I’ve now got a platform for our next stage of growth
Bethan Thomas knows a thing or two about tea. She studied Chinese at university and spent some time in Shanghai where she “fell in love with tea”. In fact, she loved China and tea so much that after graduating she lived and worked in China, Hong Kong and Japan for 15 years as a tea buyer and blender for UK tea companies, including Whittard of Chelsea. She also became the first non-Chinese person to get a degree in tea science, studying in the important Chinese tea-producing province of Fujian.
Then her old university friend Kate had two babies in the space of a year, and everything changed for Bethan.
“Kate asked me about tea to help with morning sickness and breast feeding, and we realised no one was making tea for this specific market,” recalled Bethan. “Then I got pregnant too, and during my maternity leave (my boss was very supportive) Kate and I started to work on this business.”
Plugging a gap in the market
HotTea Mama was born in 2017, based on six teas designed to help women with pregnancy and early motherhood. The business grew organically. Bethan and Kate developed teas to help relieve period pains, and to support women going into the menopause. “There are all sorts of herbal ingredients that can help with things like hot flushes, memory loss and anxiety,” explained Bethan.
The company flourished. “We are plugging a real gap in the market,” added Bethan, explaining that received wisdom that women are a “niche” market couldn’t be further from the truth. “Women are driving the trend towards more tea consumption, which is being led by the huge growth in herbal teas.”
The award-winning teas are beautifully packaged, and rejoice in names such as The Final Push (raspberry leaf tea to help labour), Milk’s Up (to help breastfeeding) and Over the Moon (for menstruation).
And, because the business has sold its teas wholly online, HotTea Mama continued to thrive during the pandemic. Turnover soared from £70,000 in 2019/2020 to £230,000 in 2020/2021.
The financial progression did bring some pain however and the business almost became a victim of its own success. Not only was it growing rapidly, but eight months after the two women set it up, Kate went to live in Australia. “I was a one-man band for a while, which was quite stressful,” remembered Bethan.
To the rescue came Tim Yorke-Dunne, a mentor part of Be the Business Mentoring.
Bethan found out about the mentoring scheme through a local networking group in Oxford and realised how helpful it would be. She thought she wanted a female mentor, probably with a health and wellbeing background. Tim may not have ticked either box, but she realised he was exactly what she needed.
His background was in business development and transformation in the business services and automotive industries, with skills honed over 25 years in fast-growing businesses in both the SME and corporate sectors. He now runs Ginga Business Consultancy, which helps businesses of all sizes to change and grow.
“Tim has great knowledge from a range of different businesses and industries, but he also brings a fresh pair of eyes,” sad Bethan. “He’s a very good counsellor too – sometimes I’ve just wanted to get things off my chest.”
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Focus and clarity
Tim and Bethan were matched by a member of the Be the Business team, who felt the pair would be a good fit – and they tested out the hypothesis in a Zoom “chemistry” meeting.
“I generally know if I can add value to someone in the first 10-15 minutes of meeting them, and that was very much the case with Bethan,” said Tim. “I felt she needed someone to play devil’s advocate, provide moral support and generally bring a fresh approach. She has lots of energy and ideas, but needed someone to help her focus those. The business was growing, and profitable, and I was impressed by how much she knew about tea. But there were heaps of things I felt I could contribute through the business’s journey.”
What’s more, he added: “I am actually interested in wellbeing, and I’m a tea snob – so for me, it was a perfect match.”
Bethan already had an advisory board, who are investors in the business, including her original business partner Kate. But they are all overseas. The one-to-one support she’s had from Tim is very different.
“I unwound Bethan’s business,” added Tim. “I said: ‘what do you want for this business, and over what period of time, and what does a successful business look like for you? I’ll then help you build a plan, with the necessary steps to make this happen within the agreed timescale.’ We then mapped the entire strategy – essentially a growth plan – plotting the path, and backfilling everything.”
Bethan recalled: “That made complete sense to me. It cleared my mental fog and gave me clarity about what to do and in what order.”
Becoming more strategic
“Bethan was so caught up in the daily demands of running the business, that she wasn’t able to think strategically,” explained Tim. “She’d wanted to target big corporate customers for a while, but lacked the necessary headspace to properly get those conversations going.”
With most of her sales going through Amazon, social media was very important to Bethan, but also very time-consuming. Tim advised her to recruit someone to handle this for her. He also gave her templates to help her manage her growing team, and to do financial planning.
Bethan explained: “My background is marketing, brand management, buying. I’d never done financial planning or managed teams before, other than in a fairly rudimentary way. Now there is more structure, which gives me a platform for our next stage of growth.”
And the next stage of growth is imminent, and will represent a step change in the company’s fortunes. Bethan anticipates turnover this year will rise to £500,000 – thanks to a new contract with a major high-street retailer, which will list HotTea Mama in up to 300 stores.
Not only did Tim free her up from the day-to-day to allow her to focus on securing a major corporate customer, but he also advised her to look into grants and loans, and helped her to secure a government-backed loan. This helped to cover the cost of the investment needed to market and repackage the teas for the retail environment.
“Securing the funding and the corporate client, both within the space of a week, gave Bethan the confidence to redesign the packaging,” said Tim. “We also thought it would be useful to be able to deliver tea through letterboxes.”
The support that keeps on giving
Tim enjoys the whole mentoring experience. “With recession, Brexit and coronavirus, the past two years have been a perfect storm for most businesses – especially fledgling businesses,” he believes. “But businesses of all sizes have common challenges, and being able to apply common solutions can make a big difference – something that small business owners are often surprised by. I get joy from helping businesses and seeing them thrive.”
Bethan is delighted with the help Tim’s given her. She attributes at least 20 per cent of this year’s anticipated £500,000 turnover directly to him. And it’s support that keeps on giving: HotTea Mama hopes to launch in a second high-street retailer in the autumn.
Bethan and Tim expect to continue their relationship after the end of the formal mentoring programme. “To walk away at this point, when we’ve really got the wheels moving, would be sad,” Tim commented.
Bethan said: “Tim’s been extremely important to this business. Freeing me up from the day-to-day, and helping me get access to money, has allowed me to do things more quickly, efficiently and effectively than I would otherwise have done – not to mention a lot more enjoyably and less stressfully.”
location: West Midlands (England)
business size: 1-9 People
business type: Food manufacturing