The bubble tea maker with a new boba alternative
Like many people amid the Great Resignation, Diana Ark Chen left her full-time job in 2021 with the goal to start her own business. And hers has been inspired by crafting a healthier and still convenient version of one of her most beloved childhood treats: boba tea.
And she’s not alone when it comes to the deep love for bubble tea, a beverage popular worldwide. However, traditionally, bubble tea isn’t the healthiest beverage—it can include a lot of sugar and calories, neither of which are sought-after among new food and beverage products these days. The average 16-ounce black milk boba tea with tapioca pearls from a local café can have upwards of 400 calories (equivalent to drinking roughly three cans of full-sugar soda) and over 50 grams sugar (equivalent to eating 12 sugar cubes). Tapioca pearls, alone, can contain 200 or more calories per one-fourth cup serving, approximately the equivalent of 1.5 scoops of ice cream.
Bubluv is touted as a first-of-its kind boba tea that is ready-to-drink—no mixing or at-home preparation required—and has less than 50 calories and one gram of sugar per 9.5-ounce bottle. It’s also keto-friendly, gluten-free, and packed with antioxidants like vitamin C. So far, Bubluv offers three flavors: black milk tea, matcha soy latte, and passionfruit oolong guava—each with Bubluv’s tapioca pearls.
And based on the initial response, Bubluv appears to have a filled a gap in the market. The company amassed a pre-launch 28,000 person waitlist after the founder’s bubble tea story went viral on TikTok and LinkedIn in January.
Chen recently shared more with Fortune about launching her own company and how she plans to grow the business.
The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Fortune: Can you share a bit about your professional background prior to launching Bubluv?
Prior to launching Bubluv Bubble Tea at market in 2022, I worked in marketing for over a decade as a brand manager for a variety of [consumer packaged goods] food and beverage brands including Green Giant, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!, and Country Crock. My experience in brand marketing—specifically bringing new products to market—played a pivotal role in my ability to successfully navigate the nuances of building my own brand, and eventually introducing Bubluv to market in April.
I have worked primarily in the food and beverage space for my entire career, and as a result have had visibility into what it would take to bring Bubluv to market. I went into this process knowing what I knew and knowing what I needed to learn more about, which helped me prioritize my time, effort, and energy.
With that being said, the marketing plan came relatively easy to me. (It helps to have a product you’re passionate about, and experience under your belt.) I even went viral twice while sharing the brand’s story on TikTok and LinkedIn. The biggest challenges I faced during the start-up process was the actual development of Bubluv and the actual execution of my marketing vision with very limited resources.
Did you already have ambitions of starting your own business? What inspired you to launch Bubluv?
The inspiration behind launching a product came to me when I was just 12 years old. At the time, my mom took me to Take Your Daughter to Work Day, and I didn’t just sit back and observe what my mom and her colleagues did all day. Instead, the employees put me to work and challenged me to invent my very own concept for a beverage—from the ingredients and branding all the way down to the label. I ended up making a blue raspberry sports drink that I called “Splurge,” and at the end of the day, they actually created the drink for me to take home. That’s when it clicked for me and I realized that this is what I wanted to do when I grew up.
Fast forward 20 years, and the idea for Bubluv Bubble Tea was born. I love bubble tea, but I’m also health-conscious and didn’t want to consistently consume the amount of sugar that can be found in my favorite traditional bubble teas. That’s when I decided to quit my full-time job and launch Bubluv, so I wouldn’t have to choose between my overall health/wellness and my favorite drink. I knew I had the passion, experience, and determination to pull it off. I just needed to refine the recipe and find a way to make it.
Recreating a healthier version of our favorite sugary products is never easy, and can take a lot of trial and error to get just right, especially for mass production. What was the recipe testing process like for making your version of boba tea?
It was definitely a challenge to find healthier alternatives that could still mimic the taste and texture of traditional bubble tea. Being that it’s such a unique drink, I acknowledged early on that we were never going to try to “replace” traditional boba, but instead become a better-for-you boba alternative that has the best attributes of bubble tea, but without the loaded carbs and sugar. We’re definitely not looking to compete with the super-sweet bubble tea drinks—that isn’t at all how Bubluv Bubble Tea tastes. Instead, we exist to offer a light and refreshing better-for-you version that is reminiscent of traditional boba tea, in fun flavors that consumers can feel good about drinking on a regular basis.
That said, I took my time with the research and development process. I personally tested over 200 recipes and looked at over 60 manufacturers before making my final decisions. We had to hit start and stop a few times along the way, as I was extremely picky about getting the flavor profile just right. Taste can be subjective, but we wanted to be sure it appealed to as many consumers as possible, while adapting to changing consumer taste for a lower sweetness profile. While my intention was to launch late 2021, it was actually the R&D process that held us up slightly. I wasn’t about to bring something to market for the first time that wasn’t exactly what I wanted.
After months of work, we finally settled on our recipe. In traditional boba tea, the tapioca pearls are usually made of tapioca starch and brown sugar and/or food coloring. Our tapioca pearls, however, are a blend of tapioca starch and konjac and have no added sugar. The addition of the konjac gives the pearls a jelly-like texture that complement the flavor of the tea. Each flavor variety is sweetened with all-natural sweeteners, including monk fruit and erythritol, resulting in a lightly sweet and refreshing taste. It’s all the boba tea experience—without all the guilt.
How is the company funded? Is it self-funded or have you reached out to investors? What has the financing process been like?
Bubluv is primarily self-funded with support from family and a very small group of private investors. Sourcing financing support externally was a challenging process when Bubluv was only in its concept phase, and especially since it was a novel concept that required cultural understanding. The virality of my LinkedIn story also helped me get connected to quality investors who understood and believed in my vision.
A lot of people are using this time after the pandemic lockdown to rethink their careers, and many are starting new businesses. What advice would you offer to anyone thinking about starting their own company right now?
There is never a perfect time to branch out and start your own business—but there is the right time. And that time is when you feel the confidence and support you need to take the leap.
My best advice is to assess your risks, build out a firm timeline, and try to understand—as best you can—what your path forward will look like. Anticipate roadblocks, and build in extra time and money for challenges that may come your way. But never lose sight of your end goal, and always remember your purpose. And don’t be afraid to get out there and share your story on social media. You never know who you might connect with.
I’ve been working towards this moment since I was 12, and I’m so proud to have made it this far. I can confidently say that this specific sense of accomplishment is something only new business owners can feel.
Looking forward over the next five years, how do you want to grow Bubluv? Do you want to add additional flavors or new products altogether?
Additional flavors are definitely something we want to add to our Bubble Tea line-up. And as far as expanding to new product innovations, the intention of Bubluv certainly started with bubble tea, but ultimately, I would love to grow the brand to offer more convenient, better-for-you Asian-inspired foods and beverages. As a fourth-generation Asian American, I grew up eating delicious Asian cuisine, but found a lot of my favorite foods to be high in carbs and/or sugar. I’d like to use Bubluv as an avenue to help change that, and give consumers a new way to easily and more healthily consume popular, traditional Asian foods.
This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.