Sunday, January 23, 2011

Tea Business Spotlight 4 - Runa LLC

Welcome to the fourth of our Tea Business Spotlights, in which we allow tea people to share insights on running their business. If you're a tea business owner and you'd like to take part in an upcoming spotlight, please contact us.

Runa LLC
Providence, Rhode Island

How long have you been in business?
We founded Runa in early 2009, and have been working full time since July of 2009.

What is the size/scope of your business?
We launched our first product line in the Fall of 2010, and are now being sold through 100 retail locations on the East Coast, including several dozen Whole Foods Markets. We have 4 employees for our US company, and 16 employees under our Ecuadorian company, in addition to 600 indigenous farming families that we partner with.

Why tea?
Why not tea is the better question! Guayusa is technically not tea. Black tea, green tea, white tea, and oolong tea are all made from the camellia sinensis, while guayusa is made from the leaves of a caffeinated holly tree native to the Ecuadorian Amazon, Ilex guayusa.

Guayusa differentiates itself from tea by having more caffeine (90 mg per cup compared to ~40 mg for green tea), 1.5x the antioxidants of green tea, and no tannic acids (that can give tea a dry astringent flavor).

On a deeper level, we appreciate guayusa because it facilitates our social mission. With its attractive properties for consumers it allows us to generate income for indigenous farmers and reforest degraded lands in the Amazon.

How did you get the ball rolling on your venture?
Drinking lots of guayusa and talking to everyone we possibly could (while drinking guayusa). We wrote our business plan during our last semester at Brown University, and then won both the Brown University and Rhode Island State Business Plan Competitions. Winning the competitions gave us some good momentum, so we packed our backpacks and moved to the Amazon (a logical choice for any crazy 23 year olds).

What do you feel is the biggest strength of your business?
Collaboration. In the indigenous Amazonian cultures, communities gather around the fire to drink guayusa and share stories, plan for the day, and connect between generations. We have truly taken heart the meaning of this tradition focused on sharing and exchange to build innovative partnerships and unite a diverse network of stakeholders in a single mission.

What were/are the biggest challenges of getting into/being in the tea business?
Definitely not what most people say – “it’s a crowded industry.” While that is in some ways true, the tea industry is growing dramatically with a bigger focus on organic, Fair Trade, and exotic teas with a story, parallel to the rise of specialty coffee in the late 90s.

The willingness required to constantly reconsider, rebuild, and evolve any and all plans or expectations has been challenging. Running a start-up company can be more than loco. As we’ve taken shape it’s required us to accept criticism, brainstorm endlessly, and scrap whatever necessary, only to rebuild it anew.

What would you do differently, if anything?
Invest in polished branding and a nice website sooner. We waited a bit too long to design our brand and company aesthetic, which likely caused many people to not take us seriously early on. Similarly, we won a free website through the Rhode Island Business Plan Competition, which was a blessing and a curse. Yes it was free, but it didn’t meet the level of professionalism and sharpness required by a serious consumer brand. Only recently have we launched the new website and are thrilled to have our digital voice tuned.

How's business?
Lively. From completing our first big project with the Ecuadorian Export Ministry to watching our products hit the shelves in Whole Foods, we’re excited to see our Runa seed begin to sprout. While managing such a diverse organization with many facets is complicated and requires endless attention, we know why we do what we do and are jazzed to nurture our sprout into fruits and flowers.

What advice would you give to someone who aspires to be in the tea business?
First, find your dramatic difference and find it early. For us it’s the Amazon and a new kind of energy. Without a dramatic difference you’ll struggle. Second, love your product. Tea and tisanes carry infinitely rich stories from their sourcing to their flavor. Weave yourself into them.

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