Real, relatable fitness stories
We’re here to inspire you with our online journal and be your guide to sports, health and living in Malaysia & beyond!
Chapter One: Affordable Activewear
Tuesday, 26 December 2017
4 years ago I was getting restless building analytical dashboards for a top regional low-cost airline, but was also inspired by its use of social media to market the brand and create affordable options for the mass market. During this period, in 2013, I had started my running journey at the behest of my boss who made us climb Mount Kinabalu (the highest peak in South East Asia at 4000m+ elevation above sea level). Around the same time I was trying to get what I thought was my dream job at a tier 1 strategy consulting firm, after almost 6 years of working experience in consulting and in industry.
At my first road run in March 2013 at the inaugural Malaysia Women’s Marathon running in the 8km category, I was inspired to make more affordable activewear options for the everyday runner, yogi, gym-goer like myself. I needed options below RM100, and apart from the big major brands like Nike, Adidas & Reebok, there weren’t many other options. This was before Underarmour, Sports Direct, Decathlon, Lululemon & Lorna Jane entered Malaysia, and before Cotton On, H&M, Forever 21 & Uniqlo released their inhouse activewear ranges, and even way before Zalora and other internet marketplaces were stocking discounted sportswear.
So in March 2014, in the same week I started my dream job at the Boston Consulting Group and also launched my brand ‘ash be nimble’ at the 2nd Malaysia Women’s Marathon. With just 2 sports bra design samples and 2 running shorts samples, armed with my running journey and story of searching for affordable sportswear, we took pre-orders of almost 200 pieces! This was a special time in Kuala Lumpur where the number of marathons were increasing from once a month to more than one every weekend, as more Malaysians discovered running and were inspired to lead more active, fit & healthy lives.
On 12 April 2014, after about a month of sleeping 3 hours a night and figuring out how to build my own website with the help of FAQ’s & google, I flipped the switch and launched www.ashbenimble.com – where I vowed to only feature authentically active people wearing our apparel, and real fitness stories to inspire, especially the beginner. I was bent on making sure every photo, social media post, article, event and poster we made told a real story that you and I and our friends and family could relate to.
How we chose the name
Jack be nimble
Jack be quick
Jack jump over
The candle stick
I wanted to have something unique that represented being agile, active and fun, and I was drawn to my childhood days of playing outdoors in the mud, in the garden and loving being outdoors.
We chose the fox because, well, apart from it being my husband’s favourite animal, it is one of the most adaptable and agile creatures – being able to adjust well to urban and wild settings.
Chapter Two: Being Nimble
We grew really quickly, from operating from the back of my house late nights & weekends while I worked at my ‘dream job’, to renting the back of a friend’s home fitness studio, to getting a second floor suburban shoplot (at very low rates) in October 2015 that tripled up as our warehouse, office and mini retail display (and quadrupled as a yoga studio for our community classes every Thursday or Saturday).
My husband and I bootstrapped for the first 1.5 years, using our savings and my salary to fund the cash I needed to buy stock. At the end of 2014, the first year of ash be nimble’s existence, I decided to quit my dream job as I realised I was more keen on learning how to build a brand via eCommerce than to build spreadsheets and powerpoint presentations.
With an army of girl customers passionate about our activewear I managed to convert some to work for me part-time and we probably hit on average 1 pop up store and fitness event every other weekend in 2014 and 2015. It was tiring packing an entire store into the back of my little Kia hatchback but those long & back-breaking hours standing & sharing our story with thousands of customers was pivotal to growing the brand into a well-loved community.
At this point our family & friends approached us to want to invest as they saw that we were going out on a limb to pursue something we love (alongside all the races we were training for that went from 8 to 25 to 70km’s in the trails), which was striking a chord with the local fitness community. It was an opportune time to put my Finance degree to good use (University had to come in handy at some point) and I created the financial model and valuation for our business.
