CEO Series

5 Key Lessons Behind Ash Be Nimble's Failure, As Told By Its Founder

On the 1st of this month, ash be nimble‘s founder Hui Mathews shared in a blogpost that her fitwear startup will be taking a new direction.

As of next year, they will be winding down the apparel and retail side of ash be nimble. They plan to move into the content creation space instead, engaging freelancers to do inspirational storytelling in health and fitness, to create content for social media and website use.

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

Active in the fitwear scene for the past 4 years, Hui described her journey as “exciting but tough”.

Here are some of their milestones that they hit, according to Hui:

  • more than RM1.5M worth of revenue
  • 7000 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
  • Multiple unpaid features in media
  • Various partnerships with fitness events, studios, individuals, corporates and brands

Despite their popularity, the fitwear market Malaysia now is quite heavily saturated, and Hui cited tough competition, increasing manufacturing costs and reduction in spending.

Hui also shared 5 key things she’s learnt from all this, which we’re including below, in her words.

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

This 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 till 8 or 9 pm 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 and 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).

Image Credit: ash be nimble

2. It is more important who you are becoming, and how you are leading and growing the people around you.

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 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, 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.

Image Credit: ash be nimble

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 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 bootstrapping 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!

Image Credit: ash be nimble

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 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 its RM4.3 to USD1, which means my production costs in China have gone up by 20–30% at least! 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 KL. 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!

4 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!

Image Credit: ash be nimble

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 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, 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/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 7000 m 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.

Stay nimble.
xoxo
Hui

Syndicated with permission. You can read the full blogpost on the ash be nimble website here.

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