Thursday, December 15, 2011

Why Did I Create RateTea When Steepster Already Existed?

This post was inspired by a discussion on the TeaChat forums, When/why did you start drinking tea? In this discussion, one of the forum users posed the question:

What was your reason for creating ratetea when steepster already existed?

The answer was long, so I decided to write it as a blog post rather than just reply on the forum. Most of you probably already know about both RateTea and Steepster, but for some quick background info, these two sites are the only two interactive tea-related websites that have a database of individual teas classified by brand / tea company, which allow anyone from the internet to sign up and write about tea and rate individual teas. Both sites were launched in 2009, but Steepster was launched considerably earlier in the year than RateTea.

The above picture shows old screenshots of both RateTea and Steepster...this is actually not what the sites looked like when they launched though, unfortunately, I do not have a screenshot of Steepster after its launch, and it would be a bit of work to resurrect an old copy of RateTea from then.

I actually had no clue that Steepster existed until some time after I had launched RateTea to the public.

When I went to create RateTea, it was inspired by RateBeer. I was drinking my tea one morning, Upton Tea's Chun Mee Dao Ming to be specific, when I thought..."I wonder if there's a site like RateBeer, but for tea".

I actually searched exhaustively for interactive tea-related sites before starting to develop RateTea. I discovered TeaViews and the Tea Review Blog, and various forum sites, but I did not come up with Steepster. Steepster did not show up in any google searches, and I searched exhaustively, not just for topics related to tea ratings and tea reviews, but a whole other series of searches related to tea and social networking sites, web 2.0, interactive websites, and anything I could think up. A few tea blogs probably linked to Steepster back then, but I was not as engaged with the blogging community then, and most prominent tea bloggers did not start writing about or linking to Steepster until later.

In all honesty, I may not have developed RateTea if I had known about Steepster, but that's now how things went. When I first discovered Steepster, I was annoyed and frustrated. I had invested about five months of effort into singlehandedly developing and launching a site, and here was another site that was developed by a company that clearly had more resources (three employees, based in NYC, means they must have a hefty funding source) and experience in developing interactive websites. I am not a competitive person, and, in the business world, I don't like competing; I would rather limit my work to things I can do better than other people, and shy away from work that other people can do better than me. Back then, RateTea was very minimal, so I can say without a doubt that at the time, Steepster looked better and more professional than RateTea in virtually every way.

My frustration was compounded when, about six weeks after launching RateTea, Steepster added ratings. Prior to this point, Steepster only had a "tea log", allowing a twitter-like stream of written posts about tea. I have no idea if Steepster was inspired to add ratings in response to the launch of RateTea, or if they had developed the feature on their own and were going to launch it independently of anything I had done. For all I know, they might not have known about me until I tweeted at them on twitter under my @RateTea account, in response to their addition of the ratings feature to their site. I also recognized that even if RateTea actually did offer tea ratings to the public first, being technically first in this regard wouldn't help the site much because Steepster was already more established and being more actively used.

Abandon RateTea or keep working on it?

I was now faced with a decision: abandon the project I had invested a lot of time into, or keep going with it and find a way for it to coexist with Steepster. I thought a lot about what my vision for the site was, and whether or not I'd be able to create a unique resource that would be the best resource on the web in some regard, or whether I'd just be taking second place to others with more resources, skills, or knowledge than me. And when I started thinking about my vision for RateTea, and looking at Steepster, I realized more and more that the sites were fundamentally different, and not only that they could coexist, but could have some positive synergy, as well as collectively appealing to a broader audience and meeting more needs than either one site could alone.

My vision for RateTea:

What I wanted to do with RateTea was to create an independent repository for accurate tea information on the web, one that I could use as a vehicle for promoting transparency and sustainability in the tea industry. That is, I wanted it to be fully independent of any tea company, a website that does not sell any tea and does not even have any affiliate links. RateTea uses only third-party advertising on the site.

