1 in 5 Americans experience mental illness every year. Julie Costello of Love Tea Company aims to change that.
Julie believes that a good cup of tea can bring us together. Emphasizing the concept “purposeful purchasing”, Love Tea Company is committed to donating 25% of net profits to the Flagg Foundation of Mental Wellness. Her company combats the stigma around mental illness, and provides funds for those in need.
Love Tea Company is less of a company and more of a movement. Julie employs people who are passionate about helping those with mental illness, and have stories to tell themselves. Julie’s own story is a driving force behind the company. She hopes to bring people of different backgrounds together, to join a good cause, and enjoy some delicious, warm tea.
Interview with Love Tea Company Founder, Julie Costello
We reached out to Julie and the Love Tea Company because they have such a strong presence in our base state of Washington. She is very engaged in the community, engages on social media, and is always reaching out to people with new opportunities. She jumped at the chance to interview with us and we couldn’t be more excited!
Please enjoy our interview with Julie Costello below.
TrueToast: Hi, Julie! Thank you so much for accepting our invitation to interview with us! Can you tell us a bit about your background and what inspired you to start the Love Tea Company?
Julie: I grew up in a small tourist town my parents and grandparents were all small business owners. When I was 13 I started working in the family businesses. Working in a tourist environment really teaches you how to deal with the general-public in pretty unique ways. In a tourist environment the customer experience is what it is all about. That’s what lasts in people’s memory. After I grew up and left my “small home town”, I went on to work in the telecommunications industry. For many years my primary work focused on delivering best in class customer service in a call center environment.
“I travelled around the country helping large companies understand the ties between business process and best in class technology implementation.”
When I married my husband he was a general contractor doing commercial construction projects. We managed that business together. That was my first “entrepreneurial experience” and while it was an existing well-run business, it was still in it’s infancy when we started working together. We learned a lot about how many moving parts there are when you are the one in charge (hiring, firing, payroll, sales, marketing, production, delivery, etc). Eventually we got caught in the “Great Recession” and construction was hit hard during those times. We decided to move across the country for a job opportunity for my husband. About that time, my mother died.
Shortly after that I learned that my mother had lived her life with bi-polar disorder. It was only after her death that I learned of the life long struggle she had with mental illness. As I learned more about her struggles I realized that had I known that she was clinically diagnosed with certain diseases that maybe I could have handled our relationship in a different way. It was the stigma that exists with mental illness that kept her from being honest about her condition and life. While my mother did not die of suicide, she was suicidal at the time of her death. Most people with mental illness will die 20 years earlier than the normal expected life span. She had just turned 60.
Can you tell us more about the relationship between Love Tea’s mission and mental health awareness?
J: After years of trying to rebuild the events that led to my mother’s death, I realized that a combination of things contributed to her death.
Our current healthcare system leaves the most at risk individuals behind. The lack of resources for mental healthcare for those considered “functioning”, as well as those in crisis, is really dire. Our broken healthcare system is strongly biased against the most vulnerable, and it results in homelessness, drug addiction, and social ostracization (stigma). Many people who use alcohol and other drugs are using in order to self-medicate. Unlike cancer or diabetes, where we can see a physical manifestation of the problem, our brain is hidden. So if you don’t “look” ill, you must not be ill, right? Wrong.
The other challenge is if you are not a part of a strong family or community unit and are suffering from severe disease, such as schitzophrenia, MPD (multiple personality disorder) or severe bi-polar, there are no options for you. But even if you are surrounded by a solid core of family and friends you may still suffer silently because of stigma.
My mother fell into this last bucket. For most of her life she was “high-functioning” and had access to high-quality care. But as her life went on, divorce, lost jobs, etc, her network of family and friends became less accessible to her she became increasingly ill. Eventually, without medications and people around her to know what was happening or to understand her behavior she spiraled out of control. Her bi-polar manifested in mis-use of prescription drugs, gambling, suicidal behavior and ultimately untimely death.
“So, Love Tea was born when I realized that the simple act of sharing a single cup of tea with someone – anyone – could change and maybe even save lives.”
