Anna: Welcome to podcast episode number seven. You’re here with Anna Wang. Thank you for listening. And today we’re going to actually be introducing someone quite, I’d probably say, not old in terms of the industry. Someone that’s been around for quite a while, and a lot of you may not have heard of Elegant Tea Time, but some of you may have. I probably would say Elegant Tea Time is probably one of those vendors that’s been around with prop hire for very long time. And probably one of the first to start the trend of prop hiring.
We’ve got Zena here today. Welcome, Zena.
Zena: Hello. Nice to be here with you, Anna.
Anna: I think today it’s really important for me to kind of really get a gauge of actually telling people what prop hire is all about, and why it’s so important to choose the right vendor for prop hiring. Tell us about how you started, how long ago you started, and what made you do this.
Zena: I started Elegant Tea Time, I actually started it as an accident, to be honest. It wasn’t really planned or a business plan for it. It was during my time off on maternity leave from my corporate job. At the time, I was holding an event for my son’s arrival, newborn, and I was struggling to find decor items.
I really wanted a lavish setup for it. I wanted all those beautiful centerpieces and cake displays. I couldn’t find anything in the market at the time. There was a lot of companies that offered large higher items in terms of chairs, tables, wedding decor, but nothing really that catered for the small events and small functions that was a bit more unique in terms of displays.
There was obviously that gap in the market. I ended up spending quite a bit of money, and I think at the time like about 600,000 dollars on just cake stands.
Anna: Oh gosh!
Zena: Yeah. I remember at the time I bought a drink dispenser, which they were so new fresh idea of them, and it was 299 for this glass drink dispenser from [Australian brand]. I’m like…
Anna: And you can pick that up for 39 dollars…
Zena: Now, they’re everywhere. But at the time my husband had a heart attack. He was like, “Just to put drinks, you spent that much on this glass jar.” But it was just the idea, that novelty of it, it was such a different experience. I thought, I’m going to go all out. I’m going to spend the money.
At the time I thought everything I bought, I’m either just going to go back, list it on Gumtree and hope that I can resell it, because, what am I going to do with it afterwards?
But when I did list it on Gumtree, no one really wanted to buy it. No one wanted to spend anywhere near how much I had spent. A lot of people were saying, “Can I just borrow it off you for this weekend just for my event? And I’ll pay you a bit of money for it.” And so, I was like, “You know what, this stock is sitting in my garage anyway. Let just let them use it and bring it back.”
Then as soon as I… It just became, it took off. Everyone wanted candy jars and, lolly bars was so popular at the time. But to buy a candy jar was like 40 dollars each. No one wanted to spend that much money. Then we started, you know, I thought, well, if people want all these different items, I’m sitting at home on maternity leave anyways. So might as well just keep myself busy.
And so, yeah. So, then I invested into a few other small things; the jars, and I did more cake stands. As the demand grew from Gumtree, I then thought, “You know what, it’s time to open it up and let’s get it on Facebook.” And so, then I officially launched it on Facebook. The idea was never to really take it into a full-time job. It was really always just to keep me busy until I had to return back to work. But within that year, I had got so much and the demand of this new idea and having customizing your cake displays. It wasn’t on a linen table anymore.
Zena: Yeah. It was on these nice consoles, and it was on this beautiful cake stands. Because the idea took off so quickly within that year, I did then make the decision that, you know what, I’m not going to be going back to work. I’m going to really focus on it.
Anna: How exciting. How fantastic it that not to have to get back to a corporate job?
Zena: Yeah. It was amazing because it did happen in such a quick period. I was really lucky to catch a market that there was a bit of a gap in and no one was really servicing it. And so, jumping onto it us so quickly gave us always that lead in the market.
Anna: Yup. I find, because you’re one of the first to get into that little gap, you’re like the trendsetter that actually keeps growing. But for the people that are actually wanting to start up now, and all the newbies, is there something you can advise them of doing or not doing? Because I experienced a lot of people going on, “Now I’m a stylist, now I can go florist. I can do all of that. I can plan weddings.” And they’re just people that’s either done a wedding or just pretty much oversaw because they were bridesmaids or there are people that are just kind of just going, “Oh my God, you know what? I think this is quite easy. I’m going to get into it.”