In 2015 I fell pregnant, hired my first full-time employee (scary stuff, being responsible for payroll & someone’s career), joined a business competition and gave birth a day after winning one of the category cash prizes (remind me never to do that again; its invigorating but distracting to have baby kicking during an 8 minute pitch)! It was a great start to a tough year. In 2016 we grew the team conservatively to 3 full timers and 2 interns at our peak, launched our #GOTHEEXTRAMILE campaign featuring ordinary Malaysians doing extraordinary things in fitness which culminated in our first printed look book catalogue, and hit RM1M sales accumulatively (year 1 + 2 + 3). With very little cash and a zero marketing budget, we didn’t sponsor celebrities and splash out with ads, but partnered with a lot of local fitness startups, trainers, studios and passionate runners to wear and share our mission of affordable sportswear.
In 2016 we hit some challenges as more competition entered the Malaysian market, driving down the price of sportswear, while the weakening Malaysian currency drove up the cost of our production in China. I felt that we needed to make a change, that our business was less likely of being self-sustainable in the medium to long run. Managing a retail business is no easy feat, with inventory as an added layer of complexity and always a sucker of cash flow. Seeing many retail entrepreneur friends whose businesses are a few years ahead take on large loans, experience anxiety & depression setting up shopping mall outlets in the current climate sounded alarm bells in my head.
My dream and passion has always been to inspire people to fall in love with being active, and I’ve always loved a good business problem to develop solutions for, but in 2017 I felt that my love for both of these things was overshadowed by the reality that my business model of making and selling sportswear under RM100 with the current competition and rising costs.
In October 2017 while hiking during my first overseas holiday in 3 years (Singapore doesn’t count) in the Blue Mountains (with Asha strapped on my back), the penny dropped that if our original mission was to make fitness more accessible through affordable activewear and relatable stories, then sportswear was just one means to achieving that. My fellow hiker who used to work for another activewear label was hiking alongside me and she reminded me that with very little, we had created something special to be proud of, and a community that people could identify with. I was invigorated to return to our original mission of making fitness relatable, but in a different way.
Soon after, I was setting up another pop up store at Ironman Langkawi, and realised that our brand was such a uniting factor for so many Malaysians athletes, brands, trainers and event organisers, and that we were able to connect so many people and their stories from just introducing them to each other while shopping with us. I recognised the value of us being able to bring people together in a real & relatable way, and that helped me crystallise our new direction.
It’s definitely sad and bittersweet saying goodbye to our apparels business, as I’ve thoroughly enjoyed learning how to design & produce clothes, figuring out how to do product photography & build our website without any developers ever employed, building and mentoring a passionate & resilient team, and most of all, getting told by customers first hand what pieces they love & how they’ve got one less excuse not to get out there and exercise. Thank you for all your support getting active, staying nimble and making ash be nimble what it is with your collective stories, photos and workouts.
I’ve realised throughout this journey that building a business is very much like an ultramarathon. You have to pace yourself; go too slow & you won’t make the cut off time & face disqualification, go too fast & you may cramp, overheat & injure yourself. The race itself is usually the most rewarding part, & the friends you get to train & experience it with are equally enriching. Most importantly, you need to pick the right race & distance for you, where you know you will be able to do well with the training and experience you’ve got.
Recognising what we do best which is capturing, sharing and connecting real, relatable fitness stories, we are making the shift to being on online fitness journal, where we will feature faces, places and races from all over Malaysia. Think of us as your guide to sports, fitness & health: what’s the best marathon to do in March, where to learn how to swim, how to train for your first 10km race, how to be 40 with kids and take your first fit steps, where to buy a bicycle… We will be here with you every, sweaty step of the way.
If in doubt, go the extra mile.
Hui & Team Fox
ps: if you’ve got your fitness journey you’d like to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
pps: if you enjoy our stories and need something similar created for your brand, we’re more than happy to help you with your digital content creation & marketing & social media, specifically in the fitness, health & lifestyle space! email us!