With a 2-year and 2-month old, it’s amazing that yoga- and spin-studio owner Meghan Dowd has time for anything, never mind christening an upgraded kombucha microbrewery and launching a new line of probiotic sodas. But I guess that’s the benefit of being part of a family-owned business. Grandma can write press releases and cold call distributors while she babysits. And your brother can brainstorm marketing strategy with you while you plan the month’s instructor schedule. Meanwhile, Dad can sample the latest brews at the kitchen table while you all sit down for a Sunday meal together.
“Working with family is great but you have to negotiate and trust as you work together. It’s sometimes difficult because you know each other so well but as long as you are aware of work issues versus personal stuff, it’s fine. For me it’s obviously been great. As a new mother, there have been a lot of allowances and my business partners – my family – have allowed me to do what I can. I am so thankful this business is happening now, that this stage of my career is happening with my family.”
Beginning in grade school in Fairfield, Iowa, Dowd was always eco-conscious so it was no surprise to her family when she studied environmental studies at Dartmouth College. The real surprise came when, following a new interest in writing and creative outlets, Dowd headed to Los Angeles to take a shot at screenwriting.
For years, Dowd dabbled in all kinds of creative projects. She got her start in the TV industry working mostly on primetime drama with different producers, “I found out it was a great place for writers to be. I developed my own scripts and worked as a short-term writer’s assistant and script coordinator, basically anything that would keep me close to the writers in the writers’ room.”
But then the Writers Guild of America 14-week strike shut down Dowd’s short-term employment opportunities. Out of work, she returned to Iowa and was surprised at how good it felt to be home. “I fell in love with my small town again. It seemed a little more hip, we had a new coffeehouse and arts center … those small little things that make a community feel more full and rich.”
Dowd purchased a small house thinking she would enjoy Iowa and keep her foot in the door in LA, going back and forth between the locations. But pretty soon she figured out the projects she wanted to work on most were back home in Fairfield.
Renting some space, Dowd started a yoga and spin cycle studio to bring as much of LA as she could to the Midwest town which suffers from pretty tough winters, “I needed some place where I could keep my sanity and feel good. The great thing about a small town in Iowa is that things don’t cost a lot so the studio was not a big investment for me.”
After five years in the fast-paced LA scene, it didn’t hurt either to be around family again. The Dowds had always been big lovers of food and enjoyed coming together over a meal. The close-knit family had talked many times about running a family restaurant, but were wary of the amount of work involved. “One evening over dinner, we were joking around, drinking Dad’s home-brewed kombucha, having one of those ‘imagine if’ conversations and I suggested going into business together to brew kombucha. There was some laughter at first, but then you could almost see the wheels turning.“
Kombucha is sweet tea fermented with a culture of yeast and bacteria. As a non-pasteurized, raw, live beverage, with “scoby” (affectionately called “the blob,” or “the mother”) floating at the bottom, the probiotic drink is gaining ground as a popular healthy alternative to juices and soda. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it [full disclosure, the author is a huge kombucha fan].
Everyone agreed the idea had great potential. Although not a restaurant, it was a food-based business, producing a good quality product with positive health benefits. And so with little fanfare and small-time investment ShakTea Kombucha was launched.
They started really (really) small, originally as a little co-op. Dowd, her mother, and brother (ironically dad, the brewer, limited his involvement to #1 fan) brewed and bottled the kombucha and sold it to friends in the community and clients at the studio. When the reviews came back positive, after a few months they established a processing kitchen and rented a space and some equipment but stayed conservative in terms of investment. “We all had jobs. My mom’s a massage therapist. My brother does website development and I had my studio. We purchased only essential, used items. We bought a labelling machine for a couple thousand but sent it back and made a better one out of two rolling pins that costs about six dollars,” Dowd laughs.
After a couple of years, they maxed out their facility and were stuck as they didn’t know how to get to the next level. “We wanted to build our own processing plant to ramp production up or down and also so we could control the quality and experiment with flavors. But bottling equipment is really expensive and kombucha is not a product that is easy to find a co-packer for … because it’s not pasteurized and such a new trend, it’s difficult to find a facility that can take your recipe and make it for you,” she explains.
So they did what any small business owner does today when looking to avoid debt financing and hoping to be that success story you read about in the news. They launched a KickStarter campaign in the summer of 2013. “Ultimately we didn’t reach our goal of $35K, we raised $20K but never received it because the funds are only released if the project is successful. But it was really good in terms of getting the word out there. A few distributors called us to say they were interested in our product and we made some great connections.”
But lady Luck was still lurking and when Dowd’s brother saw an ad for Chase Bank’s Mission Main St Grant, the trio felt they had nothing to lose. “No one wins these things, there’s no free money for business,” Dowd recalls saying. “But why not?”
It’s a good think she didn’t offer to eat her hat if they won because, come January 2014, Shaktea was one of 12 of 35,000 applicants nationwide to win $250K [yes, you read that correctly].
“We got this wonderful gift from Chase. I was totally thrilled. It allowed us to build a new facility in a 4000 ft2 leased space. We purchased bottling and labeling machines and will be bottling our first 2000-bottle batch run this weekend.”
The grant also included a trip to the Google campus where the winners attended an exclusive workship with Google small business experts. “That was cool. It was great to meet the other recipients and hear that everyone was going through the same growing pains.”
Before you run out the door to sample of a bottle of Ginger Blues, Shaktea is currently only available in Iowa. It’s sold in 30 Hy-Vee stories and WholeFoods in West Des Moines, but Dowd is hoping to bring the product to the mid-west region through different distribution channels. “Before this new facility, we were not able to grow beyond our current capacity. Let’s see where we are in a couple of months.”
So does Dowd ever miss the sunshine and writer’s life in LA? “No, emphatically not. I wanted a house and a yard where I could have a garden, a place conducive to raising a family. Meeting my husband was an unexpected perk of coming back to Iowa. Since I moved back home there has been a lot of fullness and growth. Sometimes it’s been very overwhelming, the way things happened, but it’s also very exciting. I am so grateful for all of it.”
- Make sure you have a good product, start small, learn about the product, understand your costs, how to keep it moving on the shelf in a handful of stores rather than 100 is a great way to learn.
- I would have liked to have gotten to market sooner but growing without debt is an awesome advantage
- Working with family can be tricky because you know each other so well, but it’s been great as a new mom having business partners who are family.