Interview with Martina Angelova and Zoe Burgess, co-founders of J’aime Original Kombucha

Find out how friends Martina Angelova and Zoe Burgess launched J’aime Original Kombucha, a twist on a traditional kombucha.

What’s your career background?

Martina: I have always been interested in numbers and in high school, just after Communism had fallen in Bulgaria, got very fascinated by the basics of Capitalism, by how applying numbers well ended up making or losing money for someone, so I got degree in Finance from the University of Houston. I then started my career working on large energy deals, on complex financial derivatives and, literally, making money out of nothing and I then got an advanced degree in Finance from the best place in the world for that, London Business School.

Motherhood brought me back to basics and really humbled me, when I, probably like countless women before me, realised that I could structure a derivative on any financial or physical asset, as well as perform a lot of other highly complicated and useless tasks, but couldn’t make my child eat or drink what I thought was good for them (unless it was sweet).

So I started looking very carefully at all the options available to buy something, readymade, that was healthy, tasted great and was low or, ideally, had no sugar, all at the same time. There were very few such products around for both children and adults.

To me, the apotheosis of such a product were the herbal teas, of which we have a rich tradition in Bulgaria. So, I researched and created a new brand of herbal teas, including a blend for children, targeted at the British tea drinker. It was on that project that I worked with Zoe, and we decided to tackle the gap in the market for sophisticated non-alcoholic (and health led) drinks.

I’ve always dreamed of a product that was aesthetic, delicious and truly healthy (there are so few out there that do not compromise on any of the three). I was lucky that with the help of Zoe’s unrivalled taste for flavour we could finally make that dream a reality. J’aime Original Kombucha was the first drink we launched from the J’aime portfolio.

Zoe: My background is in the world of flavour, and I’ve been immersed in the drinks industry for over 15 years. As a flavour expert, I’ve worked with big names in the hospitality industry, developing one- of-a-kind cocktail menus for brands such as Pernod Ricard and Michelin-star chef Heston Blumenthal, as well as collaborating on projects with some of the world’s most revered food scientists. I’m also a founding partner of Untitled, a cocktail bar in Dalston, east London, which allows me to let my imagination run free when devising the cocktail menus.

One of my key passions is pushing the boundaries within the sensory and flavour led sectors to help improve the consumers’ drinking experience. I’ve spent most of my working life around drinks and I decided to turn my attention to the world of non-alcoholic beverages. When exploring the world of healthy non-alcoholic drinks with Martina, this led us to kombucha. From a flavour perspective, I craved a kombucha that was not led by its acidic taste profile but its tea flavour profile. This is what we did with J’aime.

J’aime Kombucha is a twist on a traditional kombucha (usually made from black tea, yeast and sugar). Flavour and quality are paramount for us and putting Martina’s knowledge of tea to good use, we choose to blend four of the world’s most exceptional white and green teas (Snow Bud, Jasmine Huang Shan Ya, Sencha and Jasmine Ying Zhen Silver Needle) to make our kombucha.

The result taste is an aromatic flavour with delicate jasmine tea notes throughout, balanced acidity, a gentle fizz that is reminiscent of fine sparkling wine and a long clean and dry finish. We are also proud to say J’aime Original Kombucha is sugar free (no sugar is left at the end of the production process or added later on) so it really is a healthier option to enjoy throughout the day.

How did your career change after having children

Martina: I think that combining one’s career with childcare, even in the 21st century, in a Western country, is the toughest balance for a woman to strike. For me, it was a constant feeling of guilt when I was working that I wasn’t with my baby and when I was with him, that I wasn’t working… I was even misdiagnosed with depression. It was a real struggle.

So, in the end, after speaking to every successful career woman I knew (because, at that time, those were the women I was surrounded with), I decided to leave full time work. They all had regrets about not spending more time with their children when they were little and felt that those years could never be compensated for later. So, I listened to them, while having a tremendous amount of guilt for not working until my children were a bit older and I could resume meaningful work on a flexible schedule. If only Talented Ladies Club was around back then…

What’s your USP?

Both: We blended and put in a beautiful can a fermented, sugar free drink, made of simply the best green and white teas, with added probiotics. It is gently sparkling. It tastes amazing. 

We hope people would have a #jaimemoment with it. It is that moment when you stop what you are doing, pop open a can, breathe and everything is beautiful, tastes great, you are treating your senses and with what is in that drink, you are looking after your body, and mind, and yourself.

And when you have looked after yourself, even for a few minutes, everything is better. You can look after others, you can solve problem, create, dream. Or you can toast life’s big and little joys with friends. You define your #jaimemoment.

Who’s your target audience?

