Dramatic changes and the calming effects of shakti mats
When two students from Leeston, a small town on the Canterbury plains, travelled to Southeast Asia in 2014, they experienced peripeteia – a dramatic change in the path of their lives.
George Lill and Jon Heslop, both 19 at the time, had been studying at the University of Otago and preparing for careers in banking and law. Their trip to Southeast Asia was to be a brief break from reality before putting on their smart shoes and walking the corporate path. Visiting an unconventional yoga community on a white sand beach in southern Thailand opened their eyes and began to change their lives.
“It was the feeling of the entire place,” says Lill. “To spend time with people with such amazing stories about the impact they had around the world in their various unconventional pursuits, it was really quite inspiring.”
It was here they were first introduced to the Shakti mat by a companion of Om Mokshananda, the Swedish Yogi who invented the acupressure apparatus. Although the mat is used for meditation and relaxation, it resembles a torture device rather than a bubble bath. The foam mattress covered in 6,000 sharp plastic spikes is modelled on the Indian acupressure practice of a bed of nails.
Lill’s first experience was similar to many others’ initial reaction. He found it uncomfortable, comparing it to sunburn, but explained it takes time for your body to adjust and the more you use it, the better it becomes. It has a calming effect and helps to de-stress and stimulate the body.
Opportunities for a Shakti mat business in New Zealand
Back in New Zealand and frantically working towards the completion of their degrees, Lill and Heslop were reminiscing over their trip and wanted to find ways to embrace this new lifestyle. An unsuccessful search for Shakti mats in New Zealand presented the pair with an opportunity.
They jumped on a Skype call with Om Mokshananda to secure the exclusive rights to Shakti mats in New Zealand, and the first shipment arrived in December 2014, which they collected on a trailer borrowed from Lill’s parents.
“The Shakti mat is something that is met with an enormous amount of scepticism if it doesn’t come from a recommendation or someone you trust. We quickly realised we’d spent all our money on product and had no capital for rent or marketing,” says Heslop.
Lill moved to Hong Kong to start a job as a banker, leaving Heslop responsible for operations in New Zealand, where he was squatting in a friend’s empty flat in Wellington.
“I would go to Burger King to use their free wifi and then go to yoga studios and acupuncturists to try and sell our mats,” says Heslop.
Quickly Lill realised that climbing the corporate ladder wasn’t for him so decided to rejoin Heslop in New Zealand. They spent the next year on the road living in a tent, making face-to-face interactions a priority. They wanted to get to know their market and learn who was willing to try out the Shakti mat.
“We started off door knocking and attending markets, and when we had an extra $500, we’d try a new advert or an expo. It didn’t take off on day one. George would call me up to say we’d sold three mats, and we wouldn’t stop celebrating,” says Heslop.
Lill puts the company’s success down to a shift in Kiwi attitudes to complementary medicine and the power of word of mouth. Finding those willing to listen and experiment was essential he says.
Empowering women in India
According to the New Zealand Medical Journal, acupuncture is one of the most popular forms of alternative health therapy in New Zealand, and the Accident Compensation Corporation spent $30 million on acupuncture treatments from July 2015 to June 2016, an increase of $4 million from the year before.
“There has been a massive awakening in the world and in New Zealand. People are taking charge of their health and being more open minded to complementary medicines, and there is a rise in interest of acupuncture,” he says.
Now their four-year-old business has 15 full-time staff operating out of a warehouse and office in Christchurch. There are also 72 women employed making Shakti mats in their charity workshop in India.
“In India, it’s much harder for women to find flexible jobs to work around caring for their children and their home. Our factory is a wonderful work environment with flexibility on ending times and taking days off,” says Heslop.
Their business supports a number of charitable enterprises. They run a private education scholarship for the daughters of their Indian employees and provide an emergency medical fund for Indian employees.
Lill is the numbers guy, and Heslop takes care of marketing. Everyone at the Christchurch office is under the age of 25 apart from their warehouse manager, Aunty Sue, Lill’s aunt and their very first employee. With rituals like ‘Chi at 3’, which involves the office dancing to loud house and techno music to get the morale up at 3pm each day, the environment resembles a flat of lifelong friends.
“It’s really special to create your own culture in the workplace. We have the ability to build this from the ground up,” says Lill.
They are making their first moves into the European market, setting up a distribution centre and warehouse in Amsterdam. They agree the growth in their business is phenomenal and their end goal is to take Shakti mats worldwide while staying true to their values.
“I feel like the luckiest guy in the world. It’s extremely fulfilling for me to come to work every day with my best mate,“ says Lill.