Krisi Smith, Co-Founder of Bird & Blend Tea Co

S1 Ep7: Krisi Smith, Co-Founder of Bird & Blend Tea Co Podcast Transcript

Chris: Have you ever wondered how the businesses you know, and love have evolved? What inspired the founders to create them? What chances do they take and what mistakes do they make along the way?

Hi, I’m Chris, the CEO of Uncommon, a company that creates exceptional spaces for work. In each episode of Alive with Possibilities, I get to sit down with a different business leader whom I admire and discuss the journey they’ve been on.

In this episode, I’m joined by Krisi Smith, the co-founder of Bird & Blend. Bird & Blend are an independent tea company based in Brighton with 17 physical shops around the UK, and they also have a strong international following.

Among her many roles, Krisi proudly excels at being chief tea mixologist, where she creates new tea blends such as Chocolate Digestive, Carrot Cake, and Eton Mess, alongside her take on traditional teas.

Alongside tea, Krisi has recently appeared as an expert judge on Ready Set StartUP, an Amazon Prime apprentice style TV show where contestants battle out for investment. So, I really cannot wait to delve into that.

But first, Krisi Bird & Blend is a unique business from the outside looking in. Can you tell me a bit more about your personal journey and how you arrived at the idea?

Krisi: So, we’ve got a little bit of what I now know to be a fantastic marketing story, but at the time didn’t know that that’s what we were building. It is a true story.

Me and my business partner Mike, both graduated from unis in England, and we didn’t know what to do with ourselves. We had quite a lot of pressure to sort of get on a London grad scheme or sort of a more career progression.

I definitely didn’t want to do that, and we weren’t sure. We moved out to Canada for a year to ski. We were both ski instructors. It sounds impressive, but it was kind of a ski instructor/ski bum, if I’m honest. 

Chris: Perfect.

Krisi: And I guess we were just trying to take some time to figure out what we wanted to do. I had worked millions of jobs as a teenager, as a young adult. I had worked 30 odd jobs by the time I was 22, 23.

I did not have a problem with finding a job or getting a job or feeling positive about doing a job. I’m competent, I’m smart, I’m hardworking. But retaining a job was a problem. And I found that the common feedback was that I was overly opinionated or wouldn’t just put my head down and get on with it.

And I thought to myself, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to work for someone else necessarily if these are my characteristics. And I also quite passionately believed that it shouldn’t have to be like that.

So, by the time we moved out to Canada, I had in the back of my mind that I was thinking about starting a business.

And my business partner Mike, we were actual partners at that point as well. He was thinking about going into something like politics or charity, something that would make a positive impact on the world. And I think those two kinds of desires and drives met together.

And we started to think about business as a force for good and as something that could help positively impact our lives and enable us to build something that we believed in, but also could impact the world around us.

We tried a few different ideas that didn’t work and then we sat in this pub in Canada, and we wrote on the back of a napkin the kind of essential things that we would want. It was nothing to do with tea, it was the type of business and the things that we wanted.

We’d watched the Simon Sinek YouTube video about starting with why, and we were like, “What is our why? Why do we want to do this?” And once we had that down on the back of a napkin, I just kept my eyes open for an opportunity really.

And I ended up working for a tea company in Canada, not at any high level, and saw how creative they were with flavours. And I hadn’t seen anything like it in the UK. We love tea, don’t we, in the UK, but it’s either your everyday 10 cups of tea from the supermarket or it was health tea so you could get lemon and ginger or skinny tea or something from Holland & Barrett or something.

Or you could go to a tea room and have afternoon tea. But there was nothing other than that on the market. And I thought this might be the thing we’ve been looking for to start a business.

So, we came back for the summer to the UK and developed 21 blends, went to markets, festivals, had a little stand, packed tea in my mom’s back bedroom and that was 11 years ago now. And it’s just kind of grown arms and legs since then. And yeah, it’s a bit mad looking back, but that is genuinely how it started.

Chris: What was then the next step? How did you go from there to Brighton? What was all in that kind of journey?

