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Pauline Ang & Olivia Chen Of Twrl Milk Tea: 5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand

This “ah ha” moment came during the pandemic when I could not go out and buy a boba tea drink, and the online options were all made with way too much sugar, preservatives and lots of added flavoring — some were not even real brewed tea! Being stuck at home made me realize that I wanted another alternative for Milk Tea and a healthy one that I would feel good about drinking.

As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Pauline Ang and Olivia Chen.

Pauline Ang, Founder & CEO Bio:

Pauline Ang is the founder and CEO of Twrl Milk Tea. She grew up in Hawaii, where Asian-fusion cuisine, and Asian-inspired beverages were part of everyday life. Her happy place has always been creating, whether it be an art project with her kids or formulating the next flavor of milk tea! After attending UC Berkeley, her career started in marketing communications at a software company where she realized her true love of design. She then went on to receive a masters in fine arts and spent the next 15 years in branding and food & beverage packaging design as a Design Director. After taking a break to spend more time with her family and young children, she needed a real pick-me-up — something she felt truly passionate about, and that she would be proud to share with her family. That’s when she realized she could combine the two loves of design and milk tea together to create Twrl Milk Tea!

  • Favorite Twrl Milk Tea flavor: Too hard to choose but if I had to Original Black!
  • Favorite Twrl Milk Tea pairing: salt and pepper tofu, tsukemen.

Oliva Chen, Co-founder & CMO Bio:

Olivia Chen is Co-Founder and CMO of Twrl Milk Tea. Olivia was born in the Midwest and raised in Northern California by parents who immigrated from Taiwan. Growing up, she loved the treats her relatives brought from Taiwan, and especially the warm memories of making boba tea together at home. After graduating from UC Berkeley, she managed partner relationships at a startup, where she met Pauline. She earned an MBA/MA from The Wharton School & the Lauder Institute, then led marketing teams at Estee Lauder for global brands like Clinique, Donna Karan Cosmetics, Origins. Olivia’s love of marketing and event planning led her to become a Publicist for award winning authors of Amazon and New York Times bestsellers. Olivia brought her love of food and her expertise in marketing, business development, and sales to Twrl Milk Tea, as well as a strong passion for positive change and growth. In her spare time, Olivia is an avid baker and bento creator.

  • Favorite Twrl Milk Tea flavor: Supreme Jasmine & Hojicha Roasted Green Tea.
  • Favorite Twrl Milk Tea pairing: Taiwanese pineapple cakes.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

Pauline Ang

As I reflect about how this all started, I really look back to my roots. I was born in Hong Kong, and my family immigrated to Hawaii when I was 5 years old. My dad stayed at his job in Hong Kong till I was in high school, so my mom was essentially a single mom for most of my childhood. My earliest memory of milk tea was during the visits with my dad in HK where we spent many meals at restaurants where my parents would always order hot tea with milk & sugar (in the British way), of which I was always allowed a few coveted sips! 😋

As an only child, I had to entertain myself in all sorts of creative ways. For me, this meant collecting business cards and magazine ads, and “designing” stationery & recipe cards (using my rubber stamp collection, of course!). I dreamt about running my own business — which then just meant selling random stuff I made to my family! 😂

Growing up in Hawaii, Asian-fusion cuisine, and Asian-inspired drinks were a big part of my life. To me, this type of food and drink was considered the norm, where parts of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino and American food were all mixed together. I honestly didn’t really know any other way of eating until I moved to California to attend college. And that’s when I became obsessed with milk tea & boba tea, as well as realizing there was a big discrepancy in quality and types of ingredients used.

Olivia Chen

I was born in the Midwest and grew up in Bay Area, CA. My parents immigrated from Taiwan. Growing up, I was a typical American Born Chinese (ABC) kid, spoke English at school and with my friends and Chin-glish at home. On Saturdays, I went to Chinese school to learn Mandarin but during recess spoke English with all my classmates. At Chinese school, I learned about Chinese traditions and stories but it all felt pretty distant from me. With my extended family in Taiwan and my life as an ABC fairly set, I definitely felt more American but also never quite fitting in completely because my family also didn’t follow or understand all the American traditions or holidays.

It all changed in middle school when my aunt, uncle and my cousin came to visit us and brought Taiwanese treats. I was suddenly exposed to a new world of Taiwanse dramas, amazing nougat candies, pineapple cakes and Boba tea. I remember my aunt and cousin telling us how there was this new craze in Taiwan called Bubble Tea. We DIY our own Bubble tea in our kitchen, cooking the tapioca balls they brought from Taiwan and shaking our own concoction of milk tea. So much cream was used! When I think about it, I can’t believe I drank all that … it was so high in calories and sugar! I have such fond memories of brewing different types of teas and trying to make different toppings including taro and red bean. Back then, there were no boba tea shops so we made it all at home.

