It sometimes takes a terrible event to spark a life-changing epiphany. Tonia Jahshan—happily pregnant for the first time—was headed home from a normal day at the sales and marketing agency she ran with her father.
As she drove, she felt the first symptoms of what every expectant parent dreads: a miscarriage. The loss was devastating. In the weeks that followed, mired in grief, she reassessed everything, including her career. One big question kept coming up: Do I really want to sell electrical equipment for the rest of my life?
It was 2006. Jahshan had been working at the agency for five years. She relished the selling aspect of the job and her $100,000 salary, but the tools she was peddling for clients didn’t exactly stoke her passion. She began to feel restless and disengaged. In an attempt to shake the funk, she and her husband, Hatem, escaped from their home in Ancaster (a suburb of Hamilton, Ont.) for a getaway at a Halifax bed and breakfast. There, Jahshan was served a cup of cream of Earl Grey tea. “I was so blown away by the taste and smell,” she recalls, her voice zealous. “It was amazing.” The owner told her it was made with loose tea leaves from a shop in Mahone Bay, N.S. The Jahshans drove an hour west, found the boutique and stocked up.
That purchase turned out to be more than a souvenir. Two weeks after they got home, Jahshan turned to Hatem, eyes aglow, and said confidently, “I’m going to start a company! I’m going to have tea parties and sell tea leaves, and it’s going to be great!”
Hatem, a chemical engineer and self-described “numbers guy” who owned three Subway franchises at the time, stared at her.
“And I’m calling it Steeped Tea,” she added.
Hatem knew better than to second-guess her instincts—and not just because he was relieved to see her excited about work for the first time since the loss. Sure, Jahshan knew little about the beverage industry, but her contagious excitement, implacable confidence and natural sales prowess gave him every confidence she’d succeed.
And succeed she has: In the 10 years since, Jahshan’s idea has grown into a loose-leaf empire with annual sales of more than $20 million (and growing) and 9,000 salespeople peddling tea and accessories across North America—enough to earn her the No. 1 spot on the 2016 W100 ranking of Canada’s Top Female Entrepreneurs. She has learned what it takes to turn a hunch into a massive business: a clear vision, yes, and the conviction to see it through, of course, but also an appetite for risk, a willingness to make changes on the go and nerves of highly tempered steel.
For three months after Jahshan’s outburst to Hatem she spent every spare moment working on a business plan. She quickly learned why that Halifax cuppa had been so transformative: the leaves and buds used in loose-leaf tea blends produces a fuller, more subtle flavour than the stale old bags—which she now calls “the hotdogs of tea”—to which she’d been accustomed. She discovered benefits to health (loose-leaf tea is packed with antioxidants) and value (blends can be steeped several times) too. So when her research revealed there wasn’t yet much demand for loose-leaf tea among consumers, she didn’t see it as a drawback but rather as an opportunity to establish first-mover advantage—especially since there were no major companies devoted to selling the stuff. Encouraged, she researched suppliers, got a logo designed and printed out labels. Six months after the Halifax trip, she quit her job and poured all her energy into figuring out how to sell something people didn’t even know they wanted—at least, not yet.
To do it, she chose direct selling. The model, also known as network marketing, is as old (and as ubiquitous) as Avon ladies and Tupperware parties. It’s premised on social influence: There are no shops or traditional salespeople, just living rooms and hosts who feel more like pals than product-pushing robots. Jahshan knew the approach well: At 18, she had started selling Aloette cosmetics to her friends, attracted by the promise of reward swag, and quickly became hooked on both the cash and the rush of organizing parties. “I loved the whole concept,” she says. She went on to successfully sell Pampered Chef kitchen gadgets, Mary Kay makeup and PartyLite candles.
Direct sales seemed like a perfect fit for Steeped Tea: The party setting would allow consultants to educate consumers and build camaraderie, and the consumable nature of the product would be an ideal recipe for repeat business. Eager to test her theory, Jahshan organized a two-day open house to evangelize about tea leaves and, ultimately, find her first party hosts. She posted flyers all over Hamilton, made goodie baskets full of tea products and convinced her mom to bake 1,200 shortbread cookies. Only two people showed up.
“That was a very big blow,” she admits. “I almost gave up.” But two weeks later, she learned that a woman in Cambridge, Ont., who had heard about the open house was interested in hosting a party. Nearly 20 women showed up to that soirée, and by the end of it, eight of them wanted to book their own events. A month after her disastrous open house, Jahshan found herself scrambling to help set up 20 “parteas.” It quashed any niggling doubts. “Deep in my heart,” she says, “I knew it was going to work.”
That early success galvanized Jahshan. Her goal was never to create a hobby business that brought lonely people together over tea. She wanted to build a bold, scalable enterprise that would allow people to earn a lucrative income on their own terms; she wanted Steeped Tea to be a household name. And to scale up, she’d need help.