Building a fledgling tea business from his parents’ house was a far cry from 21 year old Adam Soliman’s dream of the City trading floor. But, just two years after graduating in the thick of the worst recession in a generation, the young entrepreneur now heads one of the UK’s fastest-growing speciality tea brands worth over £1 million.
Q: Did you always intend on becoming a young entrepreneur?
A: No, not at all. I studied accounting and finance with the aim of working in the City. While having a financial grounding certainly helps me run Charbrew, starting your own business means you learn a lot of other skills very quickly.
Q: What inspired you to start up a business in tea production?
A: I identified a gap in the market, which certainly wasn’t my intention. I was actually researching commodities for an interview in the City and realised that there was an opportunity there.
Graduating in a recession meant that my career path wasn’t quite going to plan – commodities traders were being made redundant in droves and I had to make a choice. I had no experience in products, innovation or retailing but I could see what I wanted to achieve and decided to go for it.
Q: This is a popular industry, with many competitors. Was this a concern when starting up?
A: It is a popular and growing category but I believed that there was room for fresh innovation and a price point which meant we wouldn’t be regarded as the same as larger brands. Retailers want innovation within a category - it’s disruptive, stimulates consumers to ‘trade up’ or attracts new ones and keeps all the other brands on their toes.
It was only a concern if I hadn’t been able to create the product I’d envisaged but the listings Charbrew has now secured with Sainsbury’s, Booths and Ocado is proof that we have honed right in on that gap on the shelves.
Q: As a young entrepreneur, what challenges have you faced along the way and how did you overcome these?
A: The biggest was getting in front of retail buyers. They are incredibly busy people making multi-million pound decisions and I was a 21-year-old with a box of fruit teas.
You just can’t give up. I’m always confident that Charbrew products sell themselves once people see the packaging and taste the teas so I kept chasing leads, making calls, driving up and down the country and it eventually paid off.
Seeing your product on the shelves of a retailer like Sainsbury’s makes any challenge worth it.
Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of running a business that revolves around import and export?
A: Currency fluctuations – particularly in a volatile global economy – can catch you out when you’re buying in bulk. I have met suppliers from Germany and Sri Lanka in the UK before working with them.
The greatest challenge is communicating exactly what you want to create but we now have a great system where we send the blend recipes and the artworked templates for packaging and the finished product is packed and sent to the UK.
Q: How difficult was it to make your idea in to a business?
A: I sourced the ingredients within two weeks and used £5,000 of savings to pay for my first consignment of pre-blended teabags from Germany. I packed these into brown paper bags and drove to farmers’ markets where I sold them myself.
It was hard work but it became a business quite quickly. As soon as people started coming back and asking for more, I knew I had established a brand.
Q: What are your business plans for the future?
Diversification. Getting Charbrew into retailers, marketing it and selling it online were the first goals, now we are branching out into foodservice contracts with, hopefully, bulk sales to customers such as major airlines.
Q: What steps have you taken to be a green business and what tips can you give to other businesses to follow suit?
A: Charbrew’s partner in Sri Lanka is one of the first carbon free plantations in the world. We also use bio-degradeable corn starch mesh for our bags.
We are also Fairtrade accredited. I believe it’s increasingly important for brands to put sustainability at the heart of their business and would advise start-ups to set out with it in mind rather than try to retrofit it when you’ve already signed up all your suppliers.
Consumers and retailers are increasingly demanding proof of your commitment and much prefer to see that you are already locked in to green issues rather than promising to tackle it in the future.
Q: What do you consider to be the most effective way to market a new product? How did you make Charbrew a recognised brand?
A: Discover what makes you stand out. Interesting blends such as chocolate orange rooibos and strawberries and cream were among our first. Great packaging is also really important so that you stand out on the shelf.
I also think having a story to tell about your business is a great marketing strategy. You can tell it in sales meetings, on packaging, to media, on your website and via social media. Real life stories make people connect with brands, a great product makes them buy again.
Q: Having studied accounting and finance at university, do you take charge of the Charbrew business accounting?
A: I did at first, because I was my only employee. I have handed this over now because I need to be out there selling Charbrew, not just crunching numbers. I don’t really consider myself the financial person any more.
Q: What’s it like being your own boss? Are there any downsides?
A: It is hard work and there are new challenges every day. I work long hours and spend far too long in the car going from one meeting to a sales pitch to another but I wouldn’t swap it now, I enjoy the satisfaction of seeing the business grow.
Having developed new skills I would always rather be working for myself than someone else.
Q: What financial aid was available to you as a young start-up? What financial advice can you give to other young entrepreneurs looking to fund a start-up?
A: Not a lot, particularly in the current climate. I won a prize at university which helped me a bit but I still believe self-employment and entrepreneurship is massively overlooked as a career choice. Advisers are still stuck in the habit of guiding teenagers to this ideal of a ‘safe’ career – like banking – which doesn’t really exist any more.
The Government is always talking about how the economy needs more start-ups, innovators, job creators. Every successful business was started by someone who took a risk, yet the focus is on how many fail, therefore it isn’t a choice that’s encouraged.
I would advise people to start small. Being young is the ideal time as you often have less risk – no mortgage, no dependents. Don’t overstretch yourself, you can achieve growth incrementally.
Q: How do you decide where you source your products from?
A: It was all about the provenance. I wanted quality tea leaves and ingredients so I had to find suppliers who met the standards I had in mind for Charbrew. I travelled across Asia and Europe to test ingredients personally. Charbrew is a quality product so we have to have consistency from sustainable sources in order to continue to meet consumer expectation.
Q: If you weren’t running a tea selling business, what would you be doing and why?
A: If I’d secured a job in London after university I’d probably still be doing that. Having experienced running my own business I think I’d simply be putting another business idea into practice
Q: What three pieces of advice can you offer to entrepreneurs?
- Do your research. My business idea came from extensive research. Know your market, identify the opportunity.
- Don’t spread yourself too thin. Have one core idea and focus on making that a success. Diversifying is a challenge for later.
- Treat every day like a working day. When you’re building a business you probably shouldn’t be in the gym during the middle of the day. Be prepared to put the hours in, there are no early shortcuts.