Krisi: We’d done a whole year of markets and events up and down the country in a clapped-out van that we used to sleep in the back of.

Chris: Amazing.

Krisi: And one of those events was Brighton Food Festival. I’d never been to Brighton before. We went over Easter. It was freezing, it snowed. So, sleeping in the van, you can imagine how enjoyable that was. And-

Chris: And lots of tea.

Krisi: Yeah. And we had a fantastic weekend. We sold a lot of our products. People were really receptive, and loved the vibe of Brighton even in the snow. And I think it just resonated with us.

And we were starting to get a bit of attention on the kind of startup business and food scenes. And we’d been nominated for a couple of star top awards and we were just trying to say yes to any opportunity, meet as many people as possible, take as much feedback on board as possible from our customers and people that we met along the way.

And we met a couple of people that were working in retail property and expansion, like choosing locations and things. And they were kind enough to offer us some advice that actually if you were looking for a place to open, a retail store or a food restaurant, Brighton’s quite a good shout because it’s a pretty open-minded community.

It’s got your tourists, your students, and your locals. It’s quite affluent, it’s very green. People care about the stories and the things that you’re doing, but the competition is fierce, which is accurate.

So, we took that advice and then we went and sat on the different streets in Brighton and counted people at different hours of the day. Did they have buggies? Did they have student passes? Did they have carrier bags? Where were they at the weekend? In the rain, in the sun.

And kind of literally did market research, I guess, on the street to make as sure a guess as you could. I mean, we’d never opened a retail store. I mean, some of the advice we had at that time was, “You’ve got an amazing product, don’t go into retail.”

So, by retail, sorry, I mean physical stores. We have our own High Street stores, and the High Street’s dying, go into grocery, shift stuff in large numbers. You’ve got one of the best products on the market, go and get the big four supermarkets. And we just didn’t want to do that.

And the reason we didn’t want to do that again is because we had that napkin that had the why on it. And the reason wasn’t to be the best tea company. It wasn’t to make a load of money; it wasn’t to get it into the grocery. The reason was about building a business that was a force for good and doing it in our own way.

So, when we measured, do we want to go after groceries versus retail, High Street’s human connection, it’s exciting, we’re passionate about it. It’s a great place to grow a brand. Yeah, it’s really hard.

But we just didn’t want to be account managers because we stuck to that, and that guiding principle has kind of got us to where we are.

Chris: And then you opened your first shop in Brighton.

Krisi: So yeah, so we opened Brighton in 2014. We didn’t have any money. Everything we’d made, we’d made a small amount of money from the markets, but it was all reinvested into more products.

Fortunately, two very fortunate things happened at the same time. So, first of all, we found a store where the landlord and landlady were a really interesting couple, they were ready to retire, they ran a record shop, it was his record shop in our Brighton unit that we’re still in now for 30 years.

It was a much loved staple of Brighton and his wife had worked with Anita Roddick from Body Shop in the early days, and the next street along was the first Body Shop store as well.

So, when talking to them about what we wanted to do, we just kind of connected and then we also managed to get a startup loan.

So, those two things combining meant that we got Brighton open in a fairly easy way, which meant that two years later, after we’d worked the shop floor for a couple of years and decided we want to open more stores, we had a massive shock because we suddenly realised that actually it’s not normal to walk into a store, meet two cool people that say, “Do you want to take this on,” get given a startup loan.

And we kind of then hit a year off, we actually don’t know how to open more stores. You need full accounts, you need bloody architectural drawings, you need to do all this stuff. So, we had a massive learning curve in 2016, 2017 when we tried to open more stores, which we got over.

Chris: So, how many stores are there now?

Krisi: 17. Just shortly to be 20. We’ve got three new ones opening very shortly.

Chris: How often do you visit them? Trying to get round all of those, that must take a few days.

Krisi: Yeah, well going into COVID, so by the start of 2020, I’d worked on every shop floor. I knew everybody by name, I’d recruited everybody. And then we grew so rapidly over those two years.

And then with being disconnected and remote coming out the other side, it was a massive adjustment for me because there were stores that had opened that I’d not yet visited.

