Startup and career advice from a tea entrepreneur

This is the latest in a series called Lead Human, which features interviews and profiles conducted by Elliot Begoun in search of answers to the question "What is it like to be a leader?"

Some people are born into entrepreneurship. That is certainly the case for Jim Lamancusa. He is the product of three generations of entrepreneurs. As an avid mountain adventurer, he left the Midwest at 18 and moved to Boulder, Colo. After completing his education and a two-year stint as an English teacher in Asia, Lamancusa entered the startup world.

Working for companies such as Eco-Products and Good-Belly, Lamancusa got hands on startup experience. He eventually decided to take the plunge and start his own company.

Lamancusa is the founder of Cusa Tea. After nine months of development and 21 patents, he created an instant tea that is all natural and tastes just like it’s been freshly brewed.

I spoke with Lamancusa about how he came up with the idea, his experience as an entrepreneur and what he has learned along the way. I think you’ll find his answers both insightful and interesting.  

Why are you doing this crazy thing?

“The quick answer is, I saw a need in the market. The longer one is that we want to provide healthy and convenient beverages for consumers. I lived in Asia for two and a half years, so I've been a big-time tea drinker for a long time. It all started when I was on a backpacking trip. All my friends were drinking instant coffee, but I was forced to carry around tea bags. There was that lightbulb moment where I asked, 'Why do they get a good quality instant coffee but there is no such thing as an instant tea for me?'”

“That was the beginning idea for the company and the product. I did some research, wondering if anyone had ever done this before. Lipton and Nestea both have instant teas, but the first ingredients are sugar, artificial flavoring and preservatives. Tea is the fifth or sixth ingredient on the label. I wanted to make something that is just tea on the label and nothing else. It took me about a year and a half, but now we are in a great place.”

What keeps you up at night?

“It's the fact that ‘instant’ still has a negative connotation. Without sampling the product, most people don't pick up the box yet because they think it's not going to taste as good as the bag of tea or the loose-leaf tea that they are buying. What keeps me up at night is wondering how much awareness and how many demos it’s going to take to get consumers to pick it up on their own.”

In five years, where is Cusa Tea?

“I think that we will be in several thousand stores of distribution. At this point in time I've been targeting the outdoor channel and natural grocery. I think in a few years from now it's going to be a much more widely distributed product. The office supply channel in an easy segue. Travel, lifestyle, and hospitality are all potential options for us. The goal is to be everywhere that you would see a Starbucks Via.”

What's the biggest obstacle right now?

“The two obstacles we face would be awareness and the fact that it is a premium price product. Even an organic loose-leaf bag of tea is around 70 cents per serving, we are 30% more than that. That's number one. The second is the fact that as soon as we prove that the market exists, we know that we are going to have some of the bigger CPG companies and tea producers coming after us and creating their own instant tea.”

What would your current self tell your former self?

“What I tell young people all the time is that we all want to grow our careers and fast. Even if you're smart, you have a lot to prove. However, there is something in the market for age and experience, and if you just give yourself just a little bit more time, everything could turn out really well.”

How do you make time for your family and self-care?

“One thing is that I've been a daily meditator for the past 15 years. I'll spend anywhere between 45 minutes and an hour and a half every morning. That's the first thing I do, I wake up and I meditate. I think that's the number one thing that I do to keep my mind healthy, and the irony is that it transfers so well into the rest of the day. You can be more mindful, more engaged, more compassionate, and wiser, all because of the meditation. I would never give that up."

"The second thing is that I found a great gym. I can go there for either two or three sessions a week and it's an hour each time. Even if that's all I do for the whole week, I stay in great shape. Finding a place that kind of holds you accountable has been big for me.”

What advice would you offer aspiring entrepreneurs?

“One thing is that you cannot let the network that you built in your career wane at all. I've been able to get a lot of amazing advice and connections because of this. I've made it a personal goal to stay in good contact with all my previous employers, as well as all my previous co-workers."

"Staying in touch with the people that were part of my career helped when I started this business because I had many people that were willing and able to help me. I didn’t have to ask anything from them, because I had kept the relationship up for the past 10 years.”

How to keep an authentic network and build real relationships?

“It's not solely about the benefit you receive. It is also about having genuine interest in someone else. It is not difficult to meet with someone and ask simply, "How's it going? Tell me what's going on in your life?" Another thing is that your network does not need to be enormous. You don't have to have three-hundred people in your Rolodex. I have roughly 30 people in my network, some I meet with twice a year and others I meet with once a quarter. It doesn't take that much time."

"Of those 30, there are five that I consider my mentors and close confidants who I really make an effort to stay in close communication with. “

Would you do this again, knowing what you know now?

“Yeah! Of course, there are a lot of scary moments and things that keep me up at night, but I would say overall, I've never enjoyed work as much as I have now.”

 

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Elliot Begoun is the founder of The Intertwine Group, a practice focused on helping emerging food and beverage brands grow. He works with clients to design and execute the strategies that get them on the shelf in chains like Kroger, selling through Amazon and into alternative channels. Catch him at FoodBytes in his role as a mentor and find his articles in publications such as the Huffington Post, SmartBrief, and FoodDive.

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