Bliss Dake from Mighty Leaf Tea – Podcast Transcript

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Shaun Ryan: [0:03] Hi. I am Shaun Ryan from SLI Systems and this is the Ecommerce Podcast. Today, I am talking to Bliss Dake from Mighty Leaf Tea. Welcome Bliss.

Bliss Dake: [0:10] Thanks Shaun for having me on your podcast.

Shaun: [0:14] You are welcome. Now a traditional first question: What is the first thing you ever bought online?

Bliss: [0:18] I think the first thing I ever bought online was probably some books from back when Amazon was first sort of getting up on its feet, you might say.

Shaun: [0:28] That is a very common answer. So, what is the most recent thing you bought?

Bliss: [0:32] Airline tickets for business travel.

Shaun: [0:37] Also very common, very popular. Very good.

Bliss: [0:39] Yeah, definitely.

Shaun: [0:41] Can you give me a little bit of background about yourself?

Bliss: [0:43] Sure. I have been at Mighty Leaf Tea for about five and a half years or so, and I’m VP of ecommerce and operations, and I manage all of our ecommerce strategy, which includes merchandising, technical direction, social media initiatives, etc.

[1:00] I’m also involved in other aspects of the company too with regards to customer service. I have a law degree actually, which gives me an interesting slant on things. I also help with the regulatory compliance and some legal in house counsel types things as well.

[1:15] I have over 10 years experience in business management and operations with a focus really on sales, marketing and business development. I worked prior to Mighty Leaf at a technology company actually in Silicon Valley called Luxin Incorporated, which was an optical networking company. It was a true startup during the dotcom days and I was there for about five years, and really helped.

[1:42] I helped with fundraising. We raised over 250 million dollars and we grew from about five to 250 people during those days in a rather rapid fashion. I was responsible for many different functions, including business development and marketing with regards to some of the technical things that we were doing early on. And that later phased into more of the operations side of the business.

Shaun: [2:04] Wow. That sounds like that would have been a fun ride.

Bliss: [2:06] Yeah. It was definitely an interesting mix. And prior to that, I was a good old fashioned attorney.

Shaun: [2:12] Oh wow. It is unusual having someone with the legal background hitting up the ecommerce hour.

Bliss: [2:20] Yeah, definitely. That was just sort of an unusual path that I took. I originally grew up in rural Oregon and my dad was and still is a small farmer. So, I was always involved with the food business, produce in particular. So, I was always sort of interested in getting back into the food and beverage industry, which obviously that is what we do at Mighty Leaf Tea. So, it was a nice sort of circular find for me coming back from my roots and then finding myself sort of back in the food industry.

Shaun: [2:46] Yeah. That is great. So, tell me a little bit about Mighty Leaf Tea. Where are you based and what do you guys do?

Bliss: [2:52] We are based in San Rafael, California, which is in Marin County just north of San Francisco about 20 minutes over the Golden Gate Bridge. Mighty Leaf Tea is a specialty tea company that focuses on high end tea pouches and loose tea.

[3:09] We are really known for creating a new category, really, in the tea industry. It is the artisan crafted silken signature tea pouch and it really is. It is basically a pre-portioned loose tea serving in a silken tea pouch. It is hand crafted. It has a very artisan look and feel.

[3:28] Really, it is not just about the tea itself. It is about the overall sensory experience. We are really, really known for providing customers the highest premium tea experience out there.

[3:42] It is really almost an aspirational type brand with regards to its fallowing and enthusiasm that we have gotten from customers over the years.

Shaun: [3:50] That is fantastic. So it is luxury tea.

Bliss: [3:54] Yes, definitely. The tea industry has certainly changed over the past 10 years. Whereas Starbucks sort of set the stage for coffee, tea is gaining rapid popularity. And tea really is one of the most popular beverages in the world after water. It is only in the US where it is not as popular.

[4:14] So, traditionally, in Asia and Europe, tea is certainly the drink of choice. And here, for a long time, it was sort of perceived as something that perhaps my grandmother, or when I was sick, something I would drink. But, that is definitely changing as people become more conscious with regards to the health benefits of tea, and then also just the taste, flavor, and quality of the tea. It has really changed, so people have taken notice for many of those reasons. And as a result, there is definitely a renaissance with regards to tea, for sure.

