What did Mel and Patricia Ziegler do after leaving The Gap and Banana Republic?
Patricia Ziegler: Well, Mel decided to go away on a meditation retreat for a week. We were both coffee drinkers at that point, and the next thing I knew, he came home and he was only drinking tea.
Mel Ziegler: What happened was they didn’t have coffee at this meditation retreat, and I had this excruciating coffee withdrawal headache on the second day of the retreat. It was probably the worst headache I’ve ever had. And when that headache lifted, I said I’m never going to drink this black swirl again. Instantly, this great idea popped into my head, so I came home from the retreat and said, “Let’s start a tea business. So like anything else, we use businesses to learn, and we learned about tea.
Be Inkandescent: And was that the start of The Republic of Tea?
Patricia Ziegler: Yes! We wanted to package it in a way that would stand out on the shelf, and be recyclable so you could use it again and again. We found that tea had been stored in tins, so we found these wonderful round tins where we could print our labels on each one to give it that artisan feel. And I remember there was a decision to make because we really wanted these tins, but until the quantity jumped up, they cost us like a dollar a piece—more than the tea. But we figured, if this tea company works, then we will be able to buy the larger volume, so we gambled on that.
Mel Ziegler: It was very playful. I was the Minister of Leaves, Patricia was the Minister of Enchantment, and even though we sold it, we’re happy that the company continues in the same tradition. It doesn’t have employees—it has ministers, and it’s a lovely company.
Be Inkandescent: When you founded it, about 25 years ago, there was no specialty tea category at that time, or even full-leaf teas available for mass consumption.
Mel Ziegler: That’s right. If you wanted to buy tea at that time, your options included Celestial Seasonings, Lipton, or Twinings Tea. Then came The Republic of Tea, which was available in 21 different flavors and packaged in tins filled with leaf tea. It changed the entire business. Of course, now if you go into a Whole Foods, you’ll see there’s a whole section of specialty teas. We created a context, and I think that’s what we did in both companies. We didn’t just try to fit the business into an existing context; we went out and made a new context, and then created a business that represented that context.
Be Inkandescent: That’s the mark of true entrepreneurs.
Patricia Ziegler: We also were new parents at the time. So we imagined a world that fit into our lives—a slower world that you could enjoy sip by sip, instead of gulp by gulp. When you take your time, and you want to notice the world around you, you sip tea.
Be Inkandescent: After you sold The Republic of Tea, what did you do next?
Mel Ziegler: We had children late in our life, and we wanted to spend as much time with them as possible. We were lucky enough to be financially independent because of Banana Republic, so we didn’t feel like we had to run out there again and again and again and repeat the same movie. And what we wanted to do was enjoy our two children, who are now 21 and 25. We’re the kind of parents who have absolutely no regrets—we were there all the time, we are a very close family, and we love our kids immensely. It was great fun. Basically, we went from having 3,000 kids to two kids. And those two kids were much more of a handful than the 3,000 kids who worked for us. Now they’re young, thriving adults and we’re very happy about that. So we would dip in and dip out of things, and one of the things we dipped in and out of was that San Francisco in 1999 was like San Francisco in 1849—it was the gold rush except it was the dot-com stuff that they were mining. We got swept up in it along with everyone else. Venture capitalists were throwing money all over the place.
Patricia Ziegler: That’s when our old COO from Banana Republic came to us to do something together again. So we invented a business called Zoza, and created a whole new line of clothes. Banana Republic was all about natural fabrics, really beautiful cotton and wool.
Mel Ziegler: In the intervening years, we were living on a mountain in Marin County, CA, and we got very outdoorsy. I started wearing a lot of Patagonia clothes and a lot of performance clothes because I ride a bike, and I hike, and I really saw the virtue of performance fabrics. With Zoza, we envisioned marrying the Patagonia look with Prada—high-fashion design that used high-tech fabrics.
Patricia Ziegler: It had a bit of a yoga influence, and we actually had free yoga classes in the office in the mornings. Employees would leave their shoes by the door, and it was all white carpeted. We also had free yoga classes during break. Zoza was right across the freeway from where our kids were going to school. They were 8 and 12 at the time, so we could pick them up after school and they would come in and help us.
