Nicole Dean on KOLLO Tea and Building a Business
- Written By:Allie Rose
It was a trip to Japan that inspired Nicole Dean to go from biotechnology to tea. While there, she learned the art and tradition of tea and left inspired to create her own product for tea drinkers. Her brand, KOLLO, launched in 2017 with the mission to elevate the iced tea category by offering the first single-source, organic bottled iced tea made without sweeteners, added flavors, or preservatives. We caught up with the founder to hear more about her career journey and how she takes care of herself.
How did you get started in the industry?
My entrance into the beverage industry was not deliberate by any means, but serendipitous nonetheless. My professional goal since the age of 15 was to become a physician, and thus the bulk of my schooling was focused on science and healthcare. I am a medical school drop-out who went on to receive a Master’s in Healthcare Administration and later an MBA. While in between jobs in Biotechnology, I began drinking more and more loose leaf tea, as coffee does not work well for me. Ultimately, I was seeking a bottled version of tea that rivaled the teas I was making at home and could not find any on the market. As many businesses do, I started my business to satisfy a need I had personally, and crossed my fingers others had this need as well!
Did you always know this was something you wanted to do?
On its face no, but reflecting back on how I envisioned my life, I am exactly where I intended to be. My interest in science, business, food, and culture have always been apparent, but I was internally struggling to find out how to foster those interests. I am eternally grateful for the opportunities I was afforded in science and have no doubt that I needed to go down that path in order to lead me to starting my business. If you would have told my 20-year old self that I was going to be founding a tea company, I would have said you were crazy…and somehow I am exactly where I always wanted to be.
What inspired you to create KOLLO?
As a graduation gift to myself, I took a solo trip to Japan to learn more about tea and tea ceremonies. I have always had an affinity towards Japanese culture, and in particular their elegant approach to food and beverage. While there, I was struck by the ubiquity of unsweetened, RTD (ready-to-drink), teas available even in vending machines, and was longing for such a product once I returned. I like to believe that there is a large market of tea drinkers like myself who want a convenient bottled tea that they can feel good about drinking. For me, this means stripping away anything that detracts from the teas themselves such as preservatives, additives, sweeteners or flavorings.
What was your biggest fear when starting your own business?
I was not necessarily fearful of the hard work it takes to get a business off the ground, but I was definitely fearful that consumers would not understand the value of the product itself, including the packaging and brand ethos. Logistically, I had ZERO clue how one produces a beverage so it was a steep learning curve. We are lucky to live in a time that many of the answers we seek are available on the internet, which over time helped me alleviate feelings of not knowing what the heck I was doing. I also believe that entering an industry that you know very little about has its advantages and allows you to be more in-tune with what your intuition is telling you.
What separates KOLLO from other brands on the market?
For KOLLO teas we have removed many of the components traditionally added to bottled beverages (citric acid, sugar etc.), in order to showcase the teas as we believe they are meant to be enjoyed. We use only single-source, super-premium, whole-leaf teas to brew, and cold-brew the teas for 24-hours before hand bottling in small batches. I really appreciate the movement towards transparency in products and that many more companies are taking the time to make deliberate “value-add” choices when sourcing ingredients. I hope KOLLO is a small part of that movement.
For the time being, I plan to concentrate on our current line of bottled teas and work towards making them available to more consumers. As the teas are our core competency, I have found it satisfying to focus on one thing and do it the best way that I know how. With that being said, we are currently exploring some exciting product line extensions that we think will complement our current offerings well without compromising quality. With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have seen a large up-tick in our direct-to-consumer business and hope to keep expanding that portion of our business in the future.
“Trust the process”. I personally struggled for years trying to fit myself in a box professionally that did not ultimately feed my soul. We all want things to happen very quickly, but I urge everyone I meet to trust that things happen when they are supposed to whether it be professional, romantic or otherwise. Intuition is a great driver, but can take years to move you to where you need to be.
How do you fuel your body as a woman on the move?
For anyone familiar with the Los Angeles natural food store Erewhon, it will come as no surprise that they are my go-to for healthy and delicious food. Cooking is not something I enjoy, but eating is, so I love their prepared foods and produce. As a self-proclaimed “label-reader”, I try to keep my consumption of beverages that contain preservatives to a minimum when possible, so I drink 1-2 KOLLO teas each day for a boost. I believe balance is key and that the more in-tune we are to our body the better. Sometimes I crave kale, and sometimes I crave pizza. I try not to beat myself up about my food decisions.
What are your beauty obsessions?
I have extremely curly hair, so a moisturizing conditioner is key for me. Currently I am using DevaCurl One Condition as both a conditioner and styling product.
My all-time favorite body product is Osea Body Balm, which for my dry skin has been a dream. I also love Beautycounter sunscreen for my face and body. Both brands have fantastic products with ingredients you can feel good about.
My make-up routine is very minimalist, but I tend to always at least wear under-eye concealer and mascara. For the past year or two I have been predominantly wearing purple or burgundy mascara, as I have found that black looks quite harsh on me. My current favorite is Dior Diorshow mascara in purple. For lips, I purchase Bobbi Brown lip liner in “Ballet Pink” in bulk, as it seems to be the most natural looking color on me.
I have been prone to bouts of acne in the past, so I try to keep my facial moisturizer as consistent as possible. On the high-end, I adore Retrouve Intensive Facial Moisturizer, and on the more-affordable end, I have used Neutrogena Oil-Free Moisturizer daily since I was 13 years old! Ultimately, I would like to transition all of my beauty products to the more natural end of the spectrum, so shopping at Detox Market in LA is always such a wonderful experience.
What does beauty from the inside out mean to you?
Philosophically, having a joyful and appreciative outlook on life allows you to be kind to others and yourself. I believe there is so much to be thankful for and try to treat people well.
More practically, I am a huge proponent of getting a proper amount of sleep, which ideally for me is 8+ hours. I love morning sunlight so I try to get the bulk of my work done in the morning and early afternoon. Similarly, I try to have a balance of diet and exercise that I can maintain without burning out. For me this means working out with a trainer twice a week at an amazing gym, Heart and Hustle, and walking my dogs often. I might possibly be the only woman in Los Angeles who does not do yoga, although I probably should.
If you could go back and tell yourself one thing before you started your career, wohat would it be?
“This too shall pass”. When I feel up against the wall, I tend to isolate instead of reaching out others, which is something I am constantly trying to work on. The moments I thought were devastating at them time, do not last forever and were necessary to get me to the point I am at today. Additionally, I would remind myself how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to take a chance on my idea. I realize that everyone is not in a position to start their own business, and it is a privilege that I should not take for granted.
What advice would you give to someone looking to start their own business?
Listen to your gut, and those people around you who truly understand your vision. Everyone will have an opinion about your business, but it is helpful to have select few who bring you back to center when you are feeling out of control…the rest is noise.
More practically, I would definitely suggest conducting as much market research as possible beforehand, to determine the market opportunity. That is not to say entering a crowded market is always a bad idea, but I think it is important to know the competitive landscape and how your product or service is differentiated.
Finally, be kind and courteous. People will forget what you said, but not how you made them feel.
KOLLO teas are currently available in select retailers in Los Angeles, New York, and Las Vegas, as well as at thekollo.com