And there were people that were working in my business that I hadn’t met. And I think for me personally as a founder, that’s one of the downsides of growth. There’s loads of amazing things and I like the challenge and I’ve learned a lot, but I do really, really miss the kind of smaller hustle of knowing people, knowing their lives, that personal connection.

And the trick now commercially is how we can grow whilst maintaining all of the good stuff that we’ve earned over the years from having that very personal human approach to running a business. And that’s something that we’ve got our eye on as top priority.

Chris: So, what’s the next five years look like then? What are the things you want to tick off and get done?

Krisi: Well, we just built up our management team less than a year ago. So, that’s been a big adjustment. So, it’s gone from Mike and I literally being heads of four departments and running the business and being the board and being the founders and being MD and me writing email marketing or tasting all the tea.

Chris: All of it.

Krisi: Yeah, literally everything about having heads of departments that have brought in a lot of experience but are still only a year in, so they’re still learning our way and they’ve got their own ideas and things to bring, but how do we balance that with the vision and the DNA of the founder-led brand?

So, we have got the potential, I think over the next year or two, it’s going to be very exciting to tap into some growth projects. We’re doing some discovery work around that at the moment.

But while we are doing that, to be honest with you, it’s a bit boring. But the main focus we come back to is we want to open more stores. That’s where the magic happens.

It’s what makes us special. It’s where people can come and interact with us and try the teas and have a great experience. It drives our revenue, but it also drives our values and our kind of human-centric vibe.

So, we’re going to keep doing that. We know how to do it, we’re doing it well, we’re going to keep doing that. But yeah, definitely growing. I think we’ve got a 40% and then a 50% uplift on the board for the next three years. So, some big, hefty growth targets.

Chris: Have you had some exciting visits to go and see the product, taste the products, all of those types of things? I imagine you have.

Krisi: I’ve always done product development because the creative side of it brings the kind of fun flavour element that’s kind of our thing. It has to smell great, taste great, it has to be an experience. We are quite fun. That’s our USP.

But it also means understanding consumer behaviour and what the data’s telling us and what’s trending and finding the things to dial up and dial down and the range of flavours, the experience in store, explore the tea wall.

With the range being the USP of all these different flavours, it’s like Willy Wonka of tea. It’s quite difficult then to commercially make smart decisions around what kind of products to create where and what the mix should be.

Because we hold thousands of SKUs of products, which is a challenge for my operations manager, and I don’t advise anybody to set up a business with that many SKUs.

But it is a challenge. But that is what people want when they come to us. So, the challenge around new product development is about how much we want to dial up certain products? How does that affect the overall experience of being in a magical world, a magical environment where we are pulling you into that.

We almost don’t want to dial someone into just two top sellers to some extent because we want them to have the experience of all these different blends. But then especially online, that’s a nightmare.

How do you make a simple, easy to understand shopping experience when you’ve got a hundred tins of tea that they’d never even heard of, let alone know what they taste like.

So, that side of things on product development lights my brain up. More recently as I’ve tried to be more realistic about my time, I’ve got a good team around me, but I still taste and sign off every single tea even if I haven’t developed it personally.

Chris: And it is maybe a silly thing to say, do you ever sign off on something you don’t like. It’s one of those flavours that you’re like, “I understand that someone else will like this.”

Krisi: Yeah, I do. I mean, we try to be authentically honest, so we don’t say that we’re perfect. We don’t say that we do it in a way that suits everybody, but we will be honest about the way we do it and the reasons why.

And I think in today’s day and age, that’s something that is really important because you can’t please everybody. And as long as you’re respectful and you can give an explanation, for example, our range isn’t completely organic and there’s reasons behind that. And I speak openly about that and that’s the way we’ve always done business.

So, we encourage our team members on the shop floor, which we call team mixologists to be authentically honest. So, if they do have teas they don’t like, that’s okay to say that as long as they can talk about them.

And I do get told off sometimes on TikTok videos or whatever of saying, “I don’t like that tea,” and my social team are like “Krisi, can you not say you don’t like something?”

