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SME owner Michael Taggart ponders risks, reflects on aging, meets a hotelier, and pitches MDTea’s uniqueness.
A couple of months ago, I was listening – rapt – to a hospitality podcast as an Irish hotelier told of his Napoleonic rise from office junior to overseer of multiple famous venues by sheer dint of his willingness to say “Ah, g’wan then, I’ll give it a go”. Given libel laws exist in the current legal paradigm, let’s call him Hotelly O’Hotelface.
I’m continually taking risks. In fact, Diary, if you are ever published, you should have the subtitle “Tales of Gross Miscalculations and Blunders”. So this “Ah g’wan then” strategy is something I’m sure I could embrace and I wanted to know how it might help MDTea grow.
I emailed Hotelly, saying I’d been inspired by his ideas and would like even more to meet him so we could talk about MDTea and he could give me some career-defining advice. To my surprise, Hotelly O’Hotelface, the Most Hardworking Man in Hotels (Ho-business?), agreed to see me four weeks from today at one of his swanky five star destinations in Piccadilly.
October 3rd, my birthday
Night has fallen 17,533 times in my life, yet I have not felt the intrusion of age keenly until today. I was manning the shop in Brighton and when it’s quiet – as it often is on Tuesdays – I usually have lots of sales and marketing or admin to occupy my thoughts.
If I’m on a break or eating lunch, inconsequential thoughts that I do not control pop into my head, such as: “Where was Apocalypse Now filmed – surely not VietNam if the war had just ended?” Or: “Do they use feet or metres in Afghanistan?”. (Praise be to Google!).
Today, I was feeling the tug of time and mulling over whether a 48 year old should be running what is effectively a start-up. Shouldn’t I already be a success by now? Have I left it too late? What if it doesn’t work? Is this my last shot at success? I have no children so what mark will I leave on the world? Am I the only stable point in a moving universe (but not in a good way)?
Anyway, three skateboardy students came in. They picked up everything, and put things back in the wrong place. Their rucksacks swang round centimeters from expensive glassware. Being old means I have empathy and an ability to read people’s intentions – so it was obvious to me the little f*ckers weren’t interested in buying anything.
“Mate, what’s the point of tea – coffee’s nicer,” one of them said, grinning.
I didn’t just nibble at the bait, I wolfed down the hook, the line, the sinker, the rod and the fisherman. If there’d been a fishing boat, I would have swallowed that too.
“Tea has many health properties that coffee doesn’t. It’s full of antioxidants and has anti-inflammatory properties.”
“Ooh I don’t like the sound of that,” another of them said as they left giggling noisily without saying goodbye or thanks.
And it dawned on me that I was actually genuinely happy that I was middle aged and not a little shit anymore.
Diary, I know you might think me obsessed with the weather but I spend a lot of my time looking at it and I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a prolonged period of heavy rain.
I pine for the sun-dappled hills of Tuscany, the white sands and lapping waves of southern Sicily or the warm twilight buzz of glamorous Amalfi.
As it’s only you listening, Diary, I feel no shame or need to deploy ‘hashtag first world problems’ as I lament the lack of time and money that start-up life affords for proper sunshine holidays.
Normally, I am a slow reader but on the Brighton-to-London train this morning, I speed-read just about everything that has ever been written about Hotelly O’Hotelface to prepare for our meeting.
I found in the right inside breast pocket of my suit jacket a dry-cleaning receipt from 2019 and I realised it had been years since I’d dressed so uncomfortably. As I completed the final mile on foot, across Green Park, I rehearsed my script, waxing and waning between supreme confidence and debilitating fatigue and terror.
At a little past 11am, I was perched across a table from Hotelly O’Hotelface, bitterly rueing my order of coffee (what sort of tea mogul was I?). But Hotelly was disarming, friendly and charming, as successful Irish business folk often are. We had an easy and pleasant five minutes of small talk, despite the topic being how he’d agreed to too many meetings that day and was in a massive hurry.
“I won’t take much of your time then,” I said. “I just wanted to tell you a little about MDTea and to ask for your advice on how a business like mine,” meaning my actual business, “could get into hotels like yours,” meaning his hotels, specifically.
“What makes you and your tea unique?” came the response.
Ah shit. It’s such an obvious question but one I can never answer. How can giving people tea be unique? There are seven billion kilogrammes of leaves consumed every year on this planet.
That’s about three and a half trillion cups – or around 1.5 cups a day for every man, woman and child on Earth. And we are known as a nation of tea drinkers! We neck 100 million cups a day. Statistically speaking, the average British adult is more likely to contract rabies, win an Oscar or marry a grandparent on any given day than forgo their beloved cuppa.
So how can the business of supplying tea be unique? I suspect this is the sort of question that has puzzled honest businesswomen and men for over 5,000 years when finessing your pitch was still an important part of trade, even though money had yet to be invented.
But maybe it’s one of those questions that doesn’t mean what it says, I reasoned.
The word ‘unique’ doesn’t even mean unique anymore (a caller into LBC’s breakfast show this very morning said to the presenter, totally unironically and unchallenged: “I’m uniquely positioned to answer your question…just like your last caller”). Maybe unique just means “good” or “interesting”?
In case you’re wondering, Diary, all this went through my mind in about three seconds, which is about two and a half seconds longer than it should take to answer a question like that.
So I knocked a glass of water over to create a distraction, mopped it up with a napkin and, in the mild confusion that ensued, answered a question I had not been asked. After all, when you can’t answer a reasonable question with a reasonable answer, it’s probably the wrong question.
“A lot of suppliers will offer you wonderful blends and single leaf teas. What’s different about MDTea is that we imbue a real enthusiasm and love for our tea products – your tea products – into your serving staff. We train them, educate them and…” I paused, adding gratuitous suspense to a moment that needed no gilding, “…leak the love we have for tea into their souls.” I smiled as though I’d laid an impressive egg.
Hotelly looked pleased with my answer and followed-up: “Interesting. And tell me, Michael, what problem does MDTea solve?”
Again, I knew the honest answer – “your guests like tea and sometimes want it and we have it” – surely could not be the right answer. Nor could “we have the best tea available” (not true), nor “we have the best-priced tea” (also not true).
But I had grown in confidence and, again, I answered a different question than the one I had been asked, referring to our particular love for client hotels that had connection to their communities and to the land they’re built on, like Hotelly O’Hotelface’s hotels. It was sincere and I think Hotelly liked that answer too.
I am writing these words, having secured the result I wanted from the trip. Hotelly wants to taste our teas alongside his food and beverage buyer and has requested a sample box be delivered to his office. I am to call him in a month to seek feedback.
Back to statistics: there’s at least a 75% chance businesses like this will not take the products of a tiny start-up supplier in the infancy of its life, no matter how good they are and how well they are pitched.
But, that’s okay. So often, the fun is in the journey – not in the destination.
Ex journo turned media agency founder and now managing director of MDTea. As likely to be found ranting about trains or his misspent youth as doing anything useful.