Young entrepreneur Jules Quinn may have started out as a tea girl but has now built a tea empire exporting to Europe, the Middle East and Japan
Given the tough climate for young people entering the workplace, young entrepreneurial success stories are always worth shouting about. Jules Quinn definitely falls into this camp; her start-up The TeaShed has captured the imaginations of thirsty consumers with its tasty blends and eye-catching designs. And she’s a dyed-in-the- wool entrepreneur; the start-up life is all she’s known. “I launched it as soon as I finished uni. So I’ve never had a real job,” she laughs. A work placement helped launch Quinn’s career, although not perhaps in the way that you might expect. “I was just there to make lots of cups of tea,” she says. But this in itself led to a rather serendipitous discovery. When dispatched to replenish the office’s stock of tea, Quinn noticed there was a distinct lack of variety on the supermarket shelves. Whilst there was plenty of provision for coffee cognoscenti, at the time the available varieties of tea were fairly limited. “I just thought there must be a gap in the market,” she says. “When I went back to uni, I decided to work on it as my final project, wrote a business plan and that was it.”
At the time, Quinn was enrolled in a degree in fashion marketing at Northumberland University, in which design played a significant part. “Fashion didn't have to be clothes; it was focused around capturing trends and we did a lot of graphics and photography,” she explains. And given the degree was very business focused, it made it the perfect practice ground for setting up what would be The TeaShed, with Quinn creating her model and business plan as her final project and picking up additional legal and accounting advice to supplement what she had learned. “The course was all about creating a hypothetical business,” she says. “I just made it real.”
The TeaShed’s growth has been entirely organic; Quinn hasn't taken on any external funding and, after borrowing a couple of thousand from her parents, bootstrapped the business to get it off the ground. “I lived at home so I didn't have any outgoings, I used my student loan and just lived like a little hermit for a few years,” she says. In recent years, she has won quite a few awards that have come with prize money, helping her to shore up against holes in the balance sheet.
Putting together new tea blends sounds like it would be a rather lengthy process but Quinn admits that it’s probably not as esoteric a journey as one might imagine. “Quite simply I went on Google and typed in ‘tea suppliers’ and ‘Sri Lanka’,” she laughs. Her budding business received a range of tea samples; after conducting focus groups and deciding on a supplier she began to put together The TeaShed’s extensive product range. “I wanted to have different teas for different times in the day and different uses,” Quinn explains. The result was the creation of blends like the Baby, it’s Cold Outside *Tea – a chai for colder days lightly spiced with ingredients like cardamom, cinnamon and ginger – or the 4am *Tea, which is naturally low in caffeine.
As you’d expect from someone with a design background, for Quinn branding has been an important part of The TeaShed’s evolution; the company feels its design-led ethos is what sets it apart from some of its more fusty competitors. “They have an agency; they’ll just do a standard food-related box and artwork and that’s it,” she says. The TeaShed’s striking branding is certainly one of its real selling points; for example many of its lines come packaged in a useable, branded cup. “It’s just fun, bright and happy,” she continues.
But no matter how good a product is on paper, to make a new brand successful you have to get it in front of consumers. Fortunately, Quinn is far from lacking in gumption; her first port of call was the local Fenwick in Newcastle, where she simply walked into the store and asked for a meeting with the buyer. Not only did the buyer take on The TeaShed’s products but also gave Quinn additional advice on how to handle retailers and margins.
She was also given additional pointers on where to find customers. “An advisor said ‘you should really do a trade show’,” recalls Quinn. They have since become one of the key ways in which The TeaShed forms new partnerships; a short-term Christmas partnership with the V&A sprang from one such show. But Quinn is also not afraid of approaching people unsolicited when she identifies brands she wants to work with. “If there’s somewhere that I really want to get into, I’ll just find out who they are, then stalk them and get them,” she says.
This no-nonsense attitude has served her in good stead, helping her to raise the profile of The TeaShed. Early on, she identified that Living Etc. would make a good fit for her products and she didn’t hesitate in reaching out. “I got in contact and said ‘I love your magazine; it would be totally amazing if you’d feature my new products’,” she says. Just this one piece of coverage had a transformative effect; off the back of this alone, John Lewis approached The TeaShed and asked to stock its products, subsequently becoming one of its most significant partners.
And the press coverage has been rolling in ever since. Despite the business’s small size, Quinn has received attention from all quarters, from magazines Closer and Company to The Sunday Times and the BBC. In part, she feels the fact that she’s receiving such attention is the comparative rarity of young female entrepreneurs. “The fact that there is such unemployment for young people has actually meant that we’ve gotten more press,” she says. Against such a stark backdrop, it’s inevitable that young entrepreneurial success stories will garner plenty of attention.
Certainly this PR has helped the start-up find good partners. But although The TeaShed has received no shortage of offers, Quinn has focused more heavily on working with outlets she feels reflect its ethos. “I’ve never really wanted to get into supermarkets with it because it’s not really a supermarket product,” she says. “It’s a bit more special than that.”
This is one reason The TeaShed has focused heavily on making use of pop-ups and more intimate settings. “Pop-ups are a fantastic way of expressing your brand, talking to customers, getting feedback and telling people ‘this is what we’re about’,” Quinn says. Given that currently The TeaShed predominantly trades online and through other outlets, rather than having a fixed premises of its own, spending time getting out amongst customers is absolutely essential. “We don’t have a shop to say ‘This is The TeaShed’ so it can be a bit more challenging to reach consumers and that’s why pop-ups are great,” she says.
But whilst Quinn values the personal touch, The TeaShed is still a business with a global reach. Its first international deal came out of the blue from Dean & DeLuca’s Middle Eastern operations, looking to import The TeaShed’s products. “They got in touch and they just placed an order for £10,000. I was like ‘err... yeah, no problem’,” she laughs. Since then, The TeaShed has picked up customers in Europe and has just signed a deal with a Japanese distributor to sell its teas there. “That was just a contact through a friend,” she says. “You just don’t know where these things are going to come from; you just have to keep trying.”
And this persistence has helped The TeaShed stand out from the crowd. Quinn has scooped her fair share of accolades for her enterprise, winning plenty of regional business awards and, in November, netting the Forward Ladies Young Business Woman of the Year award. She feels this kind of recognition is important as it helps remind you of all that you’ve achieved so far. “Day to day, you never really think about it; you just get on with it,” Quinn says. “But when someone actually goes ‘we’ve picked you and we think you’re doing really well’, it’s amazing.”
But what does the future hold for The TeaShed? It has just launched a new product, PopaBalls, that are the jelly-like balls filled with juice commonly used to create bubble tea. “We've made it available for home use and there’s no other company in the UK that is doing this at the moment so it’s really exciting,” Quinn says. Additionally, the company is looking to open its first outlet soon, bringing its brand to new audiences. “We’ll open one soon,” she continues. “It’s just finding the right place and the money to bankroll it. Beyond that, we’re doing lots of festivals, doing a couple of pop-ups and touring the world with TeaShed.”