In general our society is considered very “connected” technology gives us access to people that we didn’t once have. But the truth is that the feeling of “connectedness” is actual a mirage. As a people we are actually far more disconnected from each other than we have ever been in history. The idea that we texted or shared a photo of our life gives us the illusion of connectedness but in truth people are alone, afraid, and feeling far more disconnected. Tea was an interesting vehicle for our mission to decrease stigma and increase awareness and funding to help tackle the mental health issues in America. In the 16th and 17th century, the taking of tea was a social and family function. When we look at the statistics of suicide for example, the data tells us that every suicide is preventable. Because the human condition only allows our minds to be in that deep state, the moment you would jump, or shoot, or take the whole bottle of pills, for a short time. If during that time we could find a way to connect with a person to let them know they are not alone, that they are loved, then couldn’t we prevent death? So the idea behind Love Tea is to use Tea to connect.
What were the initial hurdles you encountered in starting our business, and how did you overcome them to find success?
J: You know, Love Tea is the third business I have started. So I think I learned a lot of lessons over the years. As a side note; someone once told me that silicon valley venture capitalist don’t give money unless you have previous failures. 3 failures – same person = success. ☺. That’s hard to hear because there are a lot of lessons to be had with that kind of process.
I think the biggest hurdle is always money. How much money of course depends on what type of business you are starting.. There are a lot of businesses today that have a pretty low cost of entry. But the truth is that every business comes to a breaking point where a large investment will be needed to get you over the next milestone. And without access to funds to get you there you have to make a devastating decision.
This happened with our organic produce business. We were hugely successful, thousands of customers, and growing every day, but we needed warehouse space, more delivery vehicles, and people to take it to the next level. Ultimately we decided to close instead of risking large amounts of money. It was the hardest decision I ever made.
My advice is to be sure you have looked out 5 years at the strategic plan. What key milestones will you need to meet and what will you do to get through the next growth phase? It could be bank loans, additional investors, or even Venture capital funding. For me the worst thing was to come to that milestone and then realize that my risk tolerance wasn’t where it needed to be to go to the next level. In comparison with Love Tea, we spent a full year business planning and developing the strategic growth plan before we even launched the website.
“I really have learned don’t open the flood gate until you are ready. Don’t do it just to do it. Do it because you are ready.”
The second piece of advice is be sure you are ready to deliver BEFORE you open up. You only get once change to give a first impression. If you can’t deliver your product or respond to customer service issues in a timely manner you’ll go down and it won’t be pretty. Technology today allows anyone to become a “hater”. The last thing you want is a bad experience and a customer who has 10,000 (or more) twitter followers telling people to stay away. Be prepared, from a business process and customer service perspective.
Did you ever experience “naysayers” during your journey that discouraged you from making your business a reality? If so, how did you handle it?
J: You know, I’ve been pretty lucky. I can’t remember many naysayers. In fact, I think it was the exact opposite. Most people were too supportive. Every time we’ve had an idea people were cheering from the roof tops for our success. Of course they weren’t the ones risking their life savings either. ☺
I’ve been asked this question before and it always makes me think about the fact that our friends and family usually believe in you. So, maybe the mistake we made was not talking to enough people who weren’t friends and family, people who might have said that won’t work because xyz.
I would say my advice is to check in with resources like the local SBA (small business administration) they have mentors that will work with you for free and they will help you look at things in ways you might not have considered.
One of my favorite sayings about being a small business person is that “you don’t know what you don’t know”. Don’t assume you know something because you googled it. Really think about it, research it, talk to people about how they did it and what worked or didn’t work Because the mistake I see most small businesses make is assuming they know how to do something.
“Just because you are a good house painter, does not mean you know how to handle accounting, or marketing.”
Over the years my husband and I have joked about the saying “jack of trades master of none”. One of the most important things you need to run your own business is the willingness and ability to do anything and everything. It’s true, you can’t be above sweeping the floor, filling an order or going to the post office. Most people get into their own business because they have a passion for something in the overall business process. The real questions is do you want to do all those other things? Because if you really love painting you might find that you equally loathe accounting. My advice is if you are in, you have to be in 10,000%. You have to be willing to do it all and not let anything slip. It’s really tough to be a small business owner. It is not for the faint of heart.
