Start-up: Spreading mindfulness

This article first appeared in Unlisted & Unlimited, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 13, 2017 - February 19, 2017.

Yeo and Lim came up with the idea of reminder bands — elegant, discreet bracelets with a word or phrase on them which they could look at in the heat of the moment, take a deep breath and calm down

We started quite small. We had strong ideas about the designs and I think if you see our designs, you will agree that they are very minimalist. Part of the reason is that we do not want the design to overshadow the message. We want it to integrate into everyone’s life regardless of where they work or live. > Yeo (right)

The words the duo selected for their bracelets were the product of hours of interacting with the people around them

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Once upon a time, there were two people who led very stressful lives in Singapore. One was a corporate lawyer, the other a strategic consultant.

They were committed to living more mindful lives. The problem was this means remembering not to react.

So, they came up with the idea of reminder bands — elegant, discreet bracelets with a word or phrase on them which they could look at in the heat of the moment, take a deep breath and calm down. The name they chose for the company got straight to the point: The Mindful Company.

Co-founder Ciara Yeo was born in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. Her family moved to Sydney, Australia, when she was young, but she came back often to visit her extended family.

“My dad’s family is from Klang and we used to travel quite often. I would be sent to Malaysia during the summer holidays to spend time with my grandma,” she says.

Lim Wen Ling, the company’s other co-founder, was born in Penang. Her family moved to Perth, so she too travelled back to Malaysia quite often.

Yeo studied commerce, accounting, finance and law at university. “We both have a corporate background. I started out in consulting. Then, I got into investment banking and law before starting The Mindful Company,” she says.

Lim also studied commerce, accounting and finance at university. She started her career with Deloitte in Perth. “I did consulting in the area of indirect taxes. When I moved to Singapore, I spent about six years with Ernst & Young doing business incentives advisory,” she says.

The concept for their company came about mainly because of the daily pressure they had to contend with. “I think in Singapore, and in many professional environments, things can get quite stressful. We have witnessed that in our lives and the lives of others,” says Yeo.

“We have found that the hardest part about living mindfully is remembering to be mindful in each moment. That is how the idea of using a reminder band came about.”

The words they selected for their bracelets were the product of hours of interacting with the people around them. They came up with expressions like “breathe”, “be still”, “let go”, “be kind”, “can”, “it’s a journey”, “gratitude”, “joy” and “warrior”.

No one thing led to the creation of the company, say the partners. Instead, it was a confluence of things, such as a penchant for helping out with the different causes, travelling frequently and being exposed to a variety of things as well as the stressful lives they were leading.

“I think seeing conflicts in the workplace and our friends re-evaluating their lives ... all of these things kind of added together,” says Yeo. “As opposed to one moment, when we knew for sure that this was what we wanted to do,” says Lim.

Both of them still had full-time jobs when they started The Mindful Company. “I don’t think either of us thought it would grow very quickly. We just thought that making reminders that are really subtle, so your boss or your clients can’t see them, would be cool,” says Yeo.

The first word they came up with was “breathe”. Then, “let go”.

Yeo says, “It is really for those moments when you are facing a challenge and just want to react. With me, it was always when some unreasonable things were said at a client meeting. I would feel this on my wrist and say to myself, ‘Okay, just take a minute’.

The partners were really picky about the words and phrases they wanted to use. They resisted doing some of the more popular motivational ones. The words and phrases had to be mindful. They had to be elegant and tasteful.

“We started quite small. We had strong ideas about the designs and I think if you see our designs, you will agree that they are very minimalist. Part of the reason is that we do not want the design to overshadow the message. We want it to integrate into everyone’s life regardless of where they work or live,” says Yeo.

They fashioned the bracelets themselves. Then they looked for someone to help them manufacture the products.

Since The Mindful Company is an e-commerce business, it could remain quite lean. “We did not need much capital for things like setting up a website. Most of the photos you see on it are of our friends and we took them ourselves,” says Yeo.

“So, starting out was really about doing some very common sense things — finding a trusted person to help us make the product, launching a website that we thought could tell our story properly and setting up some social media accounts. The rest was going out and telling a lot of people that we are doing this.

“That was how we started. We worked on weekends, doing our own fulfilments. There were also periods at work when we did not have much to do, so we worked on this. It just kind of fit into our lives and I think we really enjoyed the process and made it work.”

