How Chrissy Teigan Exploded This Entrepreneur's Business, with Tea Drops Founder Sashee Chandran

Joining me on today’s episode is Sashee Chandran, Founder of Tea Drops.

Founded in 2015, Tea Drops is a woman forward, innovative tea company creating magical tea moments. By making an assortment of bagless, organic, whole leaf teas, Tea Drops sheds 20% less waste than traditional tea bags.

Tea Drops has become a favorite among new and experienced tea drinkers alike, launching innovative tea experiences that merge flavorful blends, unique product formats, and convenience.

In this episode we cover

  • Sashee’s startup story and what it took to get it off the ground,

  • How you can go from having no network when it comes to angel or institutional investors, right through to a thriving community of people ready to invest in you

  • And what it means to have controlled luck and what you can do to bring it to life in your own business

Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!

Sashee: Yeah, my name's Sashee Chandran and I'm founder and CEO of Tea Drops, and we make an assortment of Bagla holy teas. We call them bath bombs, except their actual tea that you drop in hot water, they dissolve in hot water. So a lot more convenient than a tea bag, more eco friendly than a tea bag. And you can enjoy them any time, anywhere, wherever you have access to hot water.

Doone: And they're so cute. I love the shapes. Yes. The little love hearts. The little flowers.

Sashee: They come in fun, whimsical shapes like hard stars and flowers.

Doone: Oh, so right up my alley. OK, I want to get into life before you started tea drops to understand what was getting you interested in starting a business. Did you always want to start a business and why this industry. Why this category.

Sashee: Yeah, all good questions, I do think I come from a pretty entrepreneurial household, both my parents are immigrants to the US. My mom is Chinese and my dad's from Sri Lanka. My mom came when she was eight years old. My dad came in his mid twenties and they always had side hustles going on when I was a child. So even though they had their nine to five day jobs, they would always be like, I remember my mom had a Crystal Bay store and so I kind of would watch her. So on the weekends at the swap meet and my dad was into real estate. So I would go to all those meetings with him or he would look at different properties. So I was always exposed to that level of hustle. So I think I was inspired by that growing up. And then I started working really early. By the time I was 13 or 14, I kind of either had babysitting jobs or worked at the gym or etc. So I was always kind of earning money and then also had side gigs in my high school where I would sell jewelry or other kinds of things. I don't know. I was just like, I love to be a creator and sell them. And that idea of, wow, you can actually make something in the world and people find value in it and enough to purchase it with something that was really fascinating to me. So anyway, fast forward, I grew up in Southern California and ended up working at eBay and Silicon Valley and I personally grew up with a very T centric household.

Sashee: My mom, like I mentioned, Chinese, my dad's from Sri Lanka. I learned my daughter was actually born on a Tuesday in Sri Lanka. So he was always at the table. And any time there was a family party or just a gathering, I would always be TI. And so I love the ritual of tea. And I was exposed to that growing up and always used to drink tea loosely tea specifically as I grew up. And so working in a fast paced corporate environment and trying to make tea wasn't really working out great because I remember of my work done, I would have an arsenal of equipment, I would have my kettle, my strainer, my loose leaf tea. I would boil the water, I would strain the tea for five to seven minutes. By the time I make it, I had to run to my next meeting. I didn't really have the time to enjoy it. And tea bags for me were just not as flavorful or aromatic. They often are made with what's called tea dust. That's the last part of tea harvesting and production. It's never as flavorful. So that was my own personal frustration. So that is really the point at which I set out to investigate why is there no convenient way to make tea? And I saw that even though the tea market itself, which is a sixty five billion dollar global market, second to water tea, is the most consumed beverage in the world, there were no simple options or convenient options on the market. And so that really was that first. Hmm. Maybe I should investigate this moment.

That's so interesting. And when you were thinking about investigating this moment, were you thinking, hey, I'm going to build a really big business? Or are you just thinking, hey, I just want to have a different solution for my day to day?

No, I think I always had this hope that I would be an entrepreneur in a way, and I don't think I recognized it at that time. But I always knew, like, starting a business I think would be fun.

And actually prior to tea drops, I had a lot of other failed concepts. Like I remember even a year prior to tea drops, I had this cookie concept, which I actually still think is a great idea if someone wants to take it. But I would go to artisan shows and the whole concept was baking a custom cookie on the spot. So basically you would have your cookie dough, you would come up and choose your mixes, whether it's walnuts, chocolate chips, Eminem. I had a basically a convection travel oven. I would just make it on the spot within five minutes.

