Tess Ulvesund is the founder of raw treats company Wellness by Tess. A manufacturer of a dazzling array of “Unbelievably Unnaughty” goodies that achieve that rare feat of being both truly healthy and incredibly delicious.
Tess originally started out making bliss balls in her home kitchen before they were “a thing”. Now, eight years on, Wellness by Tess tasty treats are stocked in cafes, restaurants and shops Australia-wide. One bite of a protein truffle or salted caramel buttercup and you’ll instantly know why the business has taken off. Yet, Tess seems happily surprised at the success that has come her way. “I was just walking around with my balls and it very quickly grew!” she laughs. “I just take it day by day, week by week.” Her relaxed approach is incredibly refreshing and belies the hard work and passion put into the business every day. We talked to Tess about how to grow a business without compromising on quality and what wellness really means today.
What was the inspiration for Wellness by Tess? How did it all get started?
Wellness by Tess was originally a wellness blog. I was working in finance, would you believe, so it was a way for me to be able to unleash some creative ideas. I wrote Paleo recipes, training tips and everything under the sun. It did get a bit of a following. At the time, I was diagnosed with autoimmune issues, my body sees some of my organs as foreign, so it starts rejecting them. I had to be a bit mindful of how I lived my life. We have always baked a lot in my family and there was no way I was ready to stop eating treats. So, about eight years ago, I started making really healthy treats at home. I guess word got around town and I started to supply a lot of cafes, but I never saw myself as being a baker!
I remember at the time, I had to make my first wholesale order for an organic wholesaler and I ended up having my whole garage full of nuts and cacao. My boyfriend at the time said, “This is going to sit here for years, you’re going to have to ramp up production.” So, I did a bit of cold calling, I was just walking around with my balls and it very quickly grew. I had to get a commercial kitchen space and some staff, then it snowballed from there.
You must have been an early adopter of the bliss ball trend, right? There are plenty around now, but eight years ago it would have been a novelty.
I was diagnosed in 2010, so that was when I started looking into it all. I remember very well the first time I googled bliss ball and I didn’t know what I was going to find! I started making balls at home and just playing around with different ideas. I definitely was one of the first ones and then a lot of companies came out with them, which is good and bad – it depends how you look at it.
Do you still sell any of those original balls that you made?
Yes! The protein truffle – that’s actually the first ball that I made. It’s been tweaked a little bit since, but that was the original one, I’m still holding that close to my heart.
What was the moment that you realised that your hobby would be able to become a business?
I think that happened pretty quickly. I never set out with the plan to start a sizeable business, it’s grown organically. My sister Emelie, who is now a co-owner, would pull her hair out as soon as she tried talking to me about forecasting. I don’t care much for numbers, I used to just take it day by day, week by week when I started out. We are always looking for new opportunities and we try to suss out where the market is going, but we are also lucky that we have so much business coming our way. We have kind of let the business grow the way that it wants to. I’ve never had a very aggressive sell and never needed investors or anything like that. I think I was very lucky, I was in the right time and the right place and had phenomenal customers that supported Wellness by Tess through it all. I think being good at networking has helped as well.
Often when businesses grow, they have to make compromises on the quality of the products to scale up. However, yours still have good ingredients and no added crap – how do you maintain that?
You’ve hit the nail on the head there. I had an experience a couple of years ago when I looked into having the products manufactured elsewhere. I sent my recipe to a manufacturer to see if they could manufacture it. When I got the product back, I nearly cried. It was nothing like when I handmade them myself. So that’s something that we’re very strict with, making sure we don’t lose the quality and integrity as we scale up. I think we’ve been able to uphold that well.
You have such interesting ingredients in your raw treats, what’s your current favourite?
I guess the most interesting thing is learning about superfoods – especially when they add certain flavours. For instance, in caramel treats I love adding mesquite root. It gives that salted caramel flavour. There’s a lot of those superfoods that we use to flavour things uniquely, to make it stand out and taste the way we want it to.