[4:44] Wired Magazine had a blog or article on their site maybe a month ago. It was called “Tea is the new coffee.” It was just talking about how coffee used to be sort of the drink of coffee for all the online technology enthusiasts, but now tea is starting to take more precedence as people realize that it is healthy, but it can still energize you.

[5:05] So, people like Kevin Rose of Digg Nation and Tim Ferris, who wrote the Four Hour Work Week, they are big proponents of tea. So, you are starting to see and hear more about tea, especially in the online world, and retail markets and food service venues as well.

Shaun: [5:22] I have heard Kevin Rose talking about that on one of the podcasts he does.

Bliss: [5:27] Yeah. I think he is getting trained as a tea sommelier or something along those lines.

Shaun: [5:32] Yeah. That is great having high profile people like that pushing your industry.

Bliss: [5:36] Totally. Mighty Leaf, we have been around since 1996. It was actually originally called Tea & Company. It was a retail store or a tea house in San Francisco on Fillmore Street. That was in 1996.

[5:53] Then in 2000, that morphed into the current Mighty Leaf Tea Company. And really in the beginning, we started selling primarily into food service channels, so hotels and hospitality.

[6:04] At the same time, we developed a relationship with Whole Foods in those early days. A lot of our customers really first experienced the tea in a food service or restaurant setting. And the sort of magical thing, not that magical with regards to marketing, but it is simply the tag that you see on our tea pouch has our URL and phone number on it. People were, and still are, they save that tag.

[6:27] And then obviously they come to the website because of that or they pass it along to their friends. It is truly a simple but effective marketing tool that is really just viral in nature. And people are passing these tags around like business cards, and in turn they are coming to our website. So, that really was a smart decision early on in the product development cycle for us.

Shaun: [6:46] Yeah. That is an interesting viral campaign, one I haven’t heard of before. I mean you have got essentially something left over from when people consume your product.

Bliss: [6:56] Exactly. Really in this day and age, in my mind, it is a must have to have your URL on any branded consumer product, if possible. A lot of other tea companies out there, for whatever reason, they don’t include much on the tea tag.

[7:11] So for us, with regards to our ecommerce play, we realized early on that that would play an important role in driving traffic to our site and providing a real platform for brand awareness.
Shaun: [7:23] And do you still have the store in San Francisco?

Bliss: [7:26] No. In 1996, it was founded, and then that phased out sometime before 2000. We are located up in Marin and it is a warehouse facility, not a retail storefront.

[7:41] There are three channels that we focus on. There is the retail channel, so we are selling it to Whole Foods and markets of that sort, [inaudible 07:51] grocery stores. Nordstrom’s is a big customer of ours.

[7:56] With regards to food service, that includes hospitality, so hotels like the Four Seasons or the Ritz Carlton. It could be a spa, cruise lines, a local café around the corner from your house.

[8:09] And then finally we sell direct to the consumer online. So, really we are one of the only tea companies out there that has a three channel strategy whereby we have strong strategies and presence in all three of those channels. And really all three of those channels play off of each other nicely with regards to creating brand awareness, driving sales, and just perpetuating awareness about Mighty Leaf Tea.

Shaun: [8:34] So you have had the online store for how long?

Bliss: [8:40] The online store was first… I came on board in 2004. The actual online store started sometime after ’96 in a very sort of Web 1.0 form. So, we have had a site for a very long time. And we really kicked it into the high gear with regards to pursing just more sophisticated ecommerce practices really starting in 2004.

[9:07] Since then, we launched a new website, actually, last November. So it has definitely been an evolution to us with regards to our strategy. But, we have realized from the beginning that we wanted to take advantage and leverage the enthusiasm that existed out there. It really existed without any traditional marketing or advertising. It really was mostly viral.

[9:31] We haven’t spent, historically, lots of money on print ads or magazine ads, or things of that nature. Really we have been lucky enough that our customers have done a lot for us.

[9:45] So, in this new world of social media, it really lends itself. It is really the perfect tool for us, and really is a tipping point with regards to other channels as well as far as driving performance across all of our channels.