I was impressed by the massive empire of high-quality sites like TeaChat, TeaMap, and the like, owned by Adagio, but I saw a need for something that was not associated with any one company. And I also wanted something that could be viewed as the most accurate, most definitive tea resource. Unlike Steepster, RateTea screens reviews from new members, and the site's terms of use prohibit companies from rating and reviewing their own teas.

Tea as a vehicle for food culture:

I also wanted to use RateTea as a vehicle for getting people to think more about their tea: where it comes from, and how it is produced. For this reason, we classify teas to a greater level of detail, not just black, green, etc. but down to specific cultivars, specific provinces or even counties of China, and then we have an article on each style of tea, each specific region. And, rather than just appealing to tea connoisseurs, I want the site to draw in casual tea drinkers and get them to start thinking about their tea.

But the vision is not just about tea, it is really a global scheme which I intend to use as a platform for influencing and reshaping food and drink culture in America and worldwide. I want to push people in the direction of the slow food movement, embracing traditional foods, paying more attention to how their food and drink tastes, etc. For myself, when I got more into beer (and then tea) in this way, it opened up the door to thinking more about food. This is another reason why I have a lot of info on the site about climate and how tea is grown, on the region pages. I want people to become aware of issues like climate change, soil degradation, and also to learn about gardening, growing their own herbs, etc.

Very different from Steepster:

When I explain the full vision of RateTea, it is apparent that it is vastly different from Steepster. The site is a social networking site, and an interactive site where anyone can rate and review teas, but this is only a small part of it: it is also intended to be a massive repository of accurate information, and a vehicle for quiet, information-based activism that I hope will transform an entire industry by making it more transparent, accountable, and committed to sustainability. And more broadly, I hope it will influence the national and global food cultures in a positive way as well.

And this is what motivates me:

And that's why I'm so motivated to keep working on it and make it succeed even when there's a "competing" site that has more funding, more technical expertise, and more paid employees, each of which is probably making a lot more money than I am. Sometimes I still feel frustrated, not just about Steepster, but just in general. Steepster is a well-designed site, and a product of honest business and hard work. What really irritates me are the sites using blatantly unethical practices. I think...why does X website get more traffic / media attention / have more facebook fans / have better search rankings? Why am I not making more money? I see websites that have a message I see as negative or harmful, or are spreading misinformation, I see websites engaging in black-hat SEO practices to manipulate their search rankings, and I see companies using marketing that plays off all sorts of insecurities in unwholesome ways, like the weight loss message used to market tea to women. And I don't want to do these things, and I see that I am earning less money because I'm living with more integrity. And it frustrates me at times.

But I'm not interested in giving up. I know that my projects, not just RateTea, but other longer-term projects like Merit Exchange, or the political platform, are worthwhile contributions to society, and so long as I have enough resources to live comfortably, I can't imagine doing anything other than working on the projects and goals that I am most passionate about. And I know that right now, RateTea already is an awesome resource. The header of the site says: "The most comprehensive tea resource on the web." Anyone who reads this blog knows I write at length about honesty in marketing, and I wouldn't make this claim unless I believed it wholeheartedly. When I launched RateTea, I didn't make this claim, because the site wasn't good enough to make it honestly yet. Now it is. And I hope the quality of the material on the site will speak for itself and that others will recognize the quality of this work, and over the long run, take down their links to the unscrupulous websites and replace them with links to the higher-quality resources that I and many others have created.

What do you think?

What do you think of the relationship between RateTea and Steepster? Have you ever worked on a project only to find that someone else did something similar, and did a better job in some ways? What are your thoughts on competition vs. coexisting and working together by focusing on your strengths? Do you ever get frustrated when you see unscrupulous businesses making more money or getting more traffic or attention than you or your business? Do you think I'm being honest with the claim that RateTea is the most comprehensive tea resource on the web?


  1. Hey Alex,

    Quite a full and frank piece - thanks for sharing it. I guess it's both difficult but also invigorating to find direct 'competition', no?

