Sally Obermeder and Maha Corbett – founders of lifestyle and wellness brand SWIISH
Sisters Sally Omermeder and Maha Corbett are an inspiration. Huge smiles, inclusivity, positive energy and real warmth radiating from every pore, their spirit is contagious; surely everyone they meet wants to be part of their inner circle. One thing for sure, they’re almost certain to receive a big, warm hug!
Sally and Maha started SWIISH as an “all-encompassing, true lifestyle brand and feel-good online destination for women”. Like a lot of good things do, it started following adversity. Sally was battling aggressive breast cancer at the time and the girls wanted to share their smoothie recipes. Sally had found them a vital ingredient in her journey to wellness. Kicking off with a self-published book, Super Green Smoothies, their business soon took flight. SWIISH is now the go-to brand for affordable and chic fashion, beauty and wellness.
As a SWIISH devotee with a morning ritual that wouldn’t be the same without Supergreen Superfood Powder, meeting Sally and Maha was a highlight. We chat about all things business, their roles as ambassadors for women on their health and wellness journey, and what’s next.
Flossi: When I think of SWIISH, I automatically associate it with your first book Super Green Smoothies; love that book. How did the idea for SWIISH come about?
Sally: “It originally started from when I was sick. I wanted a website that helped women feel amazing – inside and out; covering all topics that women are concerned with – fashion, wellness and beauty. I wanted it to be accessible and affordable.
At the same time, I was having lots of smoothies that were helping me feel better and recover after being sick. We wanted to share these recipes with other people. From that, we decided to create a book to share my success drinking smoothies; how incredible they made me feel, and how beneficial they were for my wellbeing. We approached a number of publishers, but not a single publisher in the country was interested. However, I was adamant and believed in it strongly, so we did it ourselves as an e-book. After it grew in popularity (becoming number one on iTunes overnight), Allen and Unwin wanted to publish it. The book went on to become a best seller and has gone on to sell over 140,000 copies. That was the beginning of Super Green Smoothies, but also SWIISH in terms of a website and online store.”
Flossi: Did you have a business plan for SWIISH in place before you launched?
Sally: “No, we didn’t, it was more so a loose plan. We knew we wanted to build a place where women could access information that was invaluable to them, and would help them live a better and healthier life. But there was no exact plan. I am a bit of a believer in just jumping and just working it out as you go along. Once we decided we wanted to have the online store, we were a little bit more prepared and I guess you could say that we did plan a little bit better too. To this day, we still only plan a year in advance – maybe two at the most. This is mostly because things change so quickly and rapidly and we must be fluid rather than spending all our time planning.”
Maha: “No not really, to be honest I wouldn’t have even known how to do one. I think if I’d have known that you should have a business plan, I could’ve spent two years agonising over whether or not we had the right business plan. So it was much better to just get started and figure it out as we went along.”
Flossi: When you were developing SWIISH, what were the “non-negotiables” for you?
Sally: “There were no non-negotiables. The only non-negotiable was that the business must succeed. We were not prepared to fail; that we’d do whatever needed to be done, in terms of sacrificing parts of our life such as time with family and friends, sleep, and working long hours until we got it to a place where we could resume those things again. In the early years we did sacrifice quite a lot in order to make it all happen. The biggest non-negotiable for Maha and I was, and still is, that we are sisters first, and business partners second. We wouldn’t do anything that would jeopardise our relationship.”
Flossi: What part of the start-up process was the most challenging? How did you find your way?
Maha: “I think the hardest part was just how much there was for us to do in the early days, when it was just Sally and I working in the business. We had a lot of late nights writing blog posts and teaching ourselves Photoshop. Figuring out not just the content of the site and learning what our readers wanted to know about, but also how to turn what we were doing into a business; how to monetise it. It’s all well and good to have an idea or passion, but at the end of the day if you can’t make money from it then it’s not really a business. It’s most likely not sustainable.
So you’re in this situation where you’re trying to set up the business – get all of the infrastructure in place; get your product out there; build an audience; learn how to monetise and build an income; all whilst working late nights. You’re making so many sacrifices and you don’t have staff. The way we found our way was to just push through it – you have to accept that it is going to be like that.
We invested our own money, which went to toward hiring a part-time staff member to help us out, and we didn’t pay ourselves for some time. I think that comes back to the passion, dedication and persistence that’s required. It actually does get easier and it does get better. You’re able to look back at those start-up headaches and growing pains, and you can see how far you’ve come. You almost look back on those times with nostalgia … almost, ha!”
Flossi: Maha, you were in a high-powered corporate role prior to starting SWIISH. At what point did you decide to ‘quit your day job’ and pursue your ‘side-hustle’ full time? Do you think your corporate experience helped when setting up your business model?
Maha: “That’s true, I worked in HR for about 15 years; 11 of those were with JP Morgan. It was an unbelievably great grounding for business because it taught me that you need to nurture your customers and community. It also taught me that you need to have more than one revenue stream for your business. So that if, for example, you have part of your business fall over, or there is an economic downturn, you’ve got a secondary stream to prop your business up or keep it going.
I’d been thinking for a long time that I wanted to start my own business. I just didn’t know exactly what it was that what I wanted to do, but knew that I loved writing. Really the impetus for me was when Sally was in her cancer recovery and she called me (we always talked about having a business together) and said, ‘I think it is time, let’s do it, I think we should start a blog’.
When you’ve had one of those life experiences that’s so difficult and so hard hitting, realising life is so short and precious, it’s like a wake-up call to pursue your passions. So then and there I made the decision that Sally and I should go for it!
It was about 6 months after starting SWIISH, that I was able to finally leave my job and turn it into a full-time side hustle. At the time I was single, didn’t have any support financially or any other income, so I set up a HR consulting business on the side. I had that for around 3 years – the first 3 years of SWIISH. It allowed me to have a little income stream and let me work on the business and pay the bills on the side.”
Flossi: How did you make the decision to scale your business?
Sally: “We made a decision to scale the business when it was ready. It was around the third year, I really don’t think you can scale before it’s time. In the beginning it was about trying to be sure that we knew what products our SWIISH tribe valued and what they wanted. Once we had that down pat, and we knew we also had enough capital, we were able to expand and scale up.
Maha and I were very purposeful about it. We didn’t start with a shop because we thought, ‘we still have to understand who our customer is and who our readers are’, and then once we know that, we can think about doing a store. We worked out that we have two types of readers. One, the time poor mum, who doesn’t have a lot of money to spend and just wants a few key classic pieces that will see her through the season. The other reader is more wanting to take a few fashion risks and wants stuff that she can wear to the office, but also out at night.”
Maha: “We’ve also introduced our books, and are building on the SWIISH WELLNESS range; our superfood powders. We’ve been working on products for two years plus and are just so proud of them.”
Flossi: I love that SWIISH is an acronym – Stylish Women Inspiring Inner Strength Health & Happiness. Is the name a representation of your brand, core values and vision? How do you communicate this to your staff?
Maha: “Our vision at SWIISH is to create a healthier and happier world, with a mission to empower women to nurture the inside and celebrate the outside. Staff members have their own print of the SWIISH vision/mission/values. It’s beautifully displayed in a frame on their desk. We feel so grateful to have a team who value the business and the core values as much as us. Each Friday, we have a little team meeting called ‘WOW’ aka ‘wow of the week’. During this, each staff member recognises someone else from the team who ‘wowed’ them that week. We find this simple exercise really good to keep the team engaged with the SWIISH values, as well as value one another. Team work makes the dream work, right?”
Flossi: Do you have clearly defined rolls within SWIISH or is everything collaborative? Does being related make it easier or harder when those inevitable disagreements occur?
Maha: “We do have different roles but they didn’t start out being clearly defined. We actually enjoy spending a lot of time together and collaborating with one another, so in the early days we used to want to do every single component together. As you can imagine that’s not particularly efficient. Over time we figured out how to divide up our roles so that we can manage the business more efficiently.
Both Sally and I shoot the clothes and look after social media. I do content and marketing, look after operations and day-to-day management of the team. Sally manages publicity, and the majority of the buying for our online store. We develop products for SWIISH WELLNESS together.
The best thing about Sal and I is that we don’t take anything personally. Being related doesn’t make it harder or easier when it comes to agreements or disagreements. I’m very focused on attention to detail and Sally is much more high-level and quite visual; we balance one another out! Sally is able to help me take more risks and I am able to help her think about the flow on effect. Sometimes we have good ideas – sometimes we have bad ideas and we’re more than happy to share our feedback. At the end of the day you can’t hold onto anything; the business is moving too fast and nothing is personal, it’s always about what is best for our customers, readers and wider SWIISH community.”
Sally: “Maha certainly keeps me grounded; she helps shed light on different perspectives I may not have thought of whilst building ideas/plans for the business. I really believe and feel as if it’s our unique differences that makes us the best of business partners. We complement one another, as in Maha’s strengths support my weaknesses and vice versa.”
Flossi: What advice would you give to someone wanting to jump into his or her side hustle?
Sally: “I’d say go for it! You’ll never have all the answers before you begin. You may as well just begin and work it out as you go along. You most definitely need to know why you’re doing it; be passionate about it and know that it’ll probably be harder than you think – but it won’t be like that forever. I also think it’s important to have other people around you who understand what it’s like to be in your field; important to have other people who you can share and chat with on the good and the bad.”
Maha: “Go for it, you won’t know unless you try! The only advice I’d give is, assume it’s going to take a lot longer to make money from it than you think. If you assume it’ll take a year, double it just in case. That way you can figure how to have another income or save enough money ahead of time.”
Flossi: Sally, in addition to SWIISH, you have your TV gig and then there’s that tiny job of being a Mum as well, how do you juggle all of your different hats and still find time for self-care?
Sally: “I’d like to think that I’m no different to so many other mums and dads. I think we’re all just juggling lots of balls in the air and trying to not get knocked out by them when they come crashing down, hahaha!”
How I manage the juggle varies based on the girls ages and their corresponding needs. They’re first and foremost so I work around that. I have an amazing husband, Marcus, and together we do it. But it’s not always easy.
Because I’d been through a tough time when Annabelle was a baby, I wanted my experience with Elyssa to be very different. I wanted to do everything myself. But I wasn’t looking after myself properly. I was still looking after Annabelle who was adjusting to a new sibling and still managing the huge growth of the SWIISH business. I was up all night, really tired, and not only was I not taking care of myself, but I wasn’t asking for any help.
Consequently, I got so run down that I eventually got an infection and my eardrum burst. It was only when I had blood pouring out of my ear, that I realised I probably should have put my hand up and asked for help. Even I, someone who knows the importance of good health, sometimes still struggles with asking for help and accepting when I need to take a break.”
Flossi: Maha, you are also a Wellness Coach, can you give some tips on achieving a well-balanced lifestyle for mind, body and spirit? Are there small things we can do every day?
Maha: “Everyone longs to be healthy and happy and at the end of the day. What’s the point in working hard toward a long and healthy life if you can’t enjoy it? While focusing on a healthy lifestyle by exercising and eating right is great for your body, balanced living means protecting your mental and emotional health, too. And stress reduction needs to be at the top of your to-do list.
We all get bogged down with work and family responsibilities from time to time; making time for yourself is necessary so that you can keep up with all your responsibilities. All batteries get run down, even yours. So, one thing that I think is really important is to recharge and make a commitment to enjoy some self-care and ‘you’ time. Even if it’s half an hour once a week, make that a non-negotiable – your time – just for you.”
Flossi: You’re both such inspirational women and have achieved so much in your respective careers, in business, and now as ambassadors for women on their health and wellness journey. What’s next for you lovely ladies and SWIISH?
Maha: “I think when it comes to the online store, we’d love to keep growing our fashion and WELLNESS ranges. We started out with a small edit of fashion only, but the demand is there for more both fashion and WELLNESS so we are working to grow that. We’ve also got a new book, Super Easy which has just published.”
Sally: “A massive focus for us is building on the SWIISH WELLNESS product line. Earlier this year we launched SLEEP Superfood Powder and GLOW Marine Collagen Powder. We’ve been so overwhelmed with the response to the products, the SWIISH community have been nothing short of amazing. I can let you know that we have a few more products to launch very soon too. Super exciting, and crazy busy times at SWIISH!”
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