Shantini Iyngkaran, co-founder and face of the now defunct Organica Lifestyle, is driven by her desire for a healthy well-being. From just hearing her speak about her passion, you begin to understand why she’s so passionate about her cause. Her constant curiosity about learning new things is exemplified in her rich scope of experience: from law, to nutrition and now naturopathy.
Shantini was inspired to start Organica after a period of overworking herself led to adrenal fatigue. “I went from running ten kilometers a day to not even being to walk to the toilet on my own,” she explains. It was her determination to make the best of the situation that motivated her to share with and educate others.
We spoke to Shantini to discuss the challenges of running one of the pioneering health concept stores in Malaysia.
Tell us a bit about how you started Organica Lifestyle.
My business partner Anjana and I shared an interest in healthy living, as a doctor and a nutritionist respectively. We wanted to create a space where you could unwind and relax, where there was also no excuse not to look after yourself because everything was there in one place.
Organica was a yoga studio, a health store and a café all in one. We designed the menus to be seasonal while catering to the different diet regimes and philosophies out there. We had 17 teachers teaching our yoga classes, and a pantry shop that catered to different health requirements. There was also a fourth aspect, an integrative clinic. People could come in for a consultation and we would refer them to the services of the yoga studio, or the café, or the store.
We’re both from Melbourne but we wanted to try starting this somewhere in Southeast Asia where the idea of ‘healthy’ was still just a fad. Singapore was too expensive, and we didn’t speak the language in Bangkok. I’m Malaysian by descent and even though I left when I was 3, KL was just the right middle ground.
What were the differences in culture jumping from Melbourne to Malaysia, and how did you tackle them when running Organica?
I would say that it’s the cultural nuances. It’s layered in so many different areas. I thought it would be easy to integrate as a Malaysian but having grown up in Australia I found that even basic things like communication were so different.
In Malaysia, it is so important to be clear with people from day 1. You can’t assume anything. To get someone to do something, you have to repeatedly remind them a hundred times. Even with my staff, I learnt that they might not be as outgoing because of their education stream or how they were raised. I really had to encourage them to be more vocal in speaking to our customers and think outside the box a little bit. Confidence is something you have to cultivate.
We also had to be mindful about the different faiths of our patrons. We had a dog in the shop who became the business mascot, but we had to think a lot before getting one because I wasn’t sure if it would be okay. In Australia, it was easier to just do things without all these other things to take into consideration.
On another level, it was the cultural wellbeing that didn’t really exist in Malaysia just yet. People were just drawing references from magazines, from what they’ve seen online or from what they’ve heard their friends were doing abroad. That was our second largest struggle: shifting the paradigm and bringing that culture into people’s front of minds. We had to educate people and let them know that being healthy is not depriving your body of food, nor is it about exercising excessively and being super skinny. It was hard making this shift but also rewarding when people got it for the first time. You could see that moment of confusion yet curiosity when they ate something they’ve never eaten before.
Bridging the gap was tough, but it was nice to be a pioneer in certain ways. Everyone knew the lingo in Australia but it was all still alien to people here. We were offering this turmeric tea back then and people were like, “Ew, what is this?” But I just came back to KL recently for a visit and every café I went to had a golden latte. Other businesses started joining the bandwagon as soon as other people saw that it was somewhat well received. We didn’t think of it as competition, but as business owners it was frustrating at times to have this idea and see others take that idea and run it even further.
Was there much struggle starting a business in Malaysia as a foreigner?
I don’t sound Malaysian, so there were many communication issues. I can speak in a Malaysian accent, but it makes me feel like I’m being condescending. Sometimes, though, I had to play it up so people could understand me.
I didn’t think race would be a big issue at all, but it was. We applied for a RM150,000 grant, and it stated that as long as you were a Malaysian citizen you could apply for it. We got to the third round before finding out that we had to have a Malay business partner to receive the funding. I carry a Malaysian passport and still consider myself Malaysian. My parents have been civil servants in this country for a very long time. However, in many ways I realised that I am still a second-class citizen.
What are some challenges that you faced that remain relevant today?
To be authentic in the industry you need to really know stuff. You can’t just start a health and well-being café if you don’t have a fundamental understanding of what it is that you’re trying to bring to the table. I think it’s great that people are choosing to be vegan and other healthier lifestyles, but there has to be a wisdom in your decision and a wisdom in the person providing that service to you. I don’t think that there’s enough collaboration in the industry.
The integrity of your service and your product is important, but it’s difficult in the service industry. Your cost is so high but you still want to be able to cover that cost and make a profit soon. Sometimes you end up feeling like you have compromise on things that are intricate to your service.
Education is another challenge. You should be able to find a way to engage with your consumers, not just their palate, so that they have the space to learn to make better choices.
In the service industry especially, you struggle with retention because staff come and go. One more thing I find important is building a good team ethos. Your staff are the backbone of your business, so make them feel like they’re a value add to your business. We gave our staff a 2% holding in our company, which increased the longer they stayed with us. By our second year, it was 5% and when we sold they all got a little amount of the sale. It gave them a sense of equity as well as investment in the brand, because the more we grew the more they would get out of it.
Are there any principles you adhere to while running a business?
Once again, authenticity is important. You don’t need the skillset if you have people supporting you who do have it, but you need to be able to truly understand what you’re providing.
Every day, give yourself half an hour to disconnect from everything else. That time to yourself is important because the other 23 and a half hours are going to be consumed by what you’re creating. Ask for help and don’t do everything yourself. Otherwise, you will burn out and you won’t be able to continue doing what you’ve spent so much time building up.
Before starting a business, make sure you understand the definition of failure. There’s going to be moments where you struggle and feel like you’re failing because you’re comparing yourself to everyone else. With Organica, we took everything as a lesson rather than a failure. Even though we closed the business and sold it off, that wasn’t a failure to us. Everything was a success up until that point.
The greatest success for us was having the courage to decide what was right for us at the time. It comes back to being authentic to who you are and why you’re doing this. That’s what will be tested the most.
What would you have done differently if you were given the chance?
I would have built a bigger team before I started this. I wish I had more people from day one, rather than going in by myself with just my business partner supporting me from Melbourne. I regret not coming to Malaysia 6 months prior to really meet people and get to know the business mindset.
Our biggest mistake was thinking that we could build a team as we grew. I think that if we do it again I’d start straight off with the right team to share the load and inspiration. More ideas occur when you have more hands on deck.
With everything else, I have no regrets. It was such a wonderful journey.
How has your experience with Organica affected the way you conduct yourself with your work now?
It’s funny you should ask that! I was writing a CV recently and it was a really good reflective exercise about what I’ve done in the past. Looking at all of it, I’ve picked up so many new skills from running the business. For example, I had never done social media before. My friends from Melbourne had to teach me how to hashtag.
Then there were things like managing the finances, training the staff, and even making my own products. I had never done that before, but we decided we wanted our own line of products so I had to do a lot of researching.
It’s a bit clichéd to say but when you’ve gone through running a business and you’ve been tested to the last ounce of your energy you learn that anything is possible. The entire experience is transformative. I have a lot more confidence now going into the working industry and a lot more competency. I also have a lot more courage.
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