High50 Entrepreneurs Rosy Lee Tea: Our new start-up is brewed with love and passion

Lorraine Rodgers had the idea for a London-based tea company while living in India, and enlisted brand expert Clare Fuller to help. We talk money, strategy and mid-life over a cuppa

When I meet Clare Fuller and Lorraine Rodgers, we don’t start by talking about their company, Rosy Lee Tea, how Lorraine had the idea when she was living in Dalai Lama country in India, and why Clare quit her brand consultancy to invest in the start-up. Instead we discuss how middle-age is portrayed versus how it really feels.

Clare: “You get these pictures of middle-aged couples on the back of a boat [in some] advertising and you just feel so patronised.”

Lorraine: “And that’s not reality in this day and age. Most women of our age are either single, or divorced, or working, and still have children growing up because we started later in life.”

Clare: “Research shows that people tend to be happier in the second half of their life, perhaps because we’ve realised we’re not going to be a world class tennis player or an astronaut, we’ve kind of levelled ourselves on that.”

Lorraine: “I just ignore [age preconceptions] now. I dress how I want to dress, I don’t care. If I want to go out to a club I’ll go.”

Talking like this, they could be ambassadors for generation High50, and I want to tell them that they’re also great examples of how to look fabulous with grey hair (Lorraine has curls cut into a sharp bob, and Clare has a shorter, shaggier crop), but I stop myself because we’re here to talk about the serious business of tea.

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Rosy Lee Tea tins
The tea market

The UK is a nation of tea-lovers: we spend nearly £500m a year on the stuff (and that doesn’t include herbal or green varieties), and with big players such as Tetley and PG Tips dominating the market, Lorraine had to find her niche.

She spotted a need for something that would appeal to tourists wanting to buy an authentic gift from London, after some friends visiting from Italy were looking for a present to take home, and she knew about the tea trade after getting to know an industry veteran during her stint in Dharamsala, India.

Her (now ex) husband came up with the name Rosy Lee (cockney rhyming slang for tea), and when they got home from India, ‘it just kind of spiralled,’ Lorraine says. He also invested £10,000 into the business.

Copyrighting the name

Lorraine then discovered that the name was trademarked by a large tea producer, but that it was up for renewal. So she simply found out who the company’s lawyers were and emailed to ask for it. “I said ‘I’m a mum working from home and it would be amazing if you didn’t want to use it. Let me know now because [otherwise], I’ll think of something else’.” And they relinquished the name Rosy Lee Tea to her.

She credits her go-getting attitude to her upbringing: she grew up in Nigeria, where her father ran casinos, and she would fly back to the UK on her own as a child. When she started working in London as a recruitment consultant at 17, she was the youngest trainee in the industry.

After getting the name, Lorraine, 48, found the tea blend she liked, a mixture of Kenyan and Assam. Then she enlisted the help of another mother at the school gates (Lorraine is raising four children while working on the business) to design the logo and packaging, ordered 1,000 empty tins and labels, and the brand was born.

It features the Pearly King and Queen of Crystal Palace and Lorraine was keen for it to have a vintage feel: “[When] you put the tin next to Colman’s Mustard or HP Sauce it just fits, and feels like it’s been around forever.”

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Packets of tea at the Caffe Culture show, held last month

At first she and designer Marcia Mihotich packed and labelled the tea on Lorraine’s King’s Cross kitchen table, and they sold it to the Museum of London, as well as to Paul Smith’s Borough Market and Heathrow Airport stores. Now they work with two packing companies in the UK.

Getting help for the business

All was going well until mid-2014 when Lorraine had a wobble. “My background isn’t as a business woman, my figures weren’t great. Eventually my accountant said ‘can you keep going?’ and I decided to reassess.

“And so many people said: ‘don’t stop it, it would be so sad if you did’. And then I contacted Clare. At the time I was hesitant about whether I wanted to keep doing it, did I have the chutzpah, the mojo to do it. And then it came back again.”

Clare (they know each other through Marcia) had by that time left her role as co-founder of Promise, a highly successful brand consultancy she’d set up and then sold to communications group Omnicom in 2012, and was ready to do something new.

“I never intended to get involved in tea, but what I did want to do was get involved in a product, something real that’s kind of quite tangible and necessary in life, after having spent so much of my career selling intellectual property… not because I think either is right or wrong, I just wanted to feel the difference,” she says. She comes from a family of small businesses, including restoration specialist Fullers Builders. “It’s funny how things come full circle because this is really builders’ tea.”

Refining the product range

Clare, 57 has worked on the strategy for the business: narrowing down the product range after deciding that Rosy Lee should do one thing really well – its Anytime Tea – rather than go into lots of different blends (Stepney Green and Me Old Chai are other ideas they’ve had). Crucially, she’s also invested ‘quite a lot more’ than the initial £10,000 put up.

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Packaging features a Pearly King and Queen

Rosy Lee could have gone after private equity backing, but when you’ve put your own money into something, you’re invested in it, Clare says. “I do think there is a difference between [a business] that is private equity backed and one, it sounds corny, that is backed with love, really, and passion. It just comes out in a different way.”

We’re talking at the Caffè Culture show, a trade exhibition heaving with everything from cake suppliers and biscuit bakers to chair makers and coffee machine manufacturers. It’s a great opportunity for Clare and Lorraine to meet buyers, but at a cost of £5,000 for a stand, this is the kind of business that needs cash to get going.

The plan now is to balance getting the right consumer demand for the distribution they have, and vice versa, and they think it will take three years to have a successful, profitable business. “I see us as pulling these two giant levers with consumer knowledge and satisfaction on the one hand and distribution on the other and trying to get them to work in tandem,” Clare says.

Currently, the tea can be found at upmarket cafés and stores such as The Shop at Bluebird in London and The Clerkenwell Kitchen, and large national retailers have shown an interest, which will hopefully help the tea find its way to Londoners and beyond.

How to be a mid-life entrepreneur

Never give up “I don’t know if it does take a certain type of person. You can’t just think ‘oh I’m getting to 50 and I can’t’. You can. And most people now are living to their 80s or 90s,” Lorraine says.

Use your networks “You will know a whole lot more people that can help you. People will like helping you if they think their good ideas are being picked up and run with,” Clare says.

• It’ll take more money than you think “Be ready for it to take more cash than you think it’s ever going to need,” Clare says. “Crowdsourcing is potentially interesting.”

Work hard “What we get here isn’t something we get from the [exhibition] stand only, it’ll come from all the work that we do afterwards. So it’s bloody hard work I’m afraid,” Clare says.

Rosy Lee Tea London