Small Business

License article

Bathed in the sweet smell of success

When Naomi and Paul Whitfeld decided to start their own company, they didn't need market research or corporate modelling to come up with an idea.

Soaking in a petal-filled bath in Ubud, Bali, they resolved to bring some rest and relaxation into their daily lives in Australia - by marketing their own range of spa products.

''It's funny, some of our best ideas are actually hatched in a bathtub because when you're relaxed, you can just think,'' Ms Whitfeld, 39, says as she looks back on the beginnings five years ago of their natural body, skincare and homewares brand, iKOU.

Yet while the couple pledged to do ''something beautiful'' for themselves each day, their life is anything but tranquil. The business has taken off, attracting corporate and retail customers across Australia with bath salts and skincare treatments, herbal teas and natural wax candles handmade in its Blue Mountains factory.

It took about six months to flesh out the brand and research ingredients. They came up with the Japanese-inspired company name early on, having searched Asian verbs for ''to rest'' and ''to relax''. And as both had suffered from severe eczema, they decided to focus on natural, ethically sourced ingredients such as sandalwood and lemongrass, and local products such as lemon myrtle, Kakadu plum and Fragonia oil from Western Australia.

They converted the garage of their Blackheath home to a studio, where Paul learnt to make candles, while Naomi used the kitchen to concoct bath salts and skincare treatments. Both had some experience developing brands, having worked as freelance advisers to day spas, holiday accommodation and small retailers.


Mr Whitfeld, 44, a graphic designer and photographer, created the website and packaging, allowing them to keep expenses down. They launched iKOU at a trade fair in Sydney in early 2008.

It went well - almost too well - as the Australian Geographic's chain of shops ordered 1.5 tonnes of bath salt, 2000 candles and 2000 massage oils, to be delivered within a week.

Ms Whitfeld recalls: ''At that time our stock was very low, and so was our cash flow. We had to max out every credit card just to get the raw materials in.'' They called on friends and former colleagues to help get production off the ground.

Since then, she says, the biggest challenge has been keeping up with the growth. Today, they have 20 staff and run two retail shops in Sydney and Leura, which has an adjacent day spa. Production was recently moved to a 1000 square-metre facility in Katoomba.

Ms Whitfeld says the company sells about 25,000 units a month to more than 500 boutiques, organic cafes, day spas and hotels, such as Sydney's Park Hyatt and Raffles in the Seychelles, and beauty colleges in Japan.

Having started with $20,000 and a home-loan extension, she says the business turned profitable after two years.

So what's next? ''For us the vision is that we see many stores, more staff and more product lines,'' which could include areas such as clothing and leisure wear, Ms Whitfeld says. Opening a shop in Melbourne is high on the list.