The simplicity, and complexity, of starting a business: Simplicity & Co.
If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.
Look around Stillwater, and it can seem just more of the same. The same fast food burgers and fries. The same Mexican restaurant with the same menu. The same gas station, different Chinese restaurant names with the same foods, and the same coffee shop. If you want to design a business around people's purchasing patterns, just look at what they currently buy and sell it. However, if you want to provide consumers with something they didn't even know they wanted, you have to follow your own instincts.
That is Ashley and Austin's philosophy of running a business, and this philosophy along with their personality is made manifest in Stillwater's only tea shop: Simplicity & Co.
Ashley hated tea growing up. It was always served at restaurants and at home, but it was as unappealing in taste as it was ubiquitous. That changed when she visited China for nine months, giving her the opportunity to not only try high quality, loose-leaf tea, on a regular basis, but to drink it in an atmosphere that truly draws out its essence. Austin drank lots of sweet tea in his youth, cheap tea, but didn't think much about it. It was just something you drank. When he was twenty he toured a tea plantation in Bangladesh, where the marvel of the tea making process left a mark—like Ashley, he became a tea devotee.
It was partly tea that brought Ashley and Austin together. Just as tea became a permanent fixture in their lives, they were becoming permanently attached to each other. They continued drinking tea, falling in love, and one day found themselves in a Chicago airport on the way to their honeymoon. Waiting for them in the airport was an Argo tea shop, a visit that would change their lives. The fragrant air, the comfy surroundings, and the immaculate tea itself made them wonder: why didn't they have anything like this at home, in Stillwater? Their next thought was: why don't we open one? This idea was dismissed as quickly as it came, but their personalities ensured the idea would continually resurface, to be taken more seriously each time.
Ashley and Austin in their first location
Both wanted to own their own businesses, and given their love for tea it was only a matter of time before they took the idea of owning their own tea shop seriously. There is something inside them that drives them to be unique, to encourage a different type of culture than the 'stay at home and just order it from Amazon' consumerism taking hold of America. They have an inward drive to give the world a little piece of themselves, to make a living in a way that mimics artistic expression and authentic friendship.
When the idea of their own tea shop became more intriguing they looked into a franchise, but Argo Tea did not offer franchises at the time, and other tea companies that did offer them were not the kind of store they wanted. If they were to own a tea shop, they would have to design it from the ground-up. Besides, Ashley and Austin readily admit that they like being unique and doing things their way. Following the dictates of a corporate franchise probably wouldn't suit them.
The dream was there. So was the vision, for they had visited enough tea shops to know what they liked and didn't like in terms of store design. A constant theme both in the stores they liked and in their own personalities was simplicity. Ashley and Austin now have only one car, because it is simpler. Life is best lived by keeping life simple. No need to invent new fancy sodas; instead, rely on the ancient drink of leaves made from the Camellia Sinensis plant. It isn't fortunes or accolades that makes like meaningful, it's enjoying time with people: so get the most out of life by enjoying tea with friends. Don't try and be everything to everyone, so specialize in providing something wonderful and unique; open a simple tea store, but make it a great one! What makes a 'great' tea store? Great tea of course, but Ashley also explains that one reason they did not open a franchise with one particular tea store was that the employees were rather pushy. Rather than allowing you to enjoy conversation and drink they pressed you to buy other items. It wasn't the kind of place they wanted to visit, so it wasn't the kind of business they wanted to run.
Most Americans do not really know how to make good tea. It requires a very specific amount of loose leaf tea for every ounce of water, a specific brewing time that can vary across types of tea, and a few rules about adding other things (put a ‘splash’ of milk in the cup before you pour the tea, not after). Because they don’t know these rules many Americans never venture beyond the use of Lipton tea bags (the tea in such bags are always leftover from the good tea, a way of getting rid of the tea that connoisseurs would never buy). However, the rules are few and simple. Tea is simple, A and A emphasize.
With 'simplicity' their theme, even when they were just considering the idea of a store they knew what they would name it: Simplicity and Co. (And before you ask, yes, they did consider naming it Simplicitea & Co., but the name was already trademarked, they thought it a bit tacky, and they knew that in the future they might want to offer items other than just tea. Indeed, they now sell coffee, scones, fruits, cheeses, and doughnuts in addition to tea.) The 'Co' can mean 'company' in the form of a business or the presence of others. They liked the name so much that even before decided to venture into the business world they went ahead and licensed the name with the State of Oklahoma.