And so I tested out that concept and it actually went well, except one day I was invited to this fair and I was going to make cookies. And it was the basically it was summer, whether it was going to be over one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. And I was like, there's no way people want freshly baked hot cookies on a summer day. And in the meantime, I actually was already working on these prototypes for tea drops and I had made a couple of prototypes. So I brought when I say a couple, I probably had forty to fifty and I brought those prototypes to the show to actually just sell in case I couldn't sell the cookies. And what ended up selling out were the prototypes of the tea drops and very few cookies. So I think that was really the point of validation to say, OK, like maybe I should give up this cookie thing. I've done a few shows with it. It's gone OK, but I don't think that's going to be the silver bullet. And maybe I should investigate this teardrop thing a little bit more.

Totally jump ship. Give it a little.

Yeah. And so a lot of those initial early days, what I was thinking about tea drops, not necessarily as a business, but just my own fascination with how do you make tea in a more convenient format was just literally buying tea and spices and then going into my apartment kitchen at the time and after work and on weekends, I would just start experimenting with different tea leaves. I would grind them. I would just really learn the properties of the tea leaf itself. And a year, year and a half later is when I really developed this. Notion of the tea draw. So I think I was inspired honestly by a bath bomb and seeing it and seeing how it works, like, oh yeah, you just drop it in your bath and it magically makes this amazing a bath experience and why can't we do that with tea? So that really was that point of inspiration to start putting the tea into these fun shapes. And that took me a while to figure out how to do my bet.

How did you do it in the beginning when you're at home? In the kitchen?

Yeah. So I would basically gather all the spices. I would grind the tea very fine. I had bought these like custom molds, if you will, and I was experimenting with that. But then I realized the texture wasn't right. So then I just developed this system and this is now one of our proprietory I ended up painting the idea of how tea drops are made. So once I figured out the certain format of how to make it, I then went to my local business resource center called Score, and they just provide free mentorship for starting emerging businesses. And again, at that point, I didn't know it was going to be a full fledged business. And I went there and I said, hey, look, I have this idea. This is how I make it. Is there any IP around this? And there was a retired attorney there and said, yeah, I actually think the way you're making it, there's something that you should be protecting. And I was like, OK, cool, how do I go about doing that? And he said, well, it's going to probably cost you five to twenty thousand dollars to at least limit it, protect it. And I was like, I don't have that right now. Or at least that's not how I want to spend my savings without really knowing where this is going. So I was going back and forth and he said, well, why don't you write it, write your provisional patent and I'll review it. And then once I review it, you can submit it to the USB autosite. So that's what I did over the next two weeks.

Holy cow, that is so cool.

It's kind of crazy how you meet those key figures in the story, like that guy obviously nudged you in the right direction and inspired you to do it yourself. This is just being like a let's leave it. I'll just, like, start and figure it out later kind of thing.

Yeah, I think it was one of those definitely pivotal moments and people that change the trajectory of what you're doing.

Totally. So I want to know and I want to understand what were the key steps to actually getting started. Know you've got the patent and the formula. How did you actually go about bringing this brand to life? What were the steps?

So I was still working full time at eBay. And basically those initial months was figuring out, is this something viable? Also, do I enjoy working on it this intensely? Could this be a full time thing when you're first starting?

You know, you're just going through. So obviously there's so many questions. There's self-doubt, there's how am I going to finance this? There's all of these things happening all at once. And for me, I started just asking myself, well, if I really do want the opportunity to take this seriously and I seriously I mean, make this a full time thing, then let me just start attending trade shows, learning more about this industry, selling the product. And that's what I did. I took every opportunity at these small artists and shows, gift shows to create a small booth and sell my product directly and see how people responded to the tea drops like did they like them? What was the feedback? And I must have done 30 or 40 shows that first year of just getting customer feedback and every opportunity that someone said, oh, there's a show happening here. I would just all my weekends would be spent doing this. And so it gave me a good sense that after that period of time when I really took tea drops like this could be a path for me. It was around six or seven months in and I still was working in my corporate job. And at that point, I kind of made that decision that I had enough feedback. I have done enough trade shows. I was actually working on making this product in my home kitchen, selling it like it was madness. But I love that process. And so at that point is when I decided I want this to be my full time work. I want to figure out a way to make this my full time work and. There's obviously a lot of different factors that go into that, how you're going to finance it. How long are you going to give yourself to do this before you go back to your original corporate set up? So I didn't really have a plan per say, but I was debating at the time whether I was going to pursue my MBA and I had already taken my gym out, which is that test for us to get into business school.

