Sarah Holloway and Nic Davidson are #LeadingLadies first feature couple. The two are partners in business and life, and are the founders of Matcha Maiden and Matcha Mylkbar – two brands that have exploded in the local and international market over the past four years.
Sarah and Nic discuss their booming business, highlights and challenges throughout their journey as well as their take on the gender gap in the startup and entrepreneurship community.
Sarah, before co-founding Matcha Maiden you were working in Hong Kong as a lawyer and you’re now a wellness entrepreneur! Can you tell us a bit about what led you to Matcha?
Sarah: It was a complete accident. We were in Rwanda when Nic sponsored the 5cent Campaign helping a school build classrooms. I got a parasite and lost 8 kilos, I was slender at the time and didn’t have weight to lose. I went straight back to work in merger and acquisition law and kept getting sicker and not really noticing.
I was sent to Hong Kong for work and was told not to drink coffee because I was too thin and it would give me a panic attack. In Hong Kong – Asia is where Matcha is from – it was everywhere. Matcha has caffeine but it’s much gentler, and I got hooked on it! It wasn’t marketed or a cool superfood, I just happened to like the taste of it.
Nic was an athlete and entrepreneur before starting Matcha Maiden with you, how did he get involved, and what led you to starting the business together?
Sarah: Nic came over to Hong Kong and started to use it in his workout smoothies instead of a coffee shot. We came home to Australia and couldn’t find it anywhere. We found a really good supplier online and ordered 10 kilos, that was the minimum order. It seems like nothing now, but when it first arrived it was a lot of powder for two people. We thought, we should sell some!
I wasn’t unhappy in law but felt like my creative side wasn’t getting any time. Nic had run businesses but never for a product, and we hadn’t done anything together. It started as a hobby and to fuel our own need; I wanted to sell one bag so I could say I was an entrepreneur on my LinkedIn!
I thought I’d go back to work and that would be it, but we sold out in one week. It snowballed.
We grew for the first six months until we got into Urban Outfitters in the US. I quit my job the next day.
Matcha Maiden is available in cafes, at retail and has a thriving online store with more than 1000 stockists. How did you achieve such rapid growth?
Sarah: We launched on Instagram and it was our sole source of marketing for the first 18 months. It was a time when brands could grow very quickly across borders. We were the only real key player in the market if people wanted matcha.
Nic: We had lots of copycats one year in and went from one competitor to 50, our market share was split heavily. Our competitors didn’t have the same economies of scale, the direct way to the source or systems, they all fell apart.
We’re now approaching 4 million serves sold of Matcha Maiden. Our brand is recognised in the top 10 matcha brands in the world, it’s insane.
One year in you launched your restaurant, Matcha Mylkbar. What was the idea behind it?
Nic: It’s Australia’s first completely plant-based, Matcha cafe. Our business partner and I were in the States and we noticed the emerging trend in plant-based food. We looked at Australia and saw no restaurants where non-vegans were encouraged to eat. We’re not vegan, but we’re all about sustainability and the Blue Zones.
What are the Blue Zones? Why do you base your philosophy on them?
Sarah: The Blue Zones are the five areas around the world where people live the longest. They’re in Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, Ikaria in Greece, Sardinia, Okinawa Japan and Loma Linda in California. There’s been a lot of research into why and one of the main reasons is they eat a majority plant-based diet. The Blue Zone with the most 100-year-olds is Okinawa Japan, and one reason they live longer is because they drink matcha.
How was Matcha Mylkbar received by the public in Australia?
Nic: The restaurant became a destination place, we had up to three hour waits for a table for the first year. The restaurant only seats 38 at a time. People were coming from all over Melbourne to try it, others would fly in and call when they landed to ask if we could save them a table.
What are the challenges of being business and life partners? Do you set any boundaries?
Nic: The hardest thing was when Sarah was working at the law firm, I would come home and pack it all then she’d get home at 10pm to help. When she started working full time there was a real separation between roles. When Sarah went full-time in the business, I said you’re the boss now, you don’t need to ask me, you make the decisions. That was the best thing.
Sarah: It’s about having good boundaries. The first year we were all over the place. Our biggest challenge isn’t operational anymore. We go for a year without a holiday. I think because we do work really well together we forget to take time to just be a couple. We celebrate the wins together and aim towards the same goal which is amazing.
What are some common misconceptions or challenges of being an entrepreneur?
Nic: People think we have a lot of free time and we don’t value time the same way as if you were working a day job. As well as cash flow, you don’t have money because it goes straight back into the business.
Sarah: Burnout has been huge – we’re still so far from looking after ourselves how we’d like to. We’re perpetually tired. There’s no incentive to stop because we love our work, I don’t want to stop, we’re working on exciting projects. That’s been very difficult.
On the flipside, what do you love the most?
Sarah: Moving from a job where everything is structured to a world where you can literally do whatever you want has been amazing. If you have a good idea, you can do it overnight. We can bring out new products in one day. There’s no one to say no, no one to get approval from, no limit of possibilities and the flexibility of structure, ideas, where, when and how you work, it’s so exciting for a creative mind.
What’s your advice to others who might be considering launching a business or making a career change?
Sarah: Done is better than perfect so do it, don’t overthink it. The more naive you are, the better you’ll be, you won’t talk yourself out of it. Start before you’re ready. You can do anything but not everything, if you try to get everything done at once it just won’t happen, so focus on one thing at a time.
Network as much as you can because you never know who you’ll want to work with later. There’s never a downside to networking.
#LeadingLadies is about empowering men and women to achieve their full potential. What’s your take as a couple on closing the gender divide?
Nic: Female networking events have been instrumental in our growth and have provided a wealth of information and contacts for us. There isn’t the same thing out there for men, which is difficult. There have been some great conferences that nurture Sarah including a women’s conference that’s very inclusive of men as the business partner.
Sarah: A woman rarely does it on her own without a supportive partner (male or female), however men can naturally take a back seat in the marketing because the target shopper in wellness is women. People gloss over the fact there is often a male business and life partner behind the scenes. It’s not just us, it’s very common.
Nic: It won’t help the business by having me as the face of it, because I don’t represent the key demographic. This is probably the most incredible time for women supporting women. It’s a shame there’s not more in the men’s space, there’s a big gap that will soon be filled. It’s also very hard for men to have that group without it seeming anti-women and that’s not what any of these things should be about. It’d be great to try and build more inclusive startup groups and communities that are gender neutral. Gender is such a big issue in employment. The pay gap in our business is in Sarah’s favour!
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Photos by Katie Fergus.