Taiwanese food and milk tea was a bridge that brought me closer to my heritage and my relatives. The experiences of eating delicious treats and drinking our homemade Boba teas while watching Taiwanese dramas together inspired me to later study abroad in Taiwan when I was in college and where I had really amazing teas including Boba tea.

Eating and drinking together transcends culture and language barriers. To this day, when I go back to Taiwan, family meals and celebrations are what gather us together and where happy memories are formed. I am forever grateful that I come from a family of foodies and from a place where Boba tea was founded.

Together

We have been friends for over 20 years, and met while working together in the marketing team at a startup under the tutelage of Glenn Kelman, now the CEO of Redfin. We became instant friends, and over the years, shared similar values focused on a strong passion for healthy lifestyle, sustainability and a love for Asian milk tea.

During the pandemic, Pauline remembered that Olivia shared a passion for creating their own food product years ago, before they even had kids. They decided to partner together and share with others their shared passion for good food, sustainability and shared childhood memories of milk tea.

As self-proclaimed foodie moms, we wanted something better to drink for ourselves and our kids rather than the high-sugar, high calorie bubble/boba tea options that are currently out in the market. Twrl Milk Tea was created out of a need that we truly could not find anywhere, and out of a personal need as caregivers that needed a pick-me-up without the guilt! It also became a project that we both felt truly passionate about, and a pick-me-up in our own lives — working towards something we could both own and believe in. We wanted a milk tea that we could literally drink everyday (and still do!) that was lower in calories and sugar. It had to be plant-based (Pauline is vegan) so it could be dairy-free and Top-8 allergen free (including nut free). We wanted Twrl to be the most sustainable milk tea on the market, and chose pea milk, not only because it pairs amazingly well with tea, but also uses the least amount of water and carbon emissions. As busy moms, we wanted the drink in a can so we could take on the go with our kids.

Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?

After spending 15+ years at a design agency, I decided to take a break to spend more time with my family. However, to be truly honest, those few years at home being a stay-at-home mom wasn’t what I expected. I thought I could easily juggle childcare and freelance design work for other brands but it really wasn’t where my passion was. I couldn’t get excited about it, and it was a low point where I felt “stuck” and didn’t know what to do. In truth, I needed a real “pick-me-up”. It was around my lowest point when I decided to just “do something”, which for me meant helping out a good friend of mine who was also trying to start her own business as a career coach. We did a trade — I designed her website and she coached me on my career path. There was a lot of crying, self-realization, digging deep and a bit of reminiscing about that naive childhood dream. Starting my own CPG business wasn’t even on the radar of the things I thought I could do, but through these sessions with my friend, I felt empowered and took things one step at a time. That’s when I had the “ah ha” moment — I could combine my two loves of design and milk tea, along with my HK/Hawaii roots and childhood dream all together to create Twrl Milk Tea!

This “ah ha” moment came during the pandemic when I could not go out and buy a boba tea drink, and the online options were all made with way too much sugar, preservatives and lots of added flavoring — some were not even real brewed tea! Being stuck at home made me realize that I wanted another alternative for Milk Tea and a healthy one that I would feel good about drinking.

We searched everywhere for a guilt-free alternative to cafe-made boba teas — which we were drinking way too much of before we started Twrl! When we couldn’t find this alternative, that’s when we decided we had to create our own.

As a 100% minority and women-owned company, we are part of a new trend of Asian Americans combining their heritage and childhood experiences into creating new and emerging plant-based CPG companies. The goal for Twrl Milk Tea is to share this healthier version of the quintessential Asian drink with the mainstream, to make it a convenient drink that everyone can grab from the fridge or cooler, take on the road, picnics, parties, anytime, anywhere. With only 45–50 calories and 6–7g of sugar, it’s the perfect pick-me-up that we, along with our kids, could feel good about drinking!

We soft launched in February 2021 so just under a year, we sold over 100,000 cans in 10 months and are grateful to our loyal consumer base. Our 2021 highlights include 15 pop-ups and 15 press mentions https://www.instagram.com/p/CYKCvhUDe-Q/?utm_medium=copy_link

We’re thrilled that Twrl Milk Tea is a customer and on Bon Appetit’s Highly Recommended List https://www.instagram.com/p/CYbtSTLlv9G/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_linkArticle https://www.bonappetit.com/story/twrl-milk-tea

Can you share a story about the [biggest] mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first started this endeavor to create a great-tasting, plant-based canned milk tea, there was a steep learning curve into the world of beverages. What most people do not know is that there is no added flavoring or powders in Twrl Milk Tea, it’s well… real brewed tea! It may seem obvious, but if you look closely at other ready-to-drink tea labels, you will know this is not always the case.

