Sashee Chandran is the founder and CEO of Tea Drops.
Sashee Chandran is the founder and CEO of Tea Drops, an innovative tea company that has organic whole leaf tea shaped into fun drops that melt into finely ground plant fiber.
Sashee launched Tea Drops in 2015, as a homage to her heritage. Tea has always been a central part of Sashee’s life, and she realized that there was this huge opportunity in the tea sector that was very heritage-driven. As she told a Thrillist reporter: after visiting Derryclare, a tea estate in Sri Lanka where her father was born, her outlook on business changed forever when she realized the deep ties her own heritage has to her business: “It was this full-circle moment for me because I realized that my love for tea and the creation of this business was not just this haphazard thing that happened in my life. There is this true tie to my heritage and my familial background that really instigated all of this.”
Before starting Tea Drops, Sashee graduated from UC Irvine in 2007 with a BA in Economics and Management, and worked at eBay as a marketing strategy specialist.
I had the immense honor of interviewing Sashee and asking her about what inspired her to start Tea Drops, what obstacles she had to overcome, how a business resource center helped her catapult her business, and much more…
What inspired you to start your own company?
I didn’t know it was going to be the company that it is today... I started small and realized that there was this huge opportunity in the tea sector that was very heritage-driven. There really weren't brands that represented who I was as a tea drinker — which was younger, on the go, and have that community feel that I was looking for. So because I didn’t see my own needs represented I just started experimenting with different tea blends and wanted to create an easier way to make loose leaf tea, and after experimenting for a while I came across this concept of a tea drop. From there I was convinced that there had to be an easier way to prepare tea and that tea drops were something that was disruptive. I didn’t know how to get there, but I started working with SCORE (a business resource center) and others to help inform me about what to do next (should I write a business plan? Or should I go straight to selling). One of the mentors at Score is who prompted me to write my own patent for the product — with his guidance I ended up writing and submitting it to the USPTO website. And that was really the genesis of the idea I was going to pursue...
The beautiful tea drops! Check out the assortment box for your
first try (it's the one I just bought!)
What were some of the first steps you took to make your vision a reality?
I started selling at farmer’s markets and artisan shows more than anything else and built it from there. Although I don’t think the intention was oh this is going to be a huge thing one day… I think in the back of my mind I knew it could be, but I also knew that it was a lot of pressure for me to think that way because was I going to be the one to make all of it happen? I’m just building brick by brick and seeing where everything goes. I wasn’t committed to saying that I was going to be the one that was going to build this big brand.
What were some of the first obstacles you had to overcome as a founder?
I think everything was difficult because I didn’t have any experience in the food manufacturing industry or building any other businesses. So I had to learn about certain licenses that were needed to manufacture your food at home. I had to learn about new sales channels. I had to learn about making our product at scale (because I was making it in my kitchen at the time), moving to a commercial kitchen (and finding where there are commercial kitchens), and hiring talent. So I think every area was challenging in its own way because I just didn’t have any experience so it was a huge learning curve, but I would say that balancing and juggling everything was probably the most difficult thing. Because your mind and your resources are pulled in so many different directions.
Tea has always been a part of Sashee's heritage,
learn more about Tea Drops' story here.
Although this number has decreased even further due to the pandemic, less than 3% of VC funding goes to female founders, how was your experience pitching/seeking investment?
I think sometimes we expect things to be easier than they are. I think raising money, if you are a man or a woman, is hard in general. And then layer on that there isn’t enough representation of women within VCs, so then most of the partners you’re talking to are men who may not understand your industry or what you’re trying to do, who may not be the target audience. So for us, whether we did our seed round or Series A, I had to talk to probably 85-90+ people before getting somewhere/finding someone that gets what I’m trying to build. You know, once you have a lead come in, everything else falls into place. You think VCs are actually super innovative, and that they have great insight, but they’re actually trying to signal from each other what the right deal is. So once you get your first anchor investor it becomes much easier. At each stage it’s hard. I definitely think it’s harder if you’re a woman just because you don’t have the representation of women on the side of the VC. so I do think that it’s important, as more women receive funding, that they’re able to turn that around and either joining the investor side or more women can be exposed to VC investing. Because that’s really the gateway that is going to open a lot more opportunities.
How did you build your confidence to speak to so many people when pitching?
I think, like everything, it’s kind of a muscle. Your first 10 are probably the hardest pitches because you probably don’t have your pitch perfect yet, you're also dealing with the nervousness, and working through getting rejected and the emotions that come with it… but there is a certain point in which it’s no longer that personal anymore. Yes, someone may not buy into or may not be the right fit for you, but it doesn’t — I think you have to look at this as a numbers game, finding the right fit. So if you go into it with that mindset, then you won’t get so rattled by the rejection.