But I think the point is that there’s something for everyone in our range. Again, it comes back to that is our offering. We are not trying to create teas every time that everybody likes. There’s such a depth of flavours and that’s great because people have completely different tastes.

I personally love the milky teas, the sweeter teas, the flavoured teas, chai, chocolate digestives, rhubarb, and custard. There, that’s my bag.

I’m not a massive fan of the more savoury tea like tea with fennel or ginger. And I’m not a huge fan of green tea as its own flavour.

But that’s interesting as well because we have a niche, again, didn’t know this when building the business, but when I built the range out, we didn’t have many green teas and if we did have green teas, I made sure that they didn’t taste too much like green tea because I don’t like it.

And there’s so many cool things you can do with green tea, it’s really good for you. And I thought our top seller is MojiTEA. So, it’s a mojito green tea, it tastes like a mojito. It’s not sweet though.

So, you get all the benefits of a green tea, but if you don’t like green tea, that’s great. We now have a kind of a niche following there. We hear things like, “Well I didn’t think I liked green tea until I tried yours.” Or “I don’t like green tea, but I like Bird & Blend’s green tea.”

And that actually means that as I’ve handed over my legacy to, for example, my new digital head of department, she’s able to say, “Well actually I think this is a niche here that I can now build out and grow in terms of growing the brand.

There’s clearly a market out there for green tea, we’ve got a clear USP. I can identify the customer moment and need, let’s build up around that.”

So, I think it’s okay to be honest about things.

Chris: And can you basically create anything?

Krisi: Yeah, I think so. I think we’ve proven that we can literally create anything. There’s not been a brief that’s proven too difficult. Yeah, I guess the only two that come to mind that we’ve not been able to successfully do, one’s quite boring.

One was like a salted caramel type. We do have salted caramel, but we tried to do it with actual salt, which I mean the do drink salt in tea in some places. Like Nepal for example and Tibet. But it did not work. That was really not the one.

And the other one we tried to do for April Fool’s Day, maybe six years ago, we took the idea from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory of the sweet that goes through a whole meal. And we were like, could we create a blend that’s the whole of your Sunday dinner?

But that didn’t work, surprisingly. But apart from that, yeah, yeah, we’ve got something for everyone. Definitely.

Chris: I know you’ve just got your B Corp certification. Do you want to talk me through a bit about that? How did it come about? How does it work for you? What do you think about it?

Krisi: Well, weirdly, our mission statement that we had right at the start was to prove you could build a successful business that bases its decisions on people, not just profit.

So, that was our reason the whole way through. And then we tried to live by that as best we could within the constraints of growing a business. So, sometimes we couldn’t always do the best, we couldn’t always have all of our packaging fully compostable at the start. We couldn’t do that. It didn’t exist for a start.

And we didn’t have enough money or enough reach to make that impact. But every time we got the opportunity to make it better, we did. And then about six years ago we realised that there’s this thing called B Corporation and weirdly their triangle is people, planet, and profit.

So, we basically accidentally had the same mission statement that was basically what B Corp was saying, like good business balances all three and that more businesses can do that. Then that’s how we’re going to change not only business but society and improve the earth for everybody on it.

And I really believe in that mission, and I really believe in what B Corp are trying to do. So, when we went through our certification, we knew we were already doing quite a good job. It was written in our DNA, and we knew it would be a really good identifier to people that we’ve got this certification, it’s the only one we’ve ever done.

We did believe in it. We do think it’s a great kind of flag to fly and we’re really proud of it. It was quite a difficult process. You guys have gone through it as well, right?

Chris: Yeah.

Krisi: One of the things that came out of it that I think is great is the framework that it’s given us to hopefully go on to improve our score. So, we want a five-point score increase within three years and it encourages you to think about things in different ways.

I think like governance and things, I wasn’t thinking about that. So, yeah, it’s been good.

Chris: I think trying to align say your business and say mine behind something that every industry has all their own unique kind of measures, but this is just working really well from a point that it’s more generalistic and it’s saying, look, we’re approaching things hopefully in the same sort of way trying to improve things.

