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Startup! Series: Shawn Mak, CEO & Founder of Green Ginkgo Tea 上林茶舍

Updated: Apr 6, 2018

For our Startup! Series, Vorbly had the privilege of interviewing three successful entrepreneurs who will share their startup journey. With experiences in various industries such as 3D printing, interior design and F&B, these entrepreneurs share practical lessons and the real challenges of building a brand and marketing their products and services.

In this chapter, we will follow the story of Shawn Mak, CEO and Founder of Green Ginkgo Tea 上林茶舍 as he shares his experiences with us.

Green Ginkgo Tea 上林茶舍

Green Ginkgo Tea is Hong Kong's first hand-brew tea bar located in the cultural neighborhood of Sheung Wan. Artisanal Japanese tea is carefully brewed with the precise temperature, water quality, teawares and tea leaves to ensure quality. Walking into this modern tea bar, visitors can witness master tea baristas perform traditional Japanese tea ceremonies with a modern flair. Green Ginkgo Tea has truly redefined the way Hong Kong people experience Japanese tea.

Shawn Mak, CEO & Founder of Green Ginkgo Tea

We had the privilege of interviewing Shawn Mak, CEO and Founder of Green Ginkgo Tea. He has had an extensive professional career in government, branding, PR and banking sectors before pursuing his passion for tea.

An Interview With Shawn Mak

In the interview, Shawn gives us insights into his experiences and challenges faced when launching the Green Ginkgo Tea brand.

Would you be able to describe your brand in 3 words?

Shawn: Artisanal, Modern and Cool.

In a few sentences, what do you offer and to whom?

Shawn: Hong Kong people are very used to tea and things from Japan, but seldom do they truly understand and taste good tea. At Green Ginkgo Tea, we want to bring authentic Japanese tea to the Hong Kong people, as well as the unique experience of sipping tea in a traditional tea house.

What was your inspiration for starting Green Ginkgo Tea?

Shawn: Tea has always been my passion. I started my love for tea with Chinese tea and then Japanese tea. Hong Kong people love drinking tea, from the traditional yum cha tea house, to innovative Taiwanese bubble teas. And you see people that are willing to pay for a cup of quality tea. Also, Hong Kong people are very into Japanese culture and marrying tea with Japanese culture was a natural thing.

Another source of inspiration was from coffee culture. Coffee culture has been evolving from "Cha Chang Tang" style local coffee to Starbucks' espressos to boutique and hand-brewed coffee. And in major metropolis like Tokyo, Taipei and Kyoto people have started to re-invent the coffee culture into tea culture.

Instead of providing a traditional tea drinking (or cha-do) experience, Green Ginkgo Tea adopted a more contemporary approach. We carefully select teawares and the interior design of our tea house to reflect a cozy Japanese-Nordic fusion theme.

How has your extensive professional experience in government, branding, PR and banking sectors helped you establish the Green Ginkgo Tea brand? Do you think aspiring entrepreneurs should have some professional experience before starting a business?

Shawn: Starting a new F&B business, especially a new concept store requires a lot of marketing. My previous experiences in branding, PR and marketing has helped me build a sharper brand image and clear value propositions. Having some prior business experience prior to being an entrepreneur will equip you with the necessary business acumen and financial planning skills.

What was the biggest challenge you faced when launching Green Ginkgo Tea?

Shawn: I started with no F&B business experience and no knowledge on how to apply for a food store license in Hong Kong. Another challenge was to educate customers on the quality of tea leaves and hand brew process that creates the best teas. We overcame this by adding traditional tea ceremonies to demonstrate how Japanese tea should be appreciated. By far, the greatest challenge personally is having to give up a decent job and risking my savings for a business venture.

How are you using social media to build brand awareness and drive store traffic?

Shawn: We are on both Facebook and Instagram. A lot of new customers came to our place because they saw our photos on Instagram (much more than Facebook). We have also used paid Facebook advertisements. And Facebook and Instagram are good engagement mediums, especially the "Story" functions.

How effective were your Facebook advertisements? Do you think Facebook should be used for building brand awareness?

In my case, Facebook paid advertisements were not as successful as I expected (maybe due to lack of KPIs). However, I think it really helps if you know how to create relevant content to engage with your target audience. In my opinion, customers posting a picture of your tea house is much more effective than buying a paid advertisement in terms of building brand awareness and driving sales.

How do you measure the success of your business?

Shawn: Since we have just opened for 2 months, we are still far from achieving our desired goals. But we are actively getting news and magazines coverage, as well as a growing number of loyal fans. I would consider these as successful milestones for the business!

What is the next step for Green Ginkgo Tea?

Shawn: We would like to launch more pop-up stores in shopping malls to promote our quality takeaway drinks. Are you planning to expand internationally? Yes, if possible, we would like to expand to markets that are similar to Hong Kong, like Singapore, Taipei and other top-tier Chinese cities.

What advice would you give to young, aspiring entrepreneurs like yourself?

Shawn: Before you start a business, make sure that you are passionate about what you are doing and not just for the money. And you have to believe in the value and benefits of your products and services. If you cannot see any value in your offerings, it will be very tough to convince customers.

Green Ginkgo Tea 上林茶舍 | Facebook | Instagram

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Startup! Series Articles:

Chapter 1: Keith Mok, CEO & Founder of HIFA Design Studio

Chapter 2: Shafiq Ali, CEO & Founder of Meka 3D Printing

Chapter 3: Shawn Mak, CEO & Founder of Green Ginkgo Tea 上林茶舍