Michelle Pierce Hamilton - The Tea Lounge
Tell us about yourself.
My name is Michelle Pierce Hamilton. I am a Project Management Professional by trade and my business is a second career. I studied nutrition a the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition (CSNN) and also hold a certificate in plant-based nutrition from Cornell University. I studied nutrition and tea at the same time and part of one of the earliest cohorts to graduate as a professional, Canadian Tea Sommelier through George Brown College. An educator at heart, I’ve been fortunate to share my knowledge and passions as faculty instructor at several colleges in the areas of project management, nutrition, and tea education. When I believe in something I love to teach it! As an entrepreneur, I have manifested a business that allows me to unite my passions for tea, nutrition, and the healing arts. I have never believed I need to do 'just one thing'!
Tell us about your business.
The Tea Lounge is an ‘old world’ tea house that serves my curated selection of ethically sourced loose-leaf teas & tisanes (by beTeas), as well as a full lunch menu, scones and other treats. Our selection of tea ware and other gifts makes us a great destination to shop for someone special. It’s also a place to enrich and engage in an array of classes and events. On Tuesdays, I have 'clinic' at my business (when the store is closed to the public), and this is when I still see private clients for nutrition coaching and healing arts. Cultivating healthy lifestyles and unique experiences are central to our business as is cultivating other local business relationships. When you fully experience and shop The Tea Lounge, you are taking quality time for yourself while also supporting 15+ local small businesses we collaborate with.
What are the lessons your business learned from the covid-19 pandemic?
The most important thing I did was let go of my business plan and reimagine the space. I lived by the mantra, ‘don't let the things you can't do, stop you from doing what you can.' We pivoted many times and tried several new things; some were temporary, and others I've learned from and kept doing. You must be willing to admit when change is needed because something doesn't work – and not take too long to do it.
The pandemic was changing the rules, so I did my best to be nimble and respond to whatever new limitation was being thrown at me. Another thing the pandemic reinforced is that customer service is key. I bent sideways and upside down for my customers and made extra effort to thank them for supporting us and supporting local. Our customers responded to this and really rallied when I needed them to. When you go the extra mile for your customer, you build loyalty, and that kind of loyalty is one big reason we are still in business. It’s reinforced the cardinal rule for any small businesses – the importance of thanking every customer, every single day.
What services/programs have you utilized at the London Small Business Centre, and how have they helped your business?
When I was researching starting my business many years ago, I attended a couple of small business workshops, namely one on business planning. During the pandemic, I applied for, and received, a small business recovery grant that was deeply valuable in helping my business get through that difficult time. The connection to other small business owners in the same boat was also very mentally and emotionally supportive.
What led you to start this business?
I was joking to someone the other day that I didn't even know I was an entrepreneur until I was one. Ideas bloomed in the process of exploring new passions in the areas of nutrition, tea, and holistic health. The business took on a life of its own from there. I remember the first time I was forced to self-identify as 'an entrepreneur'. It felt so weird to me, and I sat with the words for a minute until I had to admit, 'yeah, I guess I am!'.
What were some of the challenges you faced getting started and how did you overcome them?
My biggest challenges occurred building my first website. It did not go well, despite all the best planning and research, especially as those were the days before more accessible solutions like Shopify and Square. This remains a challenging area to navigate for small businesses today. Nearly every small business owner I know has a ‘website story’.
What do you like to do when you take a break as a busy entrepreneur?
A break for me means spending time with my family and friends or learning something new. I love to immerse myself in new experiences, new challenges, and continuing education. A break for me might be a vacation with my family, travelling to one of the tea regions, walking Camino de Santiago, taking a class, or attending an educational conference on nutrition or tea.
If you could sit down with any business leader or industry expert, who would you choose and why?
As part of my business planning, I learned from a couple of the top industry experts in the North American tea industry. I learned so much from them and about myself to form my unique vision of how I would bring my brand to life. At this stage, if I now could pick anyone to sit down with, I think it would be extremely cool to have a coaching session with Elon Musk. I'd love to hear the advice of this true thought leader, visionary and outside the box thinker - over a delicious high mountain oolong, served gongfu!
What is the #1 small business book/blog/website you would recommend?
A book I really enjoyed that helped my mindset, and supported the kind of ideas I had for my business (which were unlike any others like it this market) was, The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World, by Chris Guillebeau.
Is there anything currently happening in the London business community that excites you?
I'm honestly just excited that we are back to business, at full capacity, relaxing restrictions and able to serve more people and get back to our in-person events and classes. I feel the public is ready to get back to experiences we're excited to host them. I have so many planned and a long list of others I am working on right now!
Can you tell us about an entrepreneur you admire and why?
This is a big question, and I don't think I can answer this one as asked. It requires a lot of bravery and moxie to put yourself out there and make your passion and vision vulnerable to the world. As they say in the theatre, 'there are no small parts, only small actors'. It doesn't matter how much 'success' you've had; I think all entrepreneurs who dared to dream, deserve admiration.
What's the best business advice you've ever received and why?
A dear tea industry friend and mentor finally told me in one of our business coaching sessions, "to just get on with it." I tend to over-research and overthink myself into inertia. He was so right because nothing was ever going to be perfectly ready, and I wasn't going to learn what I needed to know until I started doing it.
What advice would you give to an aspiring entrepreneur today?
If this is deeply in your heart, then make a business plan and go for it – but you HAVE to do the work. When they think about writing a business plan, people groan, but how can you expect anyone else to buy into your vision if you can't be clear enough on paper and articulate it in a business plan? The vision needs to be clear; the numbers need to work. Expect the best but prepare for the worst-case scenario. You must be prepared to fail and clearly identify what success and failure look like.
What's in the future for your business?
My short-term goal is to make up for the loss of 2 years of growth the pandemic has set us back and ensure our sustainability as a business. My long-term goal is to continue growing, provide an exceptional product, and create great experiences. At some point, sell the business to the right person to take over and continue what I have started and make it their own so that the Tea Lounge is a place I can continue to enjoy visiting as a customer once I decide to retire!
Learn more about The Tea Lounge.