Q&A: Krisi Smith, founder & creative director of Bird & Blend
Ahead of her speaking slot at Omnichannel Futures, here we interview Krisi Smith, founder and creative director of tea mixology retailer Bird & Blend, to find out the secrets of her success.
You founded Bird & Blend with Mike Turner nearly a decade ago. What’s your background prior to that?
Throughout school I got good grades but I felt the pressure of being pushed to university and further academia. I’ve always been creative and I knew I wanted to get into something more meaningful. After I left school and moved out, I worked for a year doing multiple odd jobs to save money so I could go travelling. When I arrived home, I went to university to study politics, psychology and philosophy, and also became captain of the boat club in my final year – an experience that definitely shaped my management style. Once I graduated, I ended up working lots of different jobs, including in a bank, customer service, retail, and hospitality. I eventually decided to go to Canada and train to be a ski instructor, which is where Mike and I started planning Bird & Blend.
I had 36 jobs before the age of 23, and I frequently found myself getting into trouble due to my inquisitiveness. These experiences helped me realise that if I wanted to be happy, I would have to do something myself and build a culture where others could be happy too. With Bird & Blend now over 10 years old, it’s clear that my previous jobs provided me with fundamental learnings I still carry today; from customer service, to management, and exposure to different types of people.
Why did you decide to set up a “tea mixology” company?
While I was in Canada, I ran out of money, and so I began working for a tea company called David’s Tea. I started on the shop floor and progressed up to blending and training. It didn’t take long before I wondered why tea mixology hadn’t already been done on a large scale in the UK, as I found there were three main categories of tea back home – a touch on the elitist side, health based, and traditional. I wanted to create the middle-ground – the exciting, creative side.
After three months of planning in Canada, which started with a shared vision jotted down on a piece of paper in a pub, I agreed with Mike, my co-founder, to come back home for six months and give the business a shot. Our first aims were to create a business with “no waste” and serious “environmental responsibility”. We started with no formal training for management or tea. I found my previous jobs came in handy, such as when I learnt how to code as an admin assistant in a library.
Like many entrepreneurs, we faced scepticism at the start, but we kept listening to feedback and built up a loyal following. We moved to Brighton to open our first retail store, where we used the basement to pack the tea, and then started onboarding more staff after the first few years.
What’s your role in the business?
Until last year, my day-to-day role predominantly rested within the brand department. But I now head up our product team, which involves creating blends and working on product development. I love creating new blends – it’s a job that really tests my creativity – and I’m very passionate about the physical side of retail. Being able to create consumer products which promote an engaging retail experience such as specially blended tea is a joy.
While product and branding is my bread and butter, I’m also the co-founder of the business and handle other areas of the business such as strategy, KPIs, P&L, having a handle on the analytics and helping out with projects that need to go over the line.
Bird & Blend has a very innovative range of products. How do you keep the level of innovation so high?
Our customers are hugely passionate about the blend flavours that we create and they always want more! We also create seasonal and collection blends alongside our main tea wall blends. These limited edition blends are often incredibly popular and true fans are always asking us when we’re going to bring certain teas back. We now have over 100 different blends, but the combinations are endless so we’re always excited to see what we create next.
How do you engage with your customers to build loyalty?
Physical retail is really important to us. Our stores act as local community hubs, both for staff and existing customers as well as for attracting new faces, despite the trials and tribulations of the pandemic.
Although research shows that online customers tend to spend more, physical retail brings far more value to the company in the long run – four times more to be exact when it comes to repeat purchases from customers. We also find that our local stores are effective at bringing in local businesses and generating interest within the community.
We opened four new stores during 2021 and plan to continue our growth across the nation’s high streets, which is testament to the sheer value of physical retail. Hearing how new customers discover us through referrals from people they know never gets old, and I think a significant part of that is down to the ability to connect in store.
You’ve recently raised £1 million through a crowd funding campaign. How will you be using the funds? What are your plans for expansion?
We used Crowdcube for our latest fund, receiving support from over 1,800 different people, which feels incredible. This funding will be used to support our continued local high street expansion and the wider development of our flavour range, which currently sits at over 100 teas inspired by cultural moments like our blend, Ultra Violet which was inspired by Pantone’s 2018 colour of the year, and unusual combinations like rhubarb and custard and MojiTEA which plays with the flavours of a mojito.
We have 15 retail stores and plan to open four more every year, servicing our brilliant community throughout the country. With each new store opening, we’ll of course be expanding the Bird & Blend team, as well as roles for our digital offering. There’s currently 125 of us in the Bird & Blend family, and we can’t wait to keep adding to this number.
You say on your website that team members are as important as the tea. How do you attract the best talent?
