Drew's Letter

By Drew Stegmaier

The Rise And Fall Of Tea With Strangers 🍵, #5 of 💯 in 💯

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Drew's Letter

January 5 · Issue #84 · View online

The latest things I've dug into including books, quotes, songs, gadgets and other things I've found interesting.


👋 Today marks 5 of 100 in the 💯 Stories in 💯Days series. Here’s the previous one, Intellectual Masturbation: Short Story Club, in case you missed it. logistics update- I’m sorry this list isn’t segmented out yet. It may be boring to hear that, but it’s important for me to share- your attention is important to me. Apparently my email provider “doesn’t do that”. I think of you all “my audience”. To open separate restaurants (totally new email accounts) for each item on the menu is silly to me and not something I want to do, so I’m haggling with them before potentially jumping ship. Thanks for bearing with me. 🐻 Today’s story is-
The Rise And Fall Of Tea With Strangers 🍵
Tea with strangers? What the heck is that? Well, it’s about what it sounds like. You show up for tea, sometimes coffee, and talk to strangers for 2 hours. No cellphones. No commitment- you can leave at any time. Sometimes tea can go for 4-5 hours if people are really clicking.
Tea time is awesome. It has a fantastic self-filtering mechanism. People who are salesy or purely there for networking purposes opt-out, because you don’t know who will be there in advance. You can’t vet people to see if they’ll invest in your seed round, help you get promoted, or job swap.
Right now, I believe that our world is suffering from what I call A Crisis Of Listening- nobody seems to listen to anybody anymore. Serendipitous interactions with other humans are being replaced with interactions with machines. Self-checkout has replaced small conversations with the cashier. At Starbucks, a “third place” for me, I’m shocked at the number of mobile orders.
The coffee isn’t that good. ☕️ I guess the idea is to save time? I go to Starbucks because it’s an opportunity for me to be alone with people.
Alone with people? As in-I go there by myself and do my own thing, but sometimes I will chat with the baristas and other patrons. Later in this series, I’ll share a story of how I met my friend Ahmed in one of these situations.
Once I was at Starbucks in downtown Palo Alto. There was a man who seemed strange. He was reading the front page of the newspaper, laughing hysterically for minutes, but never turning the page. He got up out of his seat and collapsed, falling like a tree on the hard tile floor. The baristas quickly called 911. I hopped up and went over to him, remembering my training from gym class freshman year of high school at PVI- the 3 C’s, check, call, care. I was checking on him. I stood over him, in a direct voice saying…
Sir, are you ok?
Sir, are you ok?
Sir, are you ok?
After the third one, he got up and quickly walked out, saying nothing, acting as if nothing had ever happened. It was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever experienced.
These are the types of live, in-person experiences that make life memorable. These moments don’t happen when you get your grande pumpkin spice delivered by Uber Eats. Luckily, Tea With Strangers, or TWS as we call it, is an antidote to loneliness. Tea helps to replace those moments that we are losing to phones, to the digitization of everything.
Software is eating the world. It is gobbling up moments of human connection.
TWS has up to 6 participants, including the host. You must attend tea at least twice before you can host. I thought TWS was awesome when I heard of it years ago. I was eager to get started, but there weren’t any teatimes near me so I emailed them asking if I could host my own. I was eager!
That was against the rules and I understood why. They weren’t going to risk their brand on a stranger (ironically or not). I went to my first ever tea time in DuPont Circle in Washington DC, at a place called Teaism. The host was Aida, and it was awesome. I’m a talker, and TWS is also a great place to practice listening. Just the question of “where are you from?” can gobble up 2 hours with a group of 6 people.
I immediately got it. The whole experience clicked for me. This thing was game changing. For a while, it was. It seemed that the sky was the limit. At one point, TWS was in 30 cities globally.
But, it seemed that for as quickly as TWS exploded, it imploded just as fast.
What happened?
As is often the case, it likely wasn’t just one thing. But, I think the single biggest thing was a lack of mission and vision. TWS had a cool vibe, but we lacked a north star. We didn’t know whether or not we were succeeding. Since we didn’t have a way to measure if we were doing well, that made it difficult for us to double down on anything, or figure out what to avoid.
After a while, to me, TWS died. What does that mean?
Welp, it transformed into tea with friends rather than tea with strangers. Sometimes I’d invite friends to my scheduled tea times. This was a good way to ease them in, if they weren’t ready to go to a tea only with strangers. Of course, the idea was that it’d be me, them, and 4 strangers. But, often this wasn’t the case. A number of times it was just me and my friends.
