Sean Farrell is the founder of luxury tea company Chateau Rouge. The company, which is named after a Parisian chateau, scours the world for special producers in order to develop a unique line of loose blends.
Q: Have you always wanted to be an entrepreneur?
A: Definitely yes! I've always liked coming up with ideas and solutions, discovering better ways of doing things and bringing new products and innovations to the market. For me it’s more about being able to express my creativity and help shape the world through bringing new products, services and ideas to the market. I suppose being an entrepreneur in the purest sense is about creating something or doing something different, which I have an affiliation to.
Q: How do you ensure you strike a reasonable work/life balance?
A: As any entrepreneur would attest to, it's very difficult, especially in the early stages. Being in balance by definition is a static equilibrium and sooner or later something comes along to strike you off balance again, especially if you are at the early stages of a project. Business is about constantly adapting and finding your way as you go along, which can make the process of finding a work/life balance hardly initially.
Searching for balance may in-fact stave off the creative process and could hold you back. It is important to focus on doing what you need to do to make sure you don't burn out, as things invariably do take much longer than you originally anticipated. Personally, I find that exercise, watching my diet and sleeping when I can helps, but equally spending as much time as I can with my family helps to put things in perspective.
Q: What personal qualities do you think are most important to succeed as an entrepreneur?
A: Determination, perseverance and an unsatisfied questioning, challenging attitude to life. By default I think that all entrepreneurs are A-type personalities that often polarize opinions, you either like them or you don't. The most successful have mastered being confident in their own abilities while being able to bring the best out of all around them, inspiring a team or backers to join them and 'boldly go where no man has gone before.'
I think by definition entrepreneurs are rebels and have found that the younger they start the better they are, as they don't feel a need to conform or be something they are not. While formal education and working in large corporates does give you the experience needed to run a large business, I think nothing can replace the hard won experience of being out there and doing it yourself.
Starting up during a recession...
"They say it’s the best time to start. It may be because there is less competition, as most just won't think it's possible and even consider trying. But you need to be really passionate when the going is tough.
In a bubble in the good years, it’s easy and companies can get away with a lot. A tough climate forces you to think outside of the box, and find a easier, cheaper, quicker way to do things. You have no other choice. It builds stronger companies! Just look at all the global corporations today that were created in the 1970s.
Inherently, in tough times we are forced to rethink existing norms and find a way to survive. At its core that is what a new business is all about. Economic downturns make that all possible!"
Q: Trying to get people to appreciate loose tea over tea bags is certainly aiming high. What advice would you give to a company attempting to change such in-grained values?
A: You need lots of patience and perseverance, it takes time, and so you need to be in it for the long term. Especially at the start, you can't expect to please everyone, and need to focus all your efforts on the early adopters, consumers in search of something different, as they are the only ones who will help shape your market. Creating a new market can be very tough and even more so if in the process you need to change existing attitudes and long established behaviors.
Innovation can be easier if you are helping to solve a problem that a consumer never knew they had with a product that they never even knew previously existed. This can be more difficult when you offer a new way of doing something, but it helps to remember that those attitudes, habits and behaviors now accepted as the norm, were at some stage created by previous companies and marketers. Nothing is cast in stone and everything is open to be challenged! In today’s fast changing world you need more so than ever be aware of the next wave and position your business not only to ride the wave but also be the first.
I think social media and the fast pace of marketing communication these days, does enable you to effectively communicate new benefits and to help influence existing behaviors at an ever increasing rate of change. Change that may have taken years or decades before now can happen in less than a year or couple of months.
Q: Tea is obviously a saturated market but you are doing well. Is there something specific a company needs to succeed among a sea of competitors?
A: It is very important to be clear on what your unique selling proposition is and then consistently communicate that in everything you do. In today's saturated market being unique becomes even more difficult as you need to avoid being pigeon-holed and find a way to stand out from the crowd. I think your primary goal should be to find your niche and focus just on that, avoid finding your niche and you risk going out of business! Ideally you want to create a niche that’s an inch wide and a mile deep, so you can hold onto your market share and ensure long-term returns with little or no competition. If you decide to focus on price alone too early on, you risk a competitor with deeper pockets pushing you out of the market. You need to play on your strengths, and being a small startup may mean that you are better able to role out new products and adapt to the market than larger better-established competitors.
Q: How important is it for companies to have a unique selling point?
A: Very! Without it why would a consumer or buyer choose your product? Even in a crowded market your unique selling point is the only thing that will set you apart, it may be that you are the cheapest, offer the best delivery or offer 100 percent money back guarantee, whatever it is you need to shout out loud about it and use that to differentiate your business. If you don’t then someone else will and it may then be too late to claim your unique position, and then you'll be back at square one. Like Monopoly it's all about claiming real estate, and then being able to create income off the back of that. A USP is like good real estate, and the better the location or unique USP the greater the likelihood of earning a good return over time.
Q: You mention you source all products directly from producers. Is this part of a sustainability policy? What advantages and disadvantages does this bring?
