Here are some questions submitted by one of the writers for my college’s newspaper called The Grove City Collegian. I figured that I spent quite a while replying to these questions, so I might as well use this as content for my personal site as well. So here goes:
Q: When and why did you want to create this business?
A: I officially began my bottled tea business on October 11, 2017. I was a first semester Sophomore at the time. I had been studying entrepreneurship for several years (in college and in high school), and knew it was my dream to create my own business. I had recently come to the conclusion, at that time, that if I were to be successful in anything, entrepreneurship especially, it would have to stem from something I am passionate about. Knowing this, I was living my life aware of any entrepreneurial ideas that may serendipitously come to me. The idea came to me on Labor Day 2017, a few weeks before I officially incorporated as an LLC on October 11th. I was sitting down with my mother for Labor Day lunch and she had made me a pitcher of my grandmother’s Peruvian Chai tea recipe – I had grown up drinking this tea and have fond memories of being in Peru for vacation and waking up to the delightful aroma of the tea (cinnamon, cloves, anise smell) filling the house, which was brewed by my grandmother. On Labor Day 2017, I literally drank the WHOLE PITCHER in that one sitting and told my mom, emphatically – caffeinatedly, “mom, this tea is so good you could sell it”, and she IMMEDIATELY replied “well, you study entrepreneurship – why don’t you?”. At that point, I felt a feeling of excitement come over me and the “lightbulb” went off in my head. This was the idea I was looking for – something I was passionate about. Something that was a simple product, a unique-tasting bottled iced tea. So I told my mom to make some more of the tea, put it into empty milk gallon containers, and I would come back to college the next day and see if other people liked it too. So, I came to college the next day with my gallon of iced Peruvian Chai tea and dixie cups and had people sample the tea and give me feedback – the feedback was great so I continued.
Q: IS there anything specifically that connects you to your Tree Cup product? i.e. tea was a special thing in your family; you’ve always had compassion for issues in third world countries. Basically why do you have a passion for your business?
A: Treecup now has 6 different flavors. They are all delicious and I chose every single product offering myself. For many of them, I walked around my tea distributor’s shop and simply smelled different mason jars of teas, spices, and herbs – and combined them as I saw fit. This is how our best selling tea – Berry Jasmine came into existence. The second best seller is Ginsyin and Yang, which I created from experimenting with a spearmint, ginseng, green tea, and lemon mix in my dorm my Junior year. The Peruvian Chai is the third best seller and is, of course, my grandmother’s recipe. The next best seller, lumberjack black, derives from my tasting an amazing Czech tea in a bougie Pittsburgh tea shop called Dobra tea – I wanted to find a tea recipe to replicate this epic tea I had in that shop, and I did. In the past (my freshman year), I had a small business that lasted a few months where I ordered bracelets from impoverished Dominican Republicans, whom I had met the previous summer from going on a mission trip, and sold them to church congregations. I sent all the funds raised, which was about $2,500 in total. The problem is I ran out of churches to pitch to, so the business was unsustainable – and I later found out that the person I had sent the money to was not using it for what he had promised. So I stopped working with them, it was a heart breaking experience. Nonetheless, I’ve always loved cause-marketing because of three reasons: Firstly, it really helps out the world by leveraging the incredibly powerful and vast US economy to help third world countries – I think this is an amazingly powerful thing, in concept. Secondly, I have purchased so many Toms shoes throughout my life and wore them with a sense of pride and as a reminder that I helped out someone with a pair of free shoes. Nobody had done this sort of impact-model in food and beverage yet, and I recognized that. Thirdly, I needed to work on an entrepreneurial venture that could have a larger, worldly, philanthropic impact in order to keep my motivation up. In entrepreneurship you’re constantly working with little emotional reward until you finally get a payoff years later. With my model, every time I sell a tea, I have a good feeling about it because I can envision the tree being planted.
Q: What keeps you working hard on this endeavor?