But is there something you can advise people or something you can say to people that wants to actually start up a prop hire or they just go online and buy? What can you tell them?
Zena: I think it’s really important, and we get that quite a bit, to be honest. A few of the actual prop companies that have started after us, were our clients originally. I guess they saw the same, they felt the same that, “Oh, this looks easy. I can do this.” Yeah, it can be easy, but the idea is at the moment is when it’s really important if you’re going to be investing in looking at opening up a business, is to understand the market you’re in now.
The market’s completely different to what it was when I started it six and a half years ago. You know what I mean? You can’t assume that once you just bring in the product now it’s going to be popular or it’s going to be successful, because it has become saturated. But what I feel like hasn’t happened is that no one’s really stepping up to be different within the market.
I feel like a lot of the people just follow whatever’s already in the market. I think there’s only really a few that have really made the step to say, you know what? I’m going to be the trendsetter. I’m going to set the bar a bit differently. I’m going to lead the way to the trends of events and parties. I think that’s what people need to understand. It costs a lot of money as well to be a trendsetter. It cost a lot of money to invest into new products. Especially now, as we’ve noticed, the lifespan of the products has become a lot shorter.
Zena: Before, I’d have a product, a console table, for example, or a table, and we’d be able to use it, and it’d be the hottest product for the whole year.
Zena: Over 12 months, that product will always be trending for us. Whereas now we find, because of social media and the Gram, you know, people seeing things so openly a lot more. People don’t want to be using that product because they saw it used a few times on social media. Now, the lifespan of products has become a lot shorter. Now, we look at things at about three to six months.
Anna: Gosh. Your warehouse must be so small.
Zena: Yes. We are turning stock over a lot more. As soon as I finish a new collection and we launch our new collection, I’m already onto working onto the new collection. This is what people have done the stand that when you do step into that market, you got to be prepared to understand that the market is a very evolving and constantly changing market. Are you going to be up to the challenge? It’s going to cost a lot of money. It’s a lot of hard work that goes into it.
We’ve learnt along the way a lot of lessons and that comes with experience within the market. That’s something [inaudible 00:07:37.22] when you start at the beginning you probably don’t have. but yeah, it’s a challenging market now. It’s, you know.
Anna: How’s the family effected? I could imagine when you first started, you’ll be working hands-on quite pretty much 24/7 because you will be just by yourself. And then, as you grow your team and think. How does your family get affected now? You probably got a team that does the weekends and you have to go out and hearing that. But how do you feel, you know, the husband, the children? Like how do you…
Zena: Look, to be honest, when I started the business, I said, if I was going to leave my corporate job and have my own business, it would only be for the reason of having flexibility. I maintained that and I stuck to my word. So, from day one, I only ever work three days in the week. That was the Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. And then I had my team that did all the deliveries and the weekend work.
For me, it was really important that I still got time to spend with my kids because that was my priority, and that’s the reason I decided to leave the job. You work all hours. My work starts when my kids go to sleep. That’s the time I get to sit down quietly on my laptop, on the couch, watch my favorite show, but then do all the admin work, all the behind the scenes work that people don’t realize that goes into it.
You work really around the clock. I think as social media has grown, it has required so much more time and dedication to put into social media. It took my husband a while to kind of grasp the idea of why I need to be on my phone a lot, because I was always getting complaints about, “You’re always on your phone. You’re always on your phone.” But you needed to be online and you need to be seen, you needed to be active to grow that. We’ve been lucky because we did that from the beginning, that we’ve had such a huge following online because we’ve been so active and so regular, and we’ve maintained that throughout the time. Where now, obviously, I have a staff member dedicated to my social media. But that’s only something recent that I got on to.
Anna: Oh, goodness. So, you did everything by yourself before.
Zena: Yeah. Previously, I did. I did everything.
Anna: With the vision of Elegant Tea Time, what’s the customer journey for you? How do you feel that you are different to other suppliers or other vendors? Why should customers come to Elegant Tea Time to hire their props or come to see it for their weddings, whether it’s a kitchen tea. What makes you so different?
