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Shakti co-founders GeorgeLill and Jon Heslop. Photo: supplied
Shakti co-founders GeorgeLill and Jon Heslop. Photo: supplied

BusinessDecember 20, 2017

Selling Shakti: the Kiwi entrepreneurs taking a bed of nails to the world

Shakti co-founders GeorgeLill and Jon Heslop. Photo: supplied
Shakti co-founders GeorgeLill and Jon Heslop. Photo: supplied

They’re on your Instagram feed and your yoga teacher’s floor – foam mats covered in thousands of sharp points, a modern take on an ancient method of healing and relaxation. But what do they do, and where did they come from? Don Rowe talks to the two Kiwi guys behind the Shakti mat craze.

Right now, every Insta-model and their yoga-mum is lying on a Shakti mat. Small foam squabs covered in thousands of sharp points, the mats apply pressure to the skin without puncturing the surface, flooding the body with warmth and promoting a deep sense of relaxation.  They’re used by the young, the old, the fit, the fat, and even bloody Glenn Hart from Newstalk ZB. For the psychedelically inclined, they’re an indispensable tool for intrepid inner exploration. And for two Kiwis fresh out of uni, the Shakti mat has been a life-altering discovery, sending them around the world and into careers as successful entrepreneurs.

Childhood best friends George Lill and Jon Heslop first encountered the mats on a 2015 trip abroad. Students at the University of Otago at the time and staring down the barrel of careers in law and finance, the pair had their paradigms ever so slightly poleaxed during their time on a beach on Thailand’s southern coast.

George Lill and Jon Heslop (left and middle). Photo: supplied.

“I was pretty frothed on being a lawyer,” says Heslop, who was doing a conjoint law and psychology degree at the time. “I was looking to do an internship and work at a law firm but going and seeing this place was one hell of an eye opener to what a life can be and what a good life is.”

Lill, visiting Thailand for the second time, also felt disillusioned with the prospects of a typical white collar existence straight out of university. The manner in which the people they met combined lifestyle design with actual real-world productivity was particularly attractive to a pair of lads from rural Canterbury.

“Here were a whole lot of people who were not just hippies living on a beach but people who have done a whole lot more than that,” says Lill. “The most outrageous things too: running businesses and teaching at universities and just being the most successful people in lots of different areas. It was inspiration for me to have a little bit of a look at… it just shook me up.”

Introduced one night to a longtime entrepreneur, the man responsible for bringing water coolers to the UK, the pair lay on a Shakti mat beneath the stars, immediately blown away by the efficacy of what, on the surface, is a pretty far-out concept.

“We tried it out, thought it was super cool, but then when we got home and couldn’t find any in New Zealand it got us excited,” says Lill. “We thought ‘these things are wicked, we like them, they work, why don’t we try and spread the love a bit? Let’s have a crack at something different.”

Having retrieved an email address from the crumpled corner of an old travel journal, the pair made contact with a Swedish expat named Om Mokshananda, a longtime yogi who developed the mat during his time in the Himalayas. Mokshananda produces the mats in a charity workshop in Varanasi, where employees are provided with living wages, access to healthcare and a safe working environment. After an initial order of just 50, Lill and Heslop took the plunge and invested in 2000 mats, giving themselves three months to shift the product before Lill had to be in Hong Kong for an internship at a major bank. The target soon proved a little too optimistic.

“Our first sales trip – amateurs holding the bloody things upside down.” Photo: supplied.

“The first mat we sold was in Christchurch,” says Lill. “We were outside this woman’s gym and we spent twenty minutes in the carpark too nervous to even walk in. We ended up going out for another coffee and then going back and then just sitting in the car again. Eventually we went in there and she flips the mat upside down and put the spikes on the carpet thinking it was a non-slip mat. We thought ‘Oh fuck, this crazy Thailand idea is maybe not going to be as easy as we thought.’”

By the time Lill left for Hong Kong, they’d sold just 10. And at his desk on the 64th floor, surrounded by the insanity of the stock market, he was miserable and pining for home.