The Bird & Blend team tells a story to every new customer: they are the brand, embodied, so it’s integral that our staff convey the same love, ethos and passion that we founded the business with – and they truly do.
As an employee, I never felt like I found a place where I understood the meaning of what I was doing and why. So as an employer, I knew I wanted to make an environment which felt right. Being a business owner, you have so many opportunities to affect the world in a positive way, and that should start with your employees.
The majority of our team are employed across our retail stores, our back of house and our warehouses, similar to the jobs I started my career in. In those roles, I was always nervous to admit that they weren’t my “forever jobs”, so I’ve been sure to build an environment where people are comfortable with that feeling; they can say they are saving to travel or to go to university without feeling like they’re letting us down. This works to everyone’s advantage as we get fantastic people who are engaged when they are here and give them a positive first employment impression without adding any pressure to their experience. Since launching the business with this way of working, we’ve had eight individuals come back to work with us. Each of them started off in retail positions or warehouse roles and now work centrally for the business. We’re nurturing people for the future – and if it’s Bird & Blend’s future, then even better.
How has the pandemic affected your business?
One of our key pillars for Bird & Blend is the feeling of community. We truly believe in the importance of local communities, the high street and people-led experiences. We want customers to come into our retail stores feeling part of something more than just a payment transaction. The resulting lockdowns of Covid-19 presented challenges for us to recreate this feeling we’d worked so hard to curate.
Like other retail businesses, our focus throughout the pandemic shifted to our digital offering and on-demand services. We re-launched our website mid-pandemic which resulted in a brilliant 230% increase in traffic, due to our loyal fan base not wanting to miss out and supporting us during lockdown, as well as new customer acquisition.
The success of our digital transition helped us to expand our physical footprint. Although Covid-19 undeniably posed challenges to our offering, we’ve managed to open six new stores since March 2020 and a new warehouse in Worthing. While we’ve pivoted successfully during the pandemic with our digital offering, the lockdowns have made clear just how integral a clear brand message and experience is for customers. We’ll be continuing to move forward with our physical expansion to keep this experience alive.
Has there been any impact from Brexit?
Our supply chains have been impacted in terms of logistics and the cost of some ingredients has gone up which meant we had to look at different suppliers, but it has been manageable.
The biggest impact to us as a result of Brexit was commercially. It has made it difficult for us to expand into Europe because the shipping rates are so expensive, and we were unable to offer a tracked service for customers as we had prior to Brexit. There were huge delivery delays for international customers along with extra customs charges, as well as the general ambiguity of how the industry would be impacted.
Without service levels guaranteed by our usual postal provider, we had to switch to another provider which is significantly more expensive, resulting in a loss of existing customers who are unwilling to pay the higher postage costs. The lost revenue means that we have had to remove Europe from our immediate growth plans and adjust our models.
Tell us about your charity initiatives
When we first launched Bird & Blend, we wanted to create a company that gave back to our local communities and more widely, the world, be this through our sustainability pushes, our work with local business or our charity initiatives.
Bird & Blend set up a ChariTEA of the Quarter programme which works with a different charity every three months to support them with fundraising and awareness raising activities and team volunteering days. Our chosen charities are linked to a particular blend of tea and are supported through the profits of their chosen blend. We love getting to know our chosen charities and always use our social platforms to help raise awareness for their causes. Since it started in 2013 the ChariTEA programme has raised over £40,000 for local causes that are close to the team’s heart.
And what are you doing with regard to sustainability?
One of the founding principles of Bird & Blend was to do our bit for the planet. It actually formed part of our initial business plan: a piece of scrap paper Mike and I jotted our thoughts down on in a Canadian pub back in 2012. The first two things we wrote down were “no waste” and “environmental responsibility” – something we’re very proud to be pushing forward with.
Working with an FMCG product, there’s a lot to consider – supply chain, packaging, the businesses we choose to work with, to name just a few. But as part of our latest investment round, we brought on board a Head of Social and Ethics, whose role is dedicated to ensuring we’re doing the best we can as we head toward our B Corp certification, and results are pretty good.
We send zero waste to landfill, instead, the small amount that we produce goes into an incinerator to be turned into energy, but our aim for 2022 is to become zero waste entirely. We measure our own carbon footprint as part of our environmental management system and are carbon neutral. To keep this up, we use a green electricity supplier for all premises, suppliers ship goods via sea rather than air and we use Royal Mail to ship orders abroad because they use spare capacity on planes, rather than making separate journeys.
Excitingly, at the end of December 2021, we launched the world’s first sustainable loose leaf tea packaging and over the next two years, our business objectives will revolve around our mission to spread happiness and reimagine tea, growing our business in a financially stable and sustainable way.
The virtual Omnichannel Futures event will be held on 9 February. Book your free place here
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