Zena: Bridal showers at the time was nothing… We don’t want to take too much credit, but we did start the big trends of luxury, beautiful bridal showers. We did a lot of that. That was our big market. That’s what we got known for. Customers come to us because we do invest into the latest trends. We start the trends, and I design a lot of our props.
To get that prop, there’s only one place that you’ll be able to find them. That’s with us because we’ve made the effort to spend that money to invest into always being on the top and always being the first to bring it.
With us, it’s really important that our customers, when they do come to us, it’s about having the latest, it’s about having things that haven’t really been seen. It’s about having a unique event. It’s all about the experience from the first point to the last point of it.
Part of our experience, and that was something that we wanted to invest in the business, was the idea of online hire. A lot of companies were not disclosing their prices or they didn’t want to be known for how much they charge for certain items. My approach was it’s very transparent and it’s very upfront and it’s there. If you love something that you see we have, you know how much it’s going to cost to obtain that.
We didn’t want to be having going back and forth. Then, we hear people undercutting and all that. But for us it wasn’t about that. It was just more being a transparent. Sometimes people work, a lot of people have their budgets and we wanted our clients to be able to sit on our website and see what fits within the budget. That’s part of the experience for the customer to know, what can I expect for how much money I’ve got?
Zena: That was like a really important part of the experience. But yeah, we are the trendsetters, I’d like to say, in terms of when we do design an item, it’s seen not only here in Australia and Sydney, but we’ve had so much companies globally that have approach us and ask us for permission to replicate the products. So, we see our design…
Anna: But that’s really nice that they’ve actually asked you permission for it. Whereas, what I’ve noticed, even with my stuff is you’ll see all of a sudden, like three months later after you launch a product, it’s like, someone’s all of a sudden launched the same product after three, four months later. And they’ve gone and said that they’ve designed it. Something we’ve been working on for the last six months, and here it is. You look and you’re like, Oh my god, it’s almost identical to my custom pieces. And then you probably are getting that to where you go, Oh my gosh.
Zena: That happens quite a bit, unfortunately. I think, this is where people lack the creativity. But you have to think how long can they do that for? As a business, do you want to always be a step behind or do you want to be at the step at the front and be the ones leading?
We do find that a lot of businesses are just following. That’s a bit hard because you can never kind of become a leader in the industry at that point, and you’ll always be kind of stuck at a certain point that stops you. But it happens to us. We see it a lot where our props are replicated int the exact, or you know, recently we feel like someone completely replicated our whole collection. But a lot of the time I find the best way of dealing with it is just closing off all that noise and shutting it all out and not focusing on what everyone else is getting up to and what everyone else has got.
It’s just focusing on what you have and what you can make of it. And it’s really important to just not lose that focus because it can be very easily draining and it can be demotivating. Not to say that I haven’t had moments where I have felt really down and demotivated by it, but I’ve always remembered we’ve made us something so amazing. Let’s not lose focus of it. Where can we go?
Anna: You just have to keep going with the next collection. Just keep going.
Zena: Yeah. The limit is endless. Let’s just go back to the focus. Keep going and keep pushing.
Anna: Do you find it really hard that when you have to send staff to go do a job and it’s not how you would present yourself in that situation, and you have, like a customer might say, “Oh, you know what, Zena? I had your guys deliver, but he wasn’t very like friendly or…” Have you ever come across anyone that’s like actually called you and said, “Zena, you know what? I didn’t have a very good experience.” How do you come about that? Do you feel like, Oh my God, you know what, I have to just do everything myself. Or do you have a really good team that now you can just trust, they deliver, they deliver products really well? Like how do you kind of juggle and try and find the right team and the right staff for you then?
Zena: That’s probably the hardest part of the business. I think anyone that does what we do, will say the same thing. Staffing is really difficult because how you run your business and how you do things for your business is not going to be like how anyone else that works for you will. You can train them and they can be amazing, but you can’t expect people to treat your business the way you treat it. That’s something I have to learn along the way because my expectations were so high. It was like, why couldn’t you do it like this? It’s your passion. It’s your baby. The way you look after it, you can’t expect anyone else to have that same emotional connection to the business.