What is the best and worst thing about running your own business?
You know what, the answer is the same – it’s people. The best thing about running our business is that I get to be in front of people, which is what I love. But the hardest thing is also being a leader and being responsible for staff. I love our team to pieces, but when you take on staff, you don’t only take on good workers, you take on all the responsibility that comes with making sure they are happy and looked after. It is easy to get bogged down with the day-to-day admin of the business. I want to be able to work on my business, not in my business, which is a hard thing for any small business owner. As we’ve grown, we have naturally put more systems and procedures in place to help simplify the day to day but that would probably be my biggest struggle.
Part of the reason you started Wellness by Tess was to stay well, so how do you stop the demands of the business impacting your health?
I’ve just come down with the worst flu, usually I’m never sick mind you, but this time it really got me! But it’s a very good question and I think ultimately your health and your wellbeing comes down to how you value yourself. I’m not a person who gets very stressed, I’m very good at putting up a barrier. I’ve always thought that even if this business went belly up, I’ve been very grateful with what I’ve been taught, so I don’t let it get to me. So that’s number one. Number two is that I think that you have an opportunity when you work in the wellness space to also be a part of that. For instance, I now do CrossFit three days a week and I do so every time I’m at work. That way, I am part of a community. It’s also an important selling point to be fit and healthy and it’s a good way to network with people. The biggest thing, though, is that I don’t let the business get me down. I take it seriously, but I don’t let it get to me – I don’t get too stressed about it.
You have a one-year-old now – how do you balance the role of motherhood with running your business?
There were a few times there in the first six months where I really missed working. I felt guilty because I didn’t want to not enjoy every single moment of being a mother. But I think that’s something everyone goes through when having their first child. That, “who am I, what is my role, who are my friends” thing. Everyone is different in that regard, for me it was finding the right balance of being able to work on my other baby which is my business and having enough time with Lumi. The hardest thing is that I don’t want to be away from my daughter, but I’ve managed now to find a good balance. I’m very present when I’m with her. When I’m at home now, I turn my phone off because I don’t want to be on my phone in front of her. I think they pick up on it straight away.
What does a day off look like for you?
I don’t think I ever really have days off to be honest. Although, having grown up in Sweden and loving the swedish work/life balance, my sister Emelie and I are quite fluid in how we work. We both have little ones and sometimes we get the kids together while we get some work done. One of us takes the kids while the other does a phone conference and then we all go for a play in the park before we swap. But on the days I am on my own with Lumi, I try to be very active with her, we’re outdoors a lot and we cook at home. She is still quite little, so she sleeps a couple of times a day. That was something that was a bit of a shock to me when I became a mother – you’re so tied to your home. Before having a child, the way that anyone would describe me was “always on the go”. Whereas as soon as I had Lumi, I was very tied to my home. I spend a lot of time nesting now, which is lovely. That’s the biggest change since becoming a mum.
You’re very immersed in the wellness world, are there any trends that you have noticed?
I think my personal journey mirrors how the wellness industry has played out in some ways. I used to compare my health to how many kilos I had on the barbell. The heavier the barbell was, the fitter and healthier I was. Having a baby recently made me rethink that. Health isn’t just physical health – it’s also mental health, it’s being able to step back and look after yourself. One thing I have picked up from the wellness industry today is that mental, physical and emotional health are all tied into one. I used to look at wellness as being about flexing your muscles, whereas now it’s more of a wholesome approach. It’s a bit more down to earth. I think that had to happen.
What is next for Wellness by Tess?
We are launching a packaged range which is going to be very exciting. In general, we’re always thinking about how we brand ourselves and making sure we are current with trends of wholesome treats. Wherever that takes us is where we are going to go next.
You can check out Wellness by Tess delicious range of treats here and see their delicious updates on Instagram. Photo by Sam Riles Photography.