Why I quit corporate life to launch Tg Green Teas

I met Megan Hanney in October during London's first FoodTech event which attracted the support of Google, Jamie Oliver and loads of folks working in the global food tech industry. Megan is also Chief Editor of a unique healthy food & drink entrepreneur focused blog titled "Clean Eats London" which  you can subscribe to by clicking HERE (www.cleaneatslondon.co.uk).  She recently interviewed Sophia (one of Tg Green Tea's co-founders) on my journey from the corporate world to startup CEO and thoughts on the future of healthy food & drink. The interview is reproduced in part below.

Clean Eats London
Megan: You have had an incredible journey to becoming the co-founder of a healthy drinks start-up. What sparked your passion for healthier brands?

Sophia: I have always been a firm believer in eating well and as healthy as possible. I was lucky I guess to grow up in the Caribbean surrounded by lots of fresh fruit and vegetables - many of which we ate came from our backyard or from bartering with neighbours. We usually knew where the butcher got his poultry and meat from (and we even reared our own goose that later became Sunday lunch). Drinks like Coca-Cola were only ever an occasional treat (and I often had to share 1 glass bottle with my sister and brother). My eating & drinking habits changed a lot when I moved to the UK with the prevalence of processed food & drink and poor work-life balance. Eating healthy was no longer easy nor particularly cheap.

At work, I was deeply involved for many years in food & drink innovation activities in major markets across the world. It became clear to me some years ago that consumers were fast becoming interested in more natural products, in where products came from and connecting with products and brands that were both internally and externally “better”. I tried to encourage healthier brand development at work but in the end decided that I could make things improve faster and in a more meaningful way from “the outside”.

You also made the move from working for large corporations and even being a lawyer, into the start-up world. Why did you make that move?

I have a big idea that revolves around creating a holistic green tea "movement" that I believe can only really be seeded through a "startup"  like Tg Green Teas (read more on drinktg.com).  Big companies are simply not able to "seed" big ideas well anymore; a small start-up can. Just ask fellow industry expert Lu-Ann Williams of Innova Market Insights who recently said:

“Small players only do one thing, but they do it well, which holds high appeal for discerning millennial consumers. Because they are less restricted in their development process, small companies are getting their ideas out much quicker...” 

Can you describe your journey as a founder?

The phrase “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” comes to mind. It’s certainly been a huge learning curve starting up and running your own business. We think we’ve made some good progress so far if you consider how many people already love our organic and ethical drinks - plus we have won a Global Packaging Design Award, been a finalist for a World Beverage Innovation Award and have gained multiple Great Taste Awards. By this measure alone our products should already be available in the likes of Whole Foods, Planet Organic, As Nature Intended, and even Waitrose. They are not (as yet) partly I think because of as much what we’renot doing as what we’re doing. Even though the pressure to cut “ethical corners” is huge for start-ups (given limited resources, early investor demands etc.), we want to do right by ourselves, our partners and our customers from the start so for example...

  • we refuse to incorporate “puffery” into our marketing & sales presentations,
  • our drinks do not contain artificial / weird stuff nor do we, say, hide sugar behind select ingredients so to display misleading labels,
  • we are completely transparent about our value chain to partners as want to ensure our drinks are both desirable and affordable, and
  • we tell true stories to customers about where our products come from and what’s different/special about them.

We’re confident we’ll get there with the help of wonderful folks who share our values while we unlock routes to market, optimise products & storytelling etc.

How would you describe the current market in London for emerging healthy food and drink start-ups?

It’s exciting! From a design & development point of view, we are seeing the merging of food and tech which is creating opportunities to deliver better food and drink that we want to consume in the future as well as tech-driven support systems. Our involvement in a recent Hackathon run by some fantastic young folks from the tech, business and food space introduced us to new partners of the same mindset including Sara RoversiTim WestYinka Makinde, and Victoria Albrecht, and we’re looking forward to exploring opportunities with them to further evolve the healthy food & drink landscape.

Getting better food & drink into consumers’ hands is another big issue as the "big boys" like Coca-Cola, Tesco and Amazon largely control access to a lot of what we eat and drink every day.

Hello Fresh, Gousto and Artisan Food Clubare all part of the solution but this is an area that is seeing lots more smart minds coming together to close availability & access gaps.

How do you think the health food market will evolve in the next 5 years?

'Healthy' food will become more and more affordable and accessible to everyone. It is simply unacceptable that I live in one of the world's richest countries yet there exists a huge inequality in health. The Office of National Statistics says thatpeople who come from poor areas in Britain on average enjoy 19 less healthy years than people who come from rich homes. The gap is partly due to people not being able to afford better food & drink choices which are usually more expensive. It's a real disgrace for a developed country like ours. Efforts like Jamie Oliver's school dinner project can help to close the gap but there needs to be a lot more done to ensure healthy and affordable food & drink is available to everyone.

Are there any current trends in the health food market you see as particularly significant?

I think the move to a more plant based diet (food & drink) is significant with a huge positive impact likely. I am a "flexitarian" and maybe someday I'll become a vegan or vegetarian - or maybe one day none of these narrow “titles” will matter as we become more in harmony with evolving, better-for-the-planet food ecosystems.
You’ve worked with Growth Accelerator and the British Library IP & Business Centre. How far have these helped you grow Tg Green Teas?
My co-founder, Dr Hua He, and I have self-funded Tg Green Teas using our own savings however we would never have reached the stage we are at without the support of particular people and “institutions”.

I can’t speak highly enough of the British Library Business & IP Centre which has a wealth of free information coupled with useful advice and guidance available from staff like Seema Rampersad & Maria Lampert and other folks like Paul Grant andAlasdair Inglis who provide free or low cost seminars to budding start-ups.  

Hua and I were lucky too to participate in a government supported Growth Accelerator scheme which has helped us in many ways e.g. when and how to access funding, when and where to export.

We noticed you’re a mentor… do you have one yourself and what is the impact of having a mentor?

Yes, I have a few business mentors - one who I met through the Growth Accelerator programme (finance & small business expert Ross van Geest) and others I met through other folks running their own businesses e.g I met a driven now-well established entrepreneur Sam Duong, CEO of Ming Foods, at a government-sponsored manufacturers' event who also introduced me to the awesome food expert, Jane Milton. It is important to have people who are disconnected from the day to day business with whom you can discuss things honestly and in a less emotional setting. The perspective they have brought to our business has been immeasurable.

What would you advise those wanting to quit corporate and pursue a healthy start-up?

“Just do it” but ensure you have tested first your “big idea”, have stashed away about a years’ worth of income and refreshed your LinkedIn network before you turn your back on the big corporate pay cheque, a predictable work-life balance and big company work tasks & politics.

Everything takes longer than you think to happen, you still have to put food on the table while your startup grows, and you willrediscover the art of dealing with real people .....who won't always nod their heads in approval.

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