A: The biggest things are my business’ momentum to-date, my mother, my cause, and my career. Firstly, my business is like a heavy concrete flywheel that continually needs grown and pushed – but once you get it moving after a lot of hard work, it starts being able to keep generate its own momentum and the work you put in is much more effective, the work you put in is compounded by your business entity’s momentum. It’s an amazing thing that a business is its own entity, like a living breathing human. I love that it is constantly “alive”, in the stores and online, through social media and our website. It’s constantly “working”, simply because I’ve built it up to this point. Whole Foods has just placed their second order of our product, and it’s much bigger than their first order – this will continue and eventually we’ll be easily able to enter other Whole Foods Markets because of this momentum. It’s a phenomenon I feel very privileged to see firsthand, and I’m glad I didn’t give up over the last 2 and a half years, because now I’m able to see that natural momentum making my business’ grow faster and easier. In entrepreneurship, momentum is your friend. Secondly, I have had many doubts and have even wanted to quit a few times since I started. The biggest moment of which was when we had to fully rebrand my business from “Te Amo” to “Treecup” due to a Guatemalan company already owning the trademark for “Te Amo”. It took over a year to do a full rebrand and get my new bottles in from our manufacturer in China. I was in despair quite a bit about my diminishing chance of success throughout that year. My mother would constantly tell me , “NO, Mark we have to make this work because you want to be an entrepreneur”. She always told me this, and she’s helped me every step of the way. While I’m in college, she brews the tea after she comes back from her full-time job. She’s amazing and is a miracle to my life, and my business. She is the only other person with equity in the business (22%), so her stake also motivates me to make her work and investment pay-off. I couldn’t have gotten this far without my mother. Thirdly, my cause, as shown above, and my formal partnership with Haiti Friends and their staff motivates me a lot. It creates for a deeper purpose with my daily work. It also helps to move my business forward, as our product’s chief differentiator. Fourthly, my career is that of being an “entrepreneur”. I could’ve gone to college for simply “business”, or “marketing”, but I chose “entrepreneurship”, because that’s the dream. My parents immigrated from Peru in 1995, and as such I feel a responsibility as a first generation American to rise above and make my parents proud. My parents immigrated because they wanted better lives for their children (my mother was pregnant with my older sister). Thus, my parents’ pride is an end goal of mine with my entrepreneurial endeavor, and my life as a whole. I find this comment in immigrants’ children – we have a different perspective from most Americans, who are fulfilled by having a standard level comfortable. I want to go on to other industries and other businesses. But, that won’t be for many many years – until I finish my work with Treecup by reforesting all of Haiti (120,000,000 trees planted). I am interested in updating the standard education model in the U.S. into something more effective through a future entrepreneurial endeavor. I’ll end this section with this – I decided to study entrepreneurship knowing, my senior year of high school, that I must graduate into working for my own business I started in college. I thought, and still think, that if you study “entrepreneurship”, and graduate to work for a corporation – that’s the definition of failure. If someone studies entrepreneurship, they must graduate into the job role of entrepreneur. I don’t think many, or any, of my peers have had this same realization/conviction.
Q: When was the moment when you thought “Hey, this is working”?
A: Honestly, recently. When we entered the three Pittsburgh Whole Foods and they proceeded to put in a larger order, I knew we’ll probably end up being alright. But, we are less than 5% through with growing the business. We are just at the tip of the iceberg. But my momentum from this Whole Foods deal will launch me into raising capital through angel investors. I will say – we always made a profit. I made sure we priced our tea and sold enough to make at least a 30% profit margin. I never was OK with “breaking even”. Also, I am a sales addict, which I can confidently say almost no one my age is. Everyone is insecure about asking someone to purchase something from then – but it’s the most essential part of creating a business. I learned how to sell from working as a Sales Representative for Cutco – people made fun of me when I worked at this place for two years, saying I was working for a “pyramid-scheme”, which wasn’t even correct, but those same people aren’t on my same level in sales skill. I get a high from selling stuff, and when it’s selling YOUR OWN PRODUCT, it doesn’t even feel like work. Also, I set up often at local vendor shows and busy Pittsburgh sidewalks on the weekends. This takes hustle. But when doing this, I engage pedestrians with free samples of every tea flavor and tell them my story when they are tasting. Their feedback is amazing – they love the cause, the fact that the tea is fresh organic, ethically sourced tea leaves brewed earlier that week, and my hustle. We are in an age where everyone loves “Shark Tank”, so I give them a “Shark Tank-like” pitch to purchase bottles of Treecup – and they always enjoy it. These people are walking to experience the city, and I give them a cool, different, and exclusive experience. People email me and message me through social media to give me positive feedback on the tea, even if they may have purchased months ago – and this always renews my energies and encourages me. It’s a little nudge in the right direction.
Q: When did you initially contact Whole Foods- or what was the process that got Tree Cup in Whole Foods?