Three months after licensing the name they found out that the Blue Spruce restaurant was moving from their location north of town to downtown, and realizing this would be a good location for that hypothetical tea shop that had been rolling around in their minds, they decided to roll the die and set out on the adventure of opening an independent tea shop. Ashley was still in school and Austin had recently graduated, working at Stillwater Building Center. It was here that the real work began.
Sounds daunting, doesn't it? Two kids, without business majors or with much money to their name, deciding to become sole proprietors in a world where franchises seem to rule the market. Looking back they laugh at how little they knew, but this is what distinguishes A and A from those who just dream of owning a business but never do anything about it. Doing something different does not frighten them, it appeals to their nature. Taking the risk did indeed cause them anxiety, but they understood that is the price to pay for being unique. They possess a quiet confidence that, through books, websites, and consulting with others they could learn everything they needed to know, but were also humble enough to seek help when they needed it.
Ashley and Austin in their second location
One might think that business owners exhibit a comradery amongst each other, eager to lend advice, especially to those just starting, wanting to help novices repeat the mistakes they made—this was not the case. Most business owners they approached were not only hesitant with details, but offered little encouragement. It would have been nice if an owner would have warned them just how much business drops during the summer when the OSU students go home. They expected a drop, of course, but were shocked at the size of the actual decline. Ashley remarks how helpful it would have been if just one person had warned them that it would be trying at first, but that they would make it and it would ultimately be worth it. However, they are fortunate, because even though they received little support from others, they had each other.
It is hard to exaggerate the amount of paperwork involved with starting a business, and what a hassle it can be if you have never done it before. Licensing the business, learning to implement a proper accounting system, and ensuring all laws are followed and tax requirements obeyed when hiring employees consumes a considerable amount of time. How did they learn all this? An enormous amount of reading, for one: books on running a business, books on tea, books on taxes—and marketing, and advertising and … (For students sick of reading in college, or who never learned to read in college, let this be a warning—real life can require much reading also!).
Still, the readings were not enough, and they had to learn much on the fly. It was previously remarked that neither were business majors (she, a journalism, he, a psychology major) but this probably didn't matter much anyway. It isn't like business or even agribusiness degrees give courses on how to start a business, instructing students on all the obstacles to be overcome and giving them instructions on how to maneuver around them. It is actually quite hard to prepare for all these obstacles because foreseeing them all is impossible, so you just march ahead, knowing that at every step you will have to stop and learn something new. Trial and error, mistakes: those were there teachers. They now laugh at how many letters they received from the State of Oklahoma and especially its tax commission informing them of steps they had skipped or actions performed incorrectly.
Though they had read books about how to make hiring decisions, they faced a few difficulties at first. It initially seemed so simple: all they needed was someone who was dependable and could interact well with customers. At the beginning this person was harder to find than they expected. Then some of their customers starting asking if they were hiring, and they learned that those are the people you want working for you. They are already into the tea-scene, they already want to work in that kind of store, and they ultimately make the best employees.
In regards to making sure they complied with all the tax laws about paying employees, they first tried to do it all themselves, but eventually learned it is better to pay an online service to do it for you. For just $25 a month they have access to an online program where they just enter the amount that an employee works, how much they were paid, and the service does all the calculations for them—to Ashley, it is the best $25 she ever spent.
For customer payments they use the Square system, which is much more than just a cash register. It is an online system that also allows small businesses to run customer rewards programs. If you visit Simplicity & Co. you can earn 'stars' on each purchase you make, and once you reach a certain number of stars you get a free drink. This is something a small business could never implement on their own, as it would require writing a computer program from scratch—but the Square system does it all for you. When people pay with a credit card and enter an email to receive a receipt, the system records the email and allows Simplicity & Co. to deliver news on specials to their customers. During the summer slump when sales dropped and bills were harder to pay the Square system even offered them a short-term loan to get them by until the students returned. Such loans are also useful before Christmas, when they need to order a considerable amount of supplies in anticipation of higher sales.
Acquiring financing was another unpleasant adventure. Through books and websites they learned how to write a business plan (something taught in AGEC 4423, by the way!), articulating their vision for the store along with a budget demonstrating they can pay back the loan. Every single bank turned them down, and a few were rude, seemingly insulted that two twenty-somethings would come to them for a loan with hardly any money to their name. A and A say there is more than one bank in town they refuse to do any business with, due to how they were treated. (This is a lesson in customer service: treat everyone kindly. If an aspiring businessperson ever seeks advice from A and A on obtaining financing, there are a few banks they will discourage the person from considering). Eventually they acquired a personal loan from an acquaintance, someone who knew them and believed in their vision, and considered them sufficiently trustworthy. There is an important lesson here as well: success in business sometimes requires help from friends, so a helpful personality trait for businesspeople is likeability and trustworthiness.
