Editor’s note: By now, you would have heard from social media that Malaysia’s beloved homegrown fitness startup Ash Be Nimble is winding down its apparel and retail business and changing its business direction to do more inspirational storytelling in the fitness area. Co-founder Hui Mathews writes her reflective piece.
Given the tough competition, increasing manufacturing costs and reduction in spending, I dug deep to think about what our strengths are and where to take Ash Be Nimble next. When we started in March 2014, there was no Sports Direct, Under Armour, Decathlon, Lululemon, Lorna Jane, nor fast fashion brands introducing activewear range like Uniqlo, Cotton On, H&M & more.
When I think objectively (and less sentimentally), and imagine what would people miss if Ash Be Nimble were to cease to exist, it would be the stories – the real, everyday, relatable fitness journeys – that make it seem possible to have an active, healthy and happy lifestyle despite the stage in life you might be in. The working mum with two kids trying to get back into shape and lose weight after a 5-year hiatus, the corporate dad trying to find time to train for a triathlon, the young working adult wanting to smoke less and do a 4-hour marathon, etc.
The last four years have been an exciting but tough period. We’ve experienced great growth, wide reach and built a great brand that many people can relate to and be proud to be associated with. When I started, I never imagined we’d be where we are now:
- more than RM1.5mil worth of revenue
- 7,000 unique visitors monthly to our website
- 18,000 engagements on social media monthly (clicks, likes, comments, views)
- 14,000 Facebook followers
- 9,000 Instagram followers
- 6,000 email subscriber base
- many complimentary and inspiring media features
- countless partnerships with fitness events, studios, individuals, corporates and brands
I wanted to leave you with five things I have learnt from building this brand from scratch, and also a reminder to myself and my team on what we have achieved together!
1. You need to depersonalise, but still be vulnerable and functional.
The past week has been an intense, incredible emotional rollercoaster ride. I was so focused on getting the hype up for our Christmas bazaar to ensure we could do a huge clearance sale, with a skeleton team left. I was at the shop most days until 8–9pm preparing.
At the same time, I was planning how to break the news to our top customers, partners, friends and family, and also start crafting the messaging of our new direction into content marketing, that I almost forgot to organise a farewell party for one of my team members, and pretty much forgot to plan how we were going to revamp the website.
While all of this was happening, I had a race to do, a mission to trial a few playschools for Asha before the end of 2018; I forgot my passport had ran out of pages and had to pay some penalties for that!
It’s so hard to process so many emotions in a week: sadness at having to close down your hard work, relief that I’d settled on a sensible new direction, excitement that people were already jumping on board to get us to do some digital branding and marketing for them, and afraid about a new contract role I was being offered by a large telco to grow their digital solutions.
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It was when I started being less sentimental, and dared to think about closing the business as a real option, and became less afraid of talking to people about it, that I got more clarity, ideas and input of the new direction of where I wanted to take the brand! Some time off in Langkawi helped, where we went to set up a pop-up store for Ironman!
2. It is more important who you are becoming, and how you are leading and growing the people around you.
In mid-2017, when I stopped to think about who I’d become, I started disliking it. I was losing my joy, my cheer and the energy to lead my team properly and give them the emotional support, encouragement and inspiration they needed.
There were a few very dark periods where I was overtaken by so much despair and anxiety that I had sleepless nights, which never happened to me before. With a young baby, I would usually jump at every chance to get some extra sleep.
During my darkest moments, my girls stepped up and motivated me with words of encouragement, even shouldering some of the financial challenges of the company with shifting to more part-time work arrangements. I don’t know what I did to deserve them.
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Every month, I made it a point to sit down with each of my team members to ask them what they could add to their LinkedIn profile as a skill they have learnt. It’s to make sure we are focused on learning new things and developing professionally. My team are also used to (and do get annoyed occasionally with) me asking them daily, “What are your top three priority outcomes you want to achieve today?”
People are the most important part, and they make all the difference. I realised that despite the chaos and my ups and downs, I’ve been able to build amazing working relationships and friendships with my team.
Even when they told me they had outside opportunities and I had to resist every urge to tear up, I realised that we had succeeded in building a great environment for them to learn as their new employer recognised their unique blend of skills and appreciated our outcome-driven environment. That they had gained so much life and technical experience and skills that made them more employable, which presented opportunities for them to earn even more and progress in their career.
I realised that was so much more valuable than just building a great product or brand. My concern when I made my first hire, was whether Ash Be Nimble would give enough career development opportunities.
3. The biggest source of stress is having to pay your team every month, and yourself.
Employment never prepares you for this, and you will never realise the sting of paying out of your own pocket until you start your own business. The stress from cash flow challenges took away a lot of the joy and passion of doing what I love. I’ve learnt to appreciate paid employment so much more!
The thought of not having to wonder if you will be paid, or have the ability to pay your team. I remember tearing up watching The Pursuit of Happyness, because he had USD22 left in his bank account. At that point in time, I had about RM622 left.
The reality hit hard when I wanted to send Asha to playschool in 2018 but realised I could not even pay for a term of fee upfront. Before you start thinking that I come from a rich family (everything is relative), my father is a lecturer at University Malaya, my mother a financial planner with AIA, and my husband is a lawyer (but law graduates start at RM3,000 per month, so you do the math!).