[9:57] We are leveraging Facebook. We are levering Twitter especially and really tying everything together. It is working out well for us, so we are happy with that.

Shaun: [10:06] I am interested in finding out a little bit more about how you are using social media. So, Mighty Leaf Tea is Twittering and contributing to Facebook, or do you find that it is your customers who are Twittering and putting stuff up on Facebook?

Bliss: [10:26] It is both. With Twitter, Twitter has gained rapid popularity in the last year or so. So, a year and a half ago, I heard of Twitter and I actually set up an account for Mighty Leaf Tea not really knowing much at that point in time.

[10:44] At that point in time, I sort of made a decision. I said, “Look. We are an innovative tea company with this amazing customer following. We not only want to be an innovative tea company, but in everything we do we want to aspire to be innovative.”

[10:56] So, in a technology perspective, whether it was launching a new website, whether it was taking advantage of the new social media out there I wanted to try to position ourselves as a leader in those areas.

[11:07] So, I actually reached out to Twitter just on a whim and said, “Hey. We would love to chat with you guys.” As it turns out, they were huge Mighty Leaf Tea fans. That is when I started to realize that actually a lot of techies out there, you might say, not just at Twitter and not just with Mighty Leaf Tea, but in general tea had a following out there.

[11:25] So, I actually went and had lunch with the fellows at Twitter. And I think NASA was there that day as well. Ironically, Whole Foods had come online the same day that we went online as well.

[11:38] So, one of the fellows at Twitter just sort of Tweeted out, “Two of my favorite brands, Mighty Leaf Tea and Whole Foods, came on today.” All of a sudden we picked up a little following there. And really, things took off from there.

[11:53] We realized that with Twitter, it was just an excellent tool to connect directly with fans. We were also noting that people were just, without any promotion or pushing from us, saying things about Mighty Leaf Tea. “I love your tea. It is fantastic.”

[12:09] I am sitting in front of my computer right now. I am looking at Tweet Deck, an interface for Twitter, and I can see people who are just randomly saying things about Mighty Leaf Tea.

[12:18] So, we interacted with the customers all day long. We try to be interactive and talk about tea, but to also go beyond that. So for us, Twitter is a tool to really connect with our customers and really listen.

[12:30] We do a little promotion, but really our whole focus is just to be as transparent as possible and to build a relationship. It certainly allows us to find new customers. That is certainly helpful. It is great for product developments. We can reach out and, “Hey. We are launching a new iced tea. What kind of flavors are you interested in?”

[12:49] It really is a powerful tool. And the best thing about it is it’s free. It is really cost effective. So, that is what is great about all the social media tools. A lot of them are free, obviously, and I think if used correctly they can be great tools, especially if you have a brand that has a well established following that is just looking to connect with their favorite brands.

Shaun: [13:14] That is really interesting. And because you have got that sort of close connection, recently early connection, to Twitter, you are probably ahead of the curve and actually have a larger following on there.

Bliss: [13:28] Yeah. We are actually about three away, as I look, from 3000. So we are pretty happy. I think we have the most followers, or close to the most followers, of any tea company out there.

Shaun: [13:39] And your Twitter name is Mighty Leaf?

Bliss: [13:42] It is @MightyLeaf.

Shaun: [13:46] @MightyLeaf. Great. Tell me a little bit more about your ecommerce store. What technologies are you using to run it?

Bliss: [13:52] We went from sort of a Web 1.0 platform – it was an platform. This was last year. We quickly realized that just because of volume and other functionalities that we were lacking, we wanted to make a change, and we ended up…

[14:08] We are a relatively small company. And with regards to staff, we don’t have a lot of in-house staff. It is myself and then one other fellow that works closely with me on a variety of initiatives.

[14:19] So, we wanted something that was also… We could be self reliant, but also scalable as well. So, we actually ended up choosing a platform and partnering with a company called WebLinc out of Philadelphia. We have been really happy with that relationship, actually.

[14:34] The platform is based on Cold Fusion. We really tried to create something that provided the customer with a best in class experience. It really mirrors other shopping experiences out there.

