It all started with an idea to make fashionable and affordable fitness wear for everyone to enjoy, and it grew to something much more than just an apparel company. Ash be nimble (ABN) was a small passion project of Hui Mathews’, who believes that you can have vibrant and well-fitted sports wear without breaking the bank.
She shares her experiences thus far in her from-corporate-to-startup journey.
Where did the idea for ABN come about?
I was looking to train for half marathons and to do more trail running. I was looking at some of the booths that were set up at one of the races and I realised there wasn’t anything at RM100 or less in the style and quality I was after. If you’re looking to train for half marathons, you would need to commit to train about three to four times a week.
That means you’ll need at least three sets of outfits; each consisting a sports bra, a pair of shorts, and a top. Brands like Nike and Adidas would require you to pay about RM120 or above per item, and if you look at the average Malaysian salary of RM3000, spending that kind of money on sports clothing will cost you ten percent of your salary! I thought there must be something I can do to change that, and so I told myself that the next year at the same marathon, I’m going to come back and have something to sell that will be affordable for women who are into fitness like myself.
How did you manage a startup while juggling a full-time and very demanding consulting job?
It’s never easy to start a brand and work full-time. Juggling the two have made me super efficient and effective in everything I do. At the same time, I told myself that it was okay to make mistakes and see how it works out over the next 6 months. Whatever spare time I had whether it’s on the way home, during lunch breaks, or over the weekends, it’d be dedicated to researching designs and going through multiple iterations of it. I think I had an average of three to four hours of sleep a day for the whole of 2014 [laughs].
What are some of the biggest challenges leaving a comfortable job to start up something on your own?
I’ll be very realistic and say that money is the biggest factor, followed by career progression. What if ABN does not work out? It’s going to be very difficult for me to reapply and get back into consulting. I had a previous employer who offered me to go part-time and that allowed me the flexible hours and still be able to focus on ABN. Everything that I was earning was going back into ABN and if I stopped, we’d no longer have that security.
Finding out that I was pregnant was also another challenge. Did I want to go back to a stable and predictable employment and be able to raise my child without worrying about whether I was going to be able to pay my own salary? When you’re running your own business, so many things start and end with you. If you’re on leave or on maternity break, there’s a high risk that nothing will get done in a way that you want it to be. My husband and I had a discussion and we came to the realisation that so many people have done this with a lot less - whether it’s raising a family or starting a business. On the flip side, you have people who are in the corporate world and when their child comes along, they don’t have the flexibility to work from home or bring their child to work.
What are the challenges of running a fitness apparel company in Malaysia?
For me, it’s asking myself ‘how do we keep things interesting and affordable?’. Costs are going up, the ringgit is struggling which affects production costs, and now we have GST to worry about. When you sell something online, people tend to expect a huge discount even when we’ve always tried to keep our prices low from the start. We have to make sure we grow the business in a sustainable way where we’re not throwing huge budgets on advertising, marketing, or getting superstar celebrities to feature us. We’re doing a lot of grassroot work and figuring out ways to drive more people into the store and creating awareness about ABN. With more and more competitors coming in, we’re really trying to set our brand apart with the range of clothing that we have and to send the message across that we are a Malaysian brand and we’re proud of it.
How do you go the extra mile in your everyday roles?
I really try to coach my team to think about going the extra mile in everything they do. Even the little things like replying a customer’s email, it’s all about putting yourself in the customer’s shoes and giving them the type of service you’d like to receive. As for our return and exchange policies, we try to go out of our way to make sure the customers get what they would like to wear at the end of the day. From an entrepreneur's perspective, there are so many people out there who lack motivation and encouragement and I hope that through my own little battles like whether to wake up and go for a trail run, I’ll be able to inspire someone else. If I’m able to show someone that yes, you do have to make compromises and sacrifices but you can find ways to balance work and family, then hopefully it’ll inspire them to go the extra mile and take that extra step to start something or continue whatever it is they’re doing. People can tell if you’re doing it for show or if you genuinely believe that this is what you need to do. As a mother with a demanding baby, who is also running her own business and finding the time to keep fit, I can say that it is possible to discipline yourself and make choices to make things happen. Each person has a different path but there are always ways that you can make for yourself in order to chase after your dreams and build what you’ve always wanted to do.
You’re a living testament that you can have a career and a family at the same time. What advice do you have for mums out there who feel the need to give up what they love so that they can raise a family?
There is always going to be a compromise. For me, it’s my bank balance [laughs]. There’s no room for fancy holidays, pretty things, and luxurious dinners, but in return I get the privilege of building a brand that I believe in and I’m able to marry my passions for fitness, design and business together. You have to be willing to discipline yourself whether it’s waking up early to work out or researching on that business you want to start.