Enjoy the small milestones. It’s easy to get hung up on huge, looming goals such as hitting a certain sales target or raising your series A. Enjoying the smaller milestones of customer testimonials, or encouraging comments and advice, makes the journey feel much more rewarding.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Alexandra Turner and Tejal Ramnathkar Engman. Alexandra and Tejal are co-founders of Malavara, an Ayurveda-rooted hair and body brand that draws on ancient rituals and exceptional botanicals to deliver beauty through wellbeing. Alexandra, better known as Alix, was born in England and educated at Cambridge University, where she studied Law. She now lives in London and works in Finance where she focuses on Luxury Goods and Retail companies. Alix is has 2 year old son and is training to be an Aromatherapist. Tejal was born and schooled in Mumbai, India before moving to London to study at the London School of Economics. She now lives in Washington DC and works in the finance division of a real estate company. Tejal has a 5 year old son, loves hot yoga and regularly travels the globe. Alix is the holistic hippie of the two, whereas Tejal is the yoga-loving mystic but ultimately, they are two beauty junkies who were aware of the incredible benefits of Ayurveda’s beauty and wellness traditions but hadn’t found anything that suited their lifestyles or captured their imaginations. So, they decided to figure it out themselves!
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Alix: Tejal and I worked in finance and were sat next to each other on the trading floor at JPMorgan in London in 2006. By that time, we were mid-career professionals who had worked for years in roles that involved long desk hours and frequent travel. Occupational hazard had resulted in a slipped disc and subsequent back surgery for me and the stress-induced onslaught of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome for Tejal.
When we met, I was trying Acupuncture, which did wonders for my back and enabled me to ditch the daily painkillers I was on post-surgery. It also left me very intrigued by alternative therapies and wellness rituals in general. Tejal would tell me about her hair rituals involving family recipes of herbs, oils and marma massage, and we’d have long chats at work about doing something meaningful and creative — a fun fantasy when you’re at your desk at 6am ploughing through dry earnings calls. It wasn’t until I was in Jodhpur for Tejal’s wedding that I experienced some incredible Indian wellness rituals firsthand and became enthralled by Ayurveda. That was when I saw the opportunity to bring these time-honoured traditions to modernity in a way that would complement the stressful lives we lead.
Tejal: I grew up in a household where Ayurveda and yoga were a part of everyday life, but lost that lifestyle when I moved abroad.
It took being diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome to bring me back to my roots. But not before being on a successive diet of birth control pills, Metformin, Flutamide, Spironolactone and Minoxidil (Rogaine) — none of which were able to help with my hair loss and acne on a long-term, sustainable basis.
Returning to ancient wellness rituals alleviated my symptoms — for good. Within six months of hot yoga and the Ayurveda-based pre-shampoo hair oil treatment, my hair had stopped shedding abnormally and was growing faster and more lustrous while my skin had completely cleared. For the first time in over a decade I wasn’t taking any medication for my PCOS and I hadn’t looked better.
When I met Alix, I was re-discovering Ayurveda and the science behind how it worked. Both of us wanted to create something meaningful and knew that Ayurvedic beauty rituals worked, but believed they needed to be ‘hacked’ to deliver their benefits faster and in a more user-friendly manner.
Can you share your story of Grit and Success? First can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Alix: This is our first entrepreneurial experience and our baby — we’ve been completely hands on at every step. Our initial research trip to India was for 4 weeks, where we visited Ayurveda treatment centers and met with experts to distill the simplest and most powerful hair and body rituals as well as the medicinal herbs that go with each. Our goal was to find those that could be easily adopted into our busy, modern lifestyles.
Back home, we spent months sourcing everything ourselves: we visited with the best organic products manufacturers in England, attended trade shows and factories for packaging; we travelled to Grasse in France to visit perfume factories and worked with an expert to develop our fragrance; we followed numerous recommendations in our quest to find our brand designer and became experts in fonts, colours and typeface.
We have taught ourselves every aspect of the business, from how to formulate a body lotion to how design a website to a knowledge of European cosmetics laws. Not forgetting of course, the complex task of understanding principles and rituals of Ayurveda
We had worked so hard for so long in the pre-launch that we hadn’t appreciated that the next phase would require a completely different set of skills that we needed to acquire overnight: basic accounting, Instagram tactics, finding distributors. We are literally learning something new every day — totally exhausting but we love it.
