By Veronica Perry, reporter
⏰ 8-minute read
This article was originally published in December 2019. It has since been updated, and we added a podcast episode featuring our conversation with the founders of Tenzo.
- As the founders of matcha company Tenzo Tea learned, starting a new venture requires founders to take responsibility for many aspects of the business and commit to learning new skills.
- The founders made the most of organic search through thought leadership campaigns to drive website traffic for no cost.
- Strategic wholesale partnerships with retail stores economized Tenzo’s growth and magnified marketing efforts.
Steve O’Dell and Robbie Page grew up together in Rochester, New York before competing as collegiate volleyball players at UCLA. For the two friends, energy played a foundational role in optimizing performance and getting into the state of mind to compete at their highest level.
During their careers, both players discovered that pre-workout, coffee and other energy-drink fixes didn’t provide them with sustainable energy. They found themselves constantly crashing. After searching the web for the healthiest form of energy for maximum performance, they discovered matcha in 2016. Both started drinking the finely ground, vibrant, green powder derived from a distinct variety of tea leaves as an alternative to mainstream sources of caffeine.
“When we found matcha, everything changed. We finally experienced healthy energy to be our best without the crash, headaches, jitters and stomachaches,” Page explained.
He and O’Dell started recommending matcha to their friends, family and other energy-craving athletes, who also enjoyed it. With this confirmation, O’Dell and Page aimed to make this drink affordable for daily consumption by starting a company.
With only one college degree between them, the founders dove head first into their clean energy venture and haven’t looked back since.
The perfect blend
O'Dell and Page had their sights set on creating a proprietary blend of 100% ceremonial grade matcha, a more traditional style that can be consumed straight vs. in baked goods or lattes. Most matcha available in the U.S. today either tastes extremely bitter or is loaded with sugar to hide the flavor, according to Page. Tenzo has no sugars or additives, and consumers can sip it after just adding water.
“We knew we had an opportunity in the market to provide a high-quality blend of matcha that tastes great with just water,” Page said.
It took the co-founders over two years of hard work and international networking to make that a reality. One year into the business, the duo took a trip to Japan. There, they forged a relationship with a Japanese tea master that resulted in the creation of an exclusive, organic, ceremonial grade matcha blend.
Page and O’Dell considered the name Tenzo (Japanese: 典座) a “no brainer” because the word is the title given to the chef in a zen monastery. The tenzo primarily prepares meals for the monks so they can practice uninterrupted meditation. Page further elaborated that the position of tenzo is an ancient role held by monks who “have a way-seeking mind or by senior disciples with an aspiration for enlightenment.”
“We like to think of a tenzo as the giver of energy. A tenzo wakes up each morning with a cup of ‘positivitea’ to uplift others, do good for the world and be the best possible version of themselves,” Page said.
Tenzo's ceremonial grade matcha powder
Brewing a business model
Page explained that his role as co-founder has progressed over time and requires him to wear many hats. He is actively involved in brand development, product design and marketing while also pioneering e-commerce and subscription acquisition for the business. He also leads in the enhancement of the direct to consumer experience and provides substantial support in the fiscal aspects of the business such as financial management and fundraising.
Tenzo sells its blend of matcha through two primary channels:
E-commerce -- Individuals can sign up for a subscription at Tenzotea.co.
Wholesale -- Tenzo sells to cafes, juice bars and ingredient suppliers.
The company’s marketing involves two channels, too.
Social -- In the early stages of Tenzo, Page and O’Dell had very little money to invest in marketing efforts. However, the brand consistently engaged with followers on social platforms such as Instagram to increase its following and create loyal customers.
Since 2016, the founders have marketed on Instagram, where they have grown a following of almost 30,000. Although the platform is not a big driver of revenue, the brand often uses it to host product giveaways and offer discounts.
SEO -- In addition, Page explained how the founders made the most of organic search to become one of the primary drivers of their website traffic, for free. They focused on advancing Tenzo a thought leader on Google, answering high-volume search questions related to matcha, which introduced inquirers of the tea to the Tenzo brand.
A cup of Tenzo tea, no sugar added!
Strong enough for subscriptions
About two years ago, the founders shifted their focus from one-time purchases to a subscription-based model. Although consumers can still purchase bags of Tenzo individually, the new model caters to thousands of customers for whom Tenzo has become a daily habit and the brand fondly refers to as the “Tenzo Tribe.” To drive more subscriptions, the founders offer a variety of discounts and incentives: Subscribers save 20%, get free shipping and have the knowledge that they’re reducing packaging waste with every refill order of matcha.
