Claire Buyson Perez is the owner and general manager of Lakwatsa Bubble Tea based in London. We first met at the Duke of York Square market, and as much as I adored the divine nectar she calls “taro bubble tea,” it was Claire’s warmth and personal journey that kept me coming back. I took her business card, knowing I could learn from her wisdom and even more from her unique career path.
She agreed to have a conversation with me, and we scheduled a meeting after work at Boys’N’Berry, a juice bar and café in Fulham. When I arrived to prepare, it was closed. Little did I know, it was the perfect set-up for Claire’s explanation as to how she conceived Lakwatsa. At a coffee shop just down the road, she shared her experiences, advice, and some perspective on the definitions of "success" and "failure."
I hear a lot of people talking about not wanting to work for anyone but themselves, but i think many are scared of the risk or intimidated by the process. When did you decide to open your own business? How did you make that dream come to fruition?
Oh yeah, definitely. So, I’ve known from the age of 14 that I wanted to own my own business. I just knew it. And so, when I went to college, I took business and finance because I knew that I didn’t know what I wanted to open. I was one of those ones. Do you know how you get those types of people who are like, “I know I want to be a lawyer, I want to be a doctor, I want to be this…” They have that set goal. I never had that. So I thought, “Let me just take business.” And so I did a business plan, for like a nail shop when I was 16 straight 17, and it was when I went to university that I did business management. During university I was working in Benihana. So that’s where I got the experience with working in bars, restaurants, cafes – and I loved it. I absolutely loved it. I loved the buzz of meeting people on a day-to-day basis, speaking to people – like, I’m seriously a people person. And I love food. I absolutely love food. And now I just have this passion for food and drink. And so, I thought to myself, “That’s what I want to get into.” I knew from in my area – I grew up in Ladbroke Grove – there wasn’t really a place where you could hangout that was non-alcoholic and that was, like, a chill spot. You know? It was either like a pub, which you just had to like, drink, and the atmosphere is different when people are drinking. Or it was like, a sit-down restaurant. There was nothing in-between. And if there was a coffee shop it would close at six – like we just experienced today!
And that’s the problem.
And that was the problem. So, I found a gap in the market. And I thought, “Okay, that’s where I’m heading towards.” And so, I started to writing a business plan.
Was that still before you knew exactly what you were gonna do?
That’s still before I knew exactly what I was gonna do. I was still at university, I was still working in uh – so, the last restaurant job I had was at Benihanna. And it was very, sort of an upper-class restaurant here. So a lot of influential people used to go there. It was such a cool place to work actually throughout university, but not only that, I made a lot of contacts. Which is what I mentioned earlier, so a lot of businessmen went there, and, you know, I would just strike up conversations with them and what not, and I started collecting their business cards. And I was really supposed to collect them for the restaurant, but I was doing it for myself as well. And you just kind of become friends with these people because they become regulars and you chat to them on a regular basis. So, I was already ripe for business and then during uni, I went to America on holiday. And I went with a bunch of friends and we went to LA and it was my first time there and it was the first time I tried bubble tea. And I thought to myself, “What is this amazing drink with like, chewy bits at the bottom?” We didn’t have it here. Or, if we did, I had no idea like where to get it and whatnot. And then I thought to myself “Okay, that’s it I’m going to open my bubble tea lounge.”
Oh my gosh you must’ve been so excited when you figured it out.
I was, I was like, “That’s it, it’s gonna be a lounge, it’s non-alcoholic, so it’s bubble tea,” but obviously it was so far ahead because I was still at university. So, I just just started adding to the business plan as time went by and whatnot. And then going back to Benihanna, one of the contacts that I made – I sort of told him what my situation was and he was like, “Well we so happen to have a vacancy at my investment company.” And I was like, “Really?” and He was like, “Yeah, it just popped up. The vacancy just popped up so send me your CV.” And I just thought nothing of it. And then the managing director of the company called me for an interview and I went. I think it went well, and it must’ve because they called me for a second interview, and then I got the job. And so, I worked there for seven years. I was executive PA to the chairperson and then I was also sort of a project coordinator and then I ended up doing project management so I sort of worked my way up. We went to places like Turkey, Egypt, LA – it was crazy. It was such an amazing life but something was missing. And I wanted to own my own business. So, I just wasn’t happy. So what I did was, I brushed up the business plan and then I showed it to my boss and I basically said “I have this idea – you’re going to think I’m crazy – but bubble tea is going to blow up in London. It’s going to blow up like crazy I know it. You know I tried it for the first time in California, it’s all over Asia – obviously – it’s an Asian drink. It’s all over America, it’s all over Canada, and it’s all over Australia. But we need to sort of enter the market while it’s fresh.” So, I showed him my business plan – he was really intrigued – and then he basically said, “I want you to show this to some of our clients, just to see what they say.” So I had to – do you know what Dragon’s Den is?
