Time for tea 

November 2, 2016

Twenty-eight-year-old Jules Quinn always knew she wanted to run her own business. At 14, she was selling bracelets to her friends in the school yard. A few years later, she was running a small outside catering company and then organising under-18s club nights in Hexham.

The ambitious teen’s aim was to start a business as soon as she finished her A levels, but Jules’s parents insisted she go to university first.

“They said I needed to get a degree so that I would have something to fall back on in case my business didn’t work out,” Jules reveals. “I’m glad they did as university is a great way to develop skills and allow time to get a little older and wiser.”

Jules choose to study fashion marketing at Northumbria University because of her love for design and the business element of the course.

It while she was on a work placement seven years ago – as part of that course – when the idea for The TeaShed was born.

“The placement was at a fashion company in London and it was really ‘sh*tty,” Jules recalls. “All they made me do was make cups of tea for everyone. I made so much that they ran out of teabags so I was sent to Sainsbury’s to buy some more.”

As the 21-year-old stood in the supermarket aisle, she was stuck by the lack of choice when it came to tea.

Jules returned to university and began developing her tea business, which would offer something different and unique to consumers.

“I wanted to focus on gifting as opposed to everyday tea,” she explains. “I didn’t want the tea to come in a standard box so one of the first products I created was where the bags came in a paper cup so you had something to drink out of, too. It just made it a bit different.”

Jules admits that she relied on internet searches for much of her business information in the early days.

“Google was my mentor!” she exclaims. “I knew very little about running a business. I didn’t know what margins were or how to work them out, so I spent a lot of time on the internet.“There were lots of little challenges to overcome along the way and some things haven’t gone the way I wanted. But I wouldn’t change anything because everything that has happened– good and bad – I’ve learnt from.”

Working from home, Jules created an online presence but knew getting her products into major retailers would be key to appealing to a mass audience.

It took her six months before The TeaShed launched to get a meeting with Fenwick but the eventual appointment went well and the North East-based retailer agreed to stock her quirky tea.

“Fenwick was the ideal start for TeaShed. It positioned our products on the market. They were also extremely supportive, especially as I was a local business.”

Three months later, John Lewis approached her and wanted to stock The TeaShed products in its department stores.

“Getting into John Lewis was fantastic but it was also tricky because its forecasts where huge. The first order was for £20,000, which I had to finance six months in advance. It was a challenge but I found a way because I knew I had to.”

Soon, retailers from around the world were contacting Jules about her products.

“I was getting enquiries from retailers in Japan, The Middle East and Europe who had seen our products online,” she says.

The proactive entrepreneur also helped spread word of The TeaShed with pop-up shops in Fenwick (Newcastle and London) and special tea tents at festivals across the UK.

One quirky drink served in these temporary stalls was to spawn her next business project.

“We would serve bubble tea which is an iced milky tea with little balls that you suck up through a straw and they burst in your mouth with juiciness. We then started adding the balls to cordials, cocktails and Prosecco.

“One day, someone asked if you could buy the balls and use them at home. At the time you couldn’t but I thought, ‘why not?’.”

Jules began importing the bubbles and working on flavour combinations, branding (Popaball) and using clever marketing to make the bubbles work for a western consumer.

Unlike her tea, the bursting bubbles needed to specially packaged and so Jules took the decision to move her business out of her home and into Hoults Yard in Byker last year.

The popularity of these quirky drink additions meant she outgrew the site within months and, in March, The TeaShed moved to a larger facility at Benfield Business Park.

Jules now employs up to 15 members of staff per day (mainly women) who work in design, packing and distribution roles.

Employing full-time members of staff has been a learning curve for Jules but she has drawn on her experience working with temporary staff for the pop-up stalls.

“I learnt quite a lot from my first experiences of employment and about the best ways to handle situations.

“It’s very important to me to create a happy and supportive environment, where people want to come to work and respect each other. I would hate for anyone to ever dread having to come to work. But whilst we do have fun, I am clear about standards.”

Jules’ parents are very supportive of her and the business and both her mum and dad help out. She also employed her sister, Tanja, in December to manage the ever-growing ecommerce side of the operation. This has enabled Jules to concentrate on negotiating the deals with the major retailers, knowing the ecommerce is in safe hands.

“Since Tanja has started, she has transformed our ecommerce presence and sales have grown by more than 200 per cent online.”

In January this year, Jules was named in the Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe list – in retail and ecommerce.

“When Forbes got in touch, I was so surprised,” Jules admits. “It wasn’t something I had applied for but I guess they had done their research online.

“I was shocked because I know there are people younger than me who are turning over more money but I think they were attracted by how I’ve moved the business over the past five years.

“I didn’t go to the awards ceremony in America as it was during our peak period but it has been great for publicity. We also saw a spike in online sales when the list was announced.”

Jules is now looking to continue doubling turnover year-on-year and is currently working on a new product which is strictly under wraps.

“I can’t say too much but there’s nothing quite like it on the market. I am confident that in a couple of years’ time a glass of prosecco won’t be the same without a PopaBall product added,” she adds tantalisingly, with a grin.

Longer term, Jules has a three-year plan to develop more products and push the business forward with the intention to sell”.

Whatever she decides, this proactive businesswoman will no doubt continue to develop business ideas rooted in the entrepreneurial passion that has been burning within her since she was 14 years old.

The TeaShed & PopaBall