Mel Ziegler: So we had a great time with that. Unfortunately, when the dot-com wave swept through San Francisco—in those days it cost $5 million to build a website that today costs $5,000—everything we did took so much capital. Then, when March 2000 came, and the NASDAQ started to really dive, people panicked and all our financing dried up. We were deep in the manufacturing process at that point, so like a number of other dot-com companies, we were swept out to sea. We liquidated everything.
Be Inkandescent: You’ve seen the highs and the lows of business.
Mel Ziegler: I like to say that the seed of success is in every failure, and the seed of failure is in every success. And it’s definitely true. With your success you can get a little bit too arrogant, and in failure, if you’re paying attention, you’re going to get very enterprising.
Be Inkandescent: So what’s next for the Zieglers?
Patricia Ziegler: We are now doing a business that creates slow food for fast lives. It’s called EaTrue, and this summer we are going to be selling bars that are like mini meals. They will come in several ethnic flavors, including Italian, Japanese, Moroccan, and more.
Mel Ziegler: So instead of eating energy bars, which are really glorified candy bars, you’ll be able to choose something nutritious, that tastes good, and is more like artisan food. They will be on the shelf next to the energy bars. And that will be the beginning of a number of products where we try to explore the idea of slow food for fast lives, because that’s how people are living. We think there’s a huge demand these days for nutritious, healthy food that is not junk fast food.
Patricia Ziegler: So, if you’re not in the mood for a candy-bar-style energy bar, you can look for our Indian EaTrue bar with coconut, curry cashews, carrots, cauliflower—a real savory artisan experience.
Be Inkandescent: Ah that’s wonderful. More trendsetting from the Zieglers. We look forward to talking to you more about that when the company is flourishing, and we’re certain that it will. In the spirit of advice-giving, please offer our readers and listeners insight into the nuggets of wisdom that you’ve learned in your decades in business.
Mel and Patricia Ziegler’s Top Tips for Entrepreneurs
1. Go with what you’ve got.
2. Be the customer. If you are making things for yourself, you’ll never have a doubt about what you should do—or how your products and services should be done.
3. Turn your liabilities into your assets. What you think is wrong is probably wrong. If you believe in it, find out what’s right about it and make it work.
4. If something’s in your way, find the gift in it. As we said earlier, you can—and should—learn from every mistake and failure. Our entire surplus line of clothing was exactly that. We would get things like French firefighter coats made out of asbestos, which was pretty useless to consumers. But the lining would be made of beautiful silk quilting. So we would tear out the asbestos and make purses out of the quilting. It was in there. We just had to look.
5. Don’t accept no only as an inconvenience. There is always a way to do something. Consider the fact that almost all of the clothes we found early on were for men. That forced us to develop a style for women using men’s oversized shirts and belting them—or men’s pants and belting them—that created a brand new look for women.
6. You can’t really make mistakes. Honestly, there’s no such thing as a mistake. If something isn’t working, and there’s no way to change that fact, you just move on.
7. And the final one is: It’s not about winning—it’s about playing!
Be Inkandescent: I have one more request. There’s a story you tell at the end of the book that is one of my favorite leadership lessons. It came to you one day when you were teaching your son to play ball.
Mel Ziegler: My son Zio was just beginning to stand. He was about a year old. And I was tossing him the beach ball back and forth to teach him how to catch. So I set his hands up, and I told him that when the ball comes really close, you just squeeze.
I threw it to him, and to his utter surprise and delight he caught it, and so he jumped up and down and said, “I caught it, I caught it, I caught it!” So I said, “Great, let’s do it again!” Again I set him up and tossed him the ball. This time he squeezed his hands too soon, and the ball fell on the deck, and he jumped up and down and said, “I missed it, I missed it!”
In that instant he taught me that it’s all about playing. Kids can do that, they really see it clearly, and it’s the day that counts. It’s all we have—the journey. We’ve heard it said in many, many different ways. The journey is the goal.
What I learned is what I wrote in the book: “It’s not about winning, it’s about playing.”