Book Review: The Republic of Tea

The Republic of Tea is one of my all-time favorite epistolary books. Since I have been much inspired by letters this week, I thought I’d share this review too. A smooth, rich blend of startup story, memoir and philosophy (oh yes, the tea metaphors will abound in this one – you have been duly warned) that hits the spot just right.

Before Tea……

Mel and Patricia Ziegler, co-founders of Banana Republic (the Safari and travel-themed clothing store that sold to Gap in the early-80s) made their mark in the business world by creating one of the most unique brands then – including hand-illustrated catalogs with fictional backstories by well-known authors, the stand-out store decor with full-size wild creatures, jungle Jeeps, tropical foliage, fog, steam, etc. They described their partnership as “Green Acres meets Indiana Jones” due to her taste in fashion/apparel and his love for rugged Army Surplus clothing. As writer (Mel) and artist (Patricia), they were also driven by originality and freedom of expression. The theatrical retail experience of Banana Republic was, therefore, a way to fulfill their “romantic fantasy of being a writer and an artist and living in Africa”. It was, however, quite the obstacle-ridden challenge from Day 1. With almost no money or experience, it really did start with the couple working long hours over their kitchen table.

Tea Preparations

After having sold that, eventually, hugely-successful business to Gap, the couple turned to  another personal passion – loose-leaf fine teas from around the world. This time, a clear gap in the US market and the association of another partner, Bill Rosenzweig, then a young and eager consultant, propelled their vision. A vision that would, over 20 months, be created and recorded through a collaboration of imagination, ideas, emotions and philosophies such that it transformed “into a business plan, a product line and a market takeover”.

The book is a gentle adventure story of a startup told through a series of faxes and letters – before the ubiquity of email, text messaging and social networks.  And, while the Zen aphorisms abound, it is worth noting that this trio was intent on not just creating a business and a product line, but an experience and a more conscious, contemplative, aware way of life. They called it “Tea Mind” – giving yourself up to the moment of making and drinking the tea, “sip by sip, not gulp by gulp”.

Now, based on just my last paragraph, some might be tempted to dismiss the book as, perhaps, too mystical for their liking. That would be a shame. There is more practical business planning in this book than a lot of those “business-plan-in-a-week” books out there. There are many illustrations of product packaging options and tea-making instructions, mind maps to explore consumer segmentation and experience, bullet lists of supply chain requirements, research summaries on competitors, stage-by-stage planning of how to get from small market testing to full distribution to gourmet retail stores, restaurants, mail-order, etc.

There are practical epiphanies like:

I realized today how easy it is to fall in love with one’s own ideas and get settled into a path based on self-imagined assumptions. I got hooked on the idea of selling the integrity and quality of superior loose tea and lost sight of the established market. Thanks again (sincerely) for pulling the rug out from under me yet another time.

There are lofty aspirations like:

The customer can’t know her own tea routine until she knows herself. For instance, if we had a tea for agitated minds (stress), the customer would first have to recognize that she was in a state of agitation and the very act of noticing would begin to serve as a salve. This is the great thing about this business. By selling tea, we have the privilege of indirectly peddling awareness. Can you think of anything better to sell than awareness?

And, there are also guiding principles like:

So, break form…. wherever you find it. I just saw a bumper sticker that read: “Why be normal?” I’m saying the same thing. Business that’s not original is busy-ness. But there’s an important caveat here. Breaking form for the sake of breaking form is only an empty gesture unless the content, the stuff inside the form, is intrinsically special and unique.

The end of the book contains a detailed, complete version of their business plan – the culmination of their 20 months of written discourse. It is a fine example that holds up well even today.

If you believe that the journey of entrepreneurship is as important and satisfying as the business itself, then this book is your cup of tea (you were warned about the tea metaphors). If you prefer the more go-getter stories of overnight startups, then this is not going to parch your thirst.

After Tea

Now, what’s interesting is that, while the company did launch in 1992 and did really well, the co-founders sold it in 1994 for, again, a greater profit than they could have imagined. Then, during the Internet Boom, they founded yet another niche firm, eCommerce this time, called ZoZa – urban performance wear – good-looking clothes for the active life-stylers. The official summary was: “ZoZa hunted down neat technical fabrics, designed sleek clothing, outsourced the manufacturing of the clothing to various outfits around the world, outsourced the maintenance of the website to a credible firm, outsourced the fulfillment and Customer Support to a credible firm, and was all set to conquer the apparel world.” Unfortunately, the Internet Bubble burst and, in 2000, ZoZa wound down.

Their latest collaboration has been the book about Banana Republic, Wild Company, out in October 2012 – which I intend to get to shortly. I have no doubt that they also have some new business idea up their sleeves and we will be hearing about their newest venture soon enough. I wish them a lot of luck and look forward to it.

In Conclusion

I have read a lot of business books over the years. There are several that I find myself returning to – dipping into specific sections to refresh my memory. There are very few that I find myself re-reading from start to finish, as I have done with this one. This time around, given that I am in the process of planning my own business launch, it has given me a lot more pause for thought and I took a lot of notes as I read through.

Years ago, when I was at university in England, I rented a little room from a little, white-haired widow called Mrs Millar (spelled the Scottish way and, after almost 60 years of living in England, she still had her soft Scottish burr). Back then, in addition to my engineering classes, I had 2 part-time jobs to help me with rent, expenses, etc. She would see me rush in and out multiple times during the day, changing clothes, switching bags, grabbing a sandwich on the go. At least once a day, she would grab my arm and sit me down. “The kettle’s boiling. Stay a few minutes. A hot, sweet cuppa will make a new person of you.” And, she was so right.

If I could do the equivalent with other aspiring entrepreneurs rushing about trying to get their businesses launched – to sit them down and hand them this book as the “hot sweet cuppa” that rejuvenates, I would. All I can do, however, is hope that my notes here have encouraged some of you to seek out this book. And, if you do so, please also come back and share your thoughts below.