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paranoia + optimism: of becoming an entrepreneur, mother & turning 29

Posted on December 25 2015

Someone once described to me that the essence of the life of an entrepreneur is this eclectic, scary & exciting mix of paranoia and optimism: the productive & positive paranoia action that is spurred on by an overwhelming sense that you must and need to succeed because everything starts and stops with you. This blog post is my version of that paranoia & optimism this past year.

If you told me in January 2015 that by December I'd be a mother, a retail shop owner & win a business award for what we're doing with making fitness affordable & accessible through ash be nimble, I'd chuckle and ask you how would I ever find the time & energy & people to do all that. Although, the Optimist in me would secretly wish at least 2 out of the 3 things would come true.

This year has been a whirlwind of many exciting milestones for ash be nimble. Since we started in March 2014 we've achieved so much; gathered an amazing team of 2 permanent staff + 8 casual event + store staff, amassed a loyal customer base and released some much-loved fitness apparel. As soon as I found out I was pregnant in April 2015, I started thinking about hiring, spurred on by the paranoia of making sure I had trained & built strong support so when baby came along in December I could still have my other 'baby' taken care of.

We're now in 20+ fitness studios and stores all over Asean: Kuala Lumpur, Kuching, Bali, Singapore, Cebu, Manila & Jakarta - behind the scenes there has been much paranoia prepping, trialling & erring with venturing into new cities, some of which we've never set foot in; there were endless unforeseen hiccups with customs for Bali & Jakarta, canvassing potential stockists for Singapore, the sheer exhaustion of lugging a suitcase around Manila 6 months pregnant. Somehow the paranoia of getting all these cities checked out before it was too late for me to travel in my 3rd trimester took over & I napped wherever I could, sought the support of friends, investors & family in each of these cities to pull through.

Briefly, 2015 in review:

  • February 2015: We soft-launched our men's + unisex tops
  • March 2015: We celebrated our first birthday in March 2015 with a fitness fashion show at Malaysia Womens Marathon with 20 ladies each with their inspiring fitness stories we gathered from our customer base, studio stockists, running community and the race organising committee itself
  • May 2015: We launched our Modest Activewear Range with Muslimah long sleeve tops + sports hijabs at a brunch session with bloggers, customers, fellow fitness entrepreneurs and our supporting stockist studios
  • August 2015: We launched the cutest little range of kids athletic 'Nimble Tees' for ages 2 to 12
  • October 2015: Was our busiest month with 13 pop up stores all over the Klang Valley at various corporate and race events including the flagship KL Standard Chartered Marathon and invitations from various corporates including Exxon Mobile, The Star, Astro, IBM, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Citibank

31 October 2015

THE FOX DEN - our 3-in-1 warehouse, office + retail studio space in Damansara Kim was launched with a special secret sale for our loyal customers and friends of ash be nimble. In record time of less than 30 days, we found and secured the tenancy, moved all our stock in, set up our racks, fittings & furniture. For a small start up and as a first-time entrepreneur, signing on the dotted line for a 2-year agreement is a scary but exciting step.

I'm keen to make this an exciting but homely space for our growing team & range & for other local entrepreneurs who are willing to take the leap & share with other Malaysians their passion and artisanal output. We put together a small Christmas bazaar on Saturday 28 November 2015 with 12 local vendors selling their ware ranging from water colour-illustrated cards, hand made jewellery & candles, spices, chocolates, meats & more.

I was so proud of 3 of our own casual staff members who were vendors on the day - Adora with Medea & Her Jewels, Minnie & Sherine with Shimmy & Bake, and Sara with Saranira Coconut Ice Cream. I'm so privileged to have on staff budding entrepreneurs in their own right. They inspire me to take ash be nimble to new levels and to pave the way for other girls keen on building brands and businesses of their own!

Do check out The Star's write up about the event here.

Friday 11 December 2015

To be real candid & raw, I will tell you that Friday the 11th was the first time I cried in front of a bunch of strangers. It was my final pitch for the Alliance Bank SME Innovation Challenge 2015 - we had made it to the top 7 to be in the running for 1st, 2nd & 3rd prizes worth RM250k, RM200k & RM150k respectively.

With all things ash be nimble, the whole competition was nothing short of taking 'paranoia' to a whole 'nother level. From the get go, my initial online submission alongside 300+ other startups was done at midnight, using the wifi in my budget hotel room in Makati, Manila at the end of August - watching Bersih news on TV as well as the local riots going on in Manila on the same day. That day was pretty rough as all of my appointments with potential stockists ran 1-2 hours late due to the torrential rain and the massive protest involving thousands of people late into the night.

All in all we were privileged to be shortlisted for the top 20, then the final 7, and 2 category awards for Retail Strategy & Sustainability - which meant a total of 5 pitches (4 of which were all in the last 2 weeks of the challenge), 5 training sessions and 4 CEO chatroom dialogues with CEO's from Ecoworld, BFM, Baskin Robbins & Mydin, 1 radio interview and a series of other newspaper & media interviews.

More than the advice from the CEO's & judges was the sense of empathy we had for each other, as fellow contestants but also fellow entrepreneurs who have made certain sacrifices, foregone some luxuries and experienced exhaustion on varying levels to build the startups that we have.

