Sarah started her working life as a mergers and acquisitions lawyer at a leading international law firm. While law was a wonderful launching pad affording her several years of invaluable learning and development both in Australia and overseas, it became increasingly difficult for her to balance the demanding professional lifestyle with her more creative and adventurous impulses.
When she and her partner Nicholas started a small health food business, Matcha Maiden, as a side project Sarah discovered her passion in fact lies where she can flex her creative muscles, indulge her love for human interaction and work from new and exciting places everyday.
The pair had stumbled across a sizeable gap in the domestic and international markets and found themselves running a booming global business in a matter of months, allowing Sarah to hang up the suits and heels to step into the business full-time as a blossoming "funtrepreneur".
Where does your story begin?
I started off on a much more conventional career path as a corporate mergers and acquisitions lawyer. I have always been equal parts nerdburger vs arty farty, which was reflected all through my school years in lots of extracurricular activities and very broad subject choices. But my nerdy side won the battle when it came to university and I studied law for nearly seven years to get a graduate place at a top tier international law firm and then qualified as a corporate solicitor where I stayed for the first three years of my professional life.
I didn’t necessarily think I’d always be a lawyer, but chose to start in law mainly because I didn’t really know what else I wanted to do and it seemed like a great launch pad for many different careers both within law and outside of it. And while I wouldn’t go back now, it was absolutely the best start I could have imagined teaching me about the workings of the world, how to read contracts (which has remained very handy in business) and giving me incredible opportunities to work overseas and in lots of different areas really coming into my own as a professional.
But as time wore on, I realized my creative side was withering slowly and corporate law doesn’t leave much time (or energy) for keeping other passions alive.
So, I started to feel the crunch a few years in, but wasn’t sure what I’d do instead so was determined to continue learning as much as I could until something else came up. Little did I know it would come up so early in the piece!
What led you to ‘The Big Idea’?
Like many ideas, it was quite a happy accident spurred on by my own selfish needs as a consumer! I had taken some time off to travel to Africa with my fiancé, Nic, whose creative agency had supported a charity called YGAP and was a major sponsor for one of their major campaigns. The team were heading to Rwanda to visit one of the schools that had been supported by the funds raised, and we spent an incredible month helping build new classrooms and teach English to the children there.
Unfortunately, I also picked up a parasite and became quite unwell losing 15+ kilos which I didn’t have to lose to begin with and I was banned from coffee while my adrenals recovered.
I had NO idea how I’d continue to work without coffee but I was lucky enough to get sent to the law firm’s headquarters in Hong Kong for a short stint where matcha green tea was all the rage!
In Asia, it’s not the buzzword it has been here as it’s been around for centuries so was readily available and I got completely hooked on this more natural, gentle source of caffeine that was also versatile in a powdered form so I could drink it as a latte but also in smoothies, baking and even salad dressings or seasonings.
When we came home and couldn’t find a reliable, affordable source, that’s where the idea came up to source some high quality matcha powder and make it accessible to the masses. Enter, Matcha Maiden! Our first business baby, followed by Matcha Mylkbar and then ultimately, Seize the Yay.
How did you make the transition from full time job, to side hustle to full-time start-up?
It was definitely a tough decision and people always ask how you know it’s the right time. It’s such a personal thing and depends on your financial and other responsibilities at the time. For us, we didn’t have children or a mortgage so were much more agile than others might be. For that reason, I was tempted to leave as soon as we started, but I stayed for the first six months of the business just to give it some time to prove itself, to gain momentum and also to keep my wage for capital so we could buy stock!
I’d definitely recommend doing both for as long as you can, because you’re unlikely to be completely swamped in the first few months as you grow and it gives you time and money to grow into your business without too much stress or pressure. But then you’ll eventually hit a point where the two become mutually exclusive and that’s where it’s crunch time – for me, I always ask “what is the once-in-a-lifetime decision?”
”I can ALWAYS be a lawyer; the world will never cease to need them but I will never again have the chance to be one of the first to market matcha businesses in a booming health food market in the age of the entrepreneur”
So, while it was a scary, overwhelming decision it was also an easy one. It was either give Matcha Maiden the chance to keep growing or stop it in its tracks and stay in the comfort zone without ever knowing how big it could be.
What challenges have you faced working with your partner Nic?