How do you facilitate a community of honesty and encouragement, both with your customers and in your business?
J: Communication, communication, communication. As I mentioned above, it is hard to do it all. And we are human. So we never get it perfect or right 100% of the time. Most customers know that too. But you have to be willing to tell them the truth too. If someone mis-filled an order or an order is lost, tell them. I’ve never had anyone stay mad after telling them the truth.
“The trick with this is that mistakes have to be the exception.”
On occasion if a handful of customers find something askew, I usually look at that as an opportunity to fix something in the process. For example, we’ve sent out thousands of packages of Love Tea by US Mail. We’ve been open almost 2 years now. We’ve had only 3 times when a package didn’t arrive. It just happened the other day, in fact. I offered to send another package FREE of charge. The customer is happy, I’m happy, and someone in the Post Office in Virgina will finally send the box to the customer and they’ll get extra Love Tea. Everyone wins, and everyone knows what happened.
On the other hand if this happened all the time I couldn’t keep sending FREE boxes to everyone who lost something. That would put me out of business. So, the moral of the story is honesty, 100% customer satisfaction, and strong business process that allows me to tell the truth when something goes awry.
What would you say was the greatest factor that contributed to your company’s success?
J: Planning. This business Love Tea had the best chance for success of anything I have done. The reason was two-fold. The first is Planning– I mentioned earlier that we planned for a full year. The second thing is that we started this business with all cash. No debt. If it couldn’t be done with what we had then it couldn’t be done. So, we carefully manage expenses. We chose to start a business the last time with low overhead and no debt that would hang over our head and make us worry.
“Love Tea really was a labor of true love.”
The sheer fact that we are a social purpose company, one that gives back 25% of our net profit toward improving mental healthcare in America, actually gives us the ability to think about business differently. We really think about more than the bottom line or quick success. This endeavor is about making a difference.
What has been your most memorable moment, thus far, in your entrepreneurial journey?
J: There are a lot of them. Certainly the idea that we created a company that was providing “live saving” organic produce to people suffering from cancer. Who had to have pesticide free food because of their treatment. That makes you feel pretty darn good. But it is equally difficult when you lose that customer to their fight with cancer as well. So many emotions wrapped up there.
I also am really most proud of the Love Tea Project. We have a program called Tea it Forward. Maybe you’ve had this happen but I was once at a Starbucks drive through when I reached the window to pay the cashier told me your order has been paid for. The idea is that you buy someone their drink (preferably a cup of tea) in hopes that they “pay it forward” to the next person.
What are some personal qualities that you think are necessary for being a successful entrepreneur?
J: The number one thing I tell new entrepreneurs is persistence, defined: the firm or obstinate continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition.
We don’t have to be good at everything. But we have to be willing to learn, apply, and try everything. We also have to be willing to keep going when the going get’s tough. I always tell people owning your own business is not for everyone. It is a 24/7 commitment and if you can’t commit 24/7 then don’t do it. I’m not saying you have to work all that time, the beauty of owning your own business is making your own schedule taking time to do the things you want when you want them, BUT, and this is the big but… it will never turn off.
One last incidental story. When my daughter was born we were doing the construction company. We always explained to people we had two kids. One was our daughter– she required 100% attention and care — of course she was a baby. The other kid was our construction company.
“Just like a newborn, your new company will require 100% care. You have to watch it, nurture it, and comfort it when things aren’t going quite right.”
If you are brave enough to start your own company it will come with all the rewards of parenthood. You will love it and nurture it and be exceptionally proud of it when it is successful. As I look back, each new business was a new child. One that lived and died for different reasons. That we loved and mourned and that we learned from. Love Tea, is the ultimate Love Child and maybe, just maybe, it is all the lessons learned over the years, the good, bad, and the ugly that has proven Love Tea to be the ultimate success.
To learn more about the Love Tea Company and how they are carrying out their mission of combating the stigma about mental health, check them out on social media!
Facebook: The Love Tea Company