Being a non-coffee drinker meant Melissa Edyvean often felt a bit ‘on the outer’ at café gatherings with friends and, certain that she wasn’t alone, she decided to introduce premium chai latte to the Australian market. The only obstacle being that she, and her partner Martin, had never started a business before.

Since its launch in 2005, Bondi Chai now sell over half a million serves of chai a month in Australia and exports to a growing number of countries, including India – the home of chai!

“The learning curve was more a cliff than a curve, but I am  really enjoying the roller coaster ride of a new business experience,” says Melissa.

We chat with Melissa about the trials and tribulations of owning a business, what she would do differently and her tips for other women starting their own business.

What gave you the idea to start your own business?
We were already running our own PR/Marketing consultancy when we discovered chai latte whilst on holidays in the States in 2000.

My partner Martin started that business when he lost his position as the Australian MD of a Japanese company that was shut down by the banks during Japanese economic collapse in 1989. He’d never been made ‘redundant’ before, so it shook him pretty badly and he made a commitment there and then that he would never again work for another company.

One of his previous lives had been as a senior political journalist so he started his own business in PR/Government relations. We got together in 1999 and I joined him in that business – I have a graphic design background so I was able to add another dimension. After discovering chai latte, we decided to add a small chai latte ‘arm’ to or company.

We knew nothing about the food and beverage industry, but when we looked around, we couldn’t find any chai latte in Australia and it seemed to us that it was only a matter of time before something that good would be brought here by somebody. We just thought “why not us”?

We didn’t really get serious about it until a few years later when the US brand we had been working with was sold and the new owners just cut Australia out of their sales plans. That gave us the opportunity to blend our own product and we had a few ideas about how to improve on the brand we’d been selling so we spent about the next eight months creating a brand, creating our own recipes, getting a business plan together, organising finance (we set up a $100k line-of-credit – remember those! – against our home). All while still running our PR company to keep food on the table. We launched our own product in May2005, and both Martin and I went full time in August that year.

What makes your product different from other chai brands?
The principal difference is that it was blended from the start to dissolve in milk – a feat which most food scientists said couldn’t be done – but we insisted that they prove themselves wrong, and we found someone who could.

The milk-soluble formula, in turn, delivers all the other attributes that have made our product the most awarded of its kind in the country – creaminess, great taste profiles (no two chai latte brands are the same and can vary from ‘undrinkable’ to ‘unbelievable’!). Our product is also low-dose, meaning lower costs per serve to the cafe owner than every other chai latte we’ve encountered.

It’s gluten-free, low caffeine and has none of the ‘industrial nasties’ often needed to make a milk-drink with powder and water. And it has just been selected as one of only four beverage finalists in the Healthy Food Awards.

Finally, I’m not aware of any other ‘western’ chai latte being sold in India – as is our product. You can enjoy a Bondi Chai in many places around India – even in the most prestigious hotel in the country – the Oberoi Hotel – or a café in Kathmandu!

Who is your business inspiration or mentor?
There’s an old saying about “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear” and we’ve been fortunate to have many teachers ‘appear’ when we’ve needed them. We’ve built a completely outsourced business model which we manage from home – and with only one full-time employee – so we’re always conscious of finding people who can learn from or be inspired by.

There have been lots of people – Oprah Winfrey, Robert Kiyosaki, Dr John DeMartini, Sir Richard Branson and most recently by our new sales manager who inspires us every day with her enthusiasm for our product and the energy she puts in to sharing it with as many people as she can.

Our mentor, for many years now, is Peter Irvine, a co-founder of the Gloria Jeans empire. We read Peter’s first book, thought it would be wonderful if he would offer us some advice and went to a breakfast he was speaking at so that we could meet him. We were over the moon when he agreed to help us.

What, if anything, would you do differently with your business?
We strongly believe that the only real mistake you can ever make is not to learn from your mistakes.

I hope we’ve learned something from everything that we’ve done or that’s happened that we wish had turned out differently so in that sense, even when things didn’t go the way we had originally planned or hoped, the lessons we learned definitely made us stronger.

What tips would you give women wanting to start their own business?
Get advice from people you respect but always go with your own gut feeling. Learn as much as you can – by doing as much as you can – early on, when the ‘school fees’ are lowest.

Do your research – make sure your product or service is the best it can be and that it’s something that’s truly needed – remembering that just because you like it won’t necessarily mean that other people will.

But if it’s a great product/service that people really need, enough people will pay for it to keep you going while through your years as an amateur and learning to become a pro.

We hear things like “you’re a woman, you can do anything” all the time these days, and of course that’s true. But I do think we’ve also got to realise that while we can do anything, we can’t do everything.

When I was growing up only rich people had a housekeeper come in a clean or do the ironing. But when I realised that my time was worth more when spent in my business than cleaning the house, it just didn’t make sense any more to be trying to do that job as well.

What’s next for Bondi Chai?
We have so much we still want to achieve with our product and brand – both in Australia and overseas. Some of our bigger plans include major expansion overseas with distributors in three new countries currently under way. We are also working on several co-branding and licensing arrangements in a range of complementary products that will help us to expand our brand.

Who are your most inspiring business women? Tell us in the comments!