Krisi: Yeah. Absolutely.

Chris: And so, Amazon Prime has a TV show called Ready Set StartUP. It’s a show that’s similar to The Apprentice where contestants who are also entrepreneurs compete in challenges for investment. Excitingly, you’ve been invited to be an expert judge. What an experience, how do you feel about being part of it?

Krisi: If you want the total honest answer, I think as I’ve spoken more openly and honestly about my business journey and who I am and why I think that’s helped and not helped and the opinions that I’ve got, which will be clear from what we’ve discussed, I think it attracts intrigue and interest from people.

I think that I don’t fit the stereotypical box of a founder or a judge or an entrepreneur. And there’s an increased kind of awareness and focus on having more varied and diverse kinds of people.

And I think that that plays to my favour in terms of getting the opportunities in the first place. And I’m also comfortable in front of a camera and talking and I’m very passionate, which helps.

I don’t feel imposter syndrome or anything like that, I do enjoy it very much. But it is hard because although there have been some great movements forward in terms of having say a woman on a panel or different ethnicities and different types of businesses and different ages is still predominantly kind of old school business.

And that can be a difficult environment to walk into. And I think I’m making a difference in some of these environments where recently I sat on a panel to give out a grant for a small business and the panel worked with the business owners and I know from me being in the room that I’ve been able to offer different perspectives and advice to the person.

And that I’m able to champion things that perhaps others wouldn’t think about on the panel. So, I know I’m making a difference, so I’m going to keep doing it. It is frustrating though because my experience of it sometimes can be challenging.

It’s little things like I have to go and introduce myself to the people in the room. I turn up with my beanie hat on and my blonde hair and I walk in, and I’ve got my vans on or whatever and everyone’s in suits and they’re all chatting and they all know each other, whatever.

And it’s very rare for someone to come over and say, “Oh, who are you? Nice to meet you. What do you do?” I always have to be the one to go and kind of do that.

And sometimes you experience being talked over or forget my name all the time, but then perhaps they don’t forget other people’s names. And so, it is a challenge to experience that, but it’s not always.

And I also know that I am making a difference to the people that are on the receiving end of whether it’s judging, advice, speaking, whatever, and that’s the important thing.

Chris: It’s worthwhile.

Krisi: It is. Yeah.

Chris: That’s good. If you had to leave tomorrow and start everything again, what would you do?

Krisi: I probably wouldn’t do things dramatically differently. I mean, I’m proud of how we’ve done it. I wouldn’t change that it took us four years to get a couple of stores open.

We grew organically, we got our hands dirty, learned a lot, made loads of mistakes that we had that journey in the beginning, it made us learn lessons that meant that later down the line we didn’t make some of the same mistakes where it could have been catastrophic.

So, even in the hardest times, I think it’s double-edged running a business with someone you care about. Mike and I were uni flatmates, then we were in a relationship, then we got married, then we got divorced, now we’re friends, business partner friends.

Someone asked me that the other day and they said — people always go, “Oh that’s remarkable.” We are friends but we wouldn’t choose to spend as much time together if we didn’t run a business together.

We irritate each other. We’re very different. And that’s why the creative conflict, the different skill sets, the passion for it from two very different people has got us to where we are.

Chris: The reason why I ask what would you do next if you had to stop tomorrow, is you seem to have followed a really interesting path to starting the business where you were almost agnostic to what the business was going to be at the very beginning.

And you did your research and then you did more market research and you really got into something and you’re clearly very passionate about the subject.

But to me, you could probably go tomorrow and start again. But would I say you’d just dive headlong back into the tea world? Probably not. You probably then sit there and go, “Right, well what can I do,” and sit on hopefully some sort of beach enjoying yourself going, “Well what can I do next?”

Krisi: Yeah, I mean that’s something that’s come up over the last couple of years. Again, as we’re talking about extracting ourselves from the departmental day-to-day. And I’ve had loads of more opportunities speaking and charity work and consultancy and I’ve done all sorts, I’ve written a book. The opportunities have been amazing.

