Merchant Stories: Real stories from real people – successes and struggles from the small business owner.
Here’s Inez from Kittea, and how a sketch turned into thriving eCommerce business. We’ll let the story do the telling.
Inez was on the path to success
Life was going well for Inez. Inez was on the path to success, following the formula laid out by society (and her parents): Diploma, Degree, Stable salaried job, check. She even got promoted year-after-year, climbing the corporate ladder. Inez was well on her way to a life of security and comfort.
Something felt wrong. It hit her when her manager mentioned yet another promotion. The next step up was a coveted position, a regional role with frequent travel. Anyone else would have jumped at the opportunity. Inez remembers trying to stay calm on the call – not because she was celebrating, but because she had the opposite reaction.
“When my boss said that to me, I felt my heart sink. I wasn’t excited to take on the role at all.”
For Inez, it was a harsh wake-up call that helped her realise what she really wanted: not a job, but a chance to pursue her dream, Kittea.
It began with a love for tea and cats. Via @mykittea IG
To pursue her dream, she strayed off the path
Kittea started out as a sketch: a kitten dangling from a teabag. It was just a silly, funny doodle that combined Inez’ love for cats with Inez’ love for tea. Still, the idea stuck. After a class on business plans, she went back to the framework and drafted a proposal for a business selling tea blends inspired by cats. By the time she was offered the promotion, Inez had been working on the groundwork to start Kittea as a side business for 18 months.
It was a dream she had harboured since she was 17 – and it was a dream that would die if she took on the promotion. The regional role meant frequent travel commitments that would eat up all the spare time and energy she had to work on Kittea.
For Inez, it was a choice between the promotion and the conventional career path, one where she was guaranteed success, or to work on the untested, uncertain Kittea. Her parents, society, conventional wisdom would say that the promotion was the right path – after all, it would offer her the opportunity to “gain more experience” and “build up capital”.
Inez quit her job to work on Kittea.
Her gut told her it was now or never. “I realised that Kittea was important to me. I thought: if I don’t do this now, I’m going to regret it.” The path less travelled was a scary leap, with no safety net, but even scarier was the idea of playing it safe and staying where she was. Inez trusted her gut and pursued her dream.
At the time, she was living with her parents – in order not to upset them, she just pretended to go to work every day. Instead she spent her days at cafes and libraries, sourcing for supplies and building her website. With a starting capital of less than $8,000, she even travelled abroad to source for tea from suppliers. To realise her dream, Inez was willing to suffer and hustle all day to realise her perfect vision. And her hard work paid off.
Her passion brought her success at launch
To see Kittea succeed, Inez worked day and night on every aspect of the business. She did everything herself. She tested teas and business ideas on members of her community. She built her eCommerce site from scratch and picked up IT. She even dipped into accounting and law along the way to set up the brand. And instead of taking the conventional route of getting a tea certification, Inez decided to rely on her trusty taste buds and experimented with her own blends of tea at home through trial and error.
Kittea finally launched in October 2016 with four unique blends. Sales skyrocketed almost immediately, as customers were shopping for Christmas gifts. It was a mad scramble to fulfill orders, but it was a great problem to have, a sign that Inez had created a truly unique offering. The main local business newspaper soon caught wind and featured her in an article. The newspaper feature reassured her parents, and was proof of her achievements as a business owner.
Inez posing with her Kittea tea blends.
Things couldn’t have turned out better for Inez. Kittea quickly broke even, and was starting to attract corporate clients. A local business even reached out to her to collaborate with Kittea for a massive event. But the opportunity turned out to be one of the biggest challenges she would ever face.
Going her own way meant facing challenges alone
Impressed by Inez’s tea blends and packaging, a client placed a bulk order for 600 tins of tea for a major event. It was a perfect opportunity to get the Kittea brand in the spotlight, but it was also their first big order: a mistake could jeopardise Kittea’s reputation, so soon after launch.
In the early days of Kittea, each label had to be manually pasted onto each tin. True to her impressive work ethic, Inez managed to deliver the order a day early. “I was really proud of myself,” she recounts. But just as she thought the worst was over, her client called her in a rage: the front and back labels didn’t match each other or the tea in each tin. An oversight by her suppliers had led to the tins being mislabelled.
