Women We’re Watching: Meet Staci Brinkman of Austin Tea Start-up Sips by
Staci Brinkman has adored tea since she was a little girl—taking her from childhood tea parties to college study sessions. And after spending time traveling in China and Japan, her tea obsession skyrocketed. So, she created a full blown business plan around it. That’s when Staci launched Sips by, a tea subscription box company on a mission to make tea-drinking fun, simple and personalized to your taste. Her innovative technology platform, incredible growth success (scaling to 300,000 subscribers) and thoughtful company-first mentality make Staci a Woman We’re Watching.
What originally inspired you to get into the tea business, and launch Sips by?
I collected miniature tea sets as a kid and began drinking tea regularly as a college student to fuel late night study sessions. In 2010, I spent some time in Japan and China, and what was once a hobby turned into a full-blown obsession. After returning home and spending hours searching through different brand websites and grocery store shelves, I often wished I had a clever tea-drinking friend who could show me the way. In 2017, I launched Sips by to remove the hassle of researching the best brands, searching for the hidden gem teas and reconciling a world of ambiguous tea options back to your unique taste preferences.
On your journey to launch, you struggled finding great tea that was affordable and easy to navigate. How do you address these pain points for your customers?
Our personalized subscription boxes are $15 per month, and for that price, members can try four new teas each month from brands we have sourced and approved, including teas that are difficult to find in the U.S. We also partner with tea brands to provide discounts to our members. And with Sips by’s Steep technology, the more teas our members rate, the better the selections for them become. It helps them discover great teas they’ll love that they might never have found otherwise.
Tell me more about your proprietary Steep technology platform, personalizing each box for your member’s preferences. Walk me through the user’s experience!
Providing a unique and personalized experience for our tea drinking members is a challenging task. Some members are experienced tea drinkers who want to broaden their horizons and others are beginners who don’t know what they like. Matching members with teas based on their known preferences as well as introducing them to new types of teas and flavors is performed by Steep, our internal technology platform.
Steep hosts our proprietary suite of algorithms, with deep learning to provide the right tea matches and product recommendations for our members. Steep gets an initial impression of a member based on their unique answers to our tea profile quiz. As each member receives teas and rates them, we gain a deeper understanding of their preferences and are able to provide more and more relevant teas over time. Steep is constantly evolving, guided by our tea experts, customer ratings, and hundreds of parameters across all teas, ensuring the tea journey of a lifetime for our members.
Your subscription service offers 150+ quality global tea brands. How do you go about choosing which brands you work with and give your “stamp of approval”?
We work with 150+ quality tea brands from all corners of the world, including large global brands, local tea shops and tea farms. We enjoy uncovering brands that secure the hidden gems from tea farms around the world and brands who create delicious hand-crafted blends. We enthusiastically partner with other small businesses, and 50+ of our brand partners are owner-operated and hand-pack each tea they share with our members.
We even highlighted some of our small business partners on Small Business Saturday this year, with a curated Small Business Brands Tea Box. We love brands that have a unique story and we value ethical sourcing and sustainable practices. At the end of the day, we work with the brands whose offerings can provide the breadth and depth of quality teas needed to delight our customers.
We wouldn’t ask our members to drink anything that we wouldn’t, so every single new tea is taste-tested and approved in house. When selecting teas for each Sips by Box, we consider a number of different characteristics, including flavor profile, tea type, bagged vs. loose, flavored vs. pure, caffeine content, to name a few. We care to make sure our tea portfolio is diverse enough to satisfy each member’s unique tastes!
You have grown your membership to 300,000 subscribers. What do you feel was paramount to your growth and success, and how did you raise the capital to scale?
I think that authenticity is key for Sips by. We’re tea drinkers ourselves and have provided a solution we wished existed. We also are our target demographic, from our founder to the team that works together to provide Sips by to our customers.
I raised capital to scale, relying heavily on demonstrated growth. A professional mentor and advisor to me—who invested in a previous start-up I co-founded—led our seed round. I think we had a uniquely smooth raise after having bootstrapped the company for the first two years (packing 100,000 Sips by Boxes out of our home)!
What are some of the challenges you face as a company with a subscription box model, and how have you overcome some of these challenges?
We face challenges in specifically differentiating the personalization aspect of our service relative to other services who claim they’re personalized. Sips by curates a collection of premium teas from more than 150 brands around the world, and then personalizes selections unique to each individual customer’s taste profile.
The Sips by Box is a unique product and, other than what StitchFix does for clothing and personal style, there really isn’t a service like us out there—especially not in tea. Many subscriptions can advertise themselves as “curated” or ask someone if they want caffeinated or not caffeinated and claim they’re “personalized,” but what Sips by actually does is so uniquely different, much more advanced. It’s why we’ve been able to grow so quickly, and why our customers love their Sips by Boxes!
You pride yourself on being a customer-first company. What’s your biggest advice for other brands looking to connect with their customers on a deeper, more thoughtful level?
There’s nothing more important than this. I have the words “connection” and “values” written on a large piece of paper taped to my office wall and I see it every day I walk in. I share this message with our team, often. There’s nothing that matters more than authentically connecting with our customers, brand partners, and each other. People are what matter most. Every day.
Lastly, if you were a type of tea, what would you be and why?
Most days, I would be an active chai spice blend with an assamica black tea base and a healthy ratio of clove, cinnamon and cardamom, hand-crafted with love and care using tea and spices grown on small family farms across India, hand-carried back to the states in a hand-painted tin my grandmother gifted me, brewed with water from fresh Nordic springs in a small cozy chat space that feels like love in Austin, Texas. I relish days I can be a Japanese Gyokuro—shade grown and full of peace, calm and zen.
Interested in other women making waves in wellness? Check out our full interview series of Women We’re Watching.
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