Originally beginning her career as a lawyer at a leading law firm, Sarah with her partner Nic, established health food brand Matcha Maiden after discovering a gap in the market for affordable quality matcha powder. After being stocked in some of the trendiest health food spots and garnering a huge following of raving fans, Sarah has delved into a new venture, launching Matcha Mylkbar in Melbourne.
We chatted to the Matcha Maiden herself to discuss how she started the popular health food brand in such a short space of time and the path it has led into launching Australia’s first matcha cafe, Matcha Mylkbar.
ITN: You’re a lawyer turned entrepreneur; what first appealed to you about starting your own business and how did the idea for Matcha Maiden come about?
SH: I have always wanted to end up running my own business, but I never thought the opportunity would come around so soon! Even when we first came up with the idea for Matcha Maiden, neither of us knew it would grow big enough to lead to a fully blown career change. It all happened quite accidentally actually – born, as many businesses do, out of our own frustration at a gap in the market. We had both encountered matcha in Japan years earlier as a traditional ceremonial tea and then again during our travels through the US and Asia in more adventurous forms. I became particularly hooked after giving up coffee during a bit of a health struggle after we spent a month volunteering in Africa. I got sent to Hong Kong soon after with my law firm and matcha became my best friend – I got Nic hooked on it too when he visited. When we came back to Australia, we couldn’t find a product that was affordable and accessible – everything was either prohibitively expensive ceremonial grade blends or very cheap, non-organic powders mixed with sugar and other nasties. No brand had really showcased the health-focused side of matcha and it was nowhere to be found in health food stores – so we set about to change that! Once we had experienced it, we wanted to introduce matcha to the mainstream market and put its wonderful properties at everyone’s disposal (including our own!)
ITN: From sourcing quality matcha to starting an ecommerce store, what did the process behind starting Matcha Maiden look like?
SH: We were very much winging it at the beginning, as I’m sure all businesses do. I think people forget how hilariously DIY everything is when you first start out – you often only encounter businesses once they’ve found their feet and look much more polished. But don’t let that deter you from starting something yourself, because everyone started somewhere and it’s usually in a garage/backyard/home office! We researched the different tea farms and grades and taste-tested VERY extensively to find a blend that mixed well with dairy, non-dairy, hot, cold, raw, baked, everything we could think of. We wanted it to be as versatile as possible but also organic and sourced from the birthplace of matcha in Japan. Once we chose a blend, we locked ourselves in for a few days to lock down a name, logo, copy and philosophy. Nic has a full-service creative agency so he was able to build an online store very quickly, I set up all the legals, and the social media pages. We got bags, scales and heat sealers from Ebay, labels printed at Officeworks and then got to work in our friend’s commercial kitchen packing like a healthy version of Breaking Bad!
ITN: You recently launched Matcha Mylkbar, was that always part of the plan? How did that come about and what was involved in launching the café?
SH: Again, this wasn’t part of our original plan – we felt enough out of our depths with no experience in health, food or retail. But we had always wanted to do at least a pop-up venue and our dear friends Mark and Attil (who are our business partners at the Mylkbar) have year’s worth of hospitality experience. They were actually our very first Matcha Maiden stockist! We spent some time together in LA when we were both there working and would laugh about how the few matcha cafes that had started popping up would be very different if we ever did it ourselves. Then, as if the heavens had heard us, the perfect space came up around New Year’s and the rest is history!
ITN: Who has been your biggest influence in business?
SH: The small business community is incredibly welcoming, sharing and nurturing so we have had so much help and support from so many people. Personally, my biggest influence has definitely been Nic who is a serial entrepreneur and has had multiple successful businesses. He has been an incredible role model and while this industry is new to him, his years of experience and wisdom have been invaluable in growing our little idea into a global company. He teaches me something new everyday about the right way to do things, whereas I just get totally carried away in all the fun and pretty things!
ITN: What was some of the best advice you received early on when starting Matcha Maiden?
SH: Just start. The hardest part is starting because it’s human nature to be plagued with doubt. But once you start, you realize either it will work or it doesn’t. But you won’t know until you give it a go! Sometimes you wait SO long to perfect something that you never get it off the ground. Nothing is ever perfect and you continue to refine your product or service every single day. So just jump in and see what happens. A lot of the time, you’re capable of far more than you expected and what you don’t already know you can learn on the go.
ITN: What has been the biggest learning curve since starting your business?
SH: Health is a priority. I thought jumping from a corporate job to a health and wellness business would mean my own health would improve dramatically. If anything, it worsened to begin with because working for yourself means no boundaries, structure or routine. I have had to really be strict with myself (and crash a few times) to learn that you can’t do everything. You can do ANYTHING but not everything. Time is finite as is your energy and you’re no use to anyone if you burn out. Nothing is more important than looking after yourself. Obviously, there are periods where you have to burn the midnight oil and get a little run down i.e. just before the café opened when everything was hectic. But making sure you balance that out with some rest time afterwards is what I too easily forget!
ITN: Your biggest career highlight so far?
SH: Hmmm, I think the whole Matcha Maiden/Matcha Mylkbar journey has been one big highlight! Being published in the Huffington Post was a pretty surreal moment.
ITN: How has your life changed since launching Matcha Maiden and the Matcha Mylkbar?
SH: How HASN’T my life changed. My life couldn’t be more different. A little while ago, it involved lawyering all day at the office with a few sporadic breaks during the day to manage the Instagram and any urgent emails before rushing home to put in a few solid hours and then trying to get some sleep in between. We ended up getting so busy that I went full-time, which has been an absolute dream! Now, there is no such thing as a typical day. Every day brings new challenges, successes and ideas. The week is generally speckled with meetings with distributors, suppliers, like-minded businesses or friends. There’s also a lot of work involved in managing the social media, which is pretty constant throughout each day. As we have an online store as well being physical stocked in hundreds of stores, managing the fulfilment of those orders and customer enquiries takes up a solid portion of each day. Then there’s our global operations and brainstorming the next steps… it’s so exciting not knowing what each day will bring!
ITN: What’s next? What’s in the pipeline for you and Matcha Maiden?
SH: At the moment, we’ve got our hands pretty full so having had all my recent health and wellness revelations I think we’re going to just focus on continuing to grow and settle in to the Mylkbar before anything else major happens!
ITN: And finally, what advice would you give other women wanting to start their own business?
SH: Oh, where do I even start!? Firstly, just start – as I mentioned above, the perfect time will never come so just give it a go. Secondly, surround yourself with the right people – support networks and role models make all the difference. Thirdly, no matter what you do, don’t let your dream obscure the important things in life – continue to make time for exercise, family and rest.
ITN Fast Five
When I wake up in the morning the first thing I do is… check all our social media platforms (I know, I’m that awful person).
Three things I can’t live without are… Almond butter, coconut water, our puppy Paul.
The best book I’ve ever read is… Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.
My favourite quote of all time is… Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.
The most important thing to remember in business is… enjoy yourself!!!