Okay, so Dragon’s Den is this TV show here, where three successful businesspeople –multimillionaires – are on a panel –
– we have Shark Tank.
That’s it. I felt like I was on that show. So we were literally like in my boss’s office and they were like sitting all around in a circle on the sofas and I was just there presenting my ideas to them. And I was super, super nervous, but because I was so passionate about it, I think it shone through because I was really like passionate and selling my idea and whatnot. So I did that and then they took the business plan away and they were asking me about the figures, and obviously I had a projected profit and loss, and how much we think we can make and whatnot and they went away. And then, shortly after that, they all decided to invest. So not only my boss and the other guys, but the other guy that was sitting in on the meeting was like, “I want in on this too.” So all three of them invested.
I really couldn’t believe it. So, that’s how I got the investment. And then, it was just all about turning it into a reality now. So, I had this vision of what it’d look like and I kind of knew where I wanted it to be. Because I grew up in Ladbroke Grove down by Portobello Market and Notting Hill, I was looking around that kind of area. Basically, I had this idea in my head – I wanted it to be really sort of organic-looking and rustic and, so I sat down with this design company, and basically got my concept into reality and into a plan that they could build and we had like swing seats and swing benches inside the shop and everything was made from reclaimed wood – it was such a cute space. A really, really cool space. And we had free wifi. We had like an iPad juke box on the wall where people could choose their own music as well.
So how did you make the decision to leave that space?
It was a bittersweet decision because I didn’t want to leave, but my landlord raised the rent. Not only did the landlord raise the rent, but the council raised the business rates as well. When we entered the space, it was £35,000 and then by the time we left – which was only three years – it had gone up to almost £60,000. Independent, cool, quirky businesses cannot survive in London, because of greedy landlords. And what takes over the space are High Street, mainstream shops like Pret A Manger and Starbucks and McDonalds, and every High Street starts to look the same and it’s really sad because a lot of people closed before me. After I left, three more independent businesses left. So, I decided to sell – sell the lease on the property – which was so difficult for me. Because I had put my life, blood, sweat, and tears into that. I’d got all my life savings as well into that – I had the investors too. I really thought like I’d lost everything. So it was a bit of a down time for me when I sold the business which was in 2015. I made money on the property and – but, I was just like, really disheartened, you know? But what seriously picked me up and what kept me going was the fact that I was still getting messages and comments from all my customers saying, “Please, please, please can you open up somewhere else?”, “I haven’t had bubble tea since you shut.” Honestly – it was like bringing me to tears.
Of course. You probably really needed that.
I did. And that was the main reason why I opened in the first place – to make people happy. And to make people happy through food and drink. That was really what got the concept and the idea going from when I was a teenager. And it’s what’s kept me going throughout. And it’s what brought me sort of back-up and gave me that inspiration and motivation again when I had lost it. I did still have ideas and even though I had sold the restaurant and the café, I didn’t close the business down, so the business was still open and running but obviously I just didn’t have a location. So I just thought, “What can I do?” So I was doing events anyway while I was at the shop and I thought “Why don’t I just increase that and just pop-up? I’ll do a pop-up.” So, we became London’s only pop-up bubble tea bar. So, we are literally the only pop-up bubble tea bar in London.
So, you’ve seen some highs and lows along the way, and some high-highs and some low-lows. How do you, personally, define the terms ‘success’ and ‘failure’?
Success – each person perceives success in a different way. For me, success is achieving what you wanted to do when you first started. I didn’t think like this in the beginning, though. When I first started the business I thought, “Okay, the only way I’m going to be successful is if I’m turning over sort of a multi-million-pound company. And I have like branches all over London and all over the UK and whatnot.” But that perception of success has changed totally in the past few years, because I’ve also felt like I failed. In a sense, it’s changed because I saw both sides to it. I felt like I was successful because we were busy, we were doing great, we were on all the social media sites, we had every food blogger writing about us, we were in Vogue, Marie Claire, the Times, Metro, and for me, I felt like even then I didn’t feel like that was the crazy-most-important thing. I think this might sound a really cheesy, but it was really about moments like this where you contact me because you love the taro, and you love something that I’ve created, and your friends love it too, and you’re from America and you’ll go away and you’ll remember that.
