This M’sian Entrepreneur Shares 5 Valuable Lessons She Learnt From ‘Failing’ Her Startup

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Nowadays, everyone wants to be their own boss and have a company they can call their own. It’s a dream for many, but of course, building your own brand or business from scratch is no easy feat. In fact, it’s a lot of hard work and being the CEO doesn’t mean living a glam life; in most cases, it’s pretty far off anyway, we’re not just as exposed to the real-life BTS struggles they face every day. #StartupLife

Case in point? Take ash be nimble for example, a homegrown active wear label that launched in March 2014 with the aim of bringing affordable and stylish sweat-wicking threads to the #fitfam community in Malaysia, with their key USP being attire under RM100 each. Shut up and take my money! 

Source: vulcanpost

They’ve been around for almost 4 years now and earlier this month, its Founder, Hui Mathews announced that the brand will be taking on a new direction starting 1st January 2018; the retail side of the business will be winding down as they begin creating inspiring health and fitness content come the new year. To give you a better idea, Hui sums it up:

“Think of us as ‘your guide to sports, fitness and healthy living in Malaysia’, a blog featuring everyday places, faces and races.”

Source: pamper

Hui never imagined her brand to be where it is today, saying that her journey for the past 4 years has been “an exciting but tough period”. To date, here are some of the highlights her label has achieved:

  • More than RM1.5 million worth of revenue
  • 7,000 unique visitors monthly to their 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 unpaid inspiring media features of ash be nimble
  • Countless partnerships with fitness events, studios, individuals, corporates and brands

Source: Facebook

However, Hui also wanted to highlight the not-so-pretty parts of having and running your own startup company. As such, she decided to shed light on some of the dark moments she’s experienced and 5 very valuable lessons she’s learnt from going the extra mile with ash be nimble.

1. You need to depersonalise, but still be vulnerable and functional

Source: ash be nimble

This past week has been an intense, incredible emotional roller coaster 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 till 8pm or 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, 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 & marketing for them, scared about a new contract role I was being offered by a large telco to grow their digital solutions.

It was when I started being less sentimental and emotional, and dared to think about closing the business as a real option, and became less afraid of talking to people about it, that’s when 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 & growing the people around you

Source: ash be nimble

In the middle of 2017, when I stopped to think about whom I’d become, I started disliking it. I was losing my joy, my cheer and hence 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 could not sleep at night, 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 inspired and motivated me with little messages and word 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.

Every month I’ve 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. 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 3 priority outcomes you want to achieve today?’.

People are the most important part, and people 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 in that instant that 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

Source: ash be nimble

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 get 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 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 grads 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’ve had to make sacrifices, no fancy meals (economy RM5 lunches most days!), mainly local holidays, XiaoMi phones will have to do. 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 expensive MBA!

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

Source: ash be nimble

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 crowd funding options and grants. One of the darkest moments in 2017 was when I got a disappointing phone call that an investor we had been going through due diligence for 4 months with, 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 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, one million Malaysian Ringgit translates to about USD200,000. When I started the business, it was RM3.3 to USD1, and now it’s RM4.3 to USD1, which means my production costs in China have gone up by 20 to 30 per cent at least! Coupled with an additional 6 per cent 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 KL. When I started ash be nimble, I wanted it to be a ‘lifestyle business’ that was self-sustaining after a 3 to 4 years, could replicate 70 to 80 per cent of my corporate salary, and free up my schedule to have kids and run a lot more! Four years later, I’m earning 25 per cent 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

Source: ash be nimble

We are so afraid of failure. Even when thinking of a title for this blog post, I thought of staying away from using the word failure because it seemed so final, so dark, so unpleasant.

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, everyday, 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/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 a 7000-metre elevation, waiting for the avalanches to subside and for a window of opportunity to climb that never came. But he made the call to go home, to keep the crew safe, to live for another adventure, and said that “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 that I could be proud of, 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 and that quick, it probably wouldn’t be something worth doing.

Yes I am sad that this chapter has come to an end, but it’s like pulling off a band aid: either you do it quickly and excruciatingly, or slowly and painfully.

Roshan, one of my mentors, who was a judge at the Alliance Bank 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’s why I feel compelled to share my very honest, real and hopefully inspirational journey with you.

Source: ash be nimble

Stay nimble.
xoxo
Hui

Read the original post here, and watch Hui’s announcement in the video below:

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PS: Don’t miss the final two weeks of their moving out sale from 7 – 9 Dec and 14 – 16 Dec! Your last chance to grab their super-soft tees and cute skorts! 🙁

Address: ash be nimble (The Fox Den) 30A, Jalan SS 20/10, Damansara Kim, 47400 Petaling Jaya, Selangor

Opening hours: 10am – 6pm

For more updates, stay tuned to ash be nimble’s site.

Also read: How Quitting My Corporate Job for My Startup Dream F*cked Up My Life

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