[14:48] With regards to the platform itself, there were so many things we were missing in the previous platform. Some of the more important areas we wanted to focus on, we wanted a quick view, quick shopping purchase type experience.

[15:03] We use AJAX technology to go to product pages and add things to your cart on the fly, a more streamlined checkout solution, and really a variety of different things. Search is obviously a big one as well. We really did not have a sophisticated search program. And now we are using SLI Systems search tool, which is really helping out a lot.

[15:29] So, a lot of functionality was missing and WebLinc was really able to provide one package and all that functionality, and also a backend tool for us as well for our customer service group. We have a mini call center, so we can enter orders into the backend of the platform and everything is synced and integrated in with our ERP system.

Shaun: [15:48] That is fantastic. So tell me, what are the biggest problems you are having at the moment? Do you have anything that is keeping you awake at night?

Bliss: [15:56] I will be honest. Nothing is keeping me awake at night. I mean there are always challenges obviously. For us, we are very happy with the platform itself and we are just continuing to try and refine what we have built.

[16:07] So, for example, one of the other new programs we launched recently was called Mighty Leaf Regular Tea Rituals, and it is a recurring or an automatic order program. So, you can sign up for tea on a monthly basis and you are automatically just sent product.

[16:21] We launched that, and of course, like with any new program you want to try to make refinements. We are definitely very happy with it, but we want to refine that just to make it even more functional and more intuitive for the customers.

[16:33] With regards to Mighty Leaf, like I mentioned before, we have a really enthusiastic customer base. One of our goals this year, and it is obviously always a goal, is to attract new customers, people who have not heard about Mighty Leaf Tea.

[16:48] So, historically, a lot of our traffic was coming directly to the URL because of the tea pack tag I noted before and because people were just typing in Mighty Leaf when they went to Google in their browser.

[16:59] In the last year, we have launched a number of programs and have better SEO, so we are still trying to improve that. And the platform we have has a lot of built in SEO functionality that is baked in and has allowed us to jump up in rankings or what have you.

[17:15] But still, that is something that I know there is a lot more traction we can gain with regards to keywords related to tea and the like.

Shaun: [17:22] And on that, are you getting external advice or are you still working with WebLinc?

Bliss: [17:28] A combination. The platform that we have is very dynamic in that we can… When we set up the new website we spent a lot of time making sure that our URL’s, meta tags, which aren’t as important anymore, but that everything was synced up and that every page was well crafted with regards to content.

[17:46] And immediately we saw a huge increase in our rankings, which was great. On the flipside, we have also created a lot of new content. So, we have a tea tips section. We have worked with outside parties to help us create content that is SEO optimized. So, we are in the process of implementing that right now.

[18:03] And we have also focused more on SEM, so we have spent more money on advertising with pay per click. For us, it is also really important, because we believe that there really is a multiplier effect in that it is not only driving sales to the site, but that people are actually seeing these ads, maybe coming to the site and not purchasing, but then later, when they are in Whole Foods or have you, they are actually purchasing because they are like, “Hey. I have seen Mighty Leaf Tea before maybe in a Google ad and now I am going to buy.”

Shaun: [18:33] That stuff is pretty hard to track.

Bliss: [18:36] It is hard to track. One thing we do now is that our store locator is one of the most popular links on the site, for example. So, we know a lot of people are going and looking for stores.

[18:47] In the last year or so, our presence in retail stores has expanded exponentially, so we are sending a lot more traffic to those stores. We know that both from looking at our web analytics and anecdotally as well.

Shaun: [19:01] Yeah. That is interesting. I am sure the stores appreciate that as well.

Bliss: [19:05] Yeah, definitely. We also have a pretty aggressive email marketing program as well, so we try to use that if we can across channels. So, not only do we target customers in our database, but we also will work with the retail stores, if we can, if we are launching into a new area, a new geographic location, to make an announcement to our current customers that, “Hey. Now we are available in your location.”

Shaun: [19:26] Right. So, do you do much in the way of email marketing as part of…?

Bliss: [19:30] Yeah, we definitely do. Early on probably our most successful marketing initiative was email marketing. Just from an RLI perspective, it is definitely one of the best out there and I think that is certainly common knowledge. But, we use that to our advantage. We provide interesting content, information, and promotions. We send out, on average, probably one email a week, more probably during the holiday period or holiday times.