Failure to me is giving up. Failure for me is just, like, ugh, this is going to sound like such a cheesy quote, but it’s like it’s not how many times you fall, it’s just how you go on from there – it’s how you pick yourself back up. And you know, I was there – I’d lost it. But then, it’s how you move on from that particular situation. Not only with business but with everything, you know? With life.
I’m wondering, based on what I’m hearing, would you say it’s almost necessary to feel like you’re failing at some point? Or that it’s okay to feel like you’re failing?
Oh yeah. 100 percent. Because it’s those challenges that make you not only stronger, but more resilient to whatever situation comes your way. Because I’m telling you – owning your own business is no easy feat. You are going to work the hardest you have ever worked in your entire life. You’re going to have no life for the first part. Your relationships and your friendships are going to be tested because of all these things. So it’s hard, it’s honestly hard. So it has to be a challenge and you have to feel like you’re failing a bit because it allows you to stay on top of things, and on top of things and stay ahead of things as well. So I feel like, it’s important for you to experience that part of it as well. And most people in business do. Richard Branson, for example. He’s one of my business role models. He started from nothing and now look he’s got like, global domination with Virgin. And he failed at two businesses before he became a massive success. You just have to remember that when you fail in something else, the greatest have failed in so many ways. But it’s not failure. Failure is a bit, sort of like a negative word – something just hasn’t worked out. But it just wasn’t for them.
How do you feel about taking risks? Because obviously you’ve had to take a lot, or perceived risks, to open your own business. I think a lot of people of my generation are encouraged to seek the safest, most secure career paths, but that doesn’t leave a lot of room for creativity, or to go out and take risks. So, what advice would you give to people afraid of taking career risks?
Well, when I first started the business, the one thing people were saying to me was, “You’re very brave.” And I didn’t know how to take it. I think it was like an indirect way of saying, “You’re crazy.” Do you know what I mean? Because for me, I would say, take an educated and calculated risk, if that makes any sense at all. Like, you can’t just be like, “I have this idea, it’s not proven, but I just think it would work, so I’m going to take that leap.” So the first thing I would say is obviously be passionate about what you want to do – that’s number one – because if you don’t like what you’re doing, it’s not going to last. And if money is your main goal then forget about it – it’s just not going to last as well. So you have to be 100 percent passionate about it and you have to do your research, and your due diligence, and come up with a great business plan, and know the right people, and still have some sort of security. And get people’s opinions about it too.The thing was, I was doing everything on my own. And that’s another thing I would advise people: If you can, do it with someone. I’ve done this 100 percent on my own. From getting investors, to planning it, to building it, to maintaining it for three years, to losing it, to building it back up again in a different concept, to now. I’m still doing everything entirely on my own, and it is so hard.
But you must be so proud.
I am. I am. Obviously, when you haven’t reached where you want to be, it’s hard to look at yourself and say, “Right, you’ve done it.” You know what I mean? I’m kind of hard on myself like that as well. But yeah, you need a good support system. And if you’re going to take a risk, take a calculated and educated risk. Don’t be silly and stupid about it. But, 100 percent, if you can’t stop thinking about it – like, I read this quote the other day – it was kind of cute, it was a bit cheesy, but it was cool. “If you can’t stop thinking about it, don’t stop working for it.”
I like that. And all of this brings me to my final question for you. You’re a female entrepreneur, and in the past entrepreneurship was associated largely with men or male domination. What advice do you have for other women seeking to enter the entrepreneurial world?
I would just say if you have an idea and you have a passion, just go for it. And know that your gender is not a factor. When you’re entering a very male dominated world, like I did – like, I was working in the investment company, and everyone was a man. You know? But you just have to know your worth and know that you know what you’re doing and you’re smart and you can do it just as well as any man could. Just have that sort of attitude about things and just go for it, and don’t even see that as a factor. Don’t even enter into anything with that attitude because that will already affect the way people perceive you in a sense, do you know what I mean? If you have something – if you have a goal, if you have an idea – just 100 percent go for it and go quite hard, and don’t see your gender as anything, really. It’s just a gender.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
I think the only thing I would add is have something that drives you. And always remember that. For me, what drives me is my family and wanting to create a good life and a better life, not only for my family now, but my future family. And that’s what keeps me going. Because, like I said, starting anything on you own, going into sort of running your own business, is so tough. And you’re going to meet a lot of challenges and you’re going to want to give up along the way. I had a situation where the person that was supposed to help me like a partner left, my friends weren’t really there so much, my husband was 5,000 miles away – so it’s a very lonely life. I definitely would say it’s a very lonely life owning your own business, especially if you’re doing it on your own. So, just always remember why you started it and it has to be something that will continue to drive you until the very end, really.
Thank you so much.