The experience of making an actual store work in an era when so much is available online has emphasized for them the spirit behind 'buy local'. Now, they go to great lengths to buy local, especially during the summer when all Stillwater businesses experience the summer-slump. The buy local spirit for them is not just about their concern with their own store, but community. We can live one of two ways. We can all stay at home and buy food and toys from Amazon, ensuring our only interactions are between those living in the same home and the UPS person delivering our Amazon packages. Or, we can have local businesses allowing us to leave the house, meet business owners in person, and socialize. Have a beer with friends at the new Iron Monk brewery. Learn more about steaks by visiting 1907 Meat Company and ask about an unfamiliar steak cut. Enjoy a delicious cup of tea with your significant other at Simplicity & Co. in downtown Stillwater! A gregarious community requires shared places, and nothing brings together people better than food and drink in a social atmosphere. If this sounds like the kind of community you want, A and A argue, you need to support your local businesses. Many times Ashley says that she didn't just create Simplicity and Co. because she wanted a tea shop of her own, but because she thought Stillwater—her hometown—needed one.
Simplicity & Co. does sell tea, but you can also buy high quality tea online. They are selling the combination of tea and an atmosphere that draws out the best in tea, and research has shown that the enjoyment of a drink can increase by more than 20% when consumed in certain environments. When designing their store the desired theme was warmth, comfort ... home, they want you to feel like you are in their home. Their first location had comfortable chairs, bookcases with books, and even a piano. Their new location in downtown Stillwater has these same amenities, though the piano is outside. Sometimes, when their one-year old son walks amongst the customers with a delightful smile it truly does feel like you are in their home—a nice home, such that you think you might be in a nice area of Tulsa, something a little more sophisticated than usual, helping to explain their use of marble and copper.
There were no arguments between A and A over how to design the store, partly because they split responsibilities. Austin was in charge of the construction, and while Ashley had domain over the interior design, and neither attempted to interfere with the other. As they gained experience in the shop they learned through experience what type of things work. For example, at first they kept their teas out on display in the customer area, but this required them to walk a long way from the counter to get the tea, back to the kitchen to brew, and then return the tea to its shelf. At their new, current location the teas are kept behind the counter. Once they had experience, and were given the opportunity to move locations, they both agreed on the changes they should make, so there were not really any causes for disagreements in the first place.
Although they have changed a number of things they are glad they just dove into the tea business, rather than spending a year planning everything. There are some things you can prepare in advance for, but there are some things—correction, many things— you have to learn from experience. For example, most tea stores prepare the tea for you, never placing more than a splash of cream and not too much sugar, so that is how they started. However, some customers wanted more cream and sugar, but they had no condiment station for people to do this. Customers did not like this, some even becoming quite upset. However, they didn't want a 'condiment station' like you see at McDonalds and other ordinary stores, where you have packets of sugar and little cups of half-n-half. This doesn't fit the elegant but warm environment they envisioned, so they concluded they needed to provide classy copper and glass containers for sugar and milk.
At first they were unsure what Stillwater's preferences for tea would be like, and they suspected many would not have much experience with loose-leaf tea and would thus desire more flavored teas, like fruit-flavored teas. So they stocked up on these teas. Eventually they learned that there are many Stillwater residents who do adore quality loose-leaf teas that are distinguished not by flavors added to it but due to how they are processed or where the tea is grown. An example is pu' erh tea, which is double-fermented tea (a superb tea, by the way, but one its critics say tastes like rotten leaves). They did not expect hardly any of their customers to know of the tea, but they were wrong, so now they keep plenty of it in stock.
So there were more seasoned tea drinkers than they expected, but they also had a learning curve when it came to giving novice drinkers, those who might be intimidated by their large tea supply, with a memorable experience. Their menu uses a step process, where the customers first determine the tea they want, whether they want it hot or over ice, the type of milk (if any) and the type of sweetener (again, if any). Customers can also order flavorings for their tea, like vanilla, but what if the customer wants something unique, known by experienced tea connoisseurs to be good, but has no idea how to order it? To satisfy these customers Simplicity & Co. added a 'specialty drink' section to their menu, which specifies a specific recipe. For example, The Taj Mahal is a chai latte, meaning a black tea brewed with a variety of Indian spices like cardamon and ginger. When someone orders off the specialty menu they are assured they are ordering a recipe that has been tried and tested, allowing them to order something exotic without having to be a lifelong tea explorer.
