The world in a cup of tea
Toni Glass turned her love for tea into a unique business that is highly successful in South Africa. Now she is aiming to take her gourmet teas to the rest of the world.
sincelaunching her eponymous gourmet tea brand in 2008, Toni Glass has grown the business into a veritable empire. Far more than just prettily packaged and curiously named tea leaves, the Toni Glass Collection, a finalist in the 2016 FNB Business Innovation Awards, seeks to introduce an element of health and harmony into people’s lives. Having travelled the world in search of the best sources, and to learn from the world’s most knowledgeable tea growers and blenders, Glass is just a few steps away from becoming an international tea master. We caught up with her to find out how she turned her passion into a successful business.
What did you do prior to starting your own business?
Owner and founder of the Toni Glass Collection I was trained as an art director and a brand strategist, and I worked in an agency for a year before opening up my own ad agency. I believed that agency life was stifling creativity. In addition to the ad agency, I also founded a media business that ran in parallel. I sold out of these businesses in 2005, and worked in outdoor media for a while.
Where did the idea for the tea business come from?
My mother was a tea drinker, so I was raised with a palate for tea. I knew that I wanted to get into something that I was truly passionate about, and tea was something I had always really loved.
What motivated you to turn it into a business?
I realised that people tended to drink tea at home, and very few would go out to drink tea as an experience (as they would with coffee). In addition, the quality of tea locally had been downgraded over the years, and I saw an opportunity to push for quality tea that was carefully sourced. I made it my mission to learn all I could, and travelled extensively to learn from the world’s best growers. It’s an ongoing study, and I have realised that there is a whole world in tea. There are more teas in China than there are wines in France!
How did you make your first sale?
It was very tough to get started, especially as I didn’t come from a beverage background. I initially went door to door, and blended my own tea in a two-bedroom flat. My first sale was to a coffee shop downstairs from my ad agency.
How did you get funding to get started?
The business was self-funded, and I began by selling to restaurants, coffee shops and hotels.
What have been the three biggest difficulties you’ve had to overcome?
Education: people have to understand why your offering is different and unique; distribution: managing this is always a challenge; and staying true to your core offering as a business. As an entrepreneur, there are always new ideas and opportunities to get excited about, so you have to ensure you remain focused.
Biggest lesson learnt?
The biggest lesson I’ve learnt is that you truly have the potential to change people’s lives. If you chip away, you really can achieve anything. Also, if you think you know it all, you’ve lost it all. You can never be too big to listen. As an entrepreneur, you should always seek feedback.