The partners started to work on the idea seriously in 2015. “Before that, we thought it was a bit crazy. I mean when your friends ask you, ‘What do you guys want to do?’ and your answer is, ‘Um, make bracelets.’ Well ...,” says Yeo.

She quit her full-time job in June 2015 and six months later, Lim joined her after giving birth to her daughter, Georgia.

“We launched in August 2015. The website went live and people started visiting it. We revved up last year, when we were both doing this full-time,” says Yeo.

In the first month, its customers were mostly friends and family. “They kept us afloat. After that, it spread through word of mouth. We also engaged a public relations firm for a month. That helped a little because it got the product to people we wouldn’t otherwise have had contact with,” says Yeo.

After that, it was all word of mouth. The company only started marketing on Facebook last year. “That is really more of a new thing for us. It is quite a good tool for small businesses like ours, which do not have a huge marketing budget,” she says.

The company offers free delivery within Singapore and Peninsular Malaysia. How does it manage the fulfilment?

“Nowadays there are a lot of courier companies that ship worldwide based in Singapore. It was just a matter of getting in touch with the right people, building relationships and getting the right price. There is a lot of competition,” says Lim. “Which works out for small businesses like us,” adds Yeo.


The e-commerce appeal

“I think it is the easiest way for someone to start a retail business because the reality is that with e-commerce, you do not have to rent a space or have a lot of overheads. I think technology has enabled these businesses to grow,” says Yeo.

“Things are definitely changing and consumers are on their mobile devices all the time. How we shop is changing as well. Ling and I are online shoppers. I probably shop more online than I do at physical stores. This makes it easier to start a small business.”

The Mindful Company’s products are available at a few retail locations in Singapore, Malaysia and Australia, says Lim. “We have been approached several times, but we have not gone through the active process of looking for retailers to carry our products. We hope to do that this year.”

Before the partners decide on a particular retailer, they check to see if there is a meeting of values. “We do check in terms of what their business is about and whether they are someone we want to be associated with. All these things are definitely considerations,” she says.


Right time, right place

The partners got into the business at the right time. While it seemed like it was a natural extension of their mindfulness journeys, Singapore was going through its own journey as well.

“Companies started bringing in coaches to train their people how to be more mindful, find a higher purpose in their work and manage stress in their jobs. We saw this movement gain traction last year,” says Yeo.

“When we first started, people thought what we were doing was really coming out of left field. But now, we are increasingly asked by companies to come and speak or bosses buying reminder bands for their employees.”

The duo have had front row seats to this mindset shift that is taking place there. “In places such as Singapore, where they already have their Maslow’s hierarchy of needs met, what is the next thing? It is really self-reflection and self-actualisation,” says Yeo.

She is referring to US psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous theory on the hierarchy of needs, which suggests that the most basic level of needs (necessary for physical survival) must be met before the individual will strongly desire the secondary (psychological fulfilment) and higher-level needs (self-actualisation).

The Mindful Company has a specific customer in mind. “We are looking at people who are into things we like such as meditation and mindfulness. But we also have a good following among those who like to travel. It is quite the typical millennial thing to love gaining new experiences and I think by gaining more experiences, they see more of the world and become more reflective,” says Yeo.

“Then there are the young parents. Being a young parent can be pretty rough and there are challenges that cause reflection. So, it is basically any group of people who are going through something in life that causes them to reflect or who are predisposed to reflection. I think that is our target audience.”


Slow fashion

The Mindful Company is also part of a new movement known as “slow fashion”. This means consuming better and less, and not buying things that are only used once.

“We are creating things that we hope will give you a lifetime of enjoyment, and not used just once in your life. It is not about following trends or seasons. So, we produce less but hopefully, we produce goods that will actually sell and be used rather than thrown away,” says Yeo.

This also means that the company does not introduce words or phrases on a regular basis. “It is more like, ‘This theme came up recently in our conversations with people and may be a meaningful addition’ as opposed to ‘We have to pump out things for the fall and winter seasons’. That would make no sense at all for our company. It would not even make sense if you were the consumer,” she says.

Being in the slow fashion helps with the company’s inventory management. “We have an office now and we keep our inventory here. But we try to forecast demand because we do not have much space and cannot keep too much inventory,” says Yeo.

