Entrepreneur finds business that's her cup of tea

  • Article by: DICK YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 29, 2009 - 8:32 PM

Lindsey Valentini was steeped from an early age in the value of being her own boss.

Lindsey Valentini runs a thriving tea business out of the basement of her Inver Grove Heights home, marketing upwards of 40 blends she created.

Photo: Dick Youngblood, Star Tribune

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By her own admission, Lindsey Valentini's headlong flight into the gourmet tea business did not initially promise a very smooth landing.

She had no idea how to create a marketable tea blend, Valentini said, noting that the results of experiments with various blends in her kitchen "weren't nearly good enough."

Once she'd cleared that hurdle, she blew her savings on 60,000 cans of tea packaged by a company in Indonesia, with only a vague notion of how she was going to sell the product.

"I started selling off my website, and I just imagined that people would find it somehow and start placing orders," said Valentini, 28, founder of a company she dubbed Tea District. "Of course, it didn't happen."

The upshot: Tea District sales totaled just $8,000 in 2006, her first full year in the business. Which left her with "thousands of cans of tea in the warehouse, all of them with expiration dates."

But we're talking an exceedingly determined, entrepreneurial young woman here. Valentini not only figured out how to blend a successful tea line, she quickly switched her focus to the more promising wholesale market.

And she was on her way: Sales climbed to $102,000 in 2007, more than doubled to $235,000 in 2008 and in mid-July surpassed the 2008 total on the way to a projected $350,000 gross for the year.

Valentini, who runs the business from the basement of her home in Inver Grove Heights, was born into an entrepreneurial family. Her parents own an automotive parts manufacturing business in New Hampton, Iowa, where she did everything from taking inventory to handling payroll to planning delivery routes.

"I grew up with the mentality of being your own boss," said Valentini, who started and left four sales jobs in the 18 months after her 2003 graduation from the University of St. Thomas with a degree in entrepreneurship and computer science. "I just couldn't do the corporate scene; my heart wasn't in it."

But she was pretty good at selling, which allowed her to accumulate enough cash during her brief stint in corporation-land to start thinking about starting her own business. The only question was what kind of business.

Late in 2005, as Valentini was Googling potential business prospects over a cup of tea, an ad for a small tea company popped up and inspired the founding of Tea District. The decision was easy; the startup came a tad harder.

By mid-2006, with her sales all but nonexistent, Valentini flew to Las Vegas to spend four days at the World Tea Expo for a crash course in blending teas. Upon her return she retired to her kitchen and began developing a product line that now includes upwards of 40 products: black, green, red, herbal and white tea blends with a widening variety of flavors ranging from pomegranate, pineapple and Moroccan mint to cinnamon orange spice, lemon herbal and peach blossom.

The next hurdle was how to get folks to buy the stuff. When it became apparent the Internet strategy wasn't going to lure consumers, Valentini refocused on gift and gourmet shops and began showing up at trade shows around the country.

The first stop, early in 2007, was the Atlanta Gift Show, where she sold more tea on a weekend than she had in all of 2006. From 15 shows attended in 2007, she revved up to 30 shows in 2008.

"I basically had no life," said Valentini, who cut her travels back to about 20 shows in recession-rocked 2009. Along the way, she began recruiting the first of about 150 sales reps who now hawk her wares nationwide.

And sprinkled among the gift and gourmet trade shows she attended were a few stops at shows aimed at conventional supermarkets, which Valentini sees as one key to continued growth.

"In 2008, less than 5 percent of our sales were from supermarkets," Valentini said. "This year it will be more than 15 percent." Locally, her tea is carried in all Lunds and Byerly's locations, she said.

That's not her only growth strategy. Early this year she introduced a line of organic teas in seven blends aimed at natural food stores and high-end groceries. The newcomer generated $40,000 of sales in the first half of 2009, Valentini said.

Meanwhile, she fattened the bottom line early this year when she hired a consultant to help revamp her website and optimize its search-engine visibility: "I eliminated $500 a month in online advertising with no loss of sales," Valentini said.

And she's burnishing Tea District's corporate image in the marketplace with a green strategy that includes packaging made out of recycled paperboard and stamped with inks that are soy-based.

At the same time, she contributes 5 percent of the sales from two of her more popular blends to the Children's Cancer Research Fund and Donate Life, a nonprofit that promotes organ organizations. And for every sale of a new blend of Mint Green Tea, the label of which includes tree leaves, she donates a tree to a reforestation nonprofit called Trees for the Future.

The result: After what Valentini described as "four years of long hours, intense travel, stress, tears and motivation," it appears her shaky takeoff has resulted in a successful landing

Dick Youngblood • 612-673-4439 • yblood@startribune.com

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