This S’porean turned her failed bubble tea shop into new biz opportunities

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At 24, many of that age are still trying to figure out their career path. But for Jeannie Poon, she was heavily investing in the stock market at that time and wanted to start up her own business.

Due to the “low entry barrier” of the food and beverage (F&B) industry, Jeannie — together with her two other business partners, one of which is her boyfriend — decided to head into this direction.

Without much research or planning, they took over a bubble tea shop in Serangoon in May 2018, hoping to strike it big, especially considering the bubble tea craze in Singapore.

“All three of us are avid travelers and our original idea is to create and sell drinks representing various regions and countries to (customers), integrating the travel element in the drinks creation,” said Jeannie, co-founder of Teahee SG.

They also had a mocktail series that’s named after scenic representations of different countries and regions, such as Okinawa Sunset. The colourful layers represented that of a sunset, and pineapple was used as the main ingredient, which represents Okinawa’s landmark, Pineapple Town.

Pivoting from selling bubble tea, to teaching others how to make them

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Image Credit: Teahee SG

When Teahee SG first launched, Jeannie said that the sales exceeded their expectations.

“Daily sales was around S$200, which is considered good, given that it is located in a quiet neighbourhood,” she added.

However, due to their day job commitments — Jeannie was a journalist for a Chinese paper, her boyfriend is a risk manager at a bank, and her other business partner is a corporate sales executive at a law firm — they had no choice but to leave the reins of the shop to their staff.

Quitting these jobs wasn’t an option, as Jeannie was serving a four-year bond, and the others weren’t willing to quit their high-paying roles.

The price they had to pay for this was huge, as “things began to go downhill,” remarked Jeannie.

After a year, they finally made the choice to close down the retail business to cut down on losses. It was a painful decision, as they had already invested more than S$80,000 into the shop.

While looking for someone to take over the remaining lease of the shop, they made some last-ditch attempts to cover the business costs and started conducting bubble tea-making workshops at the retail store during weekends.

The plan worked like a charm and helped serve as an additional revenue stream for the business.

“The response was surprisingly really good, so we decided to fully pivot into a training centre instead as Singapore does not have any company that provides beverage making workshops yet,” she said.

They eventually opened a “proper studio” to teach others how to make bubble tea, and later expanded to include other types of beverage, including mocktails, cocktails and tea.

This conversion from a retail shop into a training centre marked a huge turning point in the company.

“(It) meets the demands in the market, and there are many people who want to open a bubble tea shop, but there isn’t really a company that provides all these training. Also, we incorporated the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) element into bubble tea, which is something new to the public.”

Although the bubble tea market in Singapore is saturated, there’s a lack of the DIY element “which some customers are craving (for),” she noted.

Covid-19 threw a spanner in the works

Unfortunately, Covid-19 struck when Teahee SG first set up their studio.

“Back then, we struggled to convert everything online as it was a new experience to us. That time, we were very worried that our workshop experiences will be compromised due to the lack of interaction among participants when conducted online, especially for corporate team bonding workshops,” shared Jeannie.

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Virtual bubble tea making workshop with employees of Economic Development Board / Image Credit: Teahee SG

After a year, the company has better adapted and adjusted to the evolving Covid-19 restrictions, and it’s heartening to know that participants still reported that they had fun despite the online shift.

With Covid-19 restrictions gradually easing up, Teahee SG is now able to resume their physical workshops, albeit on a smaller scale.

“To us, Covid-19 is actually more of a business opportunity as it causes people to be more receptive to online workshops. As a result, we are able to overcome the geographical limitations and expand into overseas market,” said Jeannie, adding that they have overseas corporate clients who also joined their workshops and business consultancy sessions.

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Bubble tea making workshop with CHIJ Katong Convent students / Image Credit: Teahee SG

So far, Teahee SG has conducted workshops for more than 10,000 individuals over the past two years. Beyond the public, it also holds workshops for schools and corporate team-bonding sessions for companies.

“We also have youth development programmes, which aims to help youth discover their own strengths through our various workshops, such as discovering entrepreneurship using bubble tea shop as a case study, and exploring emotional resilience through tea blending,” said Jeannie.

Their initial business failure led to another opportunity

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Jeannie Poon, co-founder of Teahee SG / Image Credit: Teahee SG

Following the failure of the retail arm of Teahee SG, Jeannie understood the importance of “sound business planning” before embarking on a business.

This includes identifying the right target audience, choosing a strategic location for the business, and addressing manpower crunch. However, these are unfortunately the kind of things that rookie entrepreneurs tend to overlook.

With their first-hand experience of running a failed business, the co-founders wanted to let others learn from their mistakes and started up a business consultancy service to offer advice and help for F&B entrepreneurs.

“We help our clients to establish their brands through strategic planning and (help them) reduce cost through menu optimisation. We also provide services such as flavour development, as well as menu and poster design,” explained Jeannie.

Jeannie may only be 27, but she strongly feels that she is well-positioned to offer advice based on her past experience, and that she could help point to others the potential stumbling blocks.

Age is after all, nothing but a number. She briefly recounted the times when customers would think that she was helping out at her mum’s stall back when she ran the retail shop.

“When I told them I was the shop owner, they were shocked,” she said. “Now as a course trainer, so long as you’re able to uphold a professional image and possess industry knowledge, people will trust you.”

To date, Teahee SG has helped dozens of business owners from more than 10 countries in setting up their drinks bar and bubble tea shops.

Moving forward, Teahee SG plans to transform itself into a social enterprise that brings joy and new experiences to the less fortunate, as it works on clinching more partnerships with community organisations.

“Our upcoming plan is to work with those with troubled minds, and bring joy and inner peace to them through our bubble tea making experience and tea mindfulness programme.”

Featured Image Credit: Teahee SG





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