Along the way, we’ve learned. We love feedback, and we ask our clients for feedback. We do feedback surveys with our clients to try to understand how was the experience. Because I’m not there. I can’t watch every job. I kind of listen to every interaction. It’s really important for me to get that feedback to hear what happens on every end of the business. Interesting we’re having this conversation because I had the same thing today this morning with our team meeting and explaining and making them understand that there’s different processes that the customer contact points, the customer hits us with. Every point needs to be perfection and every point needs to follow the point beforehand.
There’s no point of admin being of amazing, but then the endpoint not being the same level. It’s really having the team on board to understand the level and the expectation you want to have, and hopefully for them to be able to deliver it.
Anna: Yeah. The delivery and the customer satisfaction and all of that, especially like you’re saying so many people starting to get into this industry and providing the same products, but not necessarily the same service. But if your staff aren’t giving you the service satisfaction that you’re wanting every client to have, it’s hard to kind of keep up with going, you know what? You have to come and see Elegant Tea Time because we’ve got great products, new products, we’re innovative and we’ve got great customer service. We’re really easy-going deliveries on time and all of that stuff. But if the staff don’t perform to the best they can, they kind of just goes, “Oh my God.” It’s disheartening.
Zena: It is. It’s really hard. There are times where you feel like I’m just going to do it all, but the reality is you can’t do it all.
Anna: You can’t.
Zena: You have to learn to delegate and you have to start to learn to trust people.
Anna: Oh my god. I have to learn that.
Zena: Delegation is probably the hardest thing to do, because as a business owner, to let that go and give that trust completely to someone else, you’re handing part of your business to someone else. We’ve learnt along the way. There’s been mistakes made along the way and we’ve had to learn to fix them and what do we put in place.
Now, we’ve got different processes in place that try to make sure that we prevent all those things from happening. You’re just going to learn along the way. It’s a tough thing. Staffing is probably one of the biggest challenges in this industry.
Anna: What can you advice brides of when they’re actually looking for props and all of those items that they need for, the elements of weddings, kitchen tins, and all of that stuff? Because I noticed when a bride comes to me to do their styling and their flowers for their reception in their venue, they want their homes done. They want, you know, all of those things. And I don’t have a massive prop collection. I’m about actual the venue itself. I don’t do a lot of homes. I only do homes if I have to kind of add on to make it easy for the clients. What I’ve been doing, and this is how I pretty much came across yourself, is I go on your website, like you said with the online ordering. It’s such an easy tool. I go and actually show the clients and they see transparently how much you’re charging, and I’m not making anything off it.
Anna: So, I’m just going, okay, what is it that you want? They go, “Oh, I want a chase. I want to have a backdrop.” Then, I actually go in and I’m there collecting a collection for them and go, okay, let’s get the chase here, the backdrop there. They can see how much you’re charging. And then they go, “Okay, you know what? It’s around $600 or 800. Let’s add that budget into your styling.” And then I’m just there going, okay, done and done. You probably don’t even know that we’re hiring your stuff because it’s literally just online.
Anna: For our guests out there listening, what we kind of thought to do is actually make it even easier, is actually kind of put together something where we can have props, flowers, a whole total home package to make it easier for clients. That’s something, Zena, we’ll work on to make it really easy for clients to come in and say, “You know what, I don’t want to go to a prop company and then get flowers from me. All of a sudden there’s some cake stands that are missing. I’ve got to get someone else to do my chocolates.” What we’re going to do is we’ll make it really easy for clients and actually do a package them where someone does the chocolates, someone does the props, someone does the flowers, and we put it all together. I think that’s fantastic.
Zena: I love it. I love the idea. I think because we do just specialize in prop hire, we do find our customers always need to be linked up with other vendors and suppliers. This is where we start recommending them to all different suppliers and vendors. But everyone wants a package and we get asked all the time, “Can you please have bridal packages? Can you please just have a set up ready to go so that I don’t have to be contacting four or five different suppliers. I just book at one point and it’s done.”
Zena: I’m definitely on board with that. I love the idea because I think our customers will love it.
Anna: Everyone, lookout. This is happening.
Zena: Yes, this is happening.
