Although it’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason that Lyndsey Clutteur DePalma decided to open a tea shop, it could have been her great-grandmother Agnes, with her lifelong love of tea and appreciation for its medicinal benefits, who planted the seed. Or it might have been DePalma’s own longing for a space for tea drinkers to relax in a world overrun by coffee shops. Or maybe it was the fact that she was turning 30 and did not relish the idea of a lifetime in human resources at a big four accounting firm.
DePalma majored in biology as an undergrad but realized about halfway through that while she did like biology, she couldn’t imagine herself working in a lab. After graduation, a friend helped her get a job at PricewaterhouseCoopers, where she started in an entry-level administrative role. She was soon moved to the human resources department and from there worked her way through the ranks to become an HR manager. She stayed for nearly eight years.
A few years into her job she decided to go back to school part-time to get her MBA. She didn’t have any particular goal in mind at the time; she just wanted to become more business savvy and thought the degree could be useful in her career. But as she pored over the business plans of so many others as part of her MBA classes, the idea slowly began to take root that perhaps she shouldn’t just be studying other people’s business plans but actually writing one of her own. She’d always had the idea in the back of her mind of opening a tea shop, so she decided that maybe, just as an exercise, she would write a business plan. “And that’s when it all kind of came together,” she says.
She was still working in her corporate job at that point, but that was about to change. “I resigned basically the minute I had my business plan completed,” she says.
DePalma and her husband discussed her plan and agreed they could live on his salary and their savings while she got the tea shop up and running. Though her husband was willing to take the gamble, he thought she was a bit crazy for trying, as did most of her friends and family. “Everybody was questioning me as to whether I actually wanted to do it, telling me what a risk it was. I guess I questioned myself from time to time as well. I know that people meant well and wanted me to be successful, so I did listen to their concerns. But rather than take offense or back off my plan, I took it as a challenge. I wanted to prove to them that I could do it. I would almost say I was fueled by other people’s doubt more than discouraged by it.”
“Once I resigned, I thought it would take about three months, maybe even as long as six, to start my business,” DePalma says with a laugh. “Eighteen months later, I finally opened my store.”
House of Steep, located in Arlington, VA, is a tea shop that not only offers tea but invites customers to fully relax by soaking their feet or enjoying a foot massage or reflexology. They also offer light café fare. “I wanted to create a space where busy professionals could step away from their day and relax and reconnect with themselves.”
Going without an income for 18 months was difficult, particularly the psychological aspect of it, DePalma says. “But I had my vision; I had my eye on the prize. I knew I was working toward a goal, and every day something new and cool was happening, getting me closer to that goal.”
She thinks one day maybe she’ll write a book about the pitfalls of starting a new business, particularly regarding real estate. “A lot of landlords don’t want to deal with startups. They don’t need to entertain offers from small businesses because eventually there’ll be a chain that comes along, or a franchise, someone with deeper pockets than a small startup. And, not having done this before, I didn’t realize that the negotiation process can take at least three months. There’s a lot of back-and-forth that happens.”
And it wasn’t only landlords who were reluctant to take a chance on a startup. DePalma found that many banks and other professionals she needed to work with were not as responsive as she had hoped. “It would take weeks to get people to call me back. I think people are aware of how many startups fail, and they don’t want to deal with that. People don’t take you seriously. Even though some of the bankers said that my business plan was one of the most thorough and well thought-out plans they’d seen, that wasn’t always enough. Maybe they didn’t expect me to stick with it. Or maybe they thought I was just too small for them to deal with.”
But DePalma persevered and House of Steep had its grand opening in October of 2012. Since then, it has met or exceeded all of DePalma’s financial projections, but she still recognizes that she is earning far less than she had been in her corporate job. “Sometimes I do think about what options I might have had financially if I had stayed at my job, like the addition we want to put on our house. Or how nice it would have been to actually have had maternity leave when my son was born,” she laughs. “But I feel successful in a different way than I might have defined it before.
“I like the networks I’m part of; I like the people my business attracts. I really enjoy hiring people who want to be a part of something that’s growing, though finding the right people can be stressful. I love when things fall into place. Good things sometimes just drop into my lap. I don’t mean to say that it’s a cakewalk – it most definitely is not a cakewalk. But we joke that the House of Steep is magical.
“I think the thing that I enjoy the most is this feeling that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m doing something that speaks to my abilities, my passions, my purpose. And that makes me feel really joyful about this decision.”
If you have an intuition about something you want to try, an itch, listen to it. That’s women’s gift, we have to pay attention. If you pursue an idea and then along the way realize it isn’t the right one for you, that’s fine. At least if you let it play out, if you give it the time and energy it deserves, then you can put it to rest and know that you gave it a shot.