Tracey Bovingdon on Self-Funding Her New Project After a £2.85m Exit

Tea Monkey Founder Tracey BovingdonAward-winning serial entrepreneur Tracey Bovingdon's latest project is Tea Monkey, the UK’s first ever high street tea chain, soon to be expanding to major cities across the country.

Tracey founded two successful companies before launching Tea Monkey. In 2002, she was Founder and Managing Director of Strictly Education Limited, which she sold to Bond PLC in 1997 for £2.85million. Prior to this, Tracey was CEO of Education Personnel and Managing Director of Partnerships in Education for Nord Anglia PLC; a relationship borne out of a merger with The Education Group Ltd which she also founded. Thus she was able to fund her new business personally. 

Launched in 2011, Tea Monkey sells over 40 types of loose tea and an extensive range of pyramid tea sacs and wellness teas. Within the first year Tea Monkey was awarded the Best UK Tea Award 2011 by the Beverage Standards Association as well as the Trip Advisor award for outstanding customer service. Tracey’s stores recently won the Best Tea Experience at the Grab and Go Awards and also received a 5 Cup Awardat the Beverage Standards Awards 2012. 

Reflecting on her experience Tracey says:

“I always worked for large corporates; I was on the board of directors from a young age, 29.  I became very disenchanted with the way in which companies treated people, and also with the lack of customer care. So I decided  would never work for anyone else again, and that if I wanted to change something I could do it myself. I set up my first business when I was 31 and now I’ve done it three times! I enjoy the freedom. I give 150% to everything I do; therefore I might as well be doing it for myself than for someone else! I’m also in control of the ethos of the business and I’m able to work with like-minded people which is much nicer.”

In her spare time, Tracey is a qualified fitness instructor and Zumba instructor, as well as an actress with Equity.

We spoke to Tracey about selling her previous business for £2.85m; about sitting on a board of directors aged 29; and how being an actress helps her run her business.

TNW: How did you come up with the idea for Tea Monkey and then arrive at the decision to turn your idea into a reality?

TB: I sold my last business in Education (administration/outsourcing) in 2007 and moved to the Middle East with the children and my husband for his career.  I am not a natural ex pat wife. I also don’t drink coffee (never have) so when everyone met at the usual coffee shops I started to get fed up with getting a very bad cup of tea and paying a high price for it. It dawned on me that as a nation of tea drinkers there should be a chain of modern tea cafes in the UK and I put the brand and plan together and registered it when I got back home in 2010.

TNW: What lessons did you learn from founding and running your previous two businesses and then apply to founding Tea Monkey?

TB: I learnt a huge amount from my previous businesses and whilst they were both in different market sectors the same principles apply and the right disciplines need to be put in place from day one.  I have also understood that there are good and bad days and you have to be tenacious and have a deep belief in what you are trying to achieve. Business is tough and you have to remain completely focused. 

In my first business I became a little distracted and tried to do too many things. This time round I’m really focusing on the important issues and the areas of most impact. 

It is certainly true that you learn the hard way but the lessons stay with you forever and you don’t forget them easily. It is painful to watch your own hard earned cash wasted and so you need to stay completely honest with yourself and focused on what you are trying to achieve.

TNW: Tell us about the exit of Strictly Education Ltd. How did you manage the exit process and how did it feel to sell your business for 2.85m GBP?

TB: It can take quite a while to sell a business and it took 12 months to get to the final signing. I felt it was the right time to sell – the business was still growing and I knew that the new business would have an excellent return on their investment. I could have waited and got more, but then markets can shift and I always believe that you should get out while you are on the up and not wait in case you tip over. It was a really interesting experience but was also fairly brutal. Again I was able to take many lessons from the experience. Once it was done I felt a great relief in knowing my team were in a great place with a really good company that would take them further. After all the hard work and juggling being a business woman and a mother, I suddenly realised that it had all been worth while.

TNW: Which aspects of working in large corporations did you seek to emulate with your own businesses, and which were you determined to do differently?

TB: My corporate background certainly gave me the discipline to set everything up in a very organised manner. From the beginning I was aware of the importance of set systems, processes and on-line functionality.  I have an extensive background in outsourcing and business administration so I set Tea Monkey up with very robust operational guidelines and an infrastructure that would allow us to grow significantly and support a franchise network.

However, I left my last corporate role and vowed that I would never allow bureaucracy or ego to get in the way of making the right decision for the business and the people in the business. 

I was also keen to ensure that I stayed in touch with the grass roots of the business and listened to the people who actually do the front line work. We can learn so much from the people we work with and they have great ideas, but they need to be listened to.

TNW: You were on a board of directors at a very young age. What did you learn from this experience?  