Tejal: There are so many stories about the hard times we faced, but one that stands out was the months it took us and our organic chemist and formulator to create a naturally-derived, sulfate and paraben free wash that had the lather, viscosity as well as the sparkling clarity of Molton Brown washes, which both Alix and I had in our guest bathrooms as we loved their packaging and fragrances, but couldn’t bring ourselves to use daily because of some of the more drying chemicals they contain.
It would take 6 weeks for each set of stability tests to be complete and after 180 days of waiting, it felt gut wrenching to receive an email from the lab telling us the wash had turned cloudy. After months of refining the formulation, we ultimately did create the first sulfate and paraben free, clear wash with water-white transparency, a naturally-derived Molton Brown if you will, but it took us a long time to get there!
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Alix: We genuinely believe we are delivering something that’s different from the typical hair and bodycare offering and highly relevant to our chemical-laden modern lifestyles. We believe in the power of our rituals and products. We haven’t seen any other beauty or personal care companies with ‘How to Use’ sections that are as elaborate as the Ritual tabs on each of our product pages. For us, it’s about combining marma (acupressure) massage with incredible botanical active ingredients. Most brands are solely focused on product, but with hair and body care especially, the ritual truly activates the product and maximizes its potential benefits.
Tejal: We also believe in our mantra of beauty through wellbeing. Life can be so stressful and overwhelming that it’s tempting to splurge on chemical-laden quick fixes — think chemical hair treatments — that often deliver instant results but are terribly damaging over the long term. Ayurveda has so much to offer by way of natural and sustainable rituals, herbs and oils that deliver amazing results over time and are good for you both in the near and long term.
Finally, our drive is also fueled by our customer feedback. It’s uncanny how every time we’re feeling low a review will pop up on our website from a customer telling us how much she or he loves our products and that makes everything feel worthwhile.
So how did Grit lead to your eventual success? How did Grit turn things around?
Tejal: the power of persistence is highly underestimated. If you’re building a brand organically and without very many resources, it can take years of spreading the word to get noticed by your target consumer. It then takes multiple interactions for him or her to even contemplate a purchase. And then, it takes a ton of testimonials and reviews for her or him to actually pull the trigger. Grit is the key to survival in this business. Having launched mid-2018 in the UK, we’re still in the very early stages of our journey and are drawing on all of the grit we can muster. That said, we are seeing growth nearly everywhere — website traffic, sales, followers and traction overall.
Alix: It’s important to understand that a start-up’s growth is rarely linear. Ours has come in fits and starts and even over the short period we’ve been up and running, we’ve had our spikes, troughs and plateaus. There is tremendous value in being consistent, and continuing to repeat our mission as we are being discovered by new audiences every single day.
So, how are things going today? 🙂
Alix: We are experiencing so much momentum today. We won the Pure Beauty Awards “Best New Hair Product” late last year. This completely blew us away, given when we were shortlisted, we had only been launched for a matter of weeks. Of the 20 hair products shortlisted, there were some really recognizable brands and we didn’t think we had a chance, and so to be up on stage receiving our award was just incredible.
Considering we are not paying for any marketing and are only spreading the word through social media, our websites have excellent traffic and good conversion. When we look at the brand and products we’ve created, we know they are stunning and there is something wonderful there.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Alix: We reached out to dozens of retailers in India with a little more than our initial concept, fully expecting that no one would respond to us but that it would be a good outreach exercise to get Malavara on their radar screens early on. Imagine our shock when every one of them responded asking for a meeting and wanting to see the products!
All we had were factory samples of just the wash and lotion, without any packaging, and we scrambled to get bottle prototypes made to take with us to these meetings. The trouble was that given packaging lead times are so long and the products hadn’t finished stability testing, it would be months and months before we had a finished product to sell.
I arrived in Delhi from London in the middle of the night carrying all the liquids that our formulator had made up for us as an emergency batch, handed them over in a hotel corridor to Tejal who spent the next 3 hours trying to decant litres of thick gloopy lotion and wash into loads of tiny sample bottles to be able show and distribute at our breakfast meeting. We were still wiping the bottles in the lift on the way down and were so shattered we could hardly speak!
Tejal: Although we have no regrets as the exercise helped us build a solid buyer network in India, the lesson learned was that it may be better to wait until you have a finished product before reaching out to retailers or buyers, especially in the UK and US where second chances are rare. It may be smarter to use distributors and industry veterans for market research purposes instead.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Alix: Two things. First we are rooted in Ayurveda and its philosophy of beauty through well-being. We offer a holistic approach to beauty and a unique approach to wellbeing, which is typically thought of as from the inside-out — through diet, meditation, yoga etc. We’ve combined natural products and massage rituals that work from the outside-in. We help you grow thick, shiny hair and get glowing, fragrant skin while calming your mind and reducing your stress levels.
