Business Insight: ETTE TEA Company

Interview with Victor Koh

Meet Victor Koh, master tea-blender and founder of ETTE TEA Company, a local company responsible for creating expressive and flavours like Nasi Lemak or Pandan Chiffon. The former air-steward shares with us how he ventured into the world of tea blending and the obstacles he had to face to turn his passion into a business.

Work+Store (W+S): How did you transition to the business of blending teas?

Victor (V): Being an air-steward is all about service and there were a lot of us who gravitated to service-oriented jobs afterwards. When I left, I worked as a sales person for a local tea company that I liked and fell in love with tea.

 W+S: What drove you to start your own business?

V: When I first started working in the tea business, I never really got to do what I wanted to do – I wasn’t able to blend what I wanted to blend. Also, I’m not young anymore. I wanted to start a legacy, something I could leave behind. I had the idea but I had to put it in paper. So, I quit my job and launched my product two months later.

It definitely started as a home-based project. I took the risk and began putting my products online. I created an Instagram account, put up some photos and started seeing some likes. The likes gave me a sense that there was a market for this and an actual business was possible. There weren’t really dessert flavours from this part of the world then. You could find blends like Caramel Toffee or Crème Brulee, but there were no Ice Kacang or Mango Sticky Rice!

W+S: On top of running an e-commerce platform, ETTE TEA also has a physical tea atelier on Kreta Ayer Road. Why the decision to do both?

V: The store felt like the natural transition from a home-based business to an actual business. In order for ETTE TEA to grow, both the physical retail space and online shop had to exist – they are symbiotic. You can see my products online, but you can’t really taste it. The shop provides an avenue for people to experience my product. It also acts as my working space where I conduct tea-blending workshops and training classes for my clients.

W+S: How did you first build your relationship with your stockists and what were some of the lessons that you learnt while working with them?

V: When I first started about two years ago, there were not many people doing local products. Some of my stockists, like NAIISE and Excluniqueeee, were just starting out too. They were looking for local brands and it was easier for me to reach out to them. Department stores, like Robinsons and Tangs, are more heavily curated and there was definitely more pitching involved. Having unique & quality products are of utmost importance; while marketing & branding help to broadcast your message, having inferior goods will stem your progress.

I also learnt to never stop trying – I was turned down twice by departmental stores in the beginning but I persevered. Building relationships with stockists will take time, but respect your stockists and work collaboratively to market your products. I do not expect my stockists to do all the work because nobody knows my teas better than I do! Don’t forget that smaller stockists are small businesses too and experience the same issues with overheads and manpower constraints. I have learnt to think in their shoes, and this helps a lot in mediating differences.

W+S: What are some of the things people tend not to realize about running a food business?

V: It’s a lot of work. People jump into the food business or any creative field thinking it’s a dream. When I started doing the actual warehousing, distribution, and the daily grind of running the business, I realized I couldn’t just blend tea for the sake of blending tea anymore. With running a business you tend to get lost along the way, but it always starts from your love for the product. I have to remind myself to balance business needs with my own passion.

W+S: What are some of the hardest challenges you’ve faced thus far?

V: Maybe the hardest challenge has been learning to deal with a lot of disbelief. When I first started out, people would say, “Victor, tea blending is so easy what! Just need to put everything and mix.” In some ways, yes, tea blending is about trial and error, but it is a very calculated process; a dash more osmanthus and you’ll get a completely different taste. It takes a while for people to accept tea-blending as a real skill. On my end I have learnt to let theatrics do its job: prepare the tea and let them taste the difference.

Another hard challenge is that this is a 24/7 job. There were a lot of moments when I questioned why I didn’t just stay in the airlines. I could be in New York one day and wake up in Paris the next! Working for yourself can be socially isolating. Most of my friends have a 9 to 5 job, so they have deadlines that come and go in burts, but I work with constant deadlines and they don’t really understand that. These days, I try to get them to help me instead. I’ll say, “hey, if you want to meet me, why don’t you come over to my shop and help me pack some tea?” Freedom may be lost but hey, at least I’m happy!

W+S: Do you have any marketing tips for fellow business owners?

V: I think there are a lot of other brands that do better marketing. My cousin is now on-board as the marketing brain, but before that, I was self-taught. It was pure trial-and-error. I took my own photos and blasted it on social media. It was somewhat random and people connected to that, but I wasn’t really sure of what I was doing. Now, we have newsletters and still post on social media, but it’s much more curated.

I think my advice would be just to stay true to what you do because people need to understand your brand. For me, it’s always been very personal. ETTE TEA is ETTE TEA blends by Victor: the brand is liked to me and is a reflection of me.