What would you do if you were broke and a single mom at twenty-four?
This was the reality Zhena Muzyka found herself in. Even worse, her son, Sage, was born with a life-threatening kidney defect that required surgery and ongoing care.
Begging God for help, an odd response came to her in the form of two mismatched words, “Gypsy”and then “tea”.
While this idea was just a seed at this point, Zhena Muzyka would build Zhena’s Gypsy Tea from scratch into a multimillion-dollar business and socially responsible brand. Life by the Cup is her wonderful memoir.
Are you a budding entrepreneur? Here are seven tips and sage advice from Zhena.
1) Just Show Up
One day Zhena noticed that a local bookstore cafe had a for sale sign in the window. While she was not in a position to buy the cafe, she felt a spark at the idea.
Surprisingly, she set up an appointment with the owner. Driving to the meeting in her beat up car, she became plagued with doubts.
“Who do you think you are? You have no money, no experience, no backer, no husband to cover the bills, no anything but a baby who needs you to be there for him.”
Another voice chimed in, “Just show up.”
She met with the current owner, and he was so impressed with her vision for a Gypsy tea cafe, that he hired her as a consultant.
“A thousand ideas come and go in our minds, but the ones we actually make a move toward are the ones that pay off, even if we don’t know exactly how to get it done.”
2) Start Where You Are
After many months of working at the bookstore cafe, Zhena dreamed of having her own Gypsy Tearoom. She shopped the idea around to friends and family, and they loaned her $3,000.
Zhena stumbled across a hip consignment store in Ventura. She struck up a conversation with the owners. She shared her vision for her tearoom, and they were excited. They offered to have her set up her tearoom in the store in exchange for 10% of sales.
She was able to create her makeshift cafe for under $3,000.
3) Turn Burdens into Blessings
Zhena began to study the tea industry, subscribing to the main supplier tea journal, speaking with tea brokers and learning everything she could. An importer recommended she read a specific market research report. With the report purchase came a free hour of consulting.
She spoke with Brian, the expert behind the report. He was not encouraging about starting a new tea line in a crowded market. She felt deflated and asked him what she should do.
He said, “There’s only one you. Name the company after yourself and become the Martha Stewart of tea. Your name is cool. It’s very exotic. Trust me on this one. Being authentic in a overcrowded marketplace – being the real you – will pay off.”
What had always been a burden, a difficult name to pronounce with an extra added “h” by her mom, was in the end a blessing. People would be drawn to the name because there was a real woman behind the brand paying tribute to her Gypsy heritage.
4) The Love Economy
Moving onto the next phase of her business, Zhena sold her tea cart and started to make tea blends to sell to other cafes and restaurants. Initially, she used roses from her garden to add to blends.
The quality of rose is important and needed to be organic. In commercial production, roses are the most sprayed type of flower. However, organic rosebuds were six times the cost of nonorganic.
Zhena caved in and bought conventional tea, nonorganic roses, and artificial rose oil. Despite barely being able to detect a difference in taste, she felt it was wrong to use them. How could she separate her personal beliefs from practical business sense?
In the end, she kept the crate of conventional tea, nonorganic roses, and artificial rose oil in the middle of her warehouse as a reminder to honor her values. Zhena committed to only making organic teas.
When you invest with love, there is a powerful return. When businesses look solely at the bottom line, they make bad decisions.
“Love makes a product transcend the actual material that makes it. Love elevates consuming a product into an experience. The imprint that a founder or product maker has on a product cannot be measured other than through a “feeling” people have with and for the product or service.”
5) Use What You Have
Entrepreneurs know that working with limited resources and funds can help you be more creative figuring out alternative ways to do things. When Zhena wanted to hire a branding firm to help clarify her brand, she realized the $15,000 price tag was not in the cards.
She decided to throw a branding party and invited friends and family. They tasted each blend and wrote words that came to mind. The result was a wall of index cards defining the essence of Zhena’s Gypsy Tea and attributes of the products and packaging. These words became the basis for their mission statement, website, packaging, and marketing collateral. Total cost = $55 of tea, wine, and pizza.
6) Collaboration is Key
Zhena realized her success was based on contributions from everyone involved in the process, from the tea plucker to the consumer. She needed to build and engage a collaborative tribe of people to assist her. She could not fulfill the potential of Zhena’s Gypsy Tea without the efforts of others.
7) Cultivate Curiosity
At one of their weekly meetings, Zhena discussed the lack of sales for Coconut Chai, so it was headed for the chopping bock. Her whole office practically revolted at the thought of Coconut Chai being discontinued. It was their favorite tea.
Only one cafe was ordering the blend. What to do? She decided to call the cafe to let them know they would be cutting the Coconut Chai tea. The manager of the cafe was as vocal as Zhena’s staff. She said it was their best seller and people drove for miles for a cup.
Following the call, Zhena and her staff realized it was not the tea itself, it was the way it was being marketed. Within a year, Coconut Chai would become a blockbuster. It was their first flavor to get picked up nationally by the largest health food chain.
By cultivating curiosity in the lack of sales, Zhena prevented herself from discontinuing what would be a very successful flavor.