A: Yes definitely! The first advantage is quality; sourcing direct means we can work directly with producers to make sure we get the best harvests/production of the season. Traditionally tea has been sold through markets and brokers, focusing on the best price for a specific quality. Buying direct means we are able to break that cycle and focus on creating great teas together with our suppliers. This allows us to not just be a part of a supply chain, but rather to shape and influence the industry a bit more over the long term.
And I think that the grower/farmer is one of the most important persons in the whole process, as they work the land and put all the effort into producing the best teas they can, season after season. We don’t want to forget that and buying direct from them, means we can acknowledge and support that, it makes it all that more personal.
Lastly, from a purely business perspective, removing excess wheels in the cog does mean that the business is leaner and more sustainable in the long run. It's able to adapt and change quicker, produce fresher products faster and importantly better able to control costs with profits going direct to where value is added along the supply chain.
Q: You won a Gold Award for packaging design. Do you think product presentation is important, and what tips would you give to an SME that is just about to start working on packaging?
A: It is definitely for Chateau Rouge Teas, as one of our main USPs. I buy into Steve Jobs approach with Apple computers, for him design was everything. I think a life well designed from the bottom up is a life more fulfilling and one filled with beauty, moving from pure survival and existence to creating history and leaving a legacy. If you look at the way nature designs everything, right down to the minuscule detail, why should we not do the same with the products we create?
I have worked with my fair share of designers through the years, and am a firm believer in the entrepreneur being involved with and helping shape the design process. After all who better knows your market than you do? Find a good designer that you enjoy to work with, as the design process can be the most exciting and rewarding experience when setting up (that and making your first sale!).
Most importantly don’t get so caught up in the design that you never end up starting and spend all your time tweaking the designs. Too many ideas never get going because it just gets too complicated, business is about making it easier, not the opposite! Most brands never get it right at first, they evolve and so too does the design. Get going and be able to adapt quickly and cost effectively as often as needed.
Q: You've been troubled with serious illness for quite a while. How has this affected the entrepreneurial process and what advice would you give to entrepreneurs suffering ill health while running or setting up a business?
A: It's very difficult question and one with no easy answer! For me what it really comes down to is being able to honestly ask yourself what else would you be doing now if you weren’t doing this right now? Sure we would all like to be sunning ourselves, lazing on a beach in the Bahamas, but I feel true happiness is finding what you love to do, doing what you love and getting paid to do it. You just need to look around, and the happiest among us are those that can jump out of bed and are excited to go to work everyday.
Sure it is very difficult starting something new like a business, and it all gets a lot tougher if your health fails you, but once you realize how short life actually is and how precious time is to us all, you understand you need to make the most of the time you have every day and hopefully give enough people something to talk about once you are gone. Somehow you just need to find the time to fit as much in as you can, because you will never have the gift of today again.
It’s impossible to even comprehend the number of events that have led to this very moment in your life and all the possibilities that exist for you just today. This very minute, and second will never be repeated ever again. So the question remains what are you going to invest your precious time on, after all its not the number of minutes in your life that count but the number of lives in your minutes that make all the difference.
Q: If you could only give three pieces of advice to an entrepreneur currently starting a business, what would they be?
Follow your passion is such a cliché, and I think one of the most misunderstand concepts of all. But honestly, you need to do what you love and love what you do, as it will be the only thing that will carry you through. Nothing sells a product easier than a salesman who is absolutely passionate about a product that he loves and believes in. Consumers buy into that, backers support that and it will carry you through some tough dark days.
Always focus on making it easier! Always keep looking at how you can get results quicker, with less effort and in more style. All business is about constantly making it better and striving to improve, never forget that. At the end of each week, I take a moment to step back and analyze where I may have just made things too complicated again, and then find ways to cut the fat so to speak and get back to what its all about.
Lastly, don't take any of it personally. 'Failures' are only feedback on what not to do and help you find a better way to do it, they are only stepping stones not heavy weights. Start seeing a failure as a gift, feedback that’s helping you refine and tweak your product or business model. Without failures you will not grow, change and reach for your dreams. Embrace failure!
Q: You've obviously spent time and money building Chateau Rouge as a brand. Is a strong brand important to business success?
A: I am a believer in brands, but not in creating a brand from the start but in letting a brand evolve over time. A brand after all is a guarantee of a certain set of values, be it a Louis Vuitton handbag, a Ferrari, a Cadburys chocolate or a Chateau Rouge Tea. With a brand a consumer wants to feel they are buying into something, an aspiration, a promise of something better. We all buy into brands as we aspire to be better; the brand however needs to earn that reputation over time.
It all depends on what the business or your end goal is. What is your USP: a strong brand, a cheaper better product, or a better-designed product? Don't however lose your focus on the reason for any business, it will always be making a sale as with no sales there's no business no matter how pretty your product is. A great design and brand helps support the sale and another reason to buy the product but should form part of the overall offering.
Strong brands are built over time and is what people buy into, be it a personal or corporate brand, consumers want something to relate to. Great brands have all managed to speak directly with and strike a cord with a niche target consumer group.