“It’s not hard for people to imagine what you’re doing for fun when you’re stock trading for an investment bank,” he says. “The reality hit me so hard, completely slapped me in the face, because I did work pretty hard to get there and I was looking at the American Dream, looking to make a run at the top job in the top industry, and then you get there and realise ‘holy shit it’s not sink or swim, you can just get out of the pool and watch them all paddle’. There’s probably better analogies but that’s kind of what it was like. It wasn’t what I wanted to do in any respect.”

Lill felt obliged to stick it out, cognisant of the scope of the opportunity he was presented with at the bank. But when his parents called to check in he realised just how badly he wanted to go home. “I basically broke down in tears and told them if I was even one percent unsure I wanted to leave then I would have stayed and had a real crack, but it just didn’t fit with me at all.”

On his final night in Hong Kong Lill was invited to a networking event attended by the big players in the finance industry. While the other interns clung to the corners of the room, Lill was called over to a conversation where senior management were discussing, of all things, the Shakti.

“I’d sold a couple mats to my colleagues which I thought was funny, selling these mats to stressed out bankers, and on the last night I basically had to do a sales pitch to all of the top bosses at this bank,” he says.

“This head guy took his shoes off and rolled his pants up and stood on one in the middle of the bar in front of a whole lot of aghast intern faces. He told me to drop one off in the morning so that he could take it back to the UK, and I told him I wouldn’t be there because I’d just quit that day to go sell them in New Zealand. The feeling of walking out of there was amazing. There was no heavy rap music playing, but I definitely felt like there was.”

Jon Heslop reclines in the Shakti ‘office’, in preparation for a Seven Sharp interview with Tim Wilson (left). Photo: supplied.

Meanwhile, back in New Zealand, Jon Heslop was living in Wellington, canvassing the city daily to move the immense stack of remaining mats, the spectre of an unfinished degree hovering over him. Leeston, where the boys grew up, isn’t the sort of place where people just drop their law studies.

“I was left with like 1800 of these mats to sell and no capital to do it with whatsoever, so I was squatting in a friend’s flat in Wellington,” he says. “Every day I’d get an armful of like 10 mats, get on my penny board and skate around the city taking them into yoga studios and so on. It was really hard and kind of demoralising being by myself, but then George skyped me and there was this amazing moment where he was like ‘I’m coming home to do Shakti mats’.

“There was quite a lot of ‘what the fuck?’ in my mind, but there was also a lot more absolute triumph and froth that he’d gapped on an opportunity like that to come and do this. It was pretty uplifting bro.”

Shakti mansion. Photo: supplied.

Lill returned to New Zealand, trading in his five star hotel for a tent and an Auckland council camping pass. The passes are popular with a rotating cast of vagabonds, vagrants and the semi-homeless, and Lill became part of a community of 50-odd drifters who rotated around the sites.

After four months he got a flatmate, one Jon Heslop, and the pair lived a frugal existence on about $5 a day as they planned a sales campaign across New Zealand, working from Burger Kings for the cheap coffee and free wifi. “I think we’ve got more offices around the country than any other business,” Lill quipped to Seven Sharp at the time.

The video shows them cheerful, if soaking wet, drinking green tea and living off baked beans. In a Ridgeline vest and striped cardigan, their appearance belies their enthusiasm, and also the seriousness with which they approach their goals. And it wasn’t all banter with Tim Wilson.

“There were definitely some pretty rough patches,” says Heslop. “Our sales plan was to door-knock which meant that we were going to between seven and ten acupuncturists’ houses a day. Half of them weren’t home and half of the ones that were home weren’t interested in even talking to us, so it was pretty tough around that time.”

“Living in the tent in winter probably wasn’t the best six months but that’s the way that it went,” says Lill. “But you know what? Without sounding cheesy or corny at all, the rush of waking up in a tent and getting a $2 shower before heading out was such a better buzz than going up 64 storeys to the office from the five star hotel that the bank was paying you to be in. It was just more real. I really appreciated it more than anything, and that’s what I tried to focus on as well.”

George Lill at a health and wellbeing expo. Photo: supplied.

