From Villanova to 'Shark Tank,' this foul-mouthed tea vendor is kicking it
Jenni-Lyn Williams landed a $150,000 investment by two Sharks in exchange for 50 percent of her company.
Ah, tea. That soothing, aromatic beverage favored by English royalty and commoners alike. Sometimes sipped from delicate cups of fine china by lunching women wearing big fancy hats; other times, from the plainest vessels by those in pajamas trying to kick a cold or flu.
And then there's Philly's own Jenni-Lyn Williams and her take on the drink.
Let's just say it's too bad Downton Abbey has wrapped. How hilarious would it have been to watch the aristocratic Crawleys bleeped as they called down to the kitchen for a pot of "Get Your S— Together" or "Calm the F— Down?"
Williams' Snarky Teas certainly are not intended for snobs. Or the easily offended.
"What says approachability more than slapping a curse word on the label?" the 30-year-old mother of an infant and a 2-year-old said of her marketing strategy, inspired by her roots in the Northeast's Parkwood section. "Putting the curse words on the label really spoke to Philadelphia."
And, evidently, to two celebrity investors. In an appearance on ABC's hit start-up-pitch show Shark Tank, taped in June and aired on Nov. 5, Williams, then nearly eight months pregnant, snagged a joint investment of $150,000 for a 50 percent stake in Snarky Tea. Her fans: regular Shark Kevin O'Leary, aka "Mr. Wonderful," who made millions in computer software; and guest Shark Bethenny Frankel, of Real Housewives fame, who went on to found the mega-popular Skinnygirl line of cocktails and snacks.
"It's indescribable," Williams said the day after her seven-minute segment aired and her deal was finally public. "I've been doing a lot of crying. I have so much to be thankful for."
It was a tamer version of the woman who exuded confidence and negotiating savvy on the Shark Tank soundstage in Southern California. Williams had been bleeped about 1 minute, 50 seconds in when she mentioned one of her teas, and, just after convincing Frankel and O'Leary to partner on the deal, she triumphantly told the cameras backstage: "To have two fierce bitches plus Mr. Wonderful, I really think we're going to knock it out of the park."
"Fierce Bitch" happens to be one of the Snarky Teas, a chai-like blend.
The company, which started sales in October 2016, had $270,000 in revenue in the first year but is not yet profitable. Eighty-five percent of sales are through snarkytea.com, the rest to about 50 stores, mostly women-owned boutiques and gift shops, Williams said. The teas were part of gift packages to nominees at the Academy Awards earlier this year.
While calling Williams "clever and smart," Shark Lori Greiner, a serial entrepreneur and infomercial guru who invested a few years ago in locally based Scrub Daddy (now a retail sensation), passed on Snarky Tea.
"I'm afraid it's not sustainable, and gimmicky branding I just don't see as a long future," she said.
Shark Robert Herjavec declared Snarky Tea "a little too edgy" and "a very narrow niche."
On that, O'Leary and Frankel agreed.
"You're going to alienate places like Walmart and a lot of major retailers," Frankel said during Williams' pitch. Minutes later, she was suggesting co-branding with Skinnygirl, though emphasizing the need to "tone down" the labels on the $12.99 Snarky Tea tins, containing 15 sachets of whole-leaf blends. "It's a good product, and I think that's totally lost in the message."
O'Leary saw potential to "sell a lot of these" through his "Something Wonderful" wedding-planning services platform.
Williams' venture began after she had been working at Lincoln Financial Group in Radnor for about six years, mostly in marketing, and realized, "I wasn't all that excited about insurance." She also was drinking too much coffee and started researching tea, only to discover it can be pretty high-octane, too — contrary, perhaps, to popular opinion.
"There's a gap in how people are marketing tea to the general population," she concluded. By then, she was enrolled in an MBA program at Villanova University, where her studies further emboldened her to launch Snarky Tea — which caused a pause in her graduate-degree pursuit.
In May, she moved with husband David and their children from King of Prussia to Sarasota, Fla., "to enjoy the weather all year round." Hurricanes excluded. She watched her Shark Tank debut with neighbors, while about 50 relatives and friends gathered to do the same in Feasterville.
John Kozup, an assistant professor of marketing at Villanova, watched, too. He taught Williams in his strategic management of marketing class, where Snarky Tea was "heavily discussed and incubated," he said.
As for the salty language on its labels, Kozup doesn't object. But on some blends, he suggested, there is opportunity for "more of a PG-13 take."