What challenges haven’t we faced!? Working together is one of the most rewarding things you can do but also the most challenging! It either makes you or breaks you and I know many couples who it hasn’t worked for. Equally, once you do iron out the many creases, it can become the most exciting, fulfilling adventure of your life. Our first few years were very testing – we had no boundaries between our work and personal selves, we worked in our bedroom, we worked on weekends and we never took breaks.
We were basically business partners and housemates for a moment there, and it was very hard to get perspective or distance. There were blow ups often, as we were so tired and enmeshed in everything and it wasn’t until I nearly burnt myself out that we realized that for many reasons, we needed to restructure things.
While being free from corporate rigidity is amazing, there are SOME benefits to structure so we drew some bright lines around work time and personal time, departments in the business and who was in charge of each, and between weekdays and weekends.
Suddenly, our roles became much clearer and our two lives became more separate so that we could enjoy both without ruining the other. Since then, everything has been so smooth and things are better than ever.
I think in any business partnership but especially those based on a former personal relationship, the only way to get through it is CLEAR boundaries and relentless communication on expectations, feelings and who has the final say on what. Then there can be no misunderstandings, bad feelings, grudges or blow ups. As long as you lay that all out, things can be truly amazing and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Which one of you is the creative one and which one is the business savvy one?
Interestingly, a bit of both. It depends on what part of the business you’re talking about. While you might expect me to be the hard ball business woman after a legal career and Nic to be the creative having his digital and creative agency background, it’s generally the other way around.
I really dislike engaging in the numbers as terrible as that sounds (although cash flow and budgeting is 100% my job), whereas COGS and targets are Nic’s jam. It’s so interesting how you fall into roles.
A mission of ours is to bridge the gap between creativity and entrepreneurship. Do you think people can be both business savvy and creative?
Absolutely! I think it’s so important to be both to run a business. Either you cover both skills in a partnership across two or more people, or you have both within yourself.
Even if you have others in the partnership, it’s still important to have a little bit of awareness of both just to keep you on track and help things grow. I don’t think you have to be across every part of everything (and you can’t effectively to that anyway), and definitely shouldn’t get caught up in the fine detail of things that drain you and that someone else could do more effectively. But it’s important to have a little perspective on both sides of the business.
How did you fund the business initially?
We invested $5000 of our own money in the first lot of stock and since then it’s completely funded itself, which has been amazing. It could definitely have grown faster with bigger investments, but we haven’t wanted to go down the investor route preferring to keep it tightly held and involve our whole family.
I have one every day! That’s what I love about business! But I think the biggest one has been over the past year realizing that even if you want to go full steam ahead, you can always get further with smaller steps.
Nobody can maintain 100% energy 100% of the time, but if you can discipline yourself to pace yourself a little better you can last the distance, keep fresh in your ideas and run a business with longevity!
Did you ever want to give up?
Absolutely. Many times. I think that’s part of getting a business off the ground – going from the ultimate highs of how amazing life is to the most irrational lows about how it couldn’t possibly work and is too hard. But they’re just fleeting moments that you have to learn to accept as a sign of being out of the comfort zone – not a sign that you can’t do it!
Most important mentor?
I have so many! Some who are aware of being a mentor, others who I just look up to and admire. I think it’s important to have a range of different people who teach you and motivate you in different areas and at different stages of the journey. My Mum though would have to be my greatest teacher, role model and mentor.
Best tip for growing Instagram and brand presence?
Choose your aesthetic, tone and message and then stick to it. People come back to things that are consistent and that they can trust.
“People will never remember what you said or what you did, they will always remember how you made them feel”
- Sarah Holloway
I try to channel everything I do through a “yay” filter – is it going to make others feel “yay”? If so, they’ll keep coming back for it.
Where do you go to work inspiration?
When you love what you do, I don’t find inspiration too hard to keep up. I love motivational quotes and then of course there are heaps of beautiful social media accounts that provide endless tips for keeping on top of things.
Surrounding yourself with others in similar positions also helps so much, because otherwise the journey can be pretty lonely. I love networking and business events where you can get new ideas and meet new people! It reminds you of how exciting what you’re doing really is and re-boots the motivation like nothing else!
Your finest achievement?
That’s another tough one! I think walking away from a stable, secure job when I was a very conservative, risk averse person to open my mind to other more exciting things.
Best advice for a start-up?
Done is better than perfect!
28 APRIL, 2019
@Spoonful_of_sarah | @Matcha_maiden | @Matcha_mylkbar