The stakes are always high when you take risks to pursue your passion. My husband and I have poured our savings into this. I’m 31 now. I don’t want to be 35 and still not have a house of our own, and have to put groceries on my credit card. We had to make sacrifices – no fancy meals (economy lunches at RM5 on most days), mainly local holidays, Xiaomi phones, etc. Even though it seems like a waste of our savings, I’ve learnt so much, and I’m telling myself it was like doing a super exorbitant MBA (Master of Business Administration)!
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Because of this valuable experience building a brand from scratch and going through the pain of boot strapping and being creative about how we spend our time and money, there is a corporate that has come knocking on my door to do some contract work with them to help find digital solutions for other businesses. In a way, it is a larger platform, a wider opportunity to help build so many other businesses looking to establish their brand online!
4. Don’t ignore the elephant in the room.
Everyone loves our brand and everyone says we’ve built something great. But we weren’t able to attract more investors through a few more rounds of pitching, exploring crowdfunding options and grants.
One of the darkest moments in 2017 was when I got a disappointing phone call that an investor had been going through their due diligence for four months, and had decided that their portfolio strategy needed to shift and not include us anymore.
I did everything to bite my lip to stop myself from crying over the phone as I politely answered to receive the news, said goodbye, walked calmly out of our open plan shop office, managed to close the door seconds before bursting into tears and hiding up the stairs for a good half an hour.
There are really harsh moments you will have to deal with, alone. It is a vulnerable experience about going to pitch, after pitch, after pitch, but not getting a single person indicating serious intent. And having the team eagerly await good news, only to have to give them disappointing and empty updates.
Let’s be honest, even if this business took off, got some funding and I made millions, with its stellar performance, RM1mil translates to about USD200,000. When I started the business, it was RM3.30 to USD1, and now it’s RM4.30 to USD1, which means my production costs in China have gone up by at least 20–30%! Coupled with an additional 6% GST, rising petrol costs and reduction in consumer spending, there are market trends you cannot afford to ignore when you are in business.
I also realised I’ve been swept up in the startup hype in Kuala Lumpur. When I started Ash Be Nimble, I wanted it to be a ‘lifestyle business’ that was self-sustaining after a 3–4 years, could replicate 70–80% of my corporate salary, and free up my schedule to have kids and run a lot more!
Four years later, I’m earning 25% of my last drawn salary, barely get time to run once a week, and sometimes am too stressed to give my baby the attention and love she needs. You need to ask yourself what kind of business you want to have.
5. My business model can fail, but that doesn’t make me a failure. Don’t be afraid of failure because it will teach you so much.
We are so afraid of failure. Even when thinking of a title for this post, I thought of staying away from using the word ‘failure’ because it seemed so final, dark, unpleasant.
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Our age of picture-perfect, celebration-only, seeming-success at every turn Instagram and Facebook photos are evidence of our avoidance of talking about the uncomfortable, every-day, unglamorous struggles. We only want to talk about failure in the context of that it led to success, or we mostly just shy away from it.
I was inspired by Mike Horn, touted as one the greatest living explorers of our time. He works so hard, lives on a USD4,500 per month salary, gets sponsorships to do the most amazing and brutal exploration trips, which sometimes have a high chance of failure.
One of them was his failed attempt to climb K2, one of the most challenging mountains to climb in the Himalayas. He spent more than a month camped at 7,000m elevation, waiting for the avalanche to subside and for a window of opportunity to climb, but that never came. He made the call to go home, to keep the crew safe, to live for another adventure, and said:
“I often speak of failure as a big part of my life. Nothing I do is a sure thing, otherwise I would not be doing it. Not knowing… is the most exciting aspect of my life.”
Of course I would love to have a success story of selling my business for millions. A story I could be proud of, one that I could tell my kid in the future, that I could make my friends and family who invested in me rich, that I could show the naysayers, ‘hey look, I proved to you I could do it, and I did it my way’. But if it were that easy, it probably wouldn’t be something worth doing. Yes, I am sad that this chapter has come to an end, and it’s like pulling off a band aid: either you do it quickly and excruciatingly, or slowly and painfully.
With this, I thank all of you for your support the past few years, although it hasn’t been an easy journey. There have been a few dark moments where I have grappled with whether I have failed the brand, family and the team, but I am determined to turn these failures into extremely valuable learning opportunities to make this brand better and stronger.
I have been blessed with an overwhelming support, and a golden opportunity and timing to make a strategic and hopefully a smarter change for this brand, and to continue inspiring others to lead fitter, healthier and more active lives!
Roshan Thiran, one of my mentors, who was a judge at the Alliance Bank BizSmart SME Innovation Challenge in 2015, told me:
“Fail fast, and fail gloriously.”
I’m not sure if we’ve succeeded at failing gloriously, and I don’t know for sure that our new direction won’t be a failure, but I know that I’ve become a tougher, better, wiser business person, mother and leader – more than what any other corporate job could have taught me. That is why I feel compelled to share my very honest, real and hopefully inspirational journey with you.
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