During our first round of testing at the manufacturer, we were told it was normal to add natural flavoring to enhance the “tea” flavor because much of the flavor is literally cooked out during the manufacturing process. When I tasted our first batch of samples, it was awful, nothing like what I had created and tested in my home kitchen. Instead of compromising and launching with a sub-par product, we went back to the drawing board and started the reformulation process all over again. We ended up delaying our launch by almost 6 months. It was extremely disheartening but we were adamant that we would only sell a product that we would drink ourselves using real ingredients.

Luckily, we were connected to a few amazing farmers, and the teas we now use in Twrl Milk Tea are from small family farms using beyond-organic farming practices. These teas are truly the highest quality and retain their flavor through the manufacturing process, allowing us to bypass the need for added flavoring. The premium quality of our teas also means it contains more antioxidants and adaptogens than lower-priced canned milk teas.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?

The most common mistake is to expand too quickly in too many directions. We constantly have daily check-ins, multiple times a day to check on top priorities. Every day, we ask ourselves, what is critical and must be done for long term and short term growth. A good list, a good notebook and a good team are important so you can divide and conquer.

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

  1. Market research the industry and see if there is a gap, a white space for what you are creating
  2. Interview people who would be potential customers, so you understand their needs
  3. Understand what value your product brings to the table
  4. Think about if you have the bandwidth to do this 24–7, it’s all consuming as a founder
  5. Plan the product development and have good marketing to back it up

Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?

From our experience, the biggest challenge is execution. Take one step at a time and have milestones. Every day, we celebrate big and small wins. It’s important to celebrate all milestones as you can quickly get deep into things and not see the bigger picture. Launching a successful brand is a process and not an easy one. Be realistic about your capabilities and look for good people to join your company so you can help it be the “unicorn” it is!

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

Twrl Milk Tea started with a passion that we both share. It was something we grew up with but we wanted to take it to a new level and share it with friends and family. I think a successful business must start with a passion, and of course you innovate along the way. Try creating it at home, and test it with friends and family first. There’s no need to spend the money with an invention consultant unless you truly are unable to create a homemade version of your idea.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

We decided to bootstrap Twrl Milk Tea because we felt confident in our product and ability to bring it to market. Luckily, our operations are lean. We do our sales, marketing, design and product packaging in-house because we both have years of experience in these areas. Many companies need to rely on outside consultants or vendors. The best way to decide is how much you can do yourself and what you need to outsource. If you need to hire people to do the job, that will determine how much money you need in addition to the cost of building the product.

Fundraising is a full time project that requires a lot of time and energy in terms of marketing and sales. For Twrl Milk Tea, it is important when we decide to bring in outside funding that the partner that values sustainability and shares the same vision for healthy lifestyle products.

Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?

The internet is a great start. There are several good online communities including Startup CPG and WeWork Food Labs that are worth joining. It is important to network and ask questions. You will need to spend the time researching, setting up calls and interviewing potential manufacturers. We took about a year to develop the product in 2020 and soft launched Twrl Milk Tea in February 2021.

In terms of looking for good retailers and distributors, it is important to have a person that is good at sales and good with relationship building. This person is key to landing new retailers and a distributor. There is no trick but a lot of hustle and hard work is needed.

Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Market research the industry and see if there is a gap, a white space for what you are creating

  • Beverage is a crowded space but no one has a premium plant-based milk tea brand that is low in sugar/calorie and uses real ingredients. We are the first to use pea milk combined with nitro-infused technology in our beverages. There is no one with a similar product and this uniqueness is what makes us stand out in the beverage category and have retailers and distributors take notice of us.

2. Interview people who would be potential customers, so you understand their needs

  • First and foremost, we are the target customer and we do use ourselves as a barometer of what we want to produce. To validate our instincts, we conduct focus groups and surveys on our product development and marketing messages to make sure they resonate with our target audience. We love reading and hearing customer feedback as it gives us inspiration and motivation as we grow our business.

Quote from Anna H.

“I was HOOKED instantly!! Twrl is my dream — HIGH concentrate of flavor, vegan, and very low in sugar while still having the texture and taste benefits of the added milk. I have tried all the flavors, and the Original Black is far and away my favorite, but all are great. I have recommended them to friends already. I’m so glad that you are answering this niche need! I will never buy packaged high dairy/high sugar canned milk teas again (like those you find at H Mart). Thank you!!!”

