Full name: Daren Spence
DOB: “Gen X”
Birthplace: “…where the mighty Tyne meets the North Sea” (South Shields)
Fun Fact: “For the first 18 years of my life I spelt my first name incorrectly – it has one ‘r’ and not two. Some forms of my ID still have the incorrect spelling.”
J: So, let’s start at the beginning. I know you were inspired to start the business after visiting a well-stocked tea shop in Budapest in the mid 2000s. But where did it all begin for you? Considering you’d pursued a career in accountancy, were you always so entrepreneurial? Always a tea fan? Did you always know a career in food and drink would be for you? What were your formative years like?
D: I am always slightly suspicious of this type of question as a lot of people try to claim that doing odd jobs around the house when they were younger was really the ‘inner entrepreneur’ trying to get out. Nonsense. They were trying to make extra money to buy stuff.
I washed cars, rented out Sega Megadrive games and sold beer bottle tops, as it was trendy to hang them on your shoes at one point, but it wasn’t necessarily the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey.
I set up We Are Tea because I stopped drinking coffee and fell head over heels in love with tea and was of the opinion that it was not being sourced, marketed, packaged or talked about in the way that it deserved. I genuinely thought I could, and would, do a better job than some of the dated tea brands that had become a little tired and a bit lazy.
What I have learned along the way, is that it is not always about being better than the competition, it is about being true to the heritage of the product with a laser-like focus on consumer needs and to work hard at being the best that We Are Tea can be.
It’s probably safe to say that you’re a man who drinks a lot of tea. But what else might we find you drinking? And eating for that matter? What are your most and least favourite food and drink?
I certainly do drink a lot of tea but can’t live on tea alone. If I am off to the pub, I like a good pint of beer but when I am ‘out out’, I am a fan of an Old Fashioned, partial to a Negroni and don’t mind a Whiskey Sour (think I may have watched too much Mad Men).
I genuinely love food, from cooking it to eating it and from street food to fine dining, but I don’t really have a ‘death-row meal’. That said, growing up on the coast, I do like fish and chips. They have to be drenched in vinegar and served in yesterday’s newspaper. The location has to be sitting in the car, in the driving rain watching the North Sea do its angry dance.
I dislike anything processed and with more than five ingredients in it. The Italians get it right – good produce, kept simple and cooked well.
You’ve been surviving and thriving in the industry for quite some time now. Has it changed much since you started? I assume consumers have taken more of an interest in variety and become more discerning (thanks to companies like yours, in no small part). Are there any other big tea trends or things you reckon we should be looking out for?
There has been a huge shift to ‘everyday premium’. When we started, speciality tea was the preserve of special occasions, whereas now, we are seeing consumers drink speciality tea from their morning pick-me-up to an evening wind-me-down.
I think everyday premium is here to stay as it is unlikely someone is going to wake up one morning and think, ‘I’m sick of drinking great tea, I really fancy a cup of that terrible stuff’.
Another huge, and very welcome, change has been consumer interest in sustainability and authenticity. For too long, big brands have been peddling rubbish products with dubious credentials and ‘selling the dream’. These days are over.
Brands have to be authentic – we are exactly who we say we are, we don’t want to be your best friend (hopefully you have enough), we don’t have an office dog and don’t pretend that we do. We simply want to give our customers the best possible tea experience we can.
We try our very best, every single day to be authentic to the We Are Tea philosophy – Sustainable Sipping. Drink Good. Do Good.
We have just become B Corp Certified (business as a force for good), which was a proud moment and a great effort by the team.
What’s a ‘day in your life’ like? Could you give us an insight into the tea business?
I wake up at 4am every day, do 100 sit ups, go for a 10-mile run, practise Ashtanga Yoga and then go for an open-water swim. Not really. The truth of the matter is that there is no typical day, which is one of the main advantages of running your own business.
That said, every day starts with a great cup of tea and a general catch up with the tea team usually starting with what they had for dinner the previous evening. We have a small, but perfectly-formed team, and I am a huge believer in allowing good people to do great things while, at the same time, ensuring that we all understand what everyone else is up to.
