Snigdha Manchanda’s affair with tea began as a teenager when she started collecting teas from all over the world in her father’s vintage trunk. It was a passion that never died even while she led a corporate life as a brand strategist in Mumbai for 8 years. While she was on a sabbatical from work, she decided to finally give in to her passion and went to a tea school in Sri Lanka followed by a tea institute in New York. With her new gained knowledge and a drive to change the image of tea in India, Snigdha moved to Goa and started Tea Trunk. 5 years her brand is synonymous with whimsical tea blends along with their adorable packaging, while she goes on to represent the Indian Tea Industry in International events.
Snigdha chose to take a chance on her passion and begin a new life with a new business in a niche industry and that too in a different city and for that we think she is a total Badass!
In this interview she shares some outtakes from her journey so far.
When & how did you know your passion had the potential to be a business?
After I studied tea under a Japanese tea master, I returned to India and started hosting tea tasting workshops - offering a few rare exotic teas and blends, that I was blending in small batches. People loved it and said this is all wonderful but from where can we get these teas. I had no answer! At that point I realised people want more from their tea experience and are ready to explore the world of tea, beyond Chai.
Were you scared?
I was more surprised than scared. Since tea industry in India has been around for 100 years, I imagined it will be the easiest thing to go out there and source teas and make blends from scratch. I was in for a big surprise. Every vendor I went to asked me to choose from his existing portfolio of blends. While my plan was to source green tea from a specific garden in Darjeeling, Lavender from a farmer co-operative in Uttarakhand and rose petals from the royal gardens in Jaipur. It took me 18 months to finalise the sourcing and blending for the first 6 teas we launched our website with in 2013.
What does it take to turn your passion into a thriving business?
Perseverance. You know the Japanese quote “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.” is for real! For many entrepreneurs this is an afterthought. Whereas I feel if you’re not ready to fail and fall hard you should not walk down the path of being an entrepreneur.
What were some of the hurdles you faced with Tea Trunk initially?
Sourcing was our biggest challenge. How to create an artisanal product from scratch and not become another reseller, broker, middlemen for tea. I bootstrapped the first three years of Tea Trunk, this meant I had to keep the costs low and decided to move outside Mumbai (to Goa). Moving cities and building a team from ground up came with it’s own share of excitement and challenges.
Any decisions you regret?
Entrepreneurship is a hard journey to go solo. For someone like me, who thrives on a sense of community, I regret not having a co-founder for Tea Trunk. Especially as we started raising funds I realised that being a female solo founder reduces my access to funding dramatically. I had completely underestimated this fact that statistically solo founders get upto 25% less funding than multiple founders and of course we already know that female founders have even more odds stacked against them. I truly wish I wasn’t so naive to expect that people will value the business I build and overlook the fact that I am a solo woman founder. The reality check has been brutal and I regret this the most.
Looking back what advice would you give to yourself (5 years back) when you were starting out Tea Trunk?
Stop doing things to prove yourself to others. Tea industry is dominated by men. The first few tea gardens I visited (on my sourcing trip) and introduced myself as a tea taster/ tea sommelier, I was literally given a test to taste 10 teas and share my notes and identify the teas correctly. At that time I felt obliged to take these tests to show them I got this. Now I look back and think I didn’t have to put myself through any of this. I wish I was more comfortable being India’s first certified woman tea sommelier in a male dominated industry. I wish I was more confident in my own talents back then and given hell to those who wanted proof.
What are the first few steps you take as a startup entrepreneur?
Introspect. Learn more about yourself now than give up later mid-way. Entrepreneurship is not for everyone. Just because our press and media has made it the cool new thing young people do, it does not mean that it’s for everyone. Everything you read about the glory of entrepreneurs, take it with a pinch of salt. Know that there is a difference between a side hustle and being an entrepreneur. The latter goes all in without complains! If you don’t have the courage and personality to do that, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with a side hustle and you should stick to that.
Tea space is relatively niche in India. How did you navigate your way towards success without any Indian mentors to look up to?
I looked at global brands, especially for wine and chocolate. I saw it as a parallel to what I wish to achieve with tea. I do have several mentors who kept encouraging me to be in this for the long haul. They remind me that I can’t change a category overnight and have to work on building an institution and not just another tea company.
How do you make sure your brand stands out from your competitors?
Tea is for everyone. I was very sure I didn’t want to be a snobbish tea brand or the equivalent of a roadside chai stall. I wanted to create something in between - a brand that is approachable and playful and stands for quality without compromise. Our brand identity and packaging design helps us communicate this. No one thinks twice about picking up a tin of Tea Trunk to take a closer look at our elephant mascot. The second important differentiator is the value addition we bring to our teas. We are not a marketplace for tea, as craftsman we source each ingredient and base tea individually and make our teas in small batches, to ensure quality. Each time you pick up a tin of Tea Trunk, it’s been blended and packed not more than 6 months ago. The emphasis on sourcing and quality has allowed us to enjoy a high repeat ratio and build a community of tea lovers and brand ambassadors. Don’t you have a friend who’s recommended Tea Trunk to you? :)
Goa is a relatively laid-back and calm place. How do you motivate yourself in such an environment?
That’s the touristy cliche for Goa speaking.
There are all kinds of people in the world, you just need to find the ones you want. Except 2 people of out 15, everyone in my team is a local Goan (one of the exceptions is me.) Goa gave me the gift of focus. I could cut through the clutter of meaningless social engagements, mall weekends and city lights to focus on building Tea Trunk.
What are some key factors to keep in mind when relocating to a new city/country?
Design your life like you’re here to stay. Unpack all the boxes, buy groceries from the local store, install your washing machine on day one. Don’t second guess your decision. If you have moved then why not embrace it wholeheartedly and give it the chance it deserves. Delete the phone number of your movers and packers!
Do you think a brand always reflects its founder? Is it so in your case?
Tea Trunk is built on my personal values. Simplicity and Playfulness has been at the foundation of it all. I hope this continues to reflect in the brand consistently.
Define a badass woman .
Who loves herself first, unapologetically!
Name a few badass women who inspire you.
Princess Diana, she was surely ahead of her time.
Oprah Winfrey, for grit and grace. Amelia Mary Earhart, for being a brave-heart.
What is your advice for women who are scared to take their passion seriously?
Do a little more than you think you can.
Next time do even more and just keep going. Big changes are daunting so no need to create unnecessary pressure on yourself to be an overnight success. No quitting. No judgements. Just keep going. Keep at it. Break it down into small parts. You will get there eventually and surprise yourself when you look back at how far you’ve come. :)