Starting a Business

Clayton Christopher
Photograph by David Strohl

NAME: Clayton Christopher | AGE: 35 | HOMETOWN: Beaumont | QUALIFICATIONS: Founded Sweet Leaf Tea Company in 1998 with $10,000 and a recipe from his grandmother / Now markets ten flavors of bottled iced tea in all fifty states and has doubled sales each year for the past five years / Announced in April that he had raised $18 million in private equity

• I was a horrible student—I was very bored with college. I didn’t finish. I worked for my family’s business selling medical supplies. I was a sales rep, and I wore a suit and tie. I couldn’t stand it.

• I always knew I was going to start my own business. Although it’s scary, the biggest risk is not taking that risk.

• Sometimes a crowded market only seems crowded. There were plenty of other brands when we launched: Nestea, Snapple, Arizona, Lipton. What I realized was that none of the teas on the market tasted like home-made iced tea. That was the biggest reason I founded the company.

• There is no such thing as “the good old days.” We were miserable. We worked eighteen-hour days and slept at the office, which was tiny. There was no air-conditioning. I remember sitting there in shorts and no T-shirt, sweating, dripping on the laptop and the little printer that printed the invoices.

• Here’s the pitch: This tea tastes better than any other bottled tea on the market. It’s made with real tea leaves, and it’s a pain in the ass to brew because we make it just like you would at home. I let customers know that we use real organic cane sugar, while all the big plants these days just press a button, which injects corn syrup, tea flavor, caramel color, and tea concentrate.

• When you only have $10,000, you are forced to be very creative. We used old crawfish pots to brew the tea, pillowcases as tea bags, and garden hoses to fill the bottles. We put the caps on with a Black & Decker drill. We bought an old van with 300,000 miles on it, and I personally delivered the tea.

• For me, money is just a way to keep score. Beyond that, I don’t think about it much. If someone is in it just for the money, especially in this business, he’s going to fail.

• Entrepreneurship is not for everyone. You have to be willing to fall down seven times and get up eight times.

• Even when it seems like the doors are shutting around you and all is lost, another door will always open. We should have gone out of business more than a dozen times.

• If we focus on bringing a smile to the face of a lady who’s drinking Sweet Leaf Tea on a street corner in New York City, the rest will take care of itself.

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