This is more to highlight possible opportunities across the different areas of the business than to micromanage. A lot of my time is spent managing the relationships with our larger clients, key supply partners and looking at lots of exciting innovation to help bring tea to life. In addition to my day-to-day role, I like to have at least one big project on the go.
The current project is Sustainable Sipping – we are on a mission to completely rid the business of single-use plastic by the end of this year. This is really important to us as a business and personally to each member of the tea team. We are fully committed.
What’s your greatest/most memorable professional moment been, so far?
One of the greatest moments of this journey has to be seeing a shopper put We Are Tea into their shopping basket while I was visiting one of our retail partners. The feeling of seeing someone spend their hard-earned cash on something that did not exist until you created is truly magical/intoxicating. I almost burst with pride.
Where do you get your ideas?
Inspiration can come in many guises and at any time. I find some form of exercise, especially walking, with no particular destination in mind, always helps get the brain juices flowing.
My wife and I used to walk around Queen’s Park in west London when we needed to discuss the business outside of business hours, as we were keen to retain some semblance of a home life. Boundaries are essential when running your own business, as it can be all consuming and this can lead to burn out. Not good.
What’s your philosophy, summed up in a sentence?
Know when to ask for help and don’t be afraid to admit when you are wrong as both are a show of strength and not a sign of weakness.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had, how did you overcome it, and what did you learn from it?
The biggest low point to date was when we had to close our teashop near St Paul’s Cathedral due to the Occupy London Movement. We had built up a fantastically loyal customer base and loved the day-to-day interaction we had with them – they effectively helped us to create, and perfect, our award-winning blends.
Watching something that we had put so much of ourselves into be vandalised and slowly destroyed was heartbreaking. Fortunately, we have since used our experience at the teashop to help our clients create exciting and engaging tea offers, which have helped us become the successful business we are today. Every cloud…
Who’s the person who’s most inspired you in your work? Is there anyone that you draw inspiration or strength from, or do you have any specific influences?
My family is my inspiration. My wife and two young sons give me endless ambition, passion, enthusiasm and joy. And because I am the boss, I make sure I get home in time to tuck the boys in and read them bed-time stories.
What do you enjoy most and least about what you do?
What I enjoy most is that I have built this business on my own terms and although it may not be perfect and things often go wrong, I like the fact that they are my mistakes and I am responsible for finding the solutions. It’s empowering.
What I like least is that I have made too many mistakes. Silly mistakes. There is no well-trodden path and no handbook.
What advice would you give to aspiring tea professionals or entrepreneurs who’d want the kind of results that you’ve had?
When it comes to owning a business, having a sense of humour goes a long way. Mistakes will be made. Big and small, by you and by others but you have to remember that even the most successful businesses are always a “work-in-progress”. Keep moving forward. Preferably with a smile.
If you weren’t doing what you do now, what would you be doing instead?
I would like to think I would be doing something on my terms.
If you could get anyone to try your teas (fictional or real, living or dead) who would you pick and which of the teas would you like them to try? Assume that they go on to be your brand ambassador…
I would choose Sleeping Beauty and she would be drinking our best-selling functional tea – Sleep: with lavender and chamomile. The healing power of a good night’s sleep should never be underestimated, and everyone should believe in fairy stories.
And we always ask three customary ridiculous questions…
If you had to become some kind of vegetable related superhero, which would you become, and what would your superpower be?
If the power has to be linked to the vegetable then I would be the ‘Curly Kale Kid’ able to turn potatoes into curly fries in the blink of an eye. If I have free rein over the superpower, then I would choose flying. Make sense?
If, for some reason, you were forced to turn your business into a travel agency, what would you call it, what types of holidays and locations would you specialise in and what would your game plan be?
I would call it Virtual Realitea and take people on virtual tours of the most stunning tea estates and gardens on the planet while sitting in their comfiest armchair, sipping the tea from the respective tea estates. In fact, that is a truly brilliant idea [Ed: you read it here first, folks!]
If you had to employ any character from The Simpsons to come and work with you guys, who would you pick, and why?
It would have to be a part-time role for Moe – serving the tea team Friday-afternoon office drinks (Duff beer and not tea).