How We Started a Successful Tea
Brand to Support Motherhood
Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m Bethan Thomas, and I set up HotTea Mama with my best friend Kate in 2017. HotTea Mama makes award winning teas to naturally support women with the ‘joys’ of womanhood – PMS, pregnancy, motherhood and menopause.
What is your personal story and how did you come up with the idea?
Kate and I were initially inspired by our experience of pregnancy and motherhood and my background in the tea trade. I have been a tea buyer and blender since I left university, and I hold a degree in Tea Science from Fujian University in China. A relatively niche career! When Kate had 2 babies in the space of 1 year, she was on such a restricted diet that she asked me for advice on what teas were safe for pregnancy, and could also help her with morning sickness, birth preparation, breastfeeding and sleep…and the idea for HotTea Mama was born.
We grew the business organically while we were on maternity leave, and then whilst working full time. Larger tea companies see the pregnancy market as too niche, but we were lucky to build a loyal following on Instagram, and grow through baby shows and collaborations.
Three years later, we decided to extend our range to meet the wellness needs of women throughout their adult life. This was a direct result of customers asking us for help – specifically if teas could support them with menstruation, fertility and menopause.
What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?
Creating blends that were safe for both pregnancy and breastfeeding was the key issue for us. I used my Tea Science background, and ran all blends past 2 doctors before signing them off. It was amazing how many ‘pregnancy blends’ are on the market that include ingredients like raspberry leaf, or liquorice, both of which can be very dangerous at certain periods of pregnancy.
Pukka also released a pregnancy and motherhood tea, in the same month that we launched! I was heartbroken at the time, but realised fairly quickly that it would hopefully prove the market was viable. And also, as they are very generic tea dust blends, whilst ours are whole leaf, and created with a specific purpose for your changing body, we have a strong USP against them.
On top of this, we faced a serious production issue on our first production run. Our box producer failed to put on the final layer of varnish that was required on the boxes, and they all scratched terribly during packing and then shipping. I had to get them all re-produced and then hand re-pack thousands of boxes in my spare room as I fulfilled the orders. All while I had a newborn baby to contend with! It wasn’t the happiest time of my life, but it’s never happened again – thank goodness!
Who is your target market?
Our target customer is female, between 16 and 70, with an interest in health and wellbeing and beyond this, splits into 3 sub-categories.
Claire – 23, works in PR, lives in North London, loves running and hiit exercise, shopping on Depop for rare finds and travelling. Has suffered from bad PMS and is concerned about having children in the future. Would like to be married and starting a family by the time she’s 35.
Roshni – 28, newly pregnant, moved out of London to Surrey when starting a family. Loves yoga and cooking. Shops at Ocado and Waitrose. Works as a lawyer and enjoys seeing friends for dinner and a nice bottle of wine (when she can!)
Dawn – 46, accountant, mum of 3, lives in Glasgow, huge foodie and film buff. Shops in Sainsbury’s and loves travelling with her family. Has been taken aback by symptoms of peri-menopause and is looking for natural support as it has been affecting her life for over 3 years with no end in sight.
How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?
For the first 2 years of the business, we only used organic marketing. Focussing primarily on Instagram (we now have 14.7k followers), and posting once a day. It had to fit around having a full time job, so was limited to early mornings and evenings to be active. But we bolstered this with competitions and gifted product to small influencers, and it really helped us grow.
We also sampled our product with hypnobirthing instructors, private doulas and baby instructors – so we knew our product was reaching our ideal pregnant client. This drove a lot of traffic to our website.
Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?
Our community on Instagram is strong, we have a very high return rate of customers to the website – c. 20%, and it is because we’ve made our product very giftable. This allows us to tap into the £500 million baby shower market, and 75% of women now hold baby showers or gender reveal events.
It’s really hard to find teas that meet the needs of women in the supermarket, or gifts for mums (it’s all about the baby!) so we have a unique proposition to pull people in.
We also listen to our customers and our new product development is meeting their direct needs, and allows us to keep them as a direct customer after they stop having children.
What kind of culture exists in your company, and how did you establish it?
We are quite rare in that we are a hugely female driven company. Only one of our employees is male, and he is outnumbered 4 to 1. We have always been focussed on flexible working due to the origins of our business coming from working with a very young family in tow. And we strongly believe that work needs to be a balanced part of an individual’s life – not the sole focus.
So our culture is driven by respect for the demands of life on women, and how work has to fit and be a part of this.
Since COVID, we have made sure we hold monthly virtual team meetings as a group, and weekly 1 on 1 catch ups, so we still feel that we’re working together, as too much flexibility can take away that sense of team. I’ve also been lucky to have a lot of support from local business development schemes in Oxford, to work on my own leadership style, as it isn’t something I’m naturally comfortable with.
What software, services or tools do you use within your business?
Xero for accounting and google workspace for everything office based. Being able to edit and share documents is great, and Google Meet is the best virtual meeting system around (in my opinion!). The fact it’s an entirely integrated system and we can even share it with those outside of our organisation where we need to is great. We have shared documents with our fulfilment centre and freelance workers.
Our website runs on Shopify which is brilliant with CRM and review apps added in. It’s significantly easier than the WooCommerce site we originally had, and I can’t recommend it enough to small businesses.
What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?
I wouldn’t change much about our journey. I was lucky to understand the supply process and NPD from my career as a tea buyer, and our sales have grown slowly and organically, at the right pace for the business and myself (from a mental health perspective!). We’ve made mistakes like any business, but nothing catastrophic luckily.
We’ve focussed on D2C sales due to the fact we’ve been able to grow a profitable and sustainable business, but I may have started pitching to retailers sooner. This is on our 2021 plan but could have been earlier as it would be good to have stronger brand recognition now we’re expanding our range.
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
The satisfaction from good reviews and happy customer messages, is so incredibly meaningful. I would never get the same sense of satisfaction even when I had made teas for companies that I didn’t own!
I am also incredibly proud that we employ people whose families have a better life due to HotTea Mama. Setting up PAYE is my top proudest business moment.
What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
My to do list is never ending. It is very hard to switch off, as there’s no 9-5 mentality in running a successful business.
Big decisions are also terrifying, as you have no one to blame if they go wrong. We recently produced over 55,000 boxes of tea and the investment of money is huge for our cash flow. I don’t sleep easily worrying that I’ve messed up stock needs!
What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?
Steph Douglas from Don’t Buy Her Flowers is very inspiring. Hearing how she actively chose not to take on investment and grows her business on her own terms has been really helpful for me, as we’ve been approached by investment firms over the last year. It’s not to say that I’ll never do it, but knowing that there’s a way to progress on your own terms is great to see.
I also love the podcast ‘How To Fail’, it’s fascinating to hear the benefits that come from failure, and how important it is not to be a perfectionist constantly.
Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?
Our tea will be on shelves in health and wellness retailers, and larger gifting retailers, with a presence in 5 international markets. We will double our team to 8, and diversify our employees without losing our female focus.