“When we see some things move, we restock them. Others that are not moving so well, we phase out. But we have been lucky so far in that things eventually go. That is the beauty of slow fashion. What we sell does not go out of style.”


A personal connection

So, do customers buy just one reminder bracelet or many? “We have some customers who have a little plate or bowl and they have heaps of reminder bands in there. And they pick whatever they need to be reminded of that day,” says Lim.

Yeo adds, “Or they could just buy one and use it for a year. It really depends. We have a customer who bought seven reminder bands and posted a picture of herself wearing all of them at the same time. So, we get all sorts.”

Does The Mindful Company get to interact with customers? “We have met a few of them at different pop-ups. We stock at Tangs in Singapore and we recently participated in a ‘meet the designer’ event. So, we have customers come by then. We were recently at ‘Boutiques’ as well, which is a like a weekend boutique where people come down and set up a shop,” says Lim,

She adds that people like coming down just to have a chat. “It is really nice to get to know our customers and understand what they like and the phrases that resonate with them.”

Customers also contact the company through social media networks, says Yeo. “We have Instagram friends and Facebook friends whom we have never met, but have been talking to for a long time. It is interesting because we get orders from places as diverse as Albuquerque in the US, Croatia and Russia. And we wonder how they found out about us and, more importantly, how to ship there.”

That, she adds, is the cool part. “Because it reminds us how universal this all is. We are really all kind of the same. We engage with the messages in the same way and we are all considering the same things in life. Fundamentally, we all want to be happier.”

When the duo started out, they were big on having a personal touch. Every bracelet they delivered came with a handwritten note. “But as the orders started increasing, it became a little difficult to do. So, we now have a card inside. It is not as personal … just a short message from our team,” says Yeo.

They save the personal touch for customers who write in to share their stories. “That is when we take the opportunity to write back on a more personal and encouraging level,” she says.

Yeo writes most of the copy. “I start with the first draft, then Lim gives her input. It is kind of a circular process. And then we send it out to friends and ask if it is too corny or intense. We ask our staff as well.”


Talking money

When the conversation rolls around to money, the partners become a little vague. “We actually do not know how many bracelets we have sold. Our accounting is a bit of a … we are trying to sort that out right now. I started the accounts and did not do a great job. So, we don’t really know.”

Although both of them studied accounting and come from corporate backgrounds, they found that keeping accounts was just not their forte. “Ling just went ahead and hired someone to help us. We did not do anything dodgy; no creative accounting. It is just that we are lazy people. Now, we have handed it to the experts,” says Yeo.

But the bottom line is that they have sold a lot of bracelets. “We do not know the exact number, but enough to know that we are okay. We are cash flow positive. I think we are taking it month to month at the moment because we have only been doing this for about a year and we do not have a lot of historical data to go on. I think in terms of projections, valuations, it is always a kind of a stab in the dark. It is hard to project year on year,” she says.

The company’s earnings fluctuate according to the time of the year. “There is huge growth in the lead up to Christmas. Retail tends to be seasonal. Then, there is Valentine’s Day. We are not huge fans of this day, but it is an official day so we just roll with it,” says Yeo.

The company has broken even, but the partners are still not paying themselves salaries. All the money (except for the salaries of their three employees) is ploughed back into the business.

“Coming from a corporate background, we do have some savings. So, it is not like we are suffering. We are still eating, so it is not so bad,” Yeo laughs.

Lim chimes in, “What is important is for us to grow the business and have funds to do that.”


Where the boys are

The reminder bands are supposed to be unisex. After all, men could use these reminders as well. But the duo have found that their customer base is, to a large extent, female.

“We are trying to see what guys will go for. If you do not want to wear a bracelet, what would you wear? On our main page, we have a guy sipping coffee and wearing one of our bracelets. It is to remind people that these bracelets are not just for women. The matte version of our bracelets was initially targeted at men, but it is the women who are buying them,” Yeo laughs.

It is like the friendship bracelet. “We have the matte version and we have men modelling it and trying to make that point. Because mindfulness, mindful living, reflection and kindness are universal human concepts, we have seen that some guys will wear our product, but that is something we want to work on — to make products that men are comfortable wearing,” she says.

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