[19:56] We just launched a new platform in January whereby we can segment more effectively and pursue some more dynamic strategies, whereas before, it was just sort of a manila kind of batch and blast type approach.

Shaun: [20:12] Well, it sounds like you have got a lot of opportunities, particularly because tea is so established in the rest of the world. There is probably a huge opportunity for tea to grow in the US.

Bliss: [20:22] Definitely. And especially high quality tea. For us it is all about getting the product in front of the customer and having them taste it, so we do a lot of sampling.

[20:34] Like I was mentioning before, our food service channel really allows us to… Customers are able to taste it and it really is kind of a sampling machine, you might say. But online, for example, you get two free samples with every order. So, we want to encourage customers to try new teas.

[20:50] For example, we were in South by Southwest this year in Austin. We did a Tweet Up with a local café that was into cupcakes. We gave out a lot of tea. So, we definitely want people to taste the tea and to experience it. And once they experience it, most people are wowed by it, which is great. It is definitely a different experience from what people are used to.

[21:18] It is really like tasting wine, in a way. There are a lot of nuances to it. There is a long lasting finish. The product itself, like you mentioned before, it is the kind of thing that people want to save. People save these tea pouches or they snag them from the hotel where they are staying.

Shaun: [21:35] I am going to have to go and have a cup of tea after this.

Bliss: [21:38] Yeah, definitely!

Shaun: [21:39] So how many varieties do you have, and what is your best selling one?

Bliss: [21:42] We are really known for our signature tea pouch. We have around 16 or 17 flavors in our tea pouch category. We try to appeal to all different tastes. Our best selling teas are, or some of are best selling are – Green Tea Tropical is a big favorite; African Nectar is a [inaudible 22:05] based tea from South Africa; and then of course the classics, so our Organic Breakfast.

[22:10] Our Organic Breakfast was named by Cooks Illustrated, which is kind of a preeminent cooking magazine, as the best loose black tea. That was in 2007. So, we actually sell a lot of loose teas as well. That is primarily on our website.

[22:26] We have over 100 loose teas as well. So, if you are a particular kind of tea drinker who only wants to drink loose tea… Although like I said before, our teach pouch is the equivalent of drinking a pre-portioned loose tea. It just comes in a handy pouch, which is great for restaurants because you don’t have to fiddle with all the accouchements that go with making tea normally. You can just throw a pouch into a tea pot and you have an instant infuser with loose tea in it.

Shaun: [22:52] Yeah, and it is more convenient, I imagine, for the retailer.

Bliss: [22:56] Yeah, definitely. And by the way, I didn’t mention that we have an international presence as well online. So we actually have a website in Canada, the UK, Sweden, and Australia as well.

Shaun: [23:06] Well, that is interesting. And how is that going?

Bliss: [23:09] It is going well. Canada is certainly a big tea drinking company, at least based upon what we are seeing online. And certainly the UK obviously is. It is interesting because we are a different kind of tea company, but we are seeing a lot of success in the UK, I think, as some tea drinkers who perhaps are used to more traditional types of tea are looking for, again, new flavor experiences and really kind of a redefinition of what the tea experience is like. So, we have had a lot of success in England, especially in London and with foodies in restaurants, and certainly all the trends there as well.

Shaun: [23:43] To stay on that little bit, do you have like a site, or do you just allow the British to order from your site?

Bliss: [23:57] We don’t. So, we actually work with international partners to manage international sites, and then the fulfillment and distribution is just a little bit easier. You may end up coming to the US site depending on where you are located. Then we just work through those depending on where you are worldwide.

Shaun: [24:15] OK. Great. That has been a really interesting story. Bliss, I just want to thank you so much for your time. I wish you all the best as you sort of continue to innovate in online tea.

Bliss: [24:30] Great. Well thanks a lot.

Shaun: [24:32] Thanks very much. That was Bliss Dake from Mighty Leaf Tea. I am Shaun Ryan from SLI Systems and that was the Ecommerce Podcast. Tune in next time.