A Tea Entrepreneur's Log by John-Paul Lee

the best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up

EmComm + Tavalon Tea


i’m proud to say that we’ve partnered up with emerson college’s EmComm program (a student-operated and faculty-advised marketing communication agency dedicated to providing students with hands-on experience in the areas of advertising, public relations, promotion, graphic design, and computer graphics) and now have 15 NEW interns in the ever-growing tavalon family.  we just had our first video conference call via skype and it was very refreshing to meet with young/enthusiastic minds so eager to learn.  actually reminds me of me back in college.  i actually worked 6 internships while i was in school and learned so much through these programs.  not only did i learn what i wanted to do in life from these engagements but more importantly i realized what i didn’t want to do…  i wanted to make sure that i created these types of opportunities for students especially for the aspiring entrepreneurs which is why our internship program is empowers each and every individual with real responsibilities with real impacts.  its a very unique position for students to get more than just a glimpse of the world of entrepreneurship and an opportunity to participate in every aspect of a small business.   we now officially have 23 interns world wide and very fortunate to have these great minds with us!

this must be my lucky month.  i just got a “Juror Subpeona – Failure to Respond” letter and have to report to the courthouse.    first the reckless speeding ticket which i got for driving at speed limit and now this!  this city is driving me insane.  they had supposedly sent me juror questionnaires on multiple occasions which i supposedly failed to respond to, which is not true.  i love filling out juror questionnaires!  says the fine could be up to $1000 and/or imprisonment.  when it rains it pours, truly amazing…

on a fun note, our tea sommelier just created a “white blueberry tea sangria” for bloomingdale’s which is silly good.  hope to get that out on full market soon.

best ideas come out at night


i find that i perform best between 1am-4am.  most people are asleep during this time which is great because my thoughts don’t get interrupted by phone calls or emails every 30 seconds…  i usually sleep around 4am and i sleep with my blackberry (i have a pillow for it) just in case i have a flash of genius in my dreams.  many of my cool ideas come to me just before i enter the REM phase…  sometimes i wake up in the AM to find notes in my blackberry that i don’t recall typing in.  i woke up this morning to find 3 great marketing ideas in my phone which i must have jotted down in my sleep OR it could have been the “genius business fairy” who came through during the wee hours to share his biz knowledge in my pda.

this week is going to be an insane one.  we just got a massive order from our offices in Korea and on top of that we have to prepare for the coffee and tea festival so i’m sure we’ll all be pulling some late nights.   looking forward to sleep texting myself tonight…

breaking the news


*** this is a retro blog from 3/21/2005 – i didn’t really keep a blog back then but kept a brief digital diary in my phone which i just recently discovered.

i just broke the news to my parents that i’m going to leave a secure job at Accenture to start up a tea company. let’s put it this way, my dad thinks i’m nuts and my mom thinks that my dad is correct. Here’s a brief rundown for those of you who are not Korean… Korean parents, for the most part, want their children to be doctors, lawyers, etc… my dad is the ultimate Korean and really wanted me to pursue a career in the medical field. well, he had to settle for a son in the consulting field and just now as he was getting “fully settled” he found out my little secret to leave. he thinks i’m too young to start up a business and wants me to wait until i get more experience. i gotta say i beg to differ and i’m moving forward. here’s the thing… i’m 25 years old and if i start a business now and succeed then great and if i fail i’m still 26. it’ll be a really expensive grad school :)
i truly believe that it will only get harder to pursue my entrepreneurial ambitions as i get older with more responsibilities. i don’t think that i’ll have the guts to do what i’m about to do once wife and kids get into the mix. i don’t ever want to look back on my life someday when i’m 50 years old and find myself playing the “what if” game… you’ll never know until you do it. my dad is furious but i think he’ll get over it. my mom on the other hand is angry but understands… she actually started her entrepreneurial endeavors at a much earlier age. my mom was never the academic and did not want to go college after graduating from high school. my grandmother placed a heavy emphasis on education and obviously had college in mind for my mother. my mom had a proposition for my grandmother when she turned 17. she basically asked my grandmother to give her the cash that would have funded her college education so she can start up a clothing business. my grandmother wasn’t having it, my mom starved herself for a week in protest and finally received the funds to open her first business. basically she knows what i’m going through but just wants me to think through it a bit more. its not going to be easy getting these two completely on board but the ship is moving and i’m sure they’ll jump on shortly.  for now i need to go find a buyer for my condo so i can get some funds to start up this baby up…

tavalon gets the cover story


tavalon was just featured in the most respected korean business magazine today VIEW ARTICLE.  it basically featured two companies that are creating a new tea movement in korea.  its funny because the other tea company featured in this article is one of the largest tea companies in korea and i tried to expand them into the states before i started tavalon.  i basically hounded their director of operations to give me the rights for the usa back in 2004 while i was in korea and he straight up denied me.  so i said “if you’re not going to partner up with me then i’m going to have to start up my own company and go against you.”  he laughed at me and said “good luck but its not going to happen.”  well it happened and we took up 90% of the article!  should always be nice to people, what goes around comes around…  joking aside, there’s enough room for all of us in the tea industry, we just want the larger share of it :)

the day i met walter robb


*** this is a retro blog from 5/18/2006 – i didn’t really keep a blog back then but kept a brief digital diary in my phone which i just recently discovered.

