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Mai Haven is responsible for introducing Konjac, the latest and greatest superfood to the Australian market, after using it as a home remedy to help her husband lose weight. Here’s how she used a vegetable from her childhood to create a business that’s set to grow 500 percent this financial year.

After helping her husband shed 10 kilograms by introducing Konjac, a staple Asian vegetable her Japanese mother ate to stay slim, to his diet, Haven knew she was on to a good thing. So she developed a range of Konjac-based products designed as an alternative to regular wheat pasta and noodles, and SlendierSlim was born.

She was spot on about Konjac’s potential in the local market – just 20 months after launching her products in the marketpace, Haven began generating a profit. She’s also expecting to turn over close to $3 million this financial year, thanks largely to the signing of deals with Woolworths, Coles and IGA as well as distribution deals with companies in New Zealand, the UAE and Ireland. Next on the expansion list is Europe, the UK, US and Canada.

Here, Haven reveals how she ensures SlendierSlim retains its competitive edge in the competitive health food market and talks start-up capital.

Have you faced any challenges in setting up the business?

Setting up the business was very hard. You have to do everything yourself; from the initial concept to knocking on distribution company doors and convincing them to distribute your product. Then you also have to find the time to research any competitors, organise your finance, learn the legal aspects as well as any import restrictions, packaging and storage information and, most importantly, find a reliable supplier. You have to become an expert in your product and be able to cover every angle possible.

My motivation was the knowledge that I had an idea that was unique and was something that would appeal to our target market, so I was determined to make it happen. During this stage we decided to sell our house in order to pay for everything!

The health foods sector is becoming increasingly competitive as more and more products hit the market. What’s the secret to maintaining a competitive edge?

Differentiation is the key. It could lie in something simple, like packaging, or in something more complicated, like a special formula, ingredient, technology, or even in the service you are offering. On top of this, you also need detailed market knowledge so that you always stay a step ahead of your competitors.

You need to ask yourself the tough questions, like: if my product is exactly the same as other competitors why would retailers or consumers buy my product or service? Examine all of your product’s strengths and weaknesses thoroughly and make sure that price is not the only unique differentiator. Consumers want a product that works and delivers on its promise.

SlendierSlim is now enjoying some solid turnover – how are you managing this rapid growth?

We’ve now employed people who are specialists and experts in their fields. Investing in building a solid team is really important for us, as it helps us to ensure that we’re the first in the market, have the strongest position and are always looking at new ways to innovate our brand through new products.

We have a saying in the office: “What is exciting today is old news tomorrow.” You need to stay on top of your game.

Is there anything about running a business that’s particularly surprised you?

I am still overwhelmed by how well our products are received by our consumers. I love responding to our questions on Facebook and email.

If you were to point to one highlight so far, what would it be?

We do several expos throughout the year and I’m always amazed when a customer knows who I am and thanks me for helping them take steps to change their life for the better.

I still find this very humbling and I take great joy in the simple fact that we have helped someone.

I read that your husband has just joined the business. What are you doing to keep your personal lives separate to those of your professional?

To be honest, I don’t think that as a small start-up company there’s a lot of balance between our professional and personal lives, as we both have the same goals and are always on the same page. We understand that we have only one chance to do it right and our business has taken precedence over many personal goals.

All our sacrifices are now paying off as we have grown the business out of a home office and into a commercial property with a great team. This has allowed both of us to work more normal hours but also concentrate on some of our own individual personal goals. We’re now expecting our first child in March, so the topic of conversation is now on other things and both of us are really enjoying this time in our lives.

Do you have any advice for other aspiring entrepreneurs?

These are tough times, so to survive you need to have enough savings or money set aside to get you through the start-up phase.

Every start-up business should have enough capital for the owner to survive at least two years without steady income. If your business plan predicts you will have an income in a few months time and you have only enough money for that period of time, you will end up struggling to survive if things become tougher than you expected. And that most likely will happen! There are always things you don’t know about, or that you’ve forgotten about, or thought were easier or cheaper than they actually are – and all of these will set you back.

What’s next for SlendierSlim?

I want SlendierSlim to be a company that makes a significant difference in how people eat and the choices they have.

There are too many unhealthy products nowadays that have a huge impact on your life and waistline. We want to provide a healthier option, that doesn’t take the joy out of food. It is such a pleasure to eat and socialise with family and friends – it’s such an integral part of our lives that we all should be able to enjoy.

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Lorna Brett

Lorna Brett

Lorna was Dynamic Business’ Social Web Editor in 2011/12. She’s a social media obsessed journalist, who has a passion for small business. Outside the 9 to 5, you’re likely to find her trawling the web for online bargains, perfecting her amateur photography skills or enjoying one too many cappucinos. You can follow her on <a href="https://twitter.com/#!/dynamicbusiness">Twitter @DynamicBusiness</a>

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