Henry Virgin of London-based Green Boar Organic Tea takes a look back to explain how he came up with his idea for a new business
"Back in 2001, I was teaching English in a small, highly polluted factory town in Guangdong Province near Guangzhou. I was drinking lots of tea in the 'Gong Fu' style in various teahouses. Green teas, white teas, Taiwanese high-mountain oolongs, oolongs from Wuyishan, puerh from Yunnan Province – the flavours were incredible. The tea culture is 4,000 years old in China, it's a massive business, too.
"Members of my wife's family were Irish tea planters operating in Kerala, southern India. She'd written a couple of articles about it for the Hindu Times, which also fuelled my interest in tea and helped inspire my business idea.
"When I returned to the UK, I couldn't find tea made in the Gong Fu style – even in London's Chinatown. I did it myself and shared the wonderful tastes and effects with friends, who enjoyed it, too.
"In 2006, I set up my new business as Virgin's Organic Tea, based on my surname. Virgin Media soon asked me to change my company name and sell my domain names. I refused, but was threatened with legal action, which I couldn't afford to fight, so I changed my business name and registered the Green Boar® trademark, which is based on my family's coat of arms.
Organic and fair trade products
"Because of concerns about pollution and ethics, I tried to source organic and fair trade teas for sale in the UK. Organic tea doesn't contain chemical fertilisers and insecticides. It's traditional and tastes better, too. With fair trade products, workers get a better deal – and that's worth paying for.
"We acquire and deliver the product in the most economical and environmentally friendly manner. Goods are moved by sea where possible. Transparency in this is essential – I can tell you exactly where each tea leaf comes from.
"It's often said that the UK follows US trends. If true, speciality teas are on the point of booming here. Tea is massive in the US, where people actively seek ethical, organic and healthy products. Even here, no longer can you fob people off with traditional, mass-produced teabags: they want leaves, superior blends and new exciting flavours.
"Before launching my new business properly, I took a market stall near Portobello Road in London. It was a great way to test the water for my new start up business. There's no better test than trialing your products and speaking to potential customers face to face. I needed to find out who would specifically want organic, fair trade green tea. I spoke to friends, family, people I met on the stall and I went to trade fairs. It really helped with my product selection.
"Before starting up, if I'm honest, I wasn't 100 per cent certain my new business would be financially viable. It's taken some trial and error and there have been some changes along the way. And it's not a question of what you want to sell – you must focus on the customer. For example, jasmine dragon pearls is my least favourite tea, but so many people enjoy it, which is why we sell it."
Henry's three key lessons
- "Carrying out pre-launch market research is essential. Look for firm evidence of demand for what your new business is offering."
- "Find out whether people will pay your asking prices."
- "Realising how difficult it is to sell to customers provides added motivation to make your products as attractive as possible."