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Financial Adviser: 5 Business Lessons Everyone Can Learn from Serenitea Co-Founder Juliet Herrera-Chen

What’s your favorite drink from Serenitea?
ILLUSTRATOR WARREN ESPEJO

Juliet Herrera was only 23 years old when her then-boyfriend, Peter Chen, invited her to partner with him to do business together.

During that time, pearl milk tea drinks were not yet popular in the market, but were very big in Taiwan, where it originated. Slowly, pearl milk tea, also known as bubble tea, was already gaining huge traction in Southeast Asia.

The couple saw this as a great opportunity to introduce tea drink concepts to the already saturated coffee drinking market.

Having graduated only a few years from De La Salle-College of St. Benilde, the lack of experience of the couple, being first-time entrepreneurs, did not discourage them from pursuing their dream of establishing their own business.

The couple went to work on their business plan carefully by dividing their roles. Peter went to Taiwan to work in a tea shop to research and learn pearl milk tea production, while Juliet developed the marketing plan and the brand name, which was originally called “Serendepitea.”

After six months of training, Peter returned to the Philippines and reunited with Juliet to launch their first Serenitea shop in Little Baguio, San Juan in December 2008.

But the first business venture of the couple was not an easy journey.

Amidst all the excitement, the shop turned out to be a big disappointment. Poor monthly sales and increasing financial losses almost made the couple give up on the business, until one day, they discovered a better way to promote their products.

Through blogging and social media referrals, the couple increased the market awareness of their shop, which attracted traffic and conversions.

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This helped the couple recover their sales to profitability, which led them to expand more outlets as market acceptance of pearl milk tea grew. 

Today, 13 years after Peter and Juliet founded their first outlet, Serenitea is one of the most recognized home-grown bubble tea brands in the Philippines with over 60 outlets.

How did Peter and Juliet, who eventually got married in 2014, sustain the growth of Serenitea and pioneer the popularity of pearl milk tea in the market?

Here are the five business lessons we all can learn from the Serenitea co-founder Juliet Herrera-Chen:

1| Know how to persevere to succeed

One of the most common reasons for failure is lack of determination and persistence.

Those who don’t try to overcome obstacles in business tend to give up easily when encountering difficulties. Successful entrepreneurs always have the determination to rise above challenges.

When Juliet Herrera-Chen was invited by her then-boyfriend Peter Chen to start-up a tea shop business, she thought that it was a nice idea to have their own business.

Little did she know that it would be the most difficult and humbling experience.

“I said yes without any idea na hindi pala ganun kabilis magtayo ng business,” she says. “I thought it was easy and glamorous to have a business na matatawag pero hindi pala ganun kadali.

Natatandaan ko yung sales namin nung first day was P600 lang, tapos yung kalahati nun binili pa namin, so yung P300 galing pa sa aming mag-asawa.

Yung ginamit namin na pang set-up ng business hiniram din namin from our parents, pagkatapos yung everyday na sales hindi nasu-sustain yung mga expenses na kailangan naming bayaran.

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Nalugi kami ng ilang months. Dumating sa point na we kept borrowing money from our parents to sustain the business.

Akala namin magsasarado na kami. Wala na kami pambayad ng rent noon, pero nung kumalat siya by word of mouth through the help of the bloggers, doon kami nabuhay,” she adds

2| Know how to validate your business idea

In any business, it’s important to understand if your product would sell in the market or not. You need to find out if your product will attract any customers.

You can do this by testing your product by continually improving it based on the suggestions and feedback of your target market. You should have a clear idea in your mind about the values you want your product to have.

Yung ginawa namin bago kami nag-open ng store, in-invite ko yung mga co-workers ko noon to try mag-tasting ng mga tea drinks namin. Kasi yun lang ang alam namin na marketing plan that time na mabilis,” says Herrera-Chen.

Wala ako formal background sa pagtayo ng business so pinatikman ko muna sa mga katrabaho ko kung magugustuhan nila yung drinks namin kasi from coffee to milk tea, medyo bago sa panlasa nila.

Nag-prepare kami ng drinks, tapos yung mga comments nila tinake note namin kasi yung ginawang drinks ng husband ko is Taiwan-style so pagtikim ng mga co-workers ko medyo matabang.

“You know how Filipinos like sweet, so ginawa ni husband ni-improve niya, pinatamis niya to make sure na pasok siya sa panlasa ng Pinoy.”

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3| Know how to evolve from fads to trend

A fad is something for which market enthusiasm is short-lived, while a trend signals a general direction in which the market is developing or changing.