Anna: And just having two, probably very like industry, quite old, old in the industry. I keep saying I don’t want to say old, but you know what, we are quite old in the industry compared to a lot of the companies out there. Between us, we’ve got 20 years’ experience between us. Literally, I’ve been here for 13 years. You’ve been here six and a half years. Literally, 20 years of experience between us. What can clients really expect? The best of the best, really.
Anna: Even in saying so, you’re balancing family, you’re balancing the lifestyle and everything. Do you have times where you go to your husband, “I really need you to go out and do this for me, or I really need you to go do this because we’re swamped.” Does your husband get involved with the business?
Zena: My husband actually didn’t at the start, but now he’s a full-time employee in the business. He’s had to get involved. It was just really hard because I needed him to do a lot of things for me. So, he did have to end up letting go of his job and coming on board and doing it full time for me. He’s got his own responsibilities in the business and he looks after our warehousing and all that. Yeah, you do. You need the support of family. It’s really hard for them to understand what you do and the demand of your business if they’re not involved in it. It was a good way for us to bring him in because he was connected to the business. Now, he knows how it runs and the demand it needs. He’s very involved and becomes hands-on now compared to before.
Now, he doesn’t complain about my phone usage anymore.
Anna: What inspires you, Zena? What inspires you with your new collections? What inspires you?
Zena: Everything. I could be going past the shop window and seeing something and thinking, “Oh my God, imagine if I can make some change, then we would have made it into something for an event.” You get inspired about everything; your surroundings, whatever you see. We always look overseas for inspiration. Overseas, I think are amazing and leading in events. I think what we see overseas, we still in Australia kind of catching up to.
Zena: Yeah. Sometimes we are, but sometimes I find that we’re leading at some things and they’re copying a lot of what we do as well. It works both ways. There’s inspiration that can be drawn from anything and everywhere. We’ve made a few prop pieces based on things we’ve seen in shop displays. No one would think it’s even going to be a prop for an event. It’s sitting in a window shop display. We’ve changed it around and made it happen to become a prop set.
You kind of draw your inspiration from… My inspiration to me, when I sit at night, late at night, all the ideas just start flooding in and I get all these different ideas and I’ll always make sure to write them down because I know I end up forgetting once I go back to work. Yeah, it’s from everything and everywhere.
Anna: How often are you bringing pieces in? Is it just when clients come to you or you’re actually just bringing on…?
Zena: I work on at least two large collection launches a year. We at least do twice a year. We’ve got now our spring collection. And so, we are launching a VIP night for that collection soon. But yeah, we do work on two large collections a year. Not to say we don’t bring in things throughout the year because you’ve got to have to. We do a lot of custom pieces on demand for stylists as well, or for clients. Those we also make as we go along, and we do them.
And then we also turn our stock over about twice a year as well. Our warehouse sales are really, really popular and they’re a big thing and a lot of customers wait for them. That’s where we sell a lot of our stock as we turn it over. Throughout the year, we start to sell the stock as well.
Anna: Gosh, how exciting. So, we’re going to see the new spring collection coming through.
Anna: I am really excited to actually be present in that as well.
As we kind of wrap up a little bit, is there anything you would like customers; just brides or mothers to know about yourself or about how to contact you, what to expect. Is there anything you would like to say?
Zena: Yeah, definitely. We love meeting our customers. While majority of our customers are online, we would love to meet you guys. We do showroom viewings, and we do them every Wednesday, every week. You’re more than welcome to contact us and make an appointment with us and come in. Sometimes seeing the products is so different to seeing it online. We love when customers come in and be like, “Wow, this is completely so much different than what they thought.”
Reach us on our Instagram, on our website, check out our collection. Please let us know if there’s anything there that we don’t have that you would like, because we can always open to custom designing new pieces as well. But yeah, follow us and show us some love on our social media as well.
Anna: Thank you, Zena. Thank you for all your time for share your experience.
Zena: Thank you for having me. Thank you, Anna.
Anna: Thank you.
Thanks for joining us for our podcast number seven. Keep in touch and you’ll see what’s happening next week and you’ll get to see who our next week’s guest speaker is. Thank you.