My Week: Tracey Bovingdon of Tea Monkey

Tracey is a serial entrepreneur, and has jumped from education resources to cups of tea inside a decade. Now she's in retail, she explains how she's attacking the learning curve...

by Michael Northcott
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

We only set up 18 months ago so things are always very busy. Our two stores in Milton Keynes and Bath are akin to Starbucks but with a specific focus on tea – we have about 42 different types of organic tea for sale. I don’t have to be in-store every single day, but I am a single working mum, so I’ve always been incredibly busy with running my own company at the same time.

The moment I realised that Tea Monkey had legs, was when we first opened and within six months we had won a national award. We were exceeding budgets very soon after launch, and the next thing we knew, investors we getting involved. I registered the company in July 2010, opened the first store in April 2011, and then six months later I began putting investor packs together. 

These days I’m up at about 5am, checking emails, sorting out an itinerary for my day. Then I do the school run. Then I tend to have meetings in the morning – at the moment we’re actually searching for new premises in London. At the same time I’m looking at the franchise thing so I’ve been working on that for at least the last few months. Then I go back in the afternoon to do the school run again and a lot of motherly stuff.

Then once the kids are in bed, I’m back to work again. I’m known for reading and sending emails late at night – I have even been known to reply to people at 3am. In fact, in the first year before I had even opened the first store, I was working from home and putting the whole concept together myself from the living room. I worked every second of the day, often attending meetings with various suppliers, going to exhibitions, trying to hash out some kind of plan. 

Then you’ve got the shop fit. So you’re in project management mode on site every day. The first one I opened was in Milton Keynes. Once it was open for trading, I was in store working for hours and hours from early morning to very late at night. I had to get into the practical element of running the store. I’ve never worked in retail before so it was important for me to understand it. I worked in-store almost every single day.

We then opened a store in Bath. So most of my time these days is spent working on strategy. My background is in outsourcing (I’ve had another business before), so fine-tuning the way we run the operation is completely my bag.
The best thing about the job is the freedom to make your own choices and to stamp your mark on the business. I have been on the board of a large company, so I know what it’s like in that kind of position. That’s why I prefer running my own smaller outfit: I love the freedom, and the fact that you ‘live and die’ by your own decisions. Furthermore, a small business gives you the ability to make decisions and points of strategy happen quickly. 

We’ve got 15 people and we’re growing rapidly – I expect the company to have exponential growth over the next 12 months. During this period we will have to work out some sort of management structure. For me it’s important that I am working on the business and not in it. 

The hardest thing about the job, and this will be the case for many women, is the juggling act. Trying to run a company and juggle that with having children and being there for them. I’ve got a 15 year old and an eight-year-old, and it is difficult to balance everything when you’ve got your own firm trundling along in the background.

The other big challenge is that there is the lack of financial support for any businesses out there. You have to finance everything yourself. Thankfully I had a good amount of money from exiting a previous business, and to be honest I’m not sure if I would have liked to borrow to get started with this, but not everyone has the freedom to start with their own cash.

Ultimately, the very nature of retail is that it’s quite transient. You have to understand that it can be a little transient and it can be very brutal. When you do get good people through the door, you have to do your best to hold on to them. My advice to other entrepreneurs is: don’t doubt yourself in any way, don’t listen to the naysayers.

Make sure you’ve got it planned out, make sure you know what your getting into. You can always go back to a job, but you’ve got to have a go and running your own outfit.

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