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It was out of desperation that entrepreneur Jessica Bonin started her tea business — to escape dead-end work in the film industry.
Bonin, the founder of Lady Bonin, was speaking at yesterday’s Startup Grind Cape Town, hosted at Workshop 17 in the city. The global Startup Grind community dedicated the month of May toward celebrating the success of female founders.
“I was doing something that went against my very moral core. I didn’t have a business degree or anything like that, and I wanted to find a skill that would allow me to start my own business because that’s where I realised I needed to be, I always had entrepreneurial tendencies.”
This desperation led her to start her own business in December 2010. The road, however, wasn’t easy. With money being tight she couldn’t afford to rent a business premises. So she sought out an alternative solution — a tea caravan.
“There were a few people that responded to the idea quite well, a good group of hipster friends at the time, so of course they just jumped at the idea.”
She quickly learned that although the caravan gave her convenience in terms of mobility, it wasn’t a sustainable option.
“In the beginning, I was doing one market a week… I had to look at what was the next viable option. I was packaging the tea and selling it from the caravan so I thought ‘okay let me go around and see if I can get anyone else to buy the tea’. So I did a couple of door-to-door with niche delis… people who would take this sort of artisanal product.”
This led her to land a client that would eventually be the source of her startup capital — andBeyond (formerly CC Africa) game lodges.
Her approach was to create flavourful tea’s that represented the various regions the lodges were situated in.
Once she landed finance she began looking at how to expand. This led her to purchase a storefront in what is now known as The Woodstock Exchange.
‘Failure is the only way that you learn and it’s absolutely necessary’
She admitted that she wasn’t really expecting to open a store front so soon, as she was hoping to purchase a small “factory” first. However seeing as though storefront was in her three-year plan, she decided to pursue the opportunity.
It proved to be a good decision as she was able to have a space large enough to make and sell her tea.
‘Invaluable’ accelerator help
Sometime later she was accepted into the Impact Amplifier Accelerator.
“It was five months of the most grueling, intense and incredible (experiences)… every two weeks we’d have a full day of whatever the programme was.”
But she admitted that the experience proved invaluable to her business. “What I’ve learned was that I’m constantly having to break down my house and build it again because there was something ‘tweaky’ in my foundations.”
“The incubator really helped me understand my business and understand what I was doing and where I’m going and the steps that are going to get me there,” she said.
Regardless of the challenging experiences, Bonin wasn’t hesitant to express her gratitude of the processes that led her where she is today.
“I’m definitely glad about where I’m at now. The caravan was beautiful it allowed me the opportunity to engage with people, it provided this space where people wanted to have this new experience which was takeaway tea.”
Bonin isn’t using the caravan currently, but plans to bring it back on board soon.
Lady Bonin continues to grow as its currently awaiting its organic certification to be approved before they can begin exporting to Japan.
“We’re (also) trademarked in China, I’ve decided to take a step back from China because they’re very difficult with prices (and) I haven’t found a partner that I’m happy with. We’ve just sent off samples to Korea and it’s been picked up really well so we’re in the process of waiting for our first order to come through there,” she said.
She added that the company has exported to Amsterdam and has generated interest from Malaysia.
Bonin also fielded questions around fair trade and how Lady Bonin handles the seemingly controversial tea industry.
“Essentially what we do is we support small-scale farms that have community-based initiatives, we pay a premium to our farms so we go beyond fair trade,” she said.
“I’m suspect of the whole fair trade thing in my experience so I prefer to go and see the farms for myself… so I understand what’s going on in the picture. I’m not one to believe any piece of paper which is why I like to go and see it for myself.”
Bonin said her biggest failure as an entrepreneur was to believe that failure “meant failure”.
“It was the misunderstanding of failure. Failure is the only way that you learn and it’s absolutely necessary,” she concluded.
Also at yesterday’s Startup Grind Linda Swart, Standard Bank’s Incubator manager announced the conclusion of the bank’s first cohort of female tech entrepreneurs.
Bonnie Horbach, the consul general of Kingdom of the Netherlands in Cape Town also took the chance to announce a partnership with Startup Grind to bring the European founded Inspiring 50 to South Africa.
“We are looking for the most inspiring women in the tech and innovation sector in SA. I want to showcase to the European continent the talent that’s here, that they shouldn’t be here to come and help but that they should be here if they want to do business.”
Featured image: Nsight Pictures via Startup Grind