Each year, we ask our readers to send in their nominations for TC’s Most Influential Tamils List. We’ve narrowed down the nominations to 5 individuals who exemplify personal success, community involvement and act as an inspiration to others. This week we're featuring Ramanan Krishnamoorthy, CEO of NovelTea.
There are a lot of things you could be doing in your third semester of a MBA program. Coming up with the idea for Australia’s first tea vodka probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. And it definitely wasn’t for Ramanan Krishnamoorthy, Geoff Baker or James Aylward.
But one thing led to another, and the ideas for NovelTea and LongLeaf Tea Vodka (a fusion of hand-picked black tea, certified organic vodka and pure Australian rainwater) were conceived during an eventful third year at the Australian Graduate School of Management.
From the outside looking in, it would seem that co-founding NovelTea and becoming its CEO would have been a natural progression for Ramanan, as he'd grown up around a tea business; The Krishnamoorthy family has been producing teas for over 30 years and both of Ramanan’s parents were born, and raised, on tea estates.
“Maybe it was attractive because of my affiliation to tea my whole life, but it was rather accidental really. We were sitting in a bar when a mate of mine came up with the idea and we thought, let’s give it a shot and the rest is history.”
So how did the three business partners even begin to assess whether there would be a market for their product? Lots and lots of research. Without enough financial backing to access expensive industry reports, they had to be systematic and thorough to ensure they left no stone unturned. They could not afford many mistakes.
“We worked very closely with our manufacturers and had to experiment for months with several different types of tea grades and finally decided to settle on one particular grade that suited the Aussie pallet ideally. Then we continually revisited the recipe after conducting several taste tests.”
Very early in the venture there were hardly any days that didn’t involve some sort of crisis and the life of the company hanging by a thread. Though Ramanan cites challenges as being part and parcel of the start-up journey, it’s hard to imagine dealing with situations like looking for a new manufacturer after a year of working closely together, and spending nearly all of your money.
“We just had a preliminary recipe and an idea as to how to make it a hit. It was very tough—we had worked hard and felt very disappointed. It was our first “pack-up-and-go-home-or-find-another-way” moment. We found another way.”
A year later the team’s second manufacturer had to close shop because of internal issues. Faced with the difficult decision of whether to keep on pressing forward, they decided they hadn’t made it this far to quit.
“We’ve had to face obstacles every day, but when all your hard work, time, money, effort and hope are crushed on the same day, it is very difficult to keep everyone around you motivated. As a founder, you may be hell bent on not taking no for an answer, but to motivate everyone around you to that same extent, can be an ardent challenge.”
When asked to describe an average day on the job, Ramanan asked what an average day was with a laugh. He is working away from the moment he's up, sometimes into the wee hours as needed, on everything from sales (which remains a priority) to marketing, operations, supplier relations, deliveries, accounting, team meetings, and strategy discussions.
This year the NovelTea team’s steadfast belief in their innovative product fueled their silver medal win at the San Francisco World Spirits competition. They beat out similar offerings by corporate giants such as Absolut, Belvedere and Svedka. The award at NovelTea’s first international competition has brought increased momentum to the fast growing business. Winning this award also meant that LongLeaf was the highest ranked tea vodka in the world in 2014 and also the highest ranked flavoured vodka from the APAC region this year.
Of late there has been a lot of interest from overseas, and NovelTea is currently working with interested partners in Sri Lanka, India, Singapore, The UK and Canada. While the current strategy is purely an on-premise one, ramping up the presence in the vibrant Aussie bar scene nationwide, the team is also looking ahead to potentially taking the product to strategic cities world-wide in a year.
“The alcohol industry is ever-changing. It lacks monotony. That excites us. There are millions of ways to engage consumers and pretty much all of them revolve around fun and exciting themes. Aussies truly want to engage with and covet brands that are trendy and boutique and outside the auspices of the “corporate machine”. We find a way for them to do that with LongLeaf and that is just so much fun. Imagine going into work and getting your mind blown away - best thing in the world.”
Here are some of the other TC's Most Influential Tamils of 2014: