It’s hard to believe that I have been involved in the tea industry in Japan for three years now. It was never my intention to go into the tea business, and I will confess in all honesty that I was not a huge fan of tea before getting involved. But, life sometimes leads you onto paths you never dreamed of…
…this blog, Starting a Tea Business, is meant to help customers (Chajin) and corporate clients (Chaya) understand both the tea industry in Japan, and give them hints on starting their own tea business.
An introduction to farmer Yasuharu Matsumoto of Kyoto Obubu Tea Plantations by an ex-coworker of mine in December, 2009, was the kikkake,?the initial catalyst, that brought me into the industry. After some eight years living in Japan, and four years building e-commerce sites and managing the marketing of consumer products for a Japanese IT manufacturer, I was working as a freelance marketing consultant and translator. Matsumoto-san, meanwhile, after five years of traveling overseas every winter looking for business partners to expand overseas, was facing a wall. His overseas business was simply not growing despite making wonderful contacts on every trip to the U.S. and Europe.
Hired to help Obubu, we built ObubuTea.com together and began marketing Obubu’s products online. The key point was to use online marketing and e-commerce to establish continuing, long-term relationships with customers and corporate clients. In fact, Matsumoto-san’s main difficulty was not his English (which has improved considerably over the last three years), but his lack of time. Busy with managing a growing domestic business, he didn’t have the time to develop his overseas business in the past. And so, I took over, learning a tremendous amount about the Japanese tea industry by liaising between Obubu and its customers.
Obubu itself is an agricultural social enterprise. While not a non-profit, they operate as a not-for-profit business, taking enough for themselves to live, and utilizing their profits for a number of charity projects such as a the International Tea Farms Alliance?(ITFA). Matsumoto-san in 2011 asked me to help him start an organization to connect tea farmers between production regions and encourage tea farmers to connect with the customers for whom they grow tea leaves.
In fact, Matsumoto-san?introduced me to several other tea farmers, and I began to attempt to replicate my success with Obubu for other farmers with the aid of funding from Obubu and the ITFA. I established Matcha Latte Media as an e-commerce marketing services company for Japanese small businesses, farms, and artisans in January, 2012.
However, I quickly found out that replicating Obubu depended largely on the time that I was able to give to each new client, and that time was limited. ?Overseas clients also discovered that I was helping other farmers, and I started getting requests to aggregate shipments to save on shipping costs. But, more than anything, I discovered quite an extreme wariness of doing business outside of Japan in the conservative tea industry. The language barrier was of course a problem, but more than that, many potential clients I approached were more interested in selling to a domestic client who would sell internationally. Doing so allows them to keep their transactions domestic and their business simple.
This is, of course, the reason that supply chains exist with products being transferred from company to company before finally reaching consumers. E-commerce, of course, helps companies bypass the supply chain to sell to individuals directly, but there are certainly things that an online store can’t do that other players in the supply chain can — talk to individual customers, teach them how to brew tea one on one, import products in bulk quantities to reduce shipping costs, etc.
My problem with helping multiple tea farms start overseas oriented online stores was that there was a tremendous amount of knowledge of shipping, international trade regulations, marketing techniques, and of course language ability, that had to be transferred to my clients. And, of course, there were overseas customers who wanted to save on shipping.
The natural step then was for Matcha Latte Media itself to become a tea business, buying from suppliers who don’t have the resources to do penetrate international markets themselves, aggregating shipments from Japan to overseas customers, etc. Our mission has not changed; we continue our effort to put Japanese culture into the hands of consumers around the world — starting with the tea business. By doing so we hope to transform the Japanese tea industry into a global one.