Sometimes entrepreneurial success is finely crafted—planned out years in advance. More often, it’s a matter of serendipity, of paying attention to what the universe brings you, accepting it and letting spontaneous combustion take care of the rest.
This is the story of the Granny Squibb Company, a beverage business (they sell six flavors of iced tea) based in Providence, Rhode Island, with dreams of becoming a big fish in a small pond. And the story of how a small business transitioned management from family to friends without losing its soul.
Granny Sqibb’s tea is brewed for today’s health-conscious consumers—it’s organic and non-GMO, but it’s rooted in the past. In the early 1930’s Sally Squibb (yes, there was an actual Granny Squibb) took a recipe her mother-in-law gave her and brewed a cold tea (apparently, unusual in those days). Granny thought her brew was “astonishingly delicious” and shared it with the local community.
Flash forward to 2009, when Sally’s granddaughter Robin retired from the film business, moved back to Providence and decided to bottle her grandmother’s recipe, saying Granny had always encouraged her to try everything and “never say never.”
Robin tried 50 or so different formulas before settling on the one that was as “astonishingly delicious” as her grandmother’s and launched the Granny Squibb Co. with sweetened and unsweetened version of two teas—Sally’s Lemon and Mojito Lime.
The rest of the story unfolds like a Hallmark movie—except the “heroic” young couple was already married when they rented an apartment in Robin Squibb’s home.
Neither had beverage experience. Carr was a financial advisor; McShane ran her own tutoring company and worked for a local nonprofit. But in an instant, they went from being friendly renters to co-owners (managing partners) of the Granny Squibb Company.
I talked to Kelley McShane about their unlikely journey becoming beverage entrepreneurs.
Rieva Lesonsky: The st0ry about how you and Nick came to be involved is the stuff of TV movies. Was it really that straightforward?
Kelley McShane: Yes. We moved into the house two years ago—and became part of the business 18 months ago. We were friendly with Robin. One day Nick passed her in the hall and asked, “How’s it going?” She told him (half joking), it had been a terrible day and asked, “Do you want it?”
Nick came upstairs and said to me you won’t believe what happened. We went down to her apartment and asked, “Were you serious?” And she was. She’d been working on the business for nine years, had gotten the teas in local chains like Dave’s Marketplace, Whole Foods and Wegmans.
But she’d been a one-woman show. The company survived by barely marketing.
McShane: We had both just turned 30. We wanted a change, wanted an adventure, wanted to work together. We’d been married for five years, but never saw one another.
Robin agreed to stay on for one year to mentor us. And a year in, we were ready. We still live in the same apartment, which makes it convenient. Robin is very creative and still involved in the big-picture decisions.
Lesonsky: You came in with an existing infrastructure in place. How did that work?
McShane: It wasn’t complicated. This is her grandmother’s legacy. We knew we needed to keep the integrity of the company and the brand.
We worked full-time for two months before the papers were signed. We just sat down and agreed on everything. People warned us against doing that. But we did it, and it worked. Then we brought in the lawyers and made it legal.
We learned from Robin. Once we were in the industry and trained, we had our own ideas. We built the [new] infrastructure together. We still see her every day. There’s not a lot of opportunity to be sneaky.
Lesonsky: What are your expansion plans?
McShane: Last winter we added a third flavor, Charlie’s Cranberry, named after Robin’s dog. We made it in the same house Granny Squibb lived in. Used the same tea kettle and measuring cups and sat at the same table Granny did.
We’ve expanded to upstate New York and in New England. In 2020 we’re adding new distribution in Massachusetts. But we want to focus on growing sales in Rhode Island.
We don’t want to go nationwide. We’re a New England product. And we’d like to stay here. We source our ingredients in New England. We can drive to accounts if there’s a problem. We want to be accessible. Be local. Build a local, legendary company.
Lesonsky: What has the biggest surprise been for you?
McShane: By far how incredibly supportive other RI brands have been. Companies like Yacht Club Soda (the official soda of RI) have gone over and above to train and support us.
Everyone in RI is easy to work with. People here work with integrity and kindness. We were warned the beverage industry was cutthroat. Not in RI.
Lesonsky: What was your biggest challenge?
McShane: The first year was hard. We were working 24/7. You have to. And growth took off.
At one point Nick and I spent 72 hours within 30 feet of one another. That was tough. But we know it would be. We planned for it. We heard the people who said “don’t work with your spouse.” We knew we needed to expand so we didn’t have to work with just one another. At the beginning we’d go to a trade show and trip over each other’s words. One year in—we got the spiel down, got stronger and more confident.
Lesonsky: I know community involvement is important to you. How does Granny Squibb do that?
McShane: We participate in tons of community events, like Save the Bay. We donate a percentage of sales from the Charlie’s Cranberry to benefit them. [McShane actually swam Narragansett Bay for the event.]
We encourage our employees to pick a cause they support and get on their boards.
We just launched our first big digital campaign, If We Can, We Will. Any Rhode Islander can send an email telling us what they need, whether it’s volunteers for an event, connections, or help with collecting items for drives. If we can help them without spending any money, we will.
Lesonsky: Sales increased about 40% in your first seven months. What changes did you bring?
McShane: In 2018 we added marketing. In 2019 we focused on sales—and they more than doubled—up 250%.
Lesonsky: And you’re in this for the long haul?
McShane: We are committed to being beverage entrepreneurs. We’ve found our calling. We love iced tea. We love the story.
What we really value is the people here. We all love each other.
About Rieva Lesonsky
Rieva Lesonsky is CEO and Co-founder of GrowBiz Media, a custom content and media company focusing on small business and entrepreneurship, and the blog SmallBizDaily.com. A nationally known speaker and authority on entrepreneurship, Rieva has been covering America’s entrepreneurs for more than 30 years. Before co-founding GrowBiz Media, Lesonsky was the long-time Editorial Director of Entrepreneur Magazine. Lesonsky has appeared on hundreds of radio shows and numerous local and national television programs, including the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNN, The Martha Stewart Show and Oprah.
Lesonsky regularly writes about small business for numerous websites and for corporations targeting entrepreneurs. Many organizations have recognized Lesonsky for her tireless devotion to helping entrepreneurs. She served on the Small Business Administration’s National Advisory Council for six years, was honored by the SBA as a Small Business Media Advocate and a Woman in Business Advocate, and received the prestigious Lou Campanelli award from SCORE. She is a long-time member of the Business Journalists Hall of Fame.
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