TB: I learnt an awful lot about corporate governance and taking a more strategic view of the business as a whole.  Sadly I also learnt that boards can be somewhat removed from the real issues of the business and sometimes fail to listen to the people on the front line. This can mean that they miss incredible ideas and golden opportunities because their egos and politics get in the way. People need to be willing to be a little more open and vulnerable at times and occasionally admit that they don’t know everything.

TNW: You are an actress as well as an entrepreneur. Are there any skills you learned as an actress which are transferable to running a business?

TB: I still have my Equity card and try to do something every year to keep in the business – I love the theatre and the arts and it will always be very much a part of me.  It’s a very tough business and taught me not to quit and not to worry about rejection but just keep going.  Of course it also enables me to present very confidently without the need for notes. It often surprises me that some business leaders struggle to present well or naturally.

I am also a fully qualified fitness and studio instructor and that helps me to keep focused on keeping fit and strong. It’s certainly a great stress reliever and helps when I have to taste test the stores cakes!

TNW: Do you have any tips or any advice for women who are thinking about becoming entrepreneurs? 

TB:

Don’t ever doubt yourself! Do your homework and make sure you are completely aware and ready for the level of commitment and time needed to make it work.

You also don’t necessarily need to give up your day job. Sometimes you can set things up in the background until you establish yourself, however this may of course depend on the amount of time you have to dedicate to it. You also have to always trust your gut instinct. This rule applies for decisions but also, even more importantly, people.

TNW: What does your day look like? 

TB: As soon as I open my eyes I reach for my phone to look at the sales reports that get emailed to me. I sometimes am awake at 3am and send various emails while I have stuff whirring in my head (I don’t expect a reply though!!).I am then up at 5.30am to get myself ready quickly before getting my two girls sorted for school with breakfast and bags. The school run is at 8am and once the girls are dropped off my day starts either at one of the stores or at Head Office. There’s generally an endless stream of meetings and tasks to be done. I am then timing everything to be back on the school run and to be able to drop my daughters, who are 8 and 15 at various clubs and classes. It’s quite challenging as they have different needs and interests. I don’t like to work while they are with me or take work calls as they need my attention.  Once homework is done and we’ve had a catch up over dinner it’s the usual bath and bedtime routine. Then I get to spend a few hours checking and responding to emails and writing reports ready for the next day.  I hardly ever watch television and collapse into bed for about 11pm. I also have to be available 7 days a week for the business as the stores only close on Xmas day and Easter Sunday. It can be tough as my husband works in China and so I operate as a single mum for most of the time and have done for 17 years!

TNW: If you could get on a soap box and get something off your chest about the world of entrepreneurship, something you’d like to change, what would it be?  

TB: The government really needs to support small businesses with much better financial incentives and breaks, particularly during the first few years.  Employment can be very costly so some kind of assistance with that would benefit everyone! The banks need to give much better support and advice.  I would like to see banks employing successful business mentors, people who have actually run a profitable and successful business and can give expert advice to new businesses.

TNW: Do you have plans to expand internationally? Which countries and when?  

TB: Yes, we are currently looking to set up a café in New York and bring the brand and experience to the US before launching the franchise. We have also had enquiries from the Middle East, Lebanon, Australia New Zealand and Spain.

TNW: What do you think could be done to increase the number of women entrepreneurs?

TB: There should be a system set up to provide practical and relevant business advice for women by women that is cost effective and supportive. I would also be in favour of some financial breaks that allow female entrepreneurs to get childcare support and a bit of help in the home.

I employ many people and work silly hours to fit everything in but sometimes I would like someone to take one of my brooms and help me to sweep the floor!

TNW: What qualities do you think women entrepreneurs need for sourcing angel investment/raising venture capital?   

TB: You certainly need to be enthusiastic and have an ability to communicate your ideas effectively and with clarity.  You need to be able to demonstrate that you are not naïve and that you have covered all of your bases.  Previous business experience or achievements help to show a track record.  You also need to be able to listen to the ideas and opinions of others (and know when to completely ignore them and follow your own path). Most importantly of course you must understand the numbers. The bottom line is the bottom line and you need to know the financials of your business proposal and present a prudent set of figures.

TNW: How would you describe your leadership style today?  

TB:

I have fun and I try to instill fun and energy into everything I do. Life is too short to be dull and miserable. In business you should be able to enjoy the journey and the process.

I’m still learning and I like to get excited about discovering new things.  I love to see people do well so try to give positive feedback wherever it is due. I also believe that if you employ people you need to let them do the job. I like to be in control of things but not people. I put people on a piece of elastic and let them go out right to the edge. Its fantastic to see the elastic stretch and watch people really grow beyond their perceived boundaries.

TNW: What is one lesson you would like to pass on to other women leaders?

TB:

You know what you are doing…you really do. If you believe in what you’re doing then stick to it! Take a step back, breathe and have confidence in your convictions.

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