    I suppose there's always always room for variation and difference in a marketplace (if you can call it that), especially where what you've built differs in purpose. I haven't used Steepster that much (so not commenting about their standards etc.), but you're offering something which is semi-curated and intends to be authoritative with social features, rather than 100% socially led. There's definitely some value in that.

    It kind of reminds me of cameras - there's a guy called Ken Rockwell ( who very objectively reviews cameras and makes strong recommendations. His website design sucks, and he's not the best photographer, but it is absolutely the 1st place I go for camera advice, simply because he has authoritative and clear opinions. Social is good, but people are also desperate for quick, clear and strong advice.

  2. I'm still looking for "the tea review site." I think this is a market where many tea drinkers like me who are caught in the middle, between fanaticism and tea bag blends, still haven't found a go to. Keep pushing forward!

  3. Hey, Alex. If you want to look for screenshots of what steepster used to look like, you can check out the Internet Wayback Machine:

    Catch you later and keep posting!

  4. To respond to Stephen, I checked before posting it; it has screenshots (which I used to generate this one) but nothing to compare both sites at launch; for some reason it captured an error page for the earlier Steepster snapshots.

  5. I think you're right, minrivertea, that I want something that combines curated or editorial content with more free-form social networking. I want to integrate user-written reviews with carefully-researched articles about tea.

    So, while each individual reviewer is free to write whatever they want to about the tea, when we add teas, we carefully classify them, so the page on each tea is linked in with an article about the particular company, the style of tea, and the region the tea was produced in.

    I think ratings (on, Steepster, or anywhere for that matter) are best taken with a grain of salt. I think the ratings are more about encouraging people to think about how much they are enjoying the tea, and to keep track of which teas they like more or less, than they are about discovering or identifying the best teas.

    For example, when I use Yelp to find a place to eat, I don't look for the highest-rated restaurants. But I do read over the reviews and I especially note WHY people rated a restaurant only 1 star, or 5 stars. I also like that Yelp has an editorial team, and classifies businesses with a fair amount of detail. They allow people to suggest information, but ultimately they oversee / approve it manually.

    The amount of junk put out there on the internet can be astounding. Of the modest number of people who have signed up for, an unfortunately large portion came from users with hotmail or gmail accounts who created an account, logged on once, and gave a number of perfect or near-perfect ratings to teas from one particular brand, and then never logged on again--pretty suspicious. In one case I actually tracked down the reviews to marketing consultant who had been hired by the company. I've also had a few users write profanity, and some people just posting stuff as tea reviews that aren't really reviews at all, for example, write letters directed to customer service of a tea company, and post it in the review box for a tea from that company. We don't publish these reviews. I want to let people write what they want about teas, but only within reason. I don't want to allow people to post tirades against an individual tea company, and I especially want to screen out bogus or fraudulent reviews.

  6. Alex, it's nice to learn about your thoughts on your site! I actually learned of before I learned of steepster. Even though you both have rating system, I think the two sites are quite different.

    My overall impression is, is more geeky. I personally like things geeky. But I guess a challenge is people might be intimidated by geeky contents, and that might make it harder for to attract more people than On the other hand, could attract a lot of tea geeks. So I believe there is much space for to grow.

  7. I don't have many good suggestions, but I really hope can grow, because it's independent, it values high quality loose leaf tea, and promotes environmental/social awareness surrounding tea. In all above sense, it's quite unique.

    I like steepster very much too. Sometimes I write very casual tea logs on steepster. But since seems to have more "formal" rating system, and I can't rate my own tea, I can't do the same tea logging on But so far, I know some "serious" tea drinkers who feel somewhat "homeless" and need more hard-core tea sites.

    Compared with steepster, I think has a better potential to attract some hard-core tea fans, rather than attracting greater overall traffic. I believe that's what happens in businesses. Some businesses' goal is to get as big as possible. However, the major goal of some other businesses (usually smaller ones) is to make themselves No.1 and irreplaceable among certain group of customers.

