Clayton Christopher kicked off his appearance at the Kelleher Center for Entrepreneurship with a disclaimer, “I asked if we could serve everyone some Deep Eddy Vodka, but I was told I couldn’t do that.” The laughs rolled on as the Founder of Sweet Leaf Tea and Co-Founder of Deep Eddy Vodka & Rhythm Superfoods awed listeners with his likable humility and down to earth sense of humor.
Sweet Leaf Tea is one of the fastest growing beverage companies in the US, with over $60M in sales, but the horizon was not always so bright, “It was not the good old days looking back,” says Christopher as he describes starting Sweet Leaf Tea in on his own in 1998 with $10K, an old delivery van and a recipe from his grandmother. Even when the outlook was grim, Christopher maintained a positive outlook. He recalled calling Whole Foods nonstop for one year only to receive a postcard notifying him that they were not interested in his product, “All I could think was they’re talking to us! We have a foot in the door!” exclaimed Christopher. His enthusiasm paid off when Whole Foods later placed Sweet Leaf on the shelves of their southwest division. It took only six months to become the division’s number one selling tea.
One of the biggest hurdles Sweet Leaf Tea faced entering the beverage industry was high cost when compared to large companies like Pepsi and Coca Cola, but Christopher maintains a strong confidence in the product, “You’re never going to be the low-cost provider as a small startup, so you have to have a high quality product.” Sweet Leaf Tea is organic, made of all natural ingredients and better than any other bottled tea you’ll find according to Christopher.
After reaching success with Sweet Leaf Tea, Christopher started a new beverage company, Deep Eddy Vodka, “I knew it was a really good product. I mixed sweet tea and vodka for years!” said Christopher. He was right – after just three years Deep Eddy is the leading brand in six of the 30 states currently sold.
A member of the audience asked what he looks for in employees to hire, “Free vodka is huge. We encourage people to drink on the job,” joked Christopher “I look for people living company values.” He goes on to explain the importance of identifying values as an entrepreneur, “Every company needs to figure out its purpose and values. If you don’t know your values as a person or as a start up, you’re likely to fall for anything, like using high fructose corn syrup,” said Christopher with a grin.
Never missing a marketing opportunity, Christopher didn’t arrive empty-handed. The audience was encouraged to grab Deep Eddy swag on their way out including mini bottles of the flavored vodka and sunglasses.
Founded by Clayton Christopher, Sweet Leaf Tea is a perfect example of a company rooted in giving back – not just through charitable efforts, but by creating a communi-tea (as they craftily term it) of customers who share the same values, and a culture that rewards and recognizes its employees for their contributions. With a strong focus on quality over cost, hand-selected ingredients and sustainable processes, they produce products that are as environmentally-friendly as they are tasty, and foster practical, ‘grandmotherly’ wisdom in the process.
1. How do you define for-profit philanthropy?
For-profit philanthropy is the effort in which for-profit companies give back to their communities through giving, co-promotions, or events. For Sweet Leaf Tea, it is the best way to connect ourselves to our target markets. Since we are still a small company and aren’t able to give cash to the charities we believe in, we help them out through in-kind donations. We have a product that most organizations have a need for (beverages for fundraisers, board meetings, sponsor dinners, etc), so we are able to help cut their costs on food/beverage expenses through product donations.
Please describe your philanthropic business plan and your current charitable activities.
In our marketing department, we try to continuously reach out and help credible organizations in our communities by donating product to their events. Most everything we do is through donations, but we do have a few initiatives that we execute every year that do include funds.
Each spring, we organize a fundraising event for Big Brothers Big Sisters in Austin called the “Austin Tea Party.” We recruit local quick-service restaurant chains to participate by handing out free Sweet Leaf Tea to anyone who makes a donation to Big Brothers Big Sisters for a one-week period. On the last Saturday of the event, we have Bigs and Littles visit each store to man our custom “Tea Stands.” During that time, they talk to customers about Big Brothers Big Sisters, collect donations, and hand out free tea. Past events have raised over $10,000 for the organization.
We also participate in the Houston Art Car Parade each May with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Houston. We provide one of our vehicles for the parade, and the Bigs and Littles from the organization get to paint it one week before the parade. We always get a ton of press to come out for the painting party, where BBBS reps get to talk on-air about their organization. A week later, the Littles get to ride in the vehicle during the parade. It is a fun and unique event for the Littles – after all, they don’t get to paint on cars everyday!
Finally, we do a national promotion for breast cancer awareness every October in which we turn our bottle caps pink. We give a portion of the proceeds for every pink-capped product sold to breast cancer awareness. Last year we donated $10,000 to the cause. We also support various Race for the Cure events by handing out loads of cold product to the participants. On average, we bring about 10,000 bottles of tea to each event and we’ve done this every year in Austin, Dallas, Houston, and Ft. Worth, and we’ve added Los Angeles to this year’s races.
3. How do you communicate the impact of these efforts to your customers?
The impact of our efforts is first and foremost communicated to those customers who are able to experience Sweet Leaf in the act, whether it is in-store, at events, or through the organization involved. Secondly, we promote every event that we are involved in through our website, newsletter, and various social networks.
4. Why do you think it’s important for companies to adopt philanthropy as part of their revenue model?
More than anything, companies should participate in philanthropy to become part of their community. Not only will those that benefit think more highly of your brand, thus increasing brand awareness, but your employees will also have a sense that what they are doing is giving back to their community, which will impact how hard they work. So, in conclusion, yes, all of these things in turn increase revenue, which is a great reason to participate, but more importantly, companies should adopt philanthropy in their business because they are committed to it, and it is the right thing to do.
5. What would you say is the most critical element in successfully implementing philanthropic endeavors?
The most critical element for successful implementation is to try to impact the organization as much as you can with what you have to give. If you do that, everything else will fall into place.
Name: Macy Shaver
Title: Communications Manager
Company: Sweet Leaf Tea
Gennefer Gross is a writer, producer and co-founder of Gross Factor Productions, an independent film and television company focused on scripted comedy. An avid writer, author and idea cultivator, Gennefer thrives on creativity and contributes regularly to Triple Pundit on a variety of sustainable business topics. She also pens the popular series Hollywood & Green, exploring socially responsible cinema that helps connect consumers with important causes and environmental issues. And somehow she finds the time to write for her own blog, Tasty Beautiful, covering food and fashion in and around Los Angeles. Gennefer will also be launching Philanthrofoodie(TM), a charitable venture designed to spark social change through shared food experiences. An eternal student of life with an eclectic background, Gennefer brings unique insights on everything from breakthroughs in renewable energy to the latest dish in celebrity consciousness.