3. Understand what value your product brings to the table

  • At Twrl Milk Tea, we are committed to creating great tasting consciously-made plant-based milk tea that is low in sugar and calories and uses sustainable and climate-friendly ingredients. Everything we do in terms of development and marketing is centered around this message.
  1. Think about if you have the bandwidth to do this 24–7, it’s all consuming as a founder
  2. Often times there are a lot of great ideas and you will find a lot of people love giving well-intended advice. However, there are only 24 hours a day. So, it is important to prioritize and think about what projects will produce short-term and long-term results. As a small business founder there are never enough hours in the day to finish everything you need to do, and so you have to decide what areas need to be worked on.
  3. Plan the product development and have good marketing to back it up
  4. At Twrl Milk Tea, good product and marketing go hand in hand. We do both operations in-house and this allows us to easily make changes to operations and execution. As a small business it is important to iterate and see what resonates with consumers as you test your products and messages. Understand your core message but keep in mind there are a million ways to consumers.

Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?

For a beverage brand like Twrl Milk Tea, taste is really EVERYTHING. We created something that we literally drink everyday ourselves because we are obsessed with it! Every founder knows in their gut how good their product is, and if it’s just so-so, your customers will feel the same. We are 100% committed to the quality and taste of our product, so much so that we had to delay our product launch by 6 months because we refused to add faux flavoring to our tea.

Then we found the one or two messages that really resonated with our customers and doubled down on these messages. For us, it was a guilt-free version of the high sugar/high calorie bubble tea, as well as a daily coffee alternative for people who didn’t want the jitters or had an upset stomach from too much coffee but still needed a pick-me-up.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

As friends for over 20 years, we share a love for good food and the community we live in. We are super passionate about producing great-tasting, plant-based milk tea, using the best and cleanest, most climate-friendly ingredients possible, without having to compromise on flavor.

We made a conscious decision to be as climate-friendly as possible, and as a result, our milk teas are made with pea-milk, the most sustainable plant based milk there is on the market using 4x less carbon emissions than a glass of dairy milk, 85% less water than almond milk, and less fertilizer than oat and soy milk combined.

The teas that we source from our small family farms are also grown using most sustainable farming practices. Unlike large commercial farms, our farmers only grow in season, practice biodiversity on their farms, and don’t over use the soil. Because there are no pesticides used, the tea plants we source from have to “work” harder against other competitive plants and insects growing in the region. As a result, our teas have higher antioxidants and better flavor in their teas vs “lazy” plants who have pesticides to do the work for them

A key part of Twrl Milk Tea is our commitment to giving back to the community. We actively seek to promote and work with our local community, especially minority & women groups.

This past summer, we launched Summer Delight Box featuring all AAPI female founders and their brands. Then this fall, we created a Mooncake Moments Box featuring AAPI founders which sold out in less than 2 weeks. 100% proceeds of both boxes were donated to nonprofits focused on providing education to underprivileged communities. These curated boxes are labor of love and a way for us to give back to the community we live in.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

As working professionals and also moms, we want to promote a healthy and well-balanced lifestyle that supports sustainability and a focus on great tasting products. Here at Twrl Milk Tea, we are all about good health and good ingredients. We launched the Twrl Me Up Ultimate Self-Care Box that focuses on sharing goodness and joy — the perfect pick-me-up for both mind and body.

These limited edition boxes come with our best-selling variety 12-pack of milk teas as well as a set of five custom designed positive affirmations postcards. Each postcard is specially designed by a curated selection of small-scale female artists in efforts to support and empower the women in and outside the art community. A portion of the proceeds from Twrl Me Up will be donated to AAPI nonprofits focused on mental health and well-being.

We also collaborated with the Dance community to showcase their Twrl Signature Dance as a celebration of our Twrl Me Up launch. Dance is artistic expression and a form of healing and provides inspiration and joy to others. #twrlmeup

The inspiration for Twrl Me Up came because many of us, including parents, professionals and everyone in between, are electing to continue to work from home. As all of us are juggling daily changes and increased responsibilities, it is easy to feel stressed out. According to the American Psychological Association, 2 in 3 adults have reported increased stress over the course of the pandemic. Though it isn’t what we thought how life and the workplace would be, we wanted to share with everyone what has been our secret pick-me-up during COVID-19. The Twrl Me Up Gift Box is something everyone can enjoy!

Twrl Milk Teas have been our secret pick-me-up during these crazy times. When we needed that morning boost or that afternoon pick-me-up, we were lucky to grab a chilled, guilt-free Twrl Milk Tea from our fridges. Now, we want to share that secret with YOU!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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