A: We received our bottles from Dongguan China on September 9, 2019. I pitched them a week and a half later, on September 19th. I had set up a meeting time with all three shops via phone call the previous week. I went in with my Certificate of Insurance, my FDA-approved production certificate, and my Product/Price list. I gave an epic pitch to each grocery buyer. Whole Foods has an AMAZING culture of innovation, support of sustainability and the environment, healthy foods, and local products – so our product was and is perfect for them. In addition, what really put me over the edge with each buyer was the fact my bottles are a biodegradable and BPA free plastic. Each Whole Foods buyer agreed to personally sponsor my entry into the store on the spot. It was a glorious day, and I thought I would be in store by December or January – turns out it took until February 24th. It’s a pretty great feeling having Whole Foods validate my business and product.
Q: What are your thoughts on this huge success?
Well, I immediately thought “we got to make so much tea now”. We make the tea very manually. Every bottle is brewed in 3-gallon pots on a stove top. From there, we cool the tea by putting the pots into an ice bath and bottle the tea BY HAND. From there, we label each sticker, add an expiration date, and attach a to-go sticker on the back. It takes A WHILE to produce the tea – which is also why my mother, our production manager, is my greatest asset. So, while it is great to get revenue back into the company, and to supply such a cool outlet like Whole Foods, it also means a lot of chaos and hard manual work. Also, now that we landed a great customer like Whole Foods, I must be proactive in ordering more bottles from China and figure out how to get my product shelf-stable at room temperature, so that our inventory and distribution can last much longer and can be produced in larger batches – thus having to produce tea less frequently. It’s an amazing problem to have, of course, but a lot of work on my part will go into figuring out these problems. I have no clue what to do about getting my product shelf-stable, so I need to first and foremost contact food science labs. In addition, my doubts about being able to attract investment dollars are much less prevalent in my mind now.
Q: Does this make your life different in any way- i.e. you’re busier; more money coming in; more free time?
A: I am definitely busier. For example, over the next month or so I’m doing 15 sampling demos at the three Pittsburgh Whole Foods. So I need to go home every weekend and promptly return to do my schoolwork. We have some nice revenue coming in from selling so much tea now, but as I outlined in the above question, we will soon run out of bottles and have to order more ASAP. Coronovirus WILL delay the bottles’ arrival and I’ll probably have to spend more too. Also, I’ve been in three local newspapers over the past two weeks. So people I know have been contacting me, congratulating me. It feels nice! It’s amazing how many people come out of the woodworks when you finally get a bigger break.
Q: What are your plans for after college?
A: Entrepreneurship all the way! I don’t want to have to work for anyone EVER again, instead I’d rather have people working for me. I want to provide an amazingly innovative, hip, and philanthropically-centered culture for people who want to work for a company doing something good for the world. I hope I get to stay in the Pittsburgh area.
Q: Where is Tree Cup going in the future? Anything we should be looking out for?
A: I would like to grow my online sales and launch on Amazon, becoming a predominantly business-to-consumer company. I would like to also grow my distribution network as to be able to service several states within the next 2-3 years. Eventually I want Treecup to be a national brand. I have an odd and ambitious vision that in 10 years, news articles will be able to have as their headline, “The One Business that Reforested a Country: Treecup”. I think this will happen because my business model makes sense and actually works. It will take 120,000,000 trees to reforest Haiti. Coke sells over 60 times that a year in American alone. If they can do it, we can do it. I am also interested in adding a coffee to the Treecup line. Haitian Coffee, in specific, is the best coffee I’ve ever had, and I believe could have a great place in the U.S. ready-to-drink beverage market. Inevitably, Treecup will have to merge with Coke, Nestle, or Pepsi in order to have access to the full array of distribution networks and retail outlets that each of these companies literally monopolize. That is, they have exclusive contracts to be within many big-name stores. We will be unwavering in our 1:1 buy a tea, plant a tree cause, however – this will never change. Also, Treecup has transparent bottles, which is a metaphor for our brand as one of authenticity and transparency with our tree-planting cause. As a part of this transparency, I want to have a Treecup staff member in Haiti shooting content videos of trees being planted EVERY DAY. I want to constantly put out real and transparent content about our work in Haiti. I believe this will be the greatest marketing for my brand.
Q: Where did you grow up, go to high school?
A: I moved a lot. I lived in 6 different states and Peru as a kid. I’ve lived the longest in Butler, PA. I went to Knoch High School.