i was working at our tea bar a few weeks ago a gentleman walks in to purchase teas.  you could tell that he wasn’t just another customer and he had this gleam in his eye. … he was dressed in jeans and a modest button down shirt something told me that i needed to pay special attention to him. i walked over and introduced myself and we ended up chatting about the history of tavalon and how we got here. he was very intrigued in the business and he was asking enough of the “right” questions which led me to believe that he was also in the food industry. i asked him what his occupation was and he replied, “i’m in the grocery business.” i thought this was great and tell him that someday when we’re ready to get into the wholesale business i would love to get our teas into his establishments.  i asked for his business card but he didn’t have any so i gave him my card and he says he’ll be in touch. well today i got a hand-written mail from this gentleman and the header reads:

Whole Foods
Walter Robb – President & COO

how awesome is that!  another classic example of you never know who you’ll come across so always be on your A game…


*** this is a retro blog from 1/01/2005 – i didn’t really keep a blog back then but kept a brief digital diary in my phone which i just recently discovered.

i’ve been trying to upkeep a diary for a very long time now(approx 15 years) but just never got around to it. this year i’m going to start by actually writing. my first resolution for this year is to not only start but continue writing/logging my life for the years to come. my second resolution is a bit more ambitious. i want to start my own business this year. i’ve been working as consultant at Accenture for the past 4 years now since graduating from college. I’ve had some great times here and have learned so much but I always felt like something was missing and still do. when it comes down to it, i just don’t think working in a corporate environment is for me. basically you work crazy hours and then more crazy hours. when you come home and look back on your long day it really hits home… you just worked a ton of hours, made a ton of money for your company and what do you have to show for yourself? exactly! so i’m going to start up a tea company. why tea? i just got back from a lengthy trip traveling for my consulting gig, i was based out in London consulting for a branch of the British government. there were two reasons why i decided to take on this role abroad; 1) i love women with British accents 2) i love women with British accents. just kidding but not really. so anyways, when a consultant is traveling outside of their home-base (i was based out of the Washington, DC office) we get “fly-backs.” its a beautiful thing! basically you can fly back to your home OR you can fly someone out to you OR you can use that allowance to travel to any place of your choice as long as the ticket price is comparable to the ticket back to your home. i chose the latter and traveled almost every weekend to different countries including, Paris, Turkey, Ireland, Netherlands, Thailand, South Korea, Spain, etc…
many people do not know this but tea is the second most widely consumed beverage in the world following water. the last time i checked it only ranked 6th in the US. this is where i saw market opportunity. As Korean-American, I’ve been raised on tea so there was nothing magical about it. I only realized that tea wasn’t such a house-hold product here in the States until really started to look around.
i wanted to learn more about tea and how to bring it back to the US in the form of a viable business
so i thought it would be a really good idea to start a blog detailing out the transition process from a consultant/9 to 5er to entrepreneur.  i’m going to keep this in my phone for now but publish at some point down the road and share.

world tea expo


participating/showcasing at expos is a great part of building the wholesale business.  this year we will be exhibiting at the world tea expo in las vegas for the first time.  the world tea expo holds a special place in tavalon’s history because that is where we found chris cason, our tea sommelier.  back in 2005 i had the idea/concept for tavalon and got my certification in tea but still didn’t have enough product knowledge to start the biz so i headed out to las vegas for the world tea expo.  my plan was to do more research on the market/product but then came to the realization that i didn’t want to reinvent any wheels.  why not just bring on a tea expert?  the tea industry isn’t necessarily run by the youngest of people.  back then it was even worse and we were definitely the youngest amongst tea entrepreneurs.  i met with a few tea experts and they all looked me like i was crazy and wanted nothing to do with us or our concept.  they were happy catering to the older generations of tea drinkers and not open to change.  but then we happened to stop by a booth of the largest online tea company at the time and there was a young guy with crazy hair working the station.  he naturally stood out because looked like a mad scientist and he was also young. this was chris cason, the tea master for this online tea company.   i found out later that he also wrote a book on tea and that was it, i had to get him on my team.  so we set up a meeting a few weeks later back in nyc and i gave him the pitch for what we were looking to do with tavalon and the rest is history…  looking forward to heading back out to the expo this time as a team and an exhibitor.

naming the business


people ask me how we came up with the name “tavalon” and i always answer by saying that i locked myself in a room for 30 days and did nothing but brainstorm.  all jokes aside, naming the business was probably one of the hardest tasks during the start up phase.  i carried around a little black book with me everywhere and every time i came up with a good idea for a business name i would write it down.  by the time we settled on tavalon i had over 1500 potential names in the book.  tavalon is a combination of the letter”t” from tea and “avalon” which is a paradise island in celtic mythology.  put the two words together and you have tavalon = a tea paradise.  i also liked this name because i wanted tavalon to be a global tea entity and the name had to be easy to pronounce across various languages.  the logo was also tricky because we wanted it to be simple yet strong and meaningful.  after 40 plus renditions we settled on our current logo which is the word tavalon with a symbol replacing the letter “o.”  the symbol looks like a yin and yang but if you look closely you will notice that the top is a tea leaf and the bottom is a water drop and combined in harmony you have the perfect cup of tea.  will elaborate on the slogan another day…

today we welcomed the latest addition to the ever-growing tavalon family.  we hired a new director of sales to lead up our wholesale sector and the man comes from over 25 years of experience in the beverage sales industry.  we set him up with some aggressive but realistic goals/milestones so we’ll see how it goes.  looking forward to watching him work his magic and watching the sales skyrocket….