Two best friends on a journey to The Other Side

“We are using every ounce of creativity and business savvy, pouring this into financial management and marketing, to maintain a presence, create sales and keep our valued staff.”

(L – R) Tui Cordemans, Co-Director, Margie, Koh Living Store Manager, and Nyree Hibberd, Co-Director

Founded in 2004 by two best friends, Tui Cordemans and Nyree Hibberd, Koh Living is one of countless Australian retailers and wholesalers hit hard by the economic impact of COVID-19. Koh create unique art-inspired gifts, with pieces drawn from the artistic talents of Melbourne’s Anna Blatman and Indigenous artists Kathleen Buzzacott and Melanie Hava.

With a significant percentage of business drawn from airport stores and the tourism sector, Koh’s balance sheet dropped to a near zero income over three weeks in March. 

This is a business with real soul, born out of hope for changing the future and the way we connect with each other – something that in the current environment is more critical than ever before. 

“The inspiration for Koh came when we were on a holiday to Thailand, where Nyree and I talked a lot about what we had observed happening with friends and family and relationships around us. It seemed that connection – the one thing that we all need in our lives – seemed to be quietly slipping away, as we lose ourselves in busyness,” said Tui.

“So it became our goal to create a business and a range of products that would spring joy – gifts with meaning, that would bring a smile to people’s faces and create connection between friends and families.”

From selling candles from the boot of a Datsun 120Y to a respected, national brand selling into more than 600 retail outlets across Australia, Co-Directors Tui and Nyree are incredibly proud of their business journey and certainly not giving up without a fight.

What was your first reaction to the COVID-19 crisis?

TUI: I have never experienced anything like this, so my first reaction was disbelief – this can’t be for real. After I realised it was for real, my reaction was emotional, but that didn’t last. I am not one for being down for long and if I am even a little down, Nyree is quick to ‘kick my butt’. 

So I went into a different mode – what do we need to do? What are the actions we need to take? How do we adjust our plans? Who do I need to be in order to get through this? What do our customers need right now and how can we help them? What do consumers need? How will those needs change over the coming 12 months? 

I realised we needed to just learn as fast as we could.

NYREE: Watching our sales dwindle from $113K a week on March 9 to literally zero by 23 March was devastating. I put everything possible into place to try and stay afloat. I managed to keep a complete emotional meltdown at bay until about three weeks in, when the gravity of the impact upon Koh became clear. Then I saw a text from Tui that basically said ‘pull yourself together, we need you’. I bought a juice, put on some amazing techno music and yes, I pulled myself together.  

When I arrived at the office I started going over opportunities, putting each one down on individual A4 pieces of paper, then prioritising what could be attacked this week and by whom. I started putting plans were in motion. I went back to the numbers – it’s where the answers always are for me.

Throughout this whole crisis, neither of us has been down on the same day, which has meant we are constantly pulling each other up. This has been crucial to our survival.

What has been your most successful business pivot during the crisis?

Our pivot at this stage is focussing on the consumer and better marketing.

The new ‘Care Packs’ we created have been quite good actually, but what we are most pleased about is our engagement with retailers. Retailers are actually starting to order a little, and some are feeling quite optimistic.

Our focus has been on providing our retailers with as much as we can to help them. We have kept in touch with all our retailers, offering them something every week, an idea or some free advice for example. We also call them all regularly.

We are focussing our efforts on going back to basics – what is our purpose and how can we do this every week, every day? It’s really Marketing 101.

We are learning more about who our customer is, how we can reach her and how we can help her, so really back to basics. It’s very exciting… but this all takes time! So the results will come later. 

We are also looking at product ranges and how these need to change to suit the new environment, so we have some pretty exciting things coming up. Watch this space! 

What are you working on right now to keep the business moving forward?

TUI: I’ve just completed refining our customer avatar, because from this I will find new opportunities and better marketing. My focus is now on refining our brand story which again will help our marketing… really exciting stuff.

Our focus has moved from B2B to B2C which is super exciting. It will not be an overnight income stream but it will certainly help us in the future. We are trying a few other avenues too. We are living our purpose and mission – giving gifts and making people feel special. ?

Keeping in touch with our retailers, and sending them something of value every week so they keep focussed and inspired is so important. Just because our income stream from our retail partners is completely gone, doesn’t mean we don’t keep in touch. They are really important to us and we really feel for them, so we are trying to help them as much as we can.  

There is a spending freeze in just about every industry we have thought of. People are in survival mode, but it’s not stopping us from trying. Some things might not take off now, but may help us post COVID-19.

NYREE: I’m working with the team, keeping everyone “together”, happy and busy.  We’re all upskilling, including Tui and I, to learn new things that will help Koh with what it needs right now. 

Thanks to JobKeeper we’ve been able to get the team that was involved in all things ‘dispatch’ back working again. So, we’re strategising and dividing out work, from things like letter box drops for Mother’s Day to driving traffic to our website through collaborations, SEO, Facebook Ads, and all things Sales and Marketing.  

In our morning Zoom huddle, everyone’s number one priority of the day MUST relate to sales or marketing – and with so many options it’s now about managing who and how we execute our new plan. As DJ Quik says, “if it don’t make money, it don’t make sense” so everyone is learning new skills that will assist the business in anything and everything sales related.  

What is helping you cope during this time?

TUI: Staying calm and seeing the opportunities and benefits. Having clarity on the finance was extremely important too because if you can see a runway ahead and your cashflow has no holes and is extremely clear, you can focus on other aspects of the business that will help you. It is really important to know where you stand financially otherwise you will be in constant stress/survival mode rather than how can I still grow in this environment. And when I say grow, I mean grow from zero, which is where we were at. 

NYREE: I’ve been working on three things I feel I have a level of control over. 

My numbers. It’s my go-to every time. Being able to look at what we know, and what we can do to adapt, has helped me feel in control.

Rediscovering what brings me back to calm. I realised I was spending too much time in my stress-fear mode, and what brings me back to calm is meditation and music. Every morning I have 20 minutes of silent meditation and 20 minutes of running and techno music. It works for me.

Reaching out to our network. The Entrepreneurs Organisation, our business network, has regular Zoom meetings, during which we meet with people all over Melbourne and share stories and support each other.

When you look back at this in six months’ time, what do you think will stand out as the most successful decision?

TUI: Going back to our purpose and seeing how we can live that every day in our business. And focussing on our end customer. Really taking a closer look at our business and who we are about.

NYREE: To keep our team together and upskill them to learn new ways to fulfill our mission to connect people through meaningful giftware. Just because our traditional channel in retail has been interrupted, it doesn’t mean that our mission has changed – we just had to adapt to find a new way to get gifts to our customers. I feel we will be most proud of our team’s willingness and ability to pull together and do whatever it takes.

What has been most important to you throughout this crisis?

Empathising with others. When we realised we were in the middle of a crisis, our first instinct was survival – of our business. However, if we focus on self-interest, we risk becoming isolated and depressed. You will be amazed how your mind shifts when you start thinking of others. Think of someone who is really suffering, then do something for them – send them a surprise gift that they will love. This will not only make you feel good, because you have done something to make someone else feel happy, but you have connected with another human being. We all need a feeling of belonging.

What lessons from the past have inspired you?

Winston Churchill said that hardship is not a bad thing. We can view hardship as a gift, as it will be what will make us better. It is the only thing that will transform us. It is an opportunity to become the best version of ourselves. Hardship is an opportunity for us to shine.

Discover Koh Living here

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