From IT to tea: Andy Hayes’s journey with Plum Deluxe
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My journey from IT guy to CEO wasn’t exactly conventional.
I lived in Europe for a long time working as a software expert in an enterprise company, but life has a way of throwing you curveballs. I loved my job, but after numerous corporate mergers, I ended up leaving that industry and found myself working in tourism.
This was way back in the day—Facebook was coming up and smartphones were getting popular, and I was learning how to apply my knowledge of computers and help small to medium-sized businesses market themselves in this new online world.
It was while drifting from job to job in Europe that I fell in love with tea.
My journeys across Scotland and Holland opened my palate (and my mind) to the wonderful world of tea. I learned about the history of tea, and how to create blends for different moments in your life. Sure, keeping warm might have been why I first reached for a cup, but we all have to start somewhere, right?
As my love of tea grew, I realized my background in computing, plus the practical skills I learned while marketing companies put me in the perfect position to start my own business.
And that’s how Plum Deluxe was born.
How creating our own supply chain enabled 400% YOY growth
We built Plum Deluxe as a DTC tea brand with a twist. We’re also the manufacturer. We built the supply chain alongside product development. So, apart from the physical plants themselves (we are considering buying our own tea plantations), everything is under our control.
To begin with, we took it slow. Plum Deluxe launched with four teas plus a subscription service. And now? We’re sitting on over two hundred types of tea. Not to mention a selection of sweets, teaware, and more.
Our strategy of controlling the supply chain paid off.
- During the 2014-2017 period we experienced 400% YOY growth
- 2018-19: That number jumped up to 700%
- Things have settled down to a more sustainable 200%
I realize that for any DTC company, hitting numbers over 200% is difficult and perhaps unsustainable. We’re much more comfortable hovering around 100% to 150% YOY growth.
Our teas are made by blending different ingredients. That’s what inspired our business approach too. We started off simple, trying out different products. Then, like how you might add herbs to a tea blend, we build out more supply lines. We’d push out more flavors. We added teaware, sweets, and accessories.
It all came along naturally.
One thing I hear customers say about other brands in the tea industry is that they carry too much product. It’s impossible to choose. That’s why Plum Deluxe takes a careful, highly-curated approach to offerings. We add things slowly, and if something isn’t performing? We cut it completely.
Our most popular tea was actually our first one—the Reading Nook Black Tea. It’s a unique blend of calming flowers with a caffeinated base tea. Plus the name is catchy, which helps. The point is—master the fundamentals first. Then you can experiment. You shouldn’t try to force things.
Why we opted to gift our products to influencers
Influencers are a key part of our growth strategy.
Like most small brands without external funding, we had more time than money. Our goal for many years was to get the product in people’s cups. So we turned to tea influencers.
“In the first nine months we gave away more tea than we sold. We would give it to anyone who would take it, but we did prioritize tea influencers. However, that’s a niche that runs out pretty quickly.”
But by then I’d been studying our customer avatars pretty carefully.
And patterns began to emerge. For example, almost all of our customers were pet owners and book readers. So we branched out to influencers in those spaces. We found that these types of influencers could be very effective.
Our strategy has been to gift products to influencers. Those that like our products can write a review and promote it but they’re under no obligation to do so. We also work with a handful of paid influencers. They’re almost all affiliates, and it’s worked out very well for all parties.
The bitter side of DTC Tea
Starting a business is always tough. Our biggest challenge was scaling our production capabilities. As soon as we thought we figured something out, we’d hit max capacity and be hobbled by workarounds until we could figure out a solution.
How’d we get over it?
By hiring a Production Manager. In the EOS framework, he’s basically a COO-type integrator—but very hands-on. Ever since we hired him we’ve been able to handle the ebbs and flows that naturally come with the production side of things.
“I’m really proud of our staff and the team we have. We utilize the Traction framework and have a strong implementation of company values which drives our hiring practices. We have virtually zero turnover, and consistently get positive feedback about the workplace from our staff.”
Sometimes I think we rely too much on single marketing channels.
During 2016-17 we only advertised on podcasts and did influencer giveaways, but by 2018 we’d figured out Facebook ads.
That’s become our go-to strategy...but with the onset of iOS15 and the cookie apocalypse, I’m starting to think that we’ve become too reliant on it.
Our challenge this year is implementing an orthogonal strategy to eliminate over-reliance on any one channel.
For us, that means hiring strategically on a wide variety of channels—think wholesale, advertising, and more influencers.
What does the future hold for Plum Deluxe?
We feel like we’ve curated an excellent selection of tea blends. Plus our supply chain is robust enough to keep everything in stock. And we’re working on some collaborations with other DTC brands that I’m hyped for.
It’s not been an easy journey but we’re lucky enough to have amazing customers and fantastic staff. I’ve seen our customers refer to our Facebook page as “the happiest place on the Internet” a few times now. And if you’ve been online recently, then you’ll know that’s high praise.
As for the future: We’re looking to expand into adjacent areas. And because we own most of our tea supply chain, that becomes so much easier to do. I don’t want to give the game away, but I will say this—it’s going to be delicious.