To complicate things further, my doctor had advised that our due date of 17 December 2015 for the delivery of our first child needed to be brought forward to the 10th as there were signs that indicated earlier than expected readiness in my womb. So in the final week of the challenge, I had to pitch on Monday, Thursday & Friday but every day from Wednesday 9 Dec we went in for scans and check ups to check for contractions and to get clearance from the doctor before going out to make those pitches. Ashish had to be on standby as driver, and the Alliance team and the other contestants were extremely supportive and made sure I was taken care of during the pitching sessions. I was optimistic about making it to the final pitch on Friday the 11th without popping, but paranoia about the 'what if's' set me into a productive crisis mode to ensure Ashish was briefed to pitch on my behalf, that all my presentation content was ready with pre-empted Q&A, and my amazing investor Anne flew up from Singapore to be on standby just in case. In between all the prep we somehow found time to get baby items ready, hospital bag packed, staff handovers done, and maybe a few hours of sleep at night.

You can imagine the relief when doctor said that inducing the baby on Saturday is still a safe option, but he did caution that baby could decide to come earlier of its own accord.

There is always a price to pay and the intense week culminated in a very emotional moment when the judges asked me in the final pitch why does ash be nimble deserve to win. I started saying that we've done so much in so little time, & even pregnancy has neither deterred nor slowed me down. There was a sudden rush of emotions when I began to lay out all the support from customers, investors & friends who have proved to me we can build a brand Malaysians can identify with and can be proud of.

I know its cliched but the point I started tearing up was when it hit me that the main thing carrying me through the week was that I wanted to have a great story to tell my child one day, that I would want her to grow up full of optimism & ambition to make life better for herself & those around her, that I would want her to look at what I've done / become & be the person she wants to be like when she grows up.

Straight after our pitch we went back home to pack and get admitted into the hospital on doctor's orders. After another scan, we were cleared to attend the awards dinner where the top 3 and category winners would be announced.

The hospital band on my right wrist developed its own celebrity status at the dinner, & we were ecstatic when we were announced as the winner of the RM100k sustainability award sponsored by Manulife, on account of making life better for Malaysians; for promoting a culture & lifestyle that inspires. We also came in 4th amongst the top 7, OH SO CLOSE!!!

Speaking to many of the judges & Alliance bank involved I realised that these connections & genuine care shown by them are a priceless takeaway - thank you Roshan, Victor, Malik, TS Liew, Kenny, Prashant, Ian, Arthur, Lilian, Amarjit, Adrianne for making this experience so memorable.

Saturday 12 December 2015

I crawled into my hospital bed around 1am (with Ashish comfortably on the couch beside), optimistic about the day ahead as I had no time to worry about the pain and the life changing experience ahead.

Doctor induced me at 8am, and after 6.5 hours of labour, no epidural, delirium from the intense contractions from 11am, the dog whisperer on the TV in the corner, Ashish coming to my immense rescue for the last 2cm of dilation by helping me mentally picture each as a race check point, game face on when doc came in for PUSH TIME in the last 45 minutes, our baby girl Asha was born at 2.45pm weighing in at 3.24kg and measuring 49cm long.

There was a price to pay for such an exhausting last few months as I had no strength to be mobile during the contractions, and the fatigue I experienced post-delivery was like nothing I had experienced before. As she was a big large for my size, I lost a lot of blood and we stayed in the hospital for 5 days - cabin fever was not an issue as I was glad to be staying in one spot did not leave my room for 3 days.

So here we are 12 days later, on Christmas eve, on the eve of my 29th birthday, reflecting on 2015, on the spectrum of emotions, countries, experiences, roles, issues, milestones I've experienced. There is still a little paranoia about the days ahead, how I will navigate motherhood + entrepreneurship, but an immense optimism that there is an army of people and good opportunities awaiting us.

Thank you Asha for putting me in a this state of productive & positive paranoia for the last 9 months - without which I would not have thought & planned ahead to build team ABN, to set up The Fox Den, to rally others' support as there are good people in our lives waiting to jump in & help, to not give up on the Alliance Bank SME Innovation challenge so regardless of the outcome I would have this story to tell.

Merry Christmas everyone & here's to celebrating family & friends & being grateful for the opportunity to live life spectacular.

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Media coverage from The Star on the final results of the Alliance Bank SME Challenge 2015 here, quick excerpt:

"The other awards given away were the Visa Retail Award that comes with RM100,000 cash prize, which went to CarBengkel; the Manulife Sustainability Award that comes with RM100,000 cash prize to Ash Be Nimble; and the HyppTV Viewer’s Choice Award that comes with a RM200,000 media package to The Alphabet Press.

This yearly challenge is now in its third year and its 20 finalists, selected from more than 300 entries, underwent a two-month structured business coaching and mentoring programme with established business leaders and subject matter experts.

Part of the final score for the top three awards were based on public voting.

The panel of judges for this year included Alliance Bank Malaysia Bhd executive vice-president, group transaction and SME Banking head Victor Khor, Manulife Insurance Bhd chief marketing officer Kenny Thing, Leaderonomics chief executive officer Roshan Thiran, BFM founder and managing director Malek Ali and Cradle Fund marketing and strategic partnerships vice-president Hazel Hassan."

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previous feature in The Star of the Top 20 finalists here

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BFM interview as part of the finalist activities - I share what I've learnt through the challenge in this podcast here.

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last minute pitch presentation run through Thursday evening before our pitch on Friday

with BFM-ers at the awards night - I was already 'admitted' to hospital at this stage, and signed a waiver to be able to take 'leave' to attend the awards dinner with Elaine from chopstick diner, my awesome staff Sherine and 2013's winner Christy Ng who was an awesome source of encouragement & support

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