No one needs an app or a website for that. I could just text my friends to hangout. This happened enough times for me to stop hosting. Additionally, TWS scaled back to only a few cities. Sometimes my friends in other cities wanted to get involved, and I’d refer them to the website. But, there were no active tea times in those cities, so they couldn’t participate despite wanting to.
No active hosts means no tea times are being hosted, which means nothing is happening. Looking at the website right now, there are globally only 2 tea times. One in Boston and one in New York City. But how could we go from 30 cities to this?
At some point we reached a cross roads internally. We had some success and had to figure out what to do next. We ended up doing nothing. I’d attribute the death of TWS to be the result of poor leadership. Having a position of power doesn’t make you a leader. Often leadership is about taking a stand and making a decision. Decision means “to cut”. Sometimes you have to go one way or another. It’s better to whole ass one thing than to half ass two things. We didn’t make any meaningful decision about the future of the organization. Ultimately we lost momentum.
In my judgment, we half assed it. There wasn’t enough skin in the game, for everyone. TWS wasn’t a moneymaking venture, but that didn’t mean money shouldn’t have been involved. For example, one of the ideas I had got vetoed. We had a problem with flakers- people committing to tea then not showing up. This is particularly unfortunate because often there was a wait list, and a guest wouldn’t notify us, they would simply no-show.
But, there were no consequences for this. No accountability. The idea was simple- have people pay $5 when they sign up. This is roughly the cost of a tea anyways, so you’re not losing anything. It would go towards the price of a tea. If you canceled 24 hours out, no worries. But if you no show, the money is ours.
This takes advantage of the concept of loss aversion. The basic premise behind it is that people hate losing more than they love winning. Even with a small amount like $5, that would be enough to keep people accountable, I hypothesized. But, the organization wasn’t willing to try it. I suspect, plenty of other hosts were like me- frustrated that people weren’t showing up, so they hosted less often. There were other ideas we didn’t try:
  • selling tee-shirts. 👕 At a minimum, many of the hosts could buy them, and our host numbers were in the hundreds at one point. This had the added boon of making it easy to figure out where the tea people were. One difficulty of tea is that a guest usually would have a single image of the host, and sometimes might miss a tea because a coffee shop was crowded and confusing.
  • putting up table tents- the idea here was also to make it easier to find tea people on-location, and potentially incite conversation with passersby who noticed the sign
  • many other ideas were tossed around. The theme was that we didn’t give them a go. All hosts are volunteers, and there wasn’t a clear “get” for any giving the hosts were doing on the administrative side.
Less hosting lead to less tea times. Instances occurred where people were interested in tea, went to the website, didn’t find any good tea times, and left, never to return. When this happens enough times, eventually the well dries up, leading to the situation we have today.
We didn’t want to make TWS a for-profit venture. But, just because something is a non-profit, doesn’t mean that it is a charity. The downside of many charities is that they rely on begging. There was no plan to pay hosts. No plan to have money coming in the door. With resistance to even simply keeping guests accountable, imagine the resistance to actually doing something that might make us grow.
I miss it. I think its one of those things that falls into the category of what the world needs. Unfortunately, at times, this isn’t what the world wants.
What are the lessons here? As is often the case, I am drawn to one of the mantras from Jeff Bezos- “disagree and commit”.
  • I think TWS died due to inaction.
  • There were plenty of experiments we could’ve tried, but didn’t. We didn’t commit to anything, besides doing what we were currently doing, which we knew wasn’t working. It was leading to our demise, yet we stayed the course.
  • All of these experiments were reversible. The perk there is that we could cap our downside, and the upside was potentially unlimited. But, by not trying at all, we were doomed to fail.
  • Make mistakes. Not deliberately! Mistakes are the result of having tried. When I try things, I learn. When I try nothing, I often learn nothing.
As always, thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed creating this for you. Tomorrow’s story is What Happens When You’re Too Early 🕰
Your teetotaler, 🍺
Drew

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