According to Page, the decision to switch to a subscription model allowed Tenzo to divert more revenue to marketing efforts and “doubled the lifetime value of [its] customers.”
Marketing at the coffee counter
When the founders launched Tenzo in 2017, they saw an opportunity to expand their product reach both online and in stores. They began partnering with coffee shops and juice bars in Los Angeles such as Nimbus Coffee, Cafe Gratitude and Coral Tree Cafe. These partnerships boosted their marketing efforts tenfold.
Even experienced baristas required training on how to properly prepare matcha, so the founders created a training program which, according to Page, consists of a training manual and in-person sessions.
“Making matcha is very simple, and we find that baristas pick up the skills to make matcha extremely quickly,” he said.
A barista at L.A.'s Nimbus Coffee makes a Tenzo matcha drink.
Because of the drink’s increased popularity, especially in Los Angeles, the goal was less about notifying consumers when Tenzo tea was on the menu and more about getting it there in the first place, with its name attached. A notable success is Coral Tree Cafe, which explicitly states on its menu that the organic matcha it serves is Tenzo tea. Tenzo is currently sold at nearly 400 locations throughout the Los Angeles area, serving tens of thousands of cups every day without the company having to invest in a physical location.
According to Page, these partnerships allowed the brand to “create thousands of touchpoints across [the city] and provide a healthy energy alternative at locations where people are already going for their caffeine fix.”
He expressed that the biggest takeaway from this experience is that “it’s much easier to replace an already existing habit than to create a new one.”
Educating novice tenzos
Page said the biggest challenge of helming Tenzo, meanwhile, is guaranteeing each customer an unforgettably amazing first experience, especially when subscribers are required to make Tenzo by themselves at home. He noted that the process of making matcha at home is simple, with only one requirement of thoroughly mixing the matcha with water by whisking, shaking or blending. However, he also clarified that it is also easy to make a mistake, resulting in a clumpy solution that can potentially repel first time users.
“To solve this, we created an elaborate system to provide step by step instructions along with great recipes and fun ways to use Tenzo,” Page explained.
A brand new bag of Tenzo Tea and traditional matcha whisk=
Since its founding in 2017, Tenzo has grown its revenues 3x every year. As mentioned above, Tenzo currently services over 400 wholesale partners across Los Angeles. The brand also sends out thousands of recurring subscription orders every month to loyal Tenzo Tribe members.
In order to stand out from competitors, Page immerses himself in a variety of reading material such as books, autobiographies and investment finance literature to gain perspective and remain open to different strategies. He expressed that he’s found value in learning how extremely successful people approach opportunities and overcome challenges. He also works to exemplify the Tenzo brand by engaging in a disciplined meditation practice, regular exercise and healthy eating.
“I think it’s important to look outside typical information flows to approach problems in a unique way and find inspiration,” he said. “I’ve found when everything in your life is aligned, growth comes more naturally and is less forced.”
“I’ve found when everything in your life is aligned, growth comes more naturally and is less forced.”
As a young founder, he was repeatedly advised that less is more but didn’t immediately implement this guidance.
“In the first year of Tenzo, we tried to do too much at once which put a lot of strain and stress on the company and ultimately throttled our growth,” Page continued. “Human bandwidth and time are often your most valuable resource as an early-stage startup, so it’s important to prioritize effectively and to not bite off more than you can actually handle.”
Page stressed the importance of building upon foundational projects. He recommended that new founders refrain from trying to do everything at once and build a strong foundation prior to adding new business features.
“Early on, we launched multiple sales channels that didn't connect back with each other effectively,” he said. “So it felt like we were running multiple businesses simultaneously instead of creating one sales engine that benefits from all sales channels.”
Page considers Tenzo’s success a marathon and not a sprint. He emphasized that great businesses are built over time with years and years of focus, discipline and hard work. With that, both Page and O’Dell are giving their all to build a legacy by providing better, cleaner energy to the masses.
“We hope to be a household name and a readily available product across America in all sales channels,” Page said. “We hope to inspire people to become the best possible versions of themselves and live a healthy life with the help of our product and the inspiring content we create.”
To learn more about Tenzo Tea's history, its growth and continued development, tune into the full podcast episode featuring Robbie Page on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and YouTube.