Simplicity & Co. menu, page 1
Part of their store design is practical and part is due to their vision for the store. Having visited many tea shops both in the U.S. and abroad they knew what kind of atmosphere they liked, and whatever they liked they wanted to bring to Stillwater. The experience is multisensory. Tea is made right in front of you so you can see everything, something they learned from a tea store where the tea brewing was a show worth watching in and of itself—plus the few minutes of brewing time gives them an opportunity to chat with customers. (They also sell tea brewing equipment, so allowing customers to see how easy the equipment is to use increases those sales.)
The best tea stores hit your senses immediately, as you cross the threshold and are immediately seduced with tea's charming aroma. A and A are always keen to make sure this smell is present. During busy times the tea containers are being opened frequently, ensuring the air will be replete with tea, but when they are not busy and the aroma is fading they open some containers just to replenish the pleasant smells.
Tea is the store's raison d'être but they provide some other culinary opportunities as well, options they noticed other tea shops providing and decided to borrow their ideas. An example is a Charcuterie Board, which is normally a board upon which meats like prosciutto are served, but Simplicity & Co. provides fruits and cheeses on the boards instead. Scones are occasionally available also. They serve homemade donut holes on Saturday mornings. First they served regular donuts, but realizing such donuts are all over town, they authenticate their menu by serving donut holes instead—plus, they learned holes have a better presentation, testifying to the importance of visual attractiveness alongside aroma and environment. These donut holes have become incredibly popular, and for a few customers Simplicity & Co. are known as much for the holes as they are the tea.
Simplicity & Co. menu, page 2
The busiest season for Simplicity & Co is the fall, when the weather turns cold and people savor hot tea. Most Stillwater customers are still unfamiliar with the idea that loose leaf tea can be used to make iced tea, so while sweet tea is regularly consumed in the summer some people just don't think about buying it from their store. When they want hot tea, though, a tea shop like Simplicity & Co. comes immediately to mind. If they could get customers to start associating loose-leaf tea with iced tea as well their sales would rise and would be more consistent throughout the year. Christmas is always a great time for sales because tea makes such a great gift. Late spring is also a good time, as that is when students do a lot of studying and like to hit the books while sipping drinks in a public place (where it is harder to fall asleep!).
Most of their sales of tea drinks are to students, while most of their sales of loose-leaf tea (to be brewed at home) is to adults. This might be because students do not have the equipment for high quality tea brewing, or simply because they prefer the social atmosphere more than adults. The store has also become a great place for dates.
If Simplicity & Co. were a franchise, the corporate office would dictate to them what radio stations they could play at what times of the day (stores often like to play faster music during busier times because it causes people to eat and drink faster). Part of the joy of not being a franchise is being able to play the music they like, and fortunately their musical tastes are in-tune with the community. Ashley likes the Frank Sinatra station on XM radio while Austin likes the Beatles channel, and they've learned that most people either identify with one or the other, and often mention how much they like it, so they keep it on one of these two channels at all times—but always at a low volume, to not interfere with conversation. They do change the station based on the weather: the sunnier, the more Beatles, the colder it is, the more Sinatra. Ashley especially loves it when an adult comes in and starts singing along with the music.
Only time will tell is Simplicity & Co. has a sustainable business model. Thus far their prospects are good, and they would even like to establish a store in Tulsa, which currently has no tea store like Simplicity & Co. Whatever the future holds, Ashley and Austin will have no regrets, for they had the boldness to follow their dreams in the competitive world of retail food and drink, and to design a store according to their vision. It is fitting that Ashley likes Frank Sinatra, for like Ol' bBlue Eyes, no matter what happens, she and Austin can say: I did it my way.
Addendum: I took a class to Simplicity & Co. to chat with Austin in 2019 and learned a few extra things about new businesses that is useful to share.
- Most food businesses fail within the first year, so you have to be really committed that first year and ideally have an alternative income source.
- A general rule that small businesses that survive is this: your first two years you will lose money, your third year you will breakeven, and then from the fourth year after you will make money. Austin confirmed this was true for Simplicity & Co.
- One reason their tea tastes so much better from tea in the store is that they do not keep tea longer than four weeks. If a specific tea hasn’t sold out within four weeks they place it on sale and replace it with fresher tea.