Over the next year the pair were regular fixtures at every health and wellbeing expo across the country, living from their car and sleeping where they could. Thanks to a huge social network cultivated during their time in Dunedin, perhaps the easiest networking incubator in the world, the pair had floorspace everywhere they went. One cold night in winter last year they showed up at my flat, traipsing through the door on a sales high but worried about George potentially being possessed by hate-fuelled demons.

“A woman at the expo today told George she’d accidentally passed 99 demons into his body,” Heslop reported as we cleared the lounge of furniture for hacky sack. “It was the best thing.”

The pair believe their sales enthusiasm and delight with the little wins was an early factor in their success. Though they may initially have spoken to just three customers in an entire day at some yoga-fest, it was the quality of the conversation and the personal connections that began to generate momentum.

“It was about the people who give you a real authentic response, a really good conversation,” says Lill. “They try it and they love it and they tell you all these new things that you didn’t think about, different ways to use it. That sort of stuff was what gave us this huge rush. I think we’ve got a Shakti community now in New Zealand and Australia and it was all those conversations at the start that helped create that.”

By summer 2016 Shakti had built considerable momentum, and was going from strength to strength in both sales and exposure. Popular in the yoga community, the Shakti Instagram feed was flooded with glowing testimonials from key players in the scene, their young, urbanite, health-conscious aesthetic all deliciously on-brand. The inherent authenticity, performative or otherwise, of the online yoga scene meant these testimonials carried particular weight – and the converts quickly grew downright evangelical.

“When someone loves a Shakti mat they’re so so passionate – it’s not like switching toothpaste brands,” says Heslop. “When people really are into them, they’re so vocal. They’re getting all their friends onto it, making everyone try them out, and that’s what has created a bit of a movement.”

In May this year the pair relocated to Amsterdam to establish a European distribution hub. From the Netherlands they were able to trial running the New Zealand branch of the business online, testing the concept for use in other markets ahead of an international rollout next year in France, England and beyond.

They hired two friends from university who followed the pair to Amsterdam, and began to prepare for the Christmas rush from abroad, keeping an eye on maintaining the values that underpin Shakti.

Photo: supplied.

“Three of the crucial things for us in this business and this lifestyle is working with our friends, the ability to take longer holidays and the ability to live in different parts of the world,” Heslop says. “We’ve got to try out all those things this year, and setting up in Amsterdam was just awesome.”

Now back in New Zealand for Christmas, Shakti employs 23 full time workers in a Christchurch warehouse which is the quintessential modern workplace. Every morning two employees host the ‘Good News News’, a shakeup of the typical morning meeting. In the afternoon it’s ‘Chi at 3’, a pump-style class set to heavy techno. The team plays football every day at 4.

“We want to work with people that we’d want to hang out with ,” says Lill. “I heard a great quote that you’ll spend more time in your life with your colleagues than you will with your friends and family, so when you’re in a position where you can choose who to work with, it makes sense to choose your friends.”

Heslop agrees: “When your staff are friends and family you’re going to treat them like friends and family, and when you do that, they’re going to do really good by you and you’ll do really good by them.”

But among all the partying and yoga and general good vibes, there’s a backbone of solid mahi. For all of the hippie aesthetic, Lill and Heslop are motivated entrepreneurs first and foremost, serious about success in all its forms.  

“Being able to celebrate the little things is fun – you need to enjoy the journey – but also being able to see a month or two or whatever into your timeline is essential” says Lill. Writing yourself goals and resetting can really help you check in with yourself and how you’re doing, because on the flipside you can just froth out so much that you sit there on the floor all frothed out. We all know people that do froth too much.”

“And as George kept touching on,” continues Heslop, “it’s about the play – you’ve gotta be dancing to it the whole time. I can honestly say that I enjoyed those two months in the tent, selling a couple mats a day. It was so rewarding, I enjoyed it just as much as I do the days now. So it’s about having that passion and those goals and still maintaining that sense of play.

As time goes by and Shakti goes global, whether or not that personable, organic approach can be maintained will become clear. But should the stress get too much, George Lill and Jon Heslop know a thing or two about how to relax.

Keep going!