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Business & Entrepreneurship

From Passion to Profit: Drexel Student Starts Tea Business Through Entrepreneurial Co-op

March 18, 2019

Billy McCullough portrait

Portrait of Billy McCullough with a jar of "grandpa style" pu-erh tea. Portrait by Beth Ann Downey. All other photos courtesy of @puerh_panda on Instagram.

This is one of a regular series profiling the Drexel Co-op program, which celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2019-2020. 

Some people are just born with the entrepreneurial itch — they want to create a company, turn a profit and leave a lasting legacy on the business world.

Other entrepreneurs, like Drexel University environmental science student Billy McCullough, find the itch through another key trait they’re born with: passion.

McCullough found his passion for tea — specifically, a large-leaf tea from China’s Yunnan province called pu-erh — through a high school teacher. When he came to Drexel, it helped guide his first-year major change from business to environmental science.

“I'm really into plants in general, like botany, horticulture, conservation of species and human uses of plants throughout history,” said McCullough, who will be graduating from the College of Arts and Sciences this spring. Then, gesturing to the Ball jar in his hand filled with pu-erh, he added, “So tea, specifically, because that’s the most diverse one.”

McCullough’s passion grew into a huge hobby as he started tracking down new teas to try. He started with shops in Chinatown, but soon moved on to contacting vendors and farmers from Yunnan province itself, solely for his own consumption. He started having people over to try the different teas, forming a “circle of tea people” around him because of the access he had opened up for friends to try these authentic pu-erhs.

“I started thinking, ‘I wish that people could get tea more easily instead of going through all the hurdles I had to go through to get it,’” he said. “So I was like, ‘Maybe I can form a company one day?’ But then I was like, ‘That will never happen until I’m 50, or until I retire and do it.’”

Puerh Panda 3But then, an email about entrepreneurship co-ops offered to students across the University through the Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship landed in his inbox. And all of a sudden, McCullough’s business idea was getting started much sooner than he expected. With the co-op’s $15,000 of capital, work space in the Baiada Institute of Entrepreneurship and six months away from classes to focus on turning his hobby into a business, McCullough launched Puerh Panda, a lifestyle brand and online storefront selling small-batch tea and handmade tea accessories.

Roger Lee, an adjunct professor, entrepreneur-in-residence and program manager for the Close School who mentored McCullough during his co-op, said McCullough is a great entrepreneur because of his open-mindedness.

“Many entrepreneurs have a hard time being flexible with their entrepreneurial ideas,” Lee said. “They are usually dead set on their idea, no matter what. But Billy is not that way. He’s really a fresh perspective to entrepreneurship in my opinion. He comes in with an open mind and is not afraid to work hard — come early, stay late.”

McCullough took an entrepreneurship class during his co-op that helped him learn more about creating a plan and having a focus for his business. And although the support provided by the co-op included ample mentorship which minimized his chance of failure, McCullough also knew he had to be self-reliant to ensure Puerh Panda’s success.

“You have to be self-motivated,” he said. “No one is going to do the work for you. You have to attend meetings and people encourage you and give you advice, but they don’t sit down and say ‘do this, this and this’ and ‘this is how you do it.’ … You have to motivate yourself and get up every day even though no one else is motivating you to clock in.”

Puerh Panda 4During his day-to-day while on co-op, McCullough said there was a lot of emailing, networking and negotiating prices and sizes for product. He admits that even though he was starting a business for a niche market, it was certainly not easy, especially as the only employee. To create unique blends offered through Puerh Panda, McCullough would rope friends into helping him sample teas from different vendors. Some vendors would send him upwards of 50 varieties to try.

“Drinking tea is really fun but when it’s been eight hours and you're trying 20 types of tea and you’ve peed like 100 times… some nights there wasn’t too much sleeping,” he said with a laugh.

McCullough also ran into problems with things like working with vendors remotely (some of whom only spoke Mandarin) and sourcing ceramics to sell. For the latter, he decided to work with his high school — Malvern Preparatory School in Malvern, Pennsylvania — where he first discovered his passion for tea to sell products from their ceramics classes, proceeds from which benefit the hungry through the charity Empty Bowls.

Puerh Panda 5“They do a fundraiser event and then they have extra mugs leftover,” he said. “So I took those in and I donate to the same organization that they would donate to. Now they’re not going to waste, so that’s pretty cool.”

Another start-up must-do that was tough for McCullough was using social media as a marketing tool, especially since he didn’t use social media very much personally.

“I'm still learning to kind of let go of my private experience and share it more because that's what people really expect, especially if you’re looking more of a lifestyle company,” McCullough said. “So yeah, I struggle with that. I'm always nervous to put my face in places. I don’t want to necessarily show myself off; I just want to show the tea.”

Despite this, McCullough has found his own ways to get personal with customers.

“I like to write letters or handwritten notes as a thank-you and do stuff like that to make people feel comfortable and appreciated and also know that I'm a real person,” he said. “It's not some big, evil guy trying to steal your money.”

Lee says everything from this approach to customer service to McCullough working with local artists to create packaging for his tea all echo one key element of entrepreneurship — giving back to the communities you serve.

“At the heart of what he’s doing it’s not just tea, he’s building a tea community,” Lee said.

Puerh Panda 1McCullough’s entrepreneurship co-op ended in September 2018, but he continued to build the business as much as he could with the time between classes, homework and looking toward graduation. His efforts to maintain the business have come full circle: from passion to hobby to full-time job to side hustle. McCullough hopes to land a position in horticulture and conservation post-grad, but he is thankful that his entrepreneurship co-op gave him something lasting beyond even leaving Drexel.

“For me it will always be a side hustle or whatever,” he said of his business, “because I love it and love tea and just the fact that when your hobby becomes a thing that you're creating your own vision of, it's pretty cool. … If you're passionate about a hobby that's like, a dream, right? You get to kind of carve your own little niche in it, no matter how small it is.”

Lee, who has his own “side hustle” running a creative company that produces dance concerts and provides artist career coaching, said he hopes McCullough’s business ventures continue to bring him happiness above all else.

“Whatever you’ve created, if you’re still happy doing it, then that’s a great sign,” Lee said. “If it stays that way, then the sky is the limit.”

About the Drexel Co-op program: Nearly all eligible undergraduate students at Drexel University participate in the co-op program, balancing full-time classes and up to three different, six-month-long work experiences during their time at Drexel. Students can choose from hundreds of employers across the country and globally — plus endless possibilities through self-arranged opportunities.