Tejal: And second, we’ve hacked Ayurveda by taking its simplest and most powerful rituals for hair and body and supercharging them using exceptional natural ingredients. Think of it as turning regular yoga into hot yoga. Hot yoga gives you a deeper, faster workout, and you feel the results the very next day. Malavara is similar. Our product + massage combo is based on ancient principles, but it is working harder and delivering faster due to its ‘hot’ natural ingredients and easy to follow, targeted techniques.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Alix: Reach out to people and ask for recommendations and support. Entrepreneurship can be both isolating and scary and it’s important to create an eco-system of like-minded souls who have experienced, or are experiencing a similar journey. The good news is that the wellness industry is young and exciting and people are, for the most part, friendly and approachable. With our backgrounds in finance we were way too formal at the beginning!
Tejal: Enjoy the small milestones. It’s easy to get hung up on huge, looming goals such as hitting a certain sales target or raising your series A. Enjoying the smaller milestones of customer testimonials, or encouraging comments and advice, makes the journey feel much more rewarding.
And finally, for us, having day jobs to ease our finances through this journey has meant much more work, but has taken some of the financial pressure off and allowed us to be more thoughtful and considered in our approach. If there is a way to obtain financial support through the early days, it will ease some of the stress, which may be worth the longer hours you will need to put in.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Alix: We would have to say our spouses, who have been amazingly supportive at every step — from solo parenting during times when we needed to plough through deliverables to listening to over 1,000 soundtracks to come up with the 5 best ones for our product videos. They say you can’t have it all, but with a supportive partner, you can get very, very close!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Tejal: Global nature conservation and female child education in India are two causes that are very close to our hearts. We have a tree-planting project we support in Nashik, India and pay for the schooling of 10 young girls at a school in Mumbai. As we grow, we hope to be able to considerably expand these initiatives.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Tejal: Do what you know — everyone thinks they can start a beauty business (us included!), but having a background in the beauty industry is a huge leg up. We had to learn everything from scratch, which means we made more mistakes and took a lot longer than someone with beauty experience might have. Reality is always harder than you think it will be and having deep industry knowledge is a true competitive advantage.
Alix: Network aggressively from the start— reach out to everyone and anyone who might be relevant to your business, ask them every question you can think of and can keep them updated on your progress. Our conversation with one of the founders of Elemis, who was so generous with his time and candid with his advice, was a turning point for us in our product strategy as he emphasized the need to have a hero ingredient in our products. He had so many other pearls of wisdom for us and we wished we had spoken with him earlier.
Alix: Get support — you can’t do everything yourself. Get help. We were doing everything ourselves for a long time — from accounting and VAT returns to packing our own boxes. Outsourcing to specialists such as accountants and fulfillment centers is more expensive but frees up time to focus on other priorities.
Tejal: Focus on one hero product — don’t be tempted to launch with multiple SKUs. Having a hero product is more important as that’s what’s needed to get your brand noticed and accepted. Funnily enough, the product we were most worried about — the Ultra luxuriant Hair Elixir — is our hero. We thought it would take ages for audiences in the UK and US to get into pre-shampoo hair oiling treatments as they are more uncommon here than body oiling is for example, but it’s amazing to see how quickly people have taken to it and how much they love the product and the ritual.
Alix: Don’t be afraid to shout — no one else will do it for you. Neither of us are shouters by nature and feel embarrassed about promoting ourselves. The best advice we’ve received is to go out and do it anyway. And to be bold about it. And you know what? Putting ourselves out there, day after day, has helped us gain confidence and find our own voice. For us, that’s invaluable personal growth and development…and what entrepreneurship is all about.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Tejal: It would be nature conservation — specifically, to raise funds to protect our planet’s most vital eco systems. We are truly alarmed by the rate at which humankind (including the beauty industry) is consuming the planet’s resources and have gone to great lengths to ensure that our ingredients are 1) sustainably-sourced 2) cruelty-free and 3) vegan-friendly. All of our packaging is 100% recyclable and reusable and we would like to move away from plastic altogether. Our dream would be to have entirely re-usable, re-fillable packaging that auto-replenishes by subscription each month.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Alix: We are on instagram @malavarabornofindia and have a Facebook page titled Malavara. That’s where you’ll find all of our first-hand, honest experiences and reviews of a wide range of Ayurvedic wellness rituals, hair advice, travelogues and much more.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
About the author:
Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.