And so I already have that lined up. And instead of paying what would have been maybe seventy five to one hundred K, I just decided to take a step back and use what I would have used for education and put it into the business. And then at that time I just purchased a home and I went and did something that probably people would consider risky. Now I took a home equity line of credit on the house and I use some of that to start the business. So in total, I had around one hundred and twenty five K really, but I didn't think of it that way because it wasn't necessarily savings I had in my bank account. It was reserves that I knew I was going to spend eventually on either education or my property. So I think those two I had that lined up. But I also didn't realize and I was naive to think how much would be involved in actually growing and starting a business. So once you start purchasing, packaging and also buying ingredients and attending trade shows, which are expensive, you soon realized, wow, there's a lot of costs that go into building this. So those early days, I was literally making the product in my kitchen downstairs is where I was packaging fulfilling orders. And then on my weekends I would be doing these artisan trade shows.

And at those trade shows, you are obviously making enough sales to go into retail stocks, or was it like consumer trade shows a little bit of both.

So did consumer facing ones where people would just buy your product directly, say those holiday boutiques where they're buying for their friends and buying for themselves? And then also there were trade shows where you would sell, you would kind of have a booth and retailers would come and notice you.

And so for us, we did a lot of those retail trade shows and one of our first big accounts was getting Anthropologie and a few other. So basically, by the time that first year, maybe year and a half I was doing it, I did so many trade shows, like I said, 30 or 40 the first year, a lot more probably the second year. I personally had built and cultivated about five hundred retailers that we were then working with at that time that we would ship product to they would sell it in their boutique store. And then I also started our online store of just selling direct to consumer. So it was between those two is what really I was focused on the first year.

And am I right in thinking that in that early time when you were getting five hundred retailers on board, your biggest challenge would have been having the upfront capital to be able to actually pay for the production of the product that you needed.

It was a little bit of that, it was also not being a hire the right people. It's not just you're paying for ingredients, but you're also like, who's going to help make it? And so I actually am very grateful. I enlisted my mom. I retired mom who just got into retirement to come and help me in the kitchen at that time.

And then I love the ones we grew out of my kitchen at home. I moved to a commercial kitchen, which is you share this kitchen with other makers and you haven't allocated hours in the day. But sometimes our productions would run so much and there is such demand that I would ask my landlord if I could come at 1:00 in the morning, 2:00 in the morning till 6:00 a.m. to do the production runs. And so thank God for moms. But my mom really came through and then I had a couple of other interns at the time helping to make the products and also package it and ship it. So I think there is a couple constraints you have on your first starting something. Obviously, it's the capital front to buy the inventory and the packaging. And a lot of these have big kind of mandates for quantity mandates. And you're like, can I even reach those? And I remember it was so intimidating that the first time I purchased these wooden boxes, that kind of Zahera product are classic T sampler. I purchased five hundred of them and it was so nerve wracking for me.

It was a couple of thousand dollars in inventory, but they took up my entire living room. I was like, how am I going to sell five hundred of these? And it's like that nerve wracking feeling. But it's the mandate. It's like, how am I going to find the people to help actually make it? It's all of these different. It feels like very stressful from various angles.

Yeah, totally. Especially when it's the first time you're dealing with those kind of problems versus now being a seasoned entrepreneur. I'm sure you're able to look at a challenge and be like, OK, well, let's think about this. How are we going to solve it? Stress free, maybe not stress free, but you know what I mean.

Yeah, well, I also say it's a different type of stress. I think when you're starting something to when you are on the path to growing it, it's not that the problems go away. It's just the problems are different. But I do have so much respect, respect for myself and respect for anyone that starts something from the ground up is like in the kitchen making it is doing artisan trade shows or one on one selling your product, pitching your product, watching people be like, oh, that's kind of sucks, you know, or whatever the feedback is initially and absorbing that and still deciding to move forward.

Something else I read that you were doing, maybe it was around this time, was a lot of pitch competitions to be able to start getting more experience in pitching and getting more kind of dollars coming in the door from different kinds of investors. Yeah. Can you tell us a little bit about that process and why you decided to go and raise a seed round and take the route of venture capital?

Yeah, and I think it's a hard decision that everyone has to come to themselves and really ask the question, what type of business do you want to build? Is this going to be a lifestyle business where you just kind of want this to be your baby for maybe the rest of your life or, you know, generationally, you pass it on? Or do you want to scale this business fast, have potentially an exit?