited for. So we usually co-create that with our community. So we're excited to announce that in the coming months.

Lee: [00:53:00] Awesome. Well, thank you so much for being on the show and sharing your awesome story. It was really fun getting to know you. And thanks so much for joining us.

Sashee: [00:53:09] Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

Lee: [00:53:14] Thank you so much for listening to the Stairway to CEO podcast. Once again, I'm your host, Lee Greene, and if you have any burning business questions, please feel free to reach us at StairwaytoCEO.com. We'd love to hear from you. And if you like what you hear, be sure to subscribe to the show. Tell your friends, leave us a review, and follow us on Instagram @StairwaytoCEO. Until next time, guys, keep on climbing.

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