Both: Those who are looking for a healthy alternative to sugar based non-alcoholic drinks and who appreciate and value flavour.

How do you spread the word about what you do?

Both: As a small company we focus our efforts on growing organically and in a genuine way.

What’s been your most successful marketing strategy?

Both: Well, only seven months after launch, we are still trying to figure out what works best for J’aime, where our sweet spots are.

What’s the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome?

Martina: Zoe and I are so lucky to have such complementary skills and backgrounds, so between the two of us we could tackle confidently most issues on the way. But one thing none of had had much experience with was logistics.

So, it is the only part of the process we are not experts on, and we have outsourced it. It is done by a third party as we are not quite yet at a level of having our own warehouse and logistics team. For me it was really hard to let go of control and trust that it was done in the most efficient way when I am in no position to determine logistics efficiency. It is one of the things that keeps me up at night. 

The rising prices of all the ingredients is another challenge and, whilst I know a number of financial instruments to offset them, we, as a company, are too small for them to be economical for us. It is, however, a problem that everyone globally is currently facing.

And I try to look at it philosophically, that in these times of inflation, rather than clicking and buying whatever sounds good and doesn’t cost much, which we all have been guilty of doing for a long time, people will look for value. That, if they would spend their money on one treat a day, they would think wisely and J’aime would be a winner, considering everything it has to offer. That is my hope.

Zoe:  Developing and launching a product has set a whole new level of challenges, mainly balancing logistics with constraints.

And your proudest moment so far?

Both: Taking the first cans from the line was a very proud and special moment for both of us.

Why is work so important to you?

Martina: With J’aime, I feel that we have put together such a fantastic product and that with our combined skillsets, we have what we need to bring it to the success it deserves. So, it is very important to me that we do that and move on to bring to life the other great products we have in the pipeline. 

I had two boys and then a girl, who is now 7. So, it is now extra important to me that J’aime is a success, that I get the work/family balance right and be a good role model for her, so she not only knows it can be done, but sees how it is done. It is important to me that I crack this balance, having struggled to get it right for so long. 

Zoe: For me, keeping my brain active and focusing on the forward momentum of any element of my life is important.

Who inspires you?

Martina: A dear friend of mine founded a social enterprise, which created work from home for mothers of disabled children in Bulgaria. Most of these women’s partners had left when they had realised the scope of care the children needed and the state was not providing adequate support for either the children or the mothers.

Some of these women had the most gut wrenching and inspiring stories. They didn’t want a spa day, or a new dress, or even a holiday. They just wanted the opportunity to work, while caring for their kids. Really normal stuff. I promised myself to never ever complain about anything ever again. So, when I get inclined to do so, I remember some of these ladies and draw courage and inspiration from them.

And from my friend, who researched best practices and organised it all for them, while having three special needs kids of her own. 

Zoe: I’m more inspired by the arts and sciences than specific people. I appreciate anyone who asks a question or finds a problem and try to answer or solve it

How do you balance your work with your family?

Martina: I am so lucky that my kids are now older: 7, almost 15 and 17, and they not only do not need so much of my time and attention (it is now quality over quantity), but that they take a keen interest in what I do and try to help. 

For example, my younger son, Philipe, came with me to the bottling facility in Devon, when we did our first run, and folded the 250 six-can boxes that we put the cans in (the rest were boxes of 12 cans and folded by the people at the facility). The six-can boxes were fiddly to put together and our bottler was, obviously, going to charge extra for that.

So, I thought it was a perfect teaching moment for 14-yr-old Philipe to earn his first money and see exactly how it was done. And he thoroughly enjoyed it, even after the novelty quickly wore off and it became clear after the first 10-20 boxes that it was going to be what a teen would call “boring”. He enjoyed figuring out a more efficient way of folding them, stacking them, changing the sequence of what gets done after what to cut the time. We had a great time out of something “boring”.

All of the children like to hear how things are going with the business and grill me regularly with questions and this has also been a great process, because, being children, they go really down to the basics and ask things that are clear to adults, but they are worth asking because the answers are not automatic, actually. It is great to be kept on my toes by this tough audience. 

What are your top pieces of advice for someone wanting to do something similar?

Martina: Run your idea by everyone you know and don’t know. Run it not just by your friends, family and the people who will support you on this journey. Run it by strangers you strike a random conversation with, run it by teenagers, run it by people who have done something like it or understand it better than you, by potential investors. Observe your enthusiasm as you keep repeating that story; imagine doing that for years. If you are still fired up about it, make Plans B and C, and go for it.

Zoe: It’s a long game so be prepared for that.

Find out more about J’aime Original Kombucha.