Your product is part of a trend if it satisfies a changing fundamental need. By developing a product that adds value to consumer, your business can potentially generate a steady revenue growth for many years to come.

“Actually, marami nga nagsasabi nang tinayo namin itong business na fad lang yan,” she says. “Mawawala din yan katulad ng parang yung mga pearl shake dati, pero I think hindi ito mawawala. Kung titingnan mo yung trend sa Taiwan, yung milk tea or bubble tea business has been there since the 1980s.”

“(More than) 20 years na sya, so I think hindi siya basta-basta mawawala sa Philippines, because tested na siya. Yung milk tea parang coffee yan, meron yan caffeine kaya hahanap-hanapin mo yung lasa.

Noong 2008, actually meron na nagbebenta ng Taiwanese bubble tea pero hindi sya gaano na-market kasi they were more in restaurants. Kami ang focus namin tea house talaga. Ang pinaka-common namin lahat ay yung pearls na sago. Feeling ko yung love ng mga Filipinos sa pearls hindi mawawala dahil sa taho.

“Very nostalgic ang sago. Talagang hinahanap-hanap sya, like may pagkakataon din sa stores namin na hindi kami makapagbenta ng pearls na out of stock, hindi bibili ang customers pag walang pearls ang milk tea.

“And yung tea namin, they’re brewed using leaves. Meron kaming machine na pang-brew, so kung papansinin niyo, dun sa baba kala niyo coffee machine, pero pang-tea yun. Pag nag-order kayo, let’s say what you ordered has green tea, ibu-brew namin iyon sa espresso machine.

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“Yung leaf namin ang pinagkaiba namin sa iba. Kung mapapansin mo yung ibang competitors, naka-water jug yung green tea nila, or yung black tea nila, so kukuha sila dun pag may order, pero sa amin ibu-brew talaga namin. Ipapasok talaga namin sa filter yan.”

4| Know how to achieve positive brand associations  

When a customer thinks of a specific brand, certain attributes come to mind. Brand associations reinforce a product’s positioning in customer’s mind.

Positive brand associations lead to customers having a positive impression about the product. It also helps the business build customer loyalty and goodwill.

Mahilig ako makipag co-branding. Pumipili ako ng brand na feeling ko may same values sa amin and same kami ng target market. Minsan, pag may nakita ako sa grocery, wow okay pala ito, hahanapin ko nga yung contact person. Naka tie-up na namin yung Ferrero, Toblerone, Oreo, and Lotus Biscoff,” Herrera-Chen says.

Pinipili ko rin yung mga homegrown brands like us,” she adds. “For example, naco-branding na namin yung Carmen’s Best. Yung ice cream nila meron din sa drink namin. Nag-collaborate din kami with Auro, a locally homegrown chocolate brand. Nage-export sila ng cacao, tapos yung farm nila nasa Davao.

Yung bago mag-pandemic, meron din kaming tie-up with Cebu Pacific where passengers can order milk tea sa flight. Nakapag-develop kami ng 3-in-1 milk tea, naka built-in dun yung black tea, pero powder base sya, tapos doon gagawin ng flight attendant.

Naghahanap na rin kami ng ibang channel kung paano mapo-promote yung brand at yung product namin, that’s why there’s Cebu Pacific and hopefully, marami pang susunod dun.”

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5| Know how to work together as a team

There is a saying that you are not supposed to mix business and pleasure, but for Serenitea founders Peter and Juliet, their decision to go into business together was the best one they ever made.

When the couple decided to partner together for Serenitea, they were not thinking about the risk of conflicts that might affect their relationship.

Instead, they were focused on sharing their common goals and passion that build a strong business partnership for the future.

Sa amin, ako yung very stressed at sya yung very relaxed,” she says. “Kasi kung pareho kaming tense and stressed, baka magsabay kami ng init ng ulo.

Sa mga decisions, yung last say is my husband pa rin. Siya yung kino-consult ko. I always validate with Peter if okay lang ba ganito, if ganyan pag sabi niya okey, eh di okay. Pero pag sinabi niya na bahala ka na, eh talagang bahala na ako pag binigyan niya ako ng go-signal. Pag may sinabi siya ganito, ganyan eh di gagawin ko na lang para di magulo.

“I am very blessed to have a partner na parehas kami ng goals sa life and business. It is also normal that sometimes we criticize each other’s ideas but, for me, nothing is personal. I know it’s for our own growth naman. Hindi rin kasi okay yung masyadong matampuhin. To me, that’s nonsense.”

 

Henry Ong, RFP, is an entrepreneur, financial planning advocate and business advisor. Email Henry for business advice [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @henryong888  

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