An entrepreneurial Ole shares how she built a multi-million dollar business
Nothing highlights the dreams of American entrepreneurs quite like ABC’s hit reality TV show Shark Tank.
In each episode of the program, a series of business owners pitch their products and companies to a team of “shark” investors well-known for their own entrepreneurial success. Sometimes the sharks bite, making the entrepreneur an offer that can help launch their product into millions of households across the country. Other times, the sharks point out the myriad ways they think a business plan will sink — and the entrepreneur leaves empty-handed and broken-hearted.
It was with all this in the back of her mind that St. Olaf College alumna Kate Tecku Field ’10 stood in front of the Shark Tank investors — and cameras — last fall to pitch her business venture, The Kombucha Shop.
Field asked the sharks for $350,000 in exchange for 10 percent equity in The Kombucha Shop, an e-commerce company that sells kits to brew the fermented tea beverage kombucha at home. Each kit costs $45 and includes all the ingredients and equipment to brew the drink, which is made from green or black tea and is known for its health benefits.
Asking the sharks to believe in her business was nerve-wracking.
“I had grown up in my business life watching Shark Tank and learning from it, but I never actually thought I’d be on it,” Field says.
As she stood before the sharks, she relied on the months of preparation she had done for the pitch — and a rush of adrenaline.
Her planning, attention to detail, and commitment paid off. The sharks loved The Kombucha Shop, and Field accepted a shared deal with shark investor Barbara Corcoran and guest shark Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx.
“The viewer reaction to the episode was overwhelmingly positive,” Field says. “Sales shot up and we were just buried under orders for a month after the airing.”
In a recent profile, the Wisconsin State Journal noted that Field’s product is the top-selling kombucha brewing kit in the world, and The Kombucha Shop has grown into a multi-million dollar company.
“I started this business not because I wanted to become a well-known entrepreneur, but because I wanted to be financially independent and build a business and product that I really care about,” Field says.
“I started this business not because I wanted to become a well-known entrepreneur, but because I wanted to be financially independent and build a business and product that I really care about.”
With The Kombucha Shop — and an overwhelmingly successful appearance on Shark Tank— she’s done both.
An unexpected entrepreneur
Field is looking forward to sharing her experience with St. Olaf students when she returns to campus this week to deliver the keynote address at the annual Ole Cup, an entrepreneurial competition hosted by the St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career that provides current students with the resources to help turn their business ideas into reality.
What advice will Field give to young entrepreneurs at Ole Cup? “Don’t let the fear of failure stop you,” she says. “No matter how it goes, you learn and grow an incredible amount. And you may just surprise yourself with what you can accomplish.”
While she’s eager to meet with Oles and share the lessons she’s learned about being an entrepreneur, Field is the first to point out that she didn’t leave the Hill with plans to build her own business.
After graduating from St. Olaf, where she majored in political science and environmental studies, Field moved to Washington, D.C., to work in politics. She soon pivoted to nonprofit work by joining the staff at the Capital Area Food Bank as a cooking and nutrition instructor. It was there that she learned the value of empowering people to take control of their own health.
“It was this absolutely rewarding and engaging experience, really focused on meeting our clients where they were at,” Field says. “After a few years, I realized I had developed a skill set for taking this complicated thing, cooking from scratch, and simplifying it to make it easy and fun.”
At the same time, Field and her friends had developed a taste for kombucha — and a distaste for its $4 to $5 per bottle price tag. They began brewing their own kombucha at home.
Inspired by what a little bit of encouragement, resources, and instruction in cooking could do for her clients at Capital Area Food Bank, Field began to wonder if the same could be applied to the intimidating world of DIY fermentation.
“There were other kombucha kits out there at the time, but they were coming at it from the perspective of people who were really skilled and very comfortable with molds and yeasts and bacteria,” Field says. “I came at fermentation from the lens of people who knew nothing. My goal was to start at square one and make it really easy.”
Building a business
Within a few months, she uprooted her life in D.C. and moved to Madison, Wisconsin, to begin building her business in earnest. Using $800 in savings, Field developed an instruction booklet and 25 kombucha kits. She launched a website, sent an email to family and friends, and sold every kit.
She decided to take the profit from those sales and buy 50 more kits; after selling those, she took the profits and bought 100 kits.
“I just kept growing and scaling from the profits of my business,” Field says. “I had no outside investments; I just built it very sustainably.”
By 2017, she had outgrown her first warehouse in Madison. She decided to build a commercial kombucha brewery, doubling The Kombucha Shop’s space.
Then came the call from Shark Tank — or, more precisely, the email.
“One day, out of the blue, I got an email from someone who said they were a Shark Tank producer,” Field says.
Assuming it was a scam, she deleted it. A few days later, the person emailed again. Still in disbelief, Field called him. He really was a Shark Tank producer. They talked for an hour, and he encouraged her to take a few weeks to think about applying for the show.
“It was off to the races from there,” Field says.
She notes that being an entrepreneur is “a mix of risk and adventure.” To be successful, she says, you need to believe in yourself, be confident, and understand how the world works and how you can make an impact.
All of these are things she learned at St. Olaf.
“St. Olaf taught me critical thinking, and the value of living and working my passion,” she says.
“St. Olaf taught me critical thinking, and the value of living and working my passion.”
That’s exactly what she’s doing — and at this year’s Ole Cup, she hopes to inspire other soon-to-be entrepreneurs and future leaders to do the same.