Probably every Kazakh says “let’s have some tea” at least once a day. On the other side of the globe, the average American ‘runs’ on coffee. These preferences have long dictated which drink dominated the market trend in each country. But who says preferences cannot change.
Her company sells tea from India, the Himalayas, France, Egypt, China, and Bulgaria, making sure that all the products are sourced reliably. Aitzhanova is meticulous in every detail of her business operations: from using biodegradable materials for tea bags to carefully selecting tea flavors and self-care products for the monthly subscription box the company offers.
QazMonitor reporter talked to the businesswoman about her success story, and how to run a tea business in America.
There is a stereotype that Americans in southern states always drink sweet iced tea. How true is it?
I think the stereotype of sweet iced tea is slowly becoming a thing of the past because even Starbucks has changed their iced sweet tea and is giving customers the choice of tea with or without sugar. Apparently, this is due to the fact that customers are trying to watch their health and look better. But this trend is more popular in big cities than in smaller ones. In remote areas, people still prefer sweet tea or coke in large amounts.
Let's start at the very beginning. What is your background before starting a business?
I was born in Kaskelen, Almaty region. Before I started my business I worked as a lawyer at CNPC-Aktobemunaigas. I was also the creator and head of the Bopem-ai Charitable Foundation, which helps orphans in Kazakhstan. So far, I have lived in the US for over 18 years.
How did the business idea for Humming Cup Tea develop?
The idea to start my own company came to me after I attended numerous business start-up seminars taught by the city of Austin's state departments to support small businesses.
Austin is considered one of the best cities for start-ups. I was able to get personal coaching from the department as well as training with business coaches from SCORE, a startup support charity. I am very grateful for their support and inspiration.
I chose the tea business because, at the time when I was just starting out, it was very rare to find high-quality loose leaf tea on sale. Stores only sold cheap tea in bags. After that, I did research on the tea consumption market and noticed that every year tea consumption was increasing and more Americans were interested in tea for better health.
Is there a connection between the culture of traditional Kazakh tea-drinking and your brand?
The idea for the brand started with the fact that I am from Kazakhstan. And as you know tea drinking is a big part of our culture. I often share my story with Americans and they really like the idea of showing hospitality by spending time over a cup of tea. I'm going back to my roots more recently and getting to know Kazakhs from overseas all the time. I would love to see our tea become popular with Kazakhs in America.
Every brand starts with a logo. We know you have a special story about the design.
I was having a hard time coming up with an interesting name for my company so I decided to get the opinion of my daughter, who was nine years old at the time. She asked me what my favorite animal was and I said it was the hummingbird - so she drew a prototype logo for me. After that, I held a contest on the 99Designs website for the best logo and I chose the one we still use today. I believe the brand name and logo came out successful because of the talented and creative people I had the opportunity to work with.
How did you prepare for the launch?
The first steps in building the business were more about training, registering with state agencies, creating packages, finding partners, and setting up the website. Next, I needed to learn about marketing. I even decided to take a marketing course from a local university to learn how to market my product properly.
What did you do to cut the costs?
From the very beginning, I decided not to borrow money from banks and I had no plans to hire a large staff to work for me. I use freelancers and automate many processes in my business. I still hire people on a contract basis and it helps me avoid unnecessary salary and office costs.
Was it difficult to find your first distributors?
We have been very fortunate to partner with Farmhouse Delivery and FarmBox Delivery. These companies share our mission of caring about the environment and farmers. This is a very important issue because products grown using pesticides are not only harmful to the environment, but also to the health of consumers and the farmers who grow the tea.
Unfortunately, growing our tea and the process of selling it on the market is more difficult and expensive than conventional tea. Organic tea costs more and we also have to go through rigorous inspections and pay for certification from government agencies. All this makes the product more expensive, and not many partners see the benefit of working with us.
That is why it is not easy for us to find new distributors. But we aren't giving up. Today, our tea is sold in several large grocery stores and we plan to expand further. And this year, two new stores are planning to sell our goods.
Is your product aimed at the premium segment of the market or are you aiming to become a "people's" brand?
The stores in America are filled with cheap teas. That's why I initially decided to create a premium brand with high-quality loose leaf tea. Not many people know that tea is valued at the same level of quality as, for example, wine from high-quality grapes. Everyone recognizes cheap and expensive wine. It's the same with tea. We try to educate our partners and customers about the importance of tea quality. We offer our customers only high-quality teas from different parts of the world from India, the Himalayas, France, Egypt, China, Bulgaria and other countries. In this regard, our tea is sold only in stores that value the unique quality of the product, not its price.
Jazeera, this is the most important question of all. Do you love drinking tea?
Like many Kazakhs, I like tea very much. That's why I drink tea all day long. In the morning, I start with English Breakfast. In the evening, I drink chamomile tea without caffeine for relaxation and a good night's sleep. My daughters love to drink tea as much as I do. And sometimes I organize a tea party with sweets for them. It teaches them etiquette and how to behave at the table. When I go out with friends from America, they most often order coffee because it is the custom here.