  8. Haha, yes, I think most things I make are pretty geeky, because I'm pretty geeky.


    Tea is interesting because there are so many different ways of being into tea. I think there are actually a lot of fans that are too "hardcore" for for either site in some respect. As an example, the die-hard Pu-erh enthusiast would probably get a lot more out of reading blogs like The Half Dipper or Bearsblog, and people who are seriously into Gong Fu brewing of oolongs will probably prefer reading blogs like Stephane's Tea Masters. Rating websites and more casual sites don't really lend themselves to serious practitioners of gong fu brewing. When I think about assigning a number to a tea I've put that much care into brewing, it seems a bit silly to me.

    So my goal for the site isn't to attract the most hard-core tea fans. My original vision was to use the ratings to draw in casual tea drinkers, especially the younger generation of people in college now or recently out of college. These people drink a ton of tea and are more into trying new teas than the older generation; they're also tech-savvy and are familiar with sites like Yelp and RateMyProfessor. They were the people I had in mind. And I'd like to nudge them in the direction of loose-leaf teas, single-harvest, single-origin teas.

    Some things are still less intuitive to me though. Why do people seem so much more excited about rating beer online than about rating tea? Especially since I rarely drink beer while at a computer but I frequently have a cup of tea next to me on my tea just seems to fit more (to me) with the idea of an online rating site than beer does.

  9. "Why do people seem so much more excited about rating beer online than about rating tea?" The answer is obvious to me - because there are a lot more beer fans than tea fans now. Besides, many guys grew up with "beer pressure" since college time or even high school time. They love talking about beer aloud, while tea is rather off mainstream. I even know people who don't really like beer but fake the enthusiasm (beer pressure...). But nobody would fake it if he doesn't like tea :-p

  10. Hey Alex,

    Really interesting post. It's great to see some of the thought processes that fuel the ethos and features of RateTea and how it all started.

    To clarify a couple points, when we started Steepster we didn't have any funding (just our savings accounts) and haven't taken any funding since. We've been fortunate enough to be self-funded through contracting.

    From the beginning we had a very basic, non-numeric rating system using a simple thumbs up/thumps down. It was after the point you had launched that we revamped our ratings (which we had planned for a while) and added the slider with 100 point scale. You can see some of our thoughts on our blog:

    Either way, one of the motivating drives of Steepster is to introduce people to quality, loose leaf tea and help them dive deeper into the tea universe. To that point, we welcome any and all competition/similar sites/tea advocates. Anything that is going to help people learn more about tea is cool with us and beneficial to the industry in general.

    I also don't think it's a big deal if you find a site already doing what you've planned. Today, ideas really aren't worth much. At any point in time there are at least several different people/groups working on whatever you might think is totally new (we know from experience). What really matters is how you can execute and how you can make your experience uniquely fitted towards the purpose of your site.

    Sure, being the first mover is always ideal, but it isn't the whole thing by a long shot. There are thousands of companies that get funding in the millions, just so they can compete with other sites that are significantly more established - if they can do it, why not us small fries? :)

    I'd love to see more of your thoughts on the genesis of RateTea (since I'm sure we worked through a lot of the same problems). I'm also happy to answer any questions about Steepster.

    Keep the tea movement going!

    - Jason,

  11. Hi Jason! Thanks so much for posting here!

    And apologies for assuming things about Steepster without knowing them...I need to be constantly reminded how much I don't know about the world, other businesses, other people, etc. Sometimes I fall into the pattern of falsely jumping to conclusions based on incomplete information.

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that ideas on their own aren't worth much, but rather, that it's the proper execution of the ideas, doing a good job of doing them, that matters the most in the end.

    I think Steepster excels at the execution of the social networking features, interface, etc. whereas I've had to work harder at these things. I moved RateTea more in the direction of informational articles, because I think I'm better at this. But I've slowly been getting better at the interface, and since Sylvia has been working on the site too, the look-and-feel has greatly improved as well.

    I'm hoping to share more over time about what my thoughts and intentions are for the site. I also decided that I'd like to participate more actively in Steepster, so you'll see more of my posts over there too.