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Articles

In Tampa, a young entrepreneur named Kim Pham was hoping to raise about $1,200 to make her little shop—Kaleisia Tea Lounge—more energy efficient. She identified ways to improve lighting, ventilation, and water consumption and made a proposal to Brent Schulkin, who organizes Carrotmobs across the country (carrots symbolize a positive incentive as opposed to a stick, that is, a boycott). They liked the idea and helped some allies in Tampa organize a mob to ‘socialize their spending’ and support her store.

A Vietnamese immigrant, Pham comes from a family of entrepreneurs; her mother, a successful businesswoman, encouraged her to forgo a formal business education and instead learn by doing. She came to Tampa in 2005 with the idea for a teahouse that would be both a business and a kind of haven for the community. The location, just off the interstate highway that links downtown with northern suburbs, offers customers a perfect spot to take a break either before or after work. Pham decided to call the place Kaleisia Tea Lounge (Kaleisia is a combination of the words kaleidoscope and Asia) and she decorated in bright colors. The menu was built around what she calls the “wall of tea,” where more than a hundred canisters of leaves from around the world allow for an almost limitless number of mixtures. Simple foods and pastries make it possible for customers to have a light lunch or dinner.

Pham’s goal was not to maximize earnings-per-patron but rather to build repeat business by establishing a spot that was a soothing antidote to the stress of life in a transient and splintered community. (Florida is second only to Nevada in the number of residents born somewhere else.) Pham, who is twenty-nine, is succeeding not just because of her ideals but also because of the conversations and relationships that flow from her business philosophy. The more interactions around your business, the better you understand your customers (and vice versa).

Free Internet access, live performances, free workshops, and artwork by locals also built Pham’s business, but the shop’s value as a focal point for the community became most evident when she started focusing time and money on community projects. Profits from her retail tea packets—called Tea Drops—go to fund the preservation of a local park and to art programs for children. Every spring Kaleisia hosts a festival of music and art—bands, belly dancing, free food, a silent auction—to benefit Community Stepping Stones, a nonprofit that conducts programs for children and adolescents. This activity, which Pham undertook as an expression of her values, which as our surveys found, seventy three percent of people agree that they are “willing to pay a premium for companies that contribute to my local community.”

By offering ways for people to be generous and involved, Pham used tea to improve life in Tampa just a bit and to strengthen relationships. As her customers became friends, they caught her spirit of engagement. One day she arrived at her shop to discover a few regulars, who were talented painters, decorating the wall near the shop door with a mural showing Asian-style slanted roofs with mountains rising behind them. In a blue sky the words Kaleisia Tea Lounge were written in a graceful script alongside a pair of delicate tea leaves.

“Nobody asked them to,” says Pham. “They just did it. They were just kind and they really did support us.”

A petite woman with long black hair that she parts in the middle, Pham projects a mix of amazement and self-confidence. She’s amazed that she has succeeded in building a beloved and successful local business despite intentionally doing the opposite of what may others might do. (Giving away profits, inviting people to linger over inexpensive orders.) The confidence comes through when she talks about how her customers respond to her. For proof she can point to all the books and magazines that customers have brought to the shop and left for others to read, and to the back wall of the shop interior where other artists, inspired by the mural outside, used tea leaves to spell out communitea, opportunitea, humanitea, and so on.

When she opened her shop, Pham deliberately ignored a lot of the lessons taught in books about how to succeed in business. She bypassed conventional wisdom about selecting her location, avoiding busy sites where national retail stores were clustered. And instead of rushing to open she took months to outfit and decorate the space. But the care she poured into the effort impressed her landlord so much that he gave her half a year rent-free. When she finally opened, the mood of the place and quality of her food and drink won her a loyal and ever-growing customer base. “We make sure that we are friends with the customers,” says Pham, “and they can say, ‘I know the owner.’ Our customers have taken ownership of the store.”

KALEISIA TEA LOUNGE is one of fifty companies interviewed for the Wall Street Journal best-seller: Spend Shift: How the Post-Crisis Values Revolution is Changing the Way We Buy, Sell and Live.

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