“The client was furious, and sent everything back,” remembers Inez. In that moment, there was no one to blame, and no one to help: Inez was still running everything herself, and it was her who found and chose the supplier herself. In the end, it was her who solved it. She rallied five of her friends to power through the night and re-package all 600 tins by hand overnight, painstakingly ripping out the bad labels and replacing them with the right ones.
The next morning, Inez delivered the correctly re-packaged tins just in time to the client, with her fingers and nails all marred and wrecked. As compensation, she offered the client a 50% refund, along with a full apology. Thankfully, the client was impressed by her excellent service, and has since even referred Inez to a number of other clients.
Inez had to adapt to succeed
Though the event went smoothly, Inez questioned herself: “What if it was the day of the opening, and the client couldn’t use the tins?” It was a humbling moment that made her accelerate her hiring plans. She thought she could delay hiring until the third year. But just a few months after launch, Kittea had more orders than Inez could handle by herself. She quickly changed her plan and started building a team.
Forging her own path took a physical and mental toll on her. To grow her brand in the early days, Inez had to do the legwork and attend flea markets and tea conventions in person. Standing and smiling for up to twelve hours a day for three days was gruelling and exhausting – but Inez had to.
Up to 12 hours a day, smiling and talking to customers.. Via @mykittea IG
Managing the business also meant she had to sacrifice sleep and her social life to keep the business running – but even that was not enough. “I was just throwing myself into the business. There were moments when I’d sit down and think, what am I doing?”
She also faced struggles with self-doubt – and still does, from time to time. “I can’t tell you how many times I felt like I couldn’t do this. I would wake up in the middle of the night with anxiety.” After struggling for a year, Inez decided she needed to take care of herself, and started to manage her own energy and time better.
To build Kittea, Inez defied conventions
Inez was resolute on staying true to her values and beliefs. For example, Inez paid herself from day one – rejecting the romantic idea of working for no-pay and waiting for the business to pick up. Her argument: “If the founder isn’t paying themselves, that means the business isn’t working.” She saw her salary as a way for her to visualise the growth of the business — and though little, Kittea was quickly able to start growing and turning a profit.
It’s common for successful eCommerce sites to venture offline, but Inez rejected the convention route. Instead of having to address additional rental and operational issues, she sought stockists to carry her brand: cat cafes, pet groomers and cat hotels – places where people could fall in love with Kittea, and become loyal customers.
At a pets cafe in Taiwan, where they serve Kittea. Via Kittea FB
Defying convention was difficult. Inez didn’t expect to face discrimination from the industry. “When I attended tea expos, the majority of the exhibitors were men. When I talked to them, they would ask me to give their name cards or samples to my boss.
“The people at industry events didn’t think I could be a boss. It was something that really affected me. I didn’t say anything, but after 15 minutes, I got angry and went, I’m the boss. They just laughed it off and apologised. It really lit a fire in me and motivated me.”
Inez achieved her dream by listening to her heart, instead of other people
Inez defied convention and the decisions paid off. Within a year, Kittea expanded into 22 stores and four countries. She went from seeking out brands, to having large retail outlets approach her to stock her products. Today, with only 4 employees and in less than 3 years, Kittea boasts 24 stockists, 12 tea blends in its permanent collection, and is now in seven countries. And fans love Kittea so much they post photos and share images, helping to grow Kittea through word-of-mouth.
“For me, the perfect compliment is that people think Kittea is interesting, and they want to buy it.”
Kittea fans often post photos of tea and cats. Via @mykittea/@thepurrfectpour IG
Today, Inez is looking towards international expansion and bigger goals. “I started out with this need to prove myself to my parents and to people in society,” Inez shares. “Now, only have to prove it to myself. What’s the next step? How far can I go?”
From leaving her stable career to working on her dream, every decision Inez has made was based on her personal convictions, rather than societal conventions.
“I built my own path, and I’m proud of that.”
The sketch that started it all. Via @mykittea IG