But I don’t know, I don’t want to be an NED on a board or a consultant or, I mean I could do all those things with my eyes closed. I know the speaker circuit would be kind of cool, mentoring. I do a bit of that.

But to be honest with you, I think Bird & Blend was a very unique journey and it was born out of some very unique conditions and a massive desire as a young adult to just prove that all the things that were described about me as a young person could be turned into something positive.

And actually, they’re all the traits that now get praised as an entrepreneur. So, I built the business because of that passion and drive to prove something to the world. And I have grown up a lot over the last 10 years.

And I’m more confident and comfortable in myself and that desire to kind of prove something to the world is fulfilled. I’ve done that. I’ve proven you can build a business on your own terms that does a hell of a lot of good in the world.

Until I figure out what I want to do in the future, I think I will fancy that beach. All those things that I’ve had to sacrifice over the years, friends’ birthdays and weddings and holidays and fitness and hobbies.

And I haven’t been just Krisi for 11 years. I’ve been Krisi who runs Bird & Blend or the founder of Bird & Blend or the tea entrepreneur or the tea lady. I don’t know who I am without Bird & Blend. It’s literally intertwined into every single part of my life.

So, I’d quite like the opportunity to explore just who I am before I throw myself into the next chapter.

Chris: No, but that’s very fair. You’re very aware that that’s what you want and need. Which is a very good thing.

And finally, behind me, we have the Uncommon bookcase. On every episode, I ask every guest to leave a book, which has been inspirational to them, on the shelf for our members. So, what book would you put there and why?

Krisi: My absolute favourite is a book called Turn the Ship Around by David Marquet, which is weirdly about a submarine commander, which isn’t my bag usually. Are you familiar with it?

Chris: I’ve read it, yeah.

Krisi: Yeah. Cool. What stuck with me was that he wasn’t trying to be the best submarine commander and it’s probably not commander, I don’t know what the appropriate term is, but he was trying to create the best crew or the best team.

And his measure of that was that that team or that crew would succeed once he’d removed himself. And that any decent smart human can probably cajole a team of people into being the best just through sheer competitiveness and determination or just doing everything themselves.

But the actual magic and achievement from building a great team is setting them up to thrive without you or with a different leadership and investing in your people.

And that was something that really stuck with me and it’s really easy to read as well. It’s an interesting story. So, it’s one of my absolute favourites.

The other book would be How Brands Grow, which is by someone called Byron Sharp. And it’s basically marketing science, which I only read two years ago, after I would say that I have proven that I’m a decent marketer.

I’ve taught myself, I’m really fascinated by the theories and case studies, but I’ve also lived it in the real world, and I hadn’t heard of it. And I read it two years ago and it blew my mind that there was even a thing called the Institute of Marketing Science.

And it all basically digs into the data and the science behind the kind of things as a marketer or a brand leader or owner would presume to be true that aren’t actually true or that have a different perspective. And it was absolutely fascinating and well worth a read, highly recommended.

Chris: Interesting. Yeah. Look, the first one, it’s an amazing book and just kind of is how turning those submarines around and his approach just really challenges you. And the second one, I need to go give it a read.

Krisi: Yeah, it’s really, really good. It’s fascinating.

[Music Playing]

Chris: Speaking to Krisi, three things really stood out to me. Firstly, hearing Krisi talk about setting up the framework for their business and discussing their core beliefs before settling upon being part of the tea industry was really interesting.

So often, people are focused on what they want their business to be and then they think about the foundations later. I think this approach future proofs them and gives them more fluidity to apply the model to other sectors.

Secondly, I liked hearing Krisi talk about adding a new layer of management and expertise into the business. It’s encouraging to hear them be so ambitious about targeting new physical stores to let people have the unique experience of Bird & Blend.

And lastly, having Bird & Blend at Uncommon has proved to be very popular amongst our members, which is great.

I hope listening to this story has inspired you. And if you haven’t already, follow Alive with Possibilities wherever you get your podcasts, as there are different learnings in each and every episode.