Last updated Apr 03, 2024 and written by Tom Richardson

Startup Story with Darren Spence from We Are Tea

Coffee may have once been the drink of Mondays, but a loyal nation of tea-drinkers means that many infusions and strengths can be found at your local cafe. In fact, often green tea is now just as likely to be on the drinks menu as a traditional tea for a health-conscious society.

With afternoon tea time on the rise, we were excited to speak to We Are Tea founder Darren Spence to find out what it takes to get the brew just right when it comes to building a sustainable tea business, including their take on plastic-free tea bags.

Tell us a little bit about We Are Tea – what is your business in your own words?

We are a multi-award-winning, independent tea company on a mission to break down the barriers to speciality tea. With our teas winning a total of 55 Great Taste Awards, and Best Tea at the most recent Quality Food Awards, our commitment to sourcing direct from ethical producers has paid dividends. Our range is purely whole-leaf and we offer both a loose leaf format, which works fantastically well with our Simplictea infuser, and fully biodegradable, plastic-free tea bags for those who love loose-leaf quality but prefer the convenience of a teabag.

Was there a ‘lightbulb moment’? How did the idea for the business come to you?

The idea behind We Are Tea began way back in 2006 in a back street of Budapest. My wife and I were on a City break when my wife came down with a bout of pneumonia and found respite in a cup of Moroccan Mint tea in an old tea room in the center of the city. I was overwhelmed by the array of teas on the menu, it was more akin to a wine list, and decided right there and then that we were going to open a teashop in London celebrating the British love affair with tea. A classic case of every cloud has a silver lining.  

Describe a day-in-the-life running your business

There is no typical day, which is just how I like it but most days start with a great cup of tea and a general catch up with the team. We have a small, but ambitious team, and it is important that we all understand what everyone is up to. This is more to highlight possible opportunities across the different areas of the business than to micro manage. A lot of my time is spent managing the relationships with our larger clients and looking at lots of exciting innovation to help bring tea to life.

Were there any big ‘pain points’ / low points when you were starting up the business?

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 heart breaking. Fortunately, we have since used our experience at the teashop to help our clients create exciting and engaging tea offers. Every cloud…

And the highest point so far?

The highest point has to be seeing a shopper put our 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.  

Did you get any support along the way – or was there anything that you found useful when you needed help?

I find talking through challenges, or indeed opportunities, always helps. My wife and I used to have a walk that we went on when we needed to discuss the business outside of business hours – we were keen to retain some semblance of life outside of the business. I found these walks a really useful way to get the brain juices flowing and a great problem-solving tool.

What is the best thing about being your own boss?

This has changed over time. At first, it was the excitement of leaving the corporate world and doing something completely leftfield much to the horror of my colleagues. Latterly, the best thing is having the flexibility to shape my working week around my young family.

Has your life changed since starting your own business?

I have become a lot more patient.

Have you always had a passion for tea?

From dunking biscuits in my tea with my Granny to stumbling across the tea room in Budapest, tea has always played an important part in my life. However, the true passion started once I started to research tea more. There are so many varieties, it can be put to so many uses and it has a truly fascinating history – entire nations have been built on it and it has effectively helped shape the modern world. The humble cuppa is not so humble.

What is one piece of advice you’d give to someone thinking of starting their own business?

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.

You’ve won numerous awards for your tea – congratulations! What are your aspirations for We Are Tea in the future?

We hope to give consumers the “Everyday Good” feeling every time they have a cup of We Are Tea. Quality tea shouldn’t be exclusive, so our aim is to upgrade 100m over the next 12 months. Life is too short to drink bad tea.

We know We Are Tea is committed to being as ethical and sustainable as can be. What are your biggest considerations in ensuring the business is environmentally-friendly?

Ethics and doing ‘good’ business have always been at our core. Our teas are ethically sourced; we work with smaller tea estates focusing on social and environmental sustainability. We are one of the few tea brands with fully biodegradable plastic-free tea bags and recently launched 100% compostable takeaway cups to tackle the UK’s great takeaway cup pile up. We are continually looking for ways to minimise our impact on the environment and are committed to fully removing plastic from our business by the end of 2018. On this occasion, we sincerely hope all of the big tea brands follow our lead.

What’s the one thing you wish you knew in the beginning?

Enjoy the journey as the destination is an unknown.

Would you say there are any particular qualities needed to run your own business, and what are they?

Passion. Optimism. Persistence. Sense of humour. With these in your armoury, starting and running business is child’s play.

And finally, what do you love to do in your spare time – how do you wind down?

Starting and running a business can be tough. There is usually no rule book and no well-trodden path for you to follow. It is therefore easy for it to become all-consuming and to lose yourself in the quagmire, so downtime is hugely important.

I really enjoy cooking so spend a lot of my time at the weekend cooking up a storm in the kitchen albeit leaving a bit of a mess in my creative wake. I also play 5 a-side with my friends twice a week and try to get to the gym twice a week. I find exercising a really important part of staying on top of things – the mental clarity and focus is always sharper post a workout. My wife and I also try to have a ‘date’ night once a week.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with us Darren Spence!

If Darren’s #StartUpStory has inspired you to delve into the world of business, take a look at our company formation packages here: