Gouri Kubair is MD for Holy Lama Naturals, an ethical family business. They extract and distil essential oils for use in their body care range and also a range of food and drink flavourings called Spice Drops, both of which are based on Ayurvedic principles, of balancing body, soul and mind. Gouri has also founded a boutique accountancy firm called Kubed Solutions which draws on her previous career in finance and combines it with her extensive experience in building FMCG brands. Her understanding of the worries and concerns specific to SMEs means she is able to offer them specialist help.
Can you tell us a little about your background and the company?
Holy Lama Naturals is my family’s business, founded by my grandfather back in the 1940s; I am the third generation to be involved.
In 1948 my grandfather migrated from near Goa to Kerala, South India, to become a pioneer in the essential oils industry. He was the first person to cultivate vetivert (a tall grass) to extract the oils on a commercial basis and it’s from here that the beginnings of my family business, distilling and using essential oils in perfumery, can be traced.
Following in his father’s footsteps, my father, Vijay became involved in the family business at a very young age. His fascination with the world of essential oils and perfumery took him to Bhutan on a government-backed project helping locals cultivate and extract lemongrass oil.
During the 1980s, he lived in the Himalayas for eight years. During that time he made a 12-day walking pilgrimage to Aja Ney where the presiding Lama presented him with a ‘Thangkha of Lama Guru’ which symbolises good luck in life. This is the inspiration behind the brand name – Holy Lama Naturals.
Over the 2000s the Holy Lama Naturals business went from strength to strength. My parents used their expertise in the distillation of essential oils and our family’s unique extraction process, to develop our range of Ayurvedic body care products and Spice Drops – professional strength natural extracts of herbs and spices for flavouring food and drinks which are ideal for chocolatiers.
Although interested in the family firm, in my early 20s I chose to spread my wings and trained as a chartered accountant in India.
Eventually, the lure of working for the family business became too much and I left my comfortable job with Deloitte in 2013 to further the family’s ethical business bringing the Spice Drops and Body Care ranges to the European market.
How did the idea come to you for the company?
Although I had grown up in India and around the factory, I chose to make a career in finance. I trained in India and was a gold medallist Chartered Accountant there but when I came to the UK in 2003, I had to requalify in the UK, whilst working with Deloitte. After having had two children, I was keen to achieve a better work-life balance, so in 2013, after working for over 10 years as an accountant I decided to change course and get actively involved in the family business. I took on the marketing and distribution of the Holy Lama range, determined to educate the UK and European audience in creative cooking with spices and the benefits of an Ayurvedic lifestyle. Over the last decade, I’ve succeeded in winning various awards for individual products and the business as a whole, learning as I’ve gone along.
I’ve now combined this knowledge with my previous experience in accountancy and have established Kubed Solutions as an affordable accountancy service provider to help start-ups and SMEs by supporting them in achieving their creative ambitions without having to worry about accounting compliance.
How did you achieve awareness?
In the early days, I was guided by a businesswoman who had independently used our soaps and had contacted me to say how much she loved them. She became my mentor and as a result, I sent samples to bloggers and influencers some of whom wrote up positive reviews, and awareness began to grow.
Recommendations from the likes of Nigella Lawson, Tom Kerridge and Cyrus Todiwala were a huge help in boosting recognition for Spice Drops and since 2016 I have worked with a PR consultancy, Currant Communications and slowly we have developed momentum with more and more coverage of our products appearing in the media and online.
Latterly social media and email marketing, which we do in-house, have become increasingly important.
What are the key successes?
There have been several highlights over the years, but I would say being selected as an Ocado Top 5 supplier was one, the fact that Sainsbury’s approached us to stock our Spice Drops, and of course the various awards we have won are others. These have been a combination of recognition for individual products such as our soaps, Great Taste Awards for over half of the Spice Drops range and last year Holy Lama Naturals was selected as one of the 100 companies to be promoted by SmallBiz100 and the Small Business Saturday Organisation. This year I have also been selected as an f:entrepreneur recognising female entrepreneurs for their dynamism and leadership.
I’m also incredibly proud of how my family has helped hundreds of women through our flexible working policy. Women employed at the factory (many from disadvantaged backgrounds) are able to work and look after their families in an otherwise male-oriented society that would traditionally reject them. We are proud to make a genuinely positive difference in these women’s lives.
What were/are the challenges and how have you overcome these?
We have encountered several over the years, not least when we were delisted from Sainsbury’s and discovered that the intermediary had completely exaggerated the anticipated sales and we had massively over-ordered. It meant that we had huge amounts of excess stock to work with. We are lucky because Spice Drops have a three-year shelf life and so we had time to try to come up with ways to use them. We still made a loss, but it taught me an invaluable lesson!
With everyone going online and with a heightened interest in cooking, we actually benefited from the pandemic with increased sales. However, now as for everyone, the current cost-of-living crisis and the effects of the war in Ukraine is a big challenge for us. Customers who might have bought several items are sticking to just what they need, making their overall baskets much smaller. I can understand this thinking but our Spice Drops for example can actually help save money – there is no waste as with fresh herbs and spices, and our drops retain the same health benefits as the raw ingredient while retaining their aroma and intensity for up to three years – unlike dried herbs and spices, so they are much more economical! We just need to keep plugging away at getting these messages out there so people understand.
What are your plans now/for the future?
We are currently making plans to adapt and change the factory to grow the business, but it is too early to talk about them. We are always watching trends in flavours or aromas that might be the next big thing to create Spice Drops flavours or a new body care product to reflect them.
I’m also actively growing the Kubed Solutions side of the business. The experience and knowledge I have gleaned from nearly 10 years of B2C retailing coupled with my previous life in accountancy have given me some unique experiences. I noticed more and more businesses in my network soliciting my help with accountancy and tax queries. Whilst helping them, I realised there was a gap in the market for affordable accountancy service providers who understand the struggles of a small business, and that’s how Kubed Solutions was born.
Kubed Solutions not only helps with bookkeeping and accountancy but monitors the general health of the business, keeping the owner on top of what is happening as I really understand the pressure points. There are simple tasks such as registering Trademarks which quite often get forgotten by a busy SME owner and reminding them about double entry bookkeeping to ensure there is clarity between personal and business costs is key too.
I’m able to make Kubed Solutions more affordable than some other UK-based accountancy firms because although I remain the main point of contact for clients, I am able to draw on contacts I have in India to help complete the work, which keeps costs low. There are also two UK-based staff to support me on social media and marketing.
What would you like to share with others to encourage them to start their own entrepreneurship journey?
Do your market research and decide whether there is a genuine gap for you or your product to fill. Make sure you get your branding and story spot on; the look of a product/ brand makes a huge difference to its marketing. This isn’t necessarily something that we did with Holy Lama Naturals – we have had to do it backwards and convince consumers that there is a need for liquid spices for example. That has been much harder, although I think we are succeeding! With Kubed Solutions, I genuinely feel there is a gap, and I am the best person to fill it.
Can you share your top tips for entrepreneurial success?
We all make mistakes, and that’s the best way to learn; I’m still making mistakes today! I’d say allow a certain amount of trial and error, and if something isn’t working, stop!
I’d also tell new entrepreneurs to establish KPIs to ensure a return on any expenditure and have a clear strategy and processes.
People are your biggest asset whether external agencies or direct employees, and you must keep them motivated and bring them along with you. Working from home it’s easy to internalise everything, become stressed and pass that onto your staff. Don’t! Good communication is vital which is something I’m still learning!
Know your breakeven point – this is key so you know what the minimum is you must earn every month to keep your business running.
There is a lot more help out there online than there was when I set up the UK arm of Holy Lama Naturals. Make use of the various Facebook forums and courses, many of which are free, and for your own benefit, meditate. I really recommend people do that to keep a positive frame of mind.
Who are the 5 people who inspire you the most and why?
I have been very lucky to have lived around members of my family who are truly inspirational:
1. My Great Uncle Kamalakar Kulkarni – inspires me because he was brave enough to try something when everyone around him thought he was mad to do it. He went into the forests surrounding his village and picked up the antlers that wild antelope had shed and made them into items he could sell such as buttons, handles for sticks and knives and ashtrays. He actually made a multi-million-pound business, exporting his wares and employing people around India to collect the antler horns. All because he had a belief and stuck to it.
2. My maternal grandmother Pramila Sarnaik – inspires me because she taught me to believe that whatever happens, you can survive if you are prepared to adapt. She lost her husband at a very young age but had a family to support. She was very bright and is a Sanskrit scholar. This was and is a dying skill and so she became a tutor to A-level and GCSE students. She is still tutoring at the age of 93 and has even managed to adapt to online teaching due to the pandemic.
3. My paternal grandfather, D V Deo – inspires me because he had a vision and the drive to see it through. He had the courage to move his young family from Goa to Kerala and become the first commercial extractor of oil from the long grass vetivert. From this, he developed the basis of the Holy Lama Naturals business and importantly it was my grandfather who had the vision of wanting to help women with socio-economic issues in Kerala which is how and why we now employ women from disadvantaged backgrounds to work in our factory.
4. My father, Vijay Deo – was another pioneer who was prepared to take a risk. He was brave enough to live in the Himalayas for 8 years teaching the locals there the science of agriculture. Due to a series of unfortunate events, the joint family business was at the point of collapse, but my father had the courage to start afresh with the Holy Lama brand, innovating by introducing the body care range and Spice Drops. At the age of 70, he has now built an Ayurvedic wellness resort – Lhasakerala.com
5. My mother, Vijaya Deo – inspires me for her loyalty, standing by my father and facing the challenges together. She taught me all about organisation and management, taking on business responsibilities at a later age and giving the women in the factory someone to look up to. It is my mother who decided to spearhead the manufacturing unit as part of the Kudumbashree scheme, supporting and empowering marginalised women in the local community and so fulfilled my grandfather’s vision.
What are your favourite inspirational /motivational quotes?
It’s a bit naughty but I love the quote: “Worry is just meditating on sh*t” from the 2012 film Thanks for Sharing. I just think it rings so true and sums up what a waste of time and energy worrying is; we all need to do less of it and just get on and solve the problem instead!
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