NAME: Meisha Strykowski
COMPANY: Cocolux Australia
TITLE(S): Founder | Creative Director
How would you describe yourself in 5 words Creative, Perfectionist, Challenging, Dreamer, Motivated.
What is the long version of how you got to where you are today? Cocolux was born from my previous unsuccessful attempt in building a brand. When I say unsuccessful, I wouldn't say in any way that there wasn’t any value in pursuing this business because what I learnt has been instrumental in the success so far for Cocolux.
Going back to the beginning, I was born in New Zealand and moved to Sydney Australia with my family when I was six years old. My father has always been an entrepreneur and as one of three girls he has always inspired us to think, question and be innovative. It seems that his entrepreneurial genes have rubbed off on us because both my sisters and myself have followed suit to run there own businesses.
School was never my thing, I always questioned and wasn’t into conforming. My talent was definitely in the arts and a subject i always did well in. I dropped out of school half way through year 12 and moved to Surry Hills causing my mum much concern. I wasn’t as concerned about not completing my high school certificate because my calling was always in the area of fine arts and design, so i knew if i ever wanted to get into design school it was based on sitting a practical examination rather than my high school certificate marks.
After wasting a few years on having a good time I decided to apply to get into Graphic Design at Enmore design centre. Enmore in the design industry, is one of the most highly regarded in Australia for study in various areas of design and back then they only let approximately 100 applicants a year into any given design diploma. After submission of a practical brief and then a practical exam I was accepted and offered a full time position however because I wasn't at home I took up a part time night diploma so I could work during the day. Following my trend in dropping out of education, I left after 2 years, mainly because I had established a good client base as a freelance designer and was learning so much actively working in the field. I had set myself up in an communal creative office space with other freelance creatives, photographers, stylists and designers etc which was in a really cool warehouse located on Bourke street in Redfern. I got lots of jobs off the back of the people I was sharing the space with and the companies coming in that used the photography studio that was leased out to a lot of big design agencies coming in to do shoots.
To further my studies I applied to fairfax advertising award school which was a course more focused on ideas, creative thinking & the processes involved in coming up with great ideas & ultimately good ads. I was accepted and surprisingly I actually completed the course. Probably because it only went on for 6 months!
After spending years in the advertising and graphic design industry I decided to pursue some travel which wasn’t until my late twenties. I was encouraged by my partner at the time (later to become my husband) to get out and see the world for a while and to do it without him. Given he had already travelled and worked around the globe he felt that it was something i should do myself and not as a couple as it wouldn't be the same experience. So, one of my best friends and I packed up and moved to Whistler Canada to spend a season skiing and then move on to travel elsewhere after the season had ended. It was in Whistler where I came up with my first business idea. I found there was not anything practical to wear on your feet while off the slopes, ugg boots whilst warm would get wet and rain boots whilst waterproof were cold.
After travelling I returned and moved with my partner to a small town on the south island of New Zealand called Wanaka to live and ski during the winter. The idea I had to combine the ugg boot with the Wellington or rain boot was niggling away so i decided to pursue it. I started to source manufactures in China who imported Australian merino sheepskin and made ugg boots andlooked for a rain boot manufacturer. It was extremely complicated having to have two different manufactures make different components, especially given both were so integral to each other. I ended up spending 3-4 months a year in China on production lines personally checking thousand and thousands of boots. I recall one production sitting on the end of a production line for two months everyday checking over 15k pairs. I missed several christmas’s and on some trips I had to leave my first daughter back in Australia for weeks on end. We had experienced several disasters at the beginning with quality that wasn’t discovered until receiving shipments in the respective countries they were being shipped to, so at the time the only way to ensure quality was for me to be there personally and stop anything that wasn’t up to standard from even making it on a container. The waterproof sheepskin boots we designed with a high end look proved to be successful and we had big markets with distributors in Russia, Ukraine, Korea and North America. As time went on the cost for the high quality materials and quality we demanded and our customers expected became very costly. Australian merino and rubber also increased in cost significantly from when we had first started. This, along with everyones margins between cost and retail was making it unviable. For the 5 years we ran the business we made a living in terms of paying for our expenses but there came a time I had to face the reality that the business due to margins was not going to be as profitable as we hoped.
In that last year of business I was stressed and worried a lot because deep down i knew it wasn’t going to work. It was difficult to face reality and also face that i hadn’t succeeded the way i had hoped. I was also concernedhow we as a family were going to survive because both my husband and i had been working together and had nothing to fall back on. I also now had two children.
I had learned so much from over the years in advertising, branding, product design and manufacturingthat i didn't want to throw away my skills so secretly I started to think what i could do next. Before I admitted defeat and officially closed the business we were running I felt the need to have something else to ease the pain of being unsuccessful in that venture. I had thought of a number of boxes that this new business idea had to tick. Number one, I had to manufacture here in Australia so i could be completely in control, no more being at the whim if manufactures in overseas, high MOQs and time it took to make and ship product to turn around customer orders. I didn’t want to work with a product that was season specific again like fashion, once the season the design was considered last season. I wanted it to be something that could be sold all year round and didn't have to go on sale.
I have always loved interior design and I could see the trend towards copper up and coming. I also love coconuts and anything made from it. I often burned candles in my home and the idea came to mind todesign a candle that really considered it all from scent, functionality, the environment and the vessel being something you would genuinely repurpose. I wanted to create a home fragrance brand the had a strong point of difference in what is a competitive market. I knew from my background in advertising that having unique selling proposition and strong brand aesthetic was paramount in being successful. I had a vision of the brand in my mind and was confident that I could pull it off and create a strong aesthetic that would stand out and have the potential to compete in the global home fragrance space. Cocolux was born. ‘Coco’ referring to Coconut and ‘Lux’ latin for light. A year was spent learning the art of candle making and working with fragrance. During this time I worked on creating the website which i built myself, designing the packaging and sourcing suppliers for the vessels. I had a number of people who whilst support me now didn’t believe in my idea and that i could make a business out of candles. They said there are so many on the market how are you going to be any different. I had to block out these voices and pursue what I had in my mind. Its hard because at the same time i did worry about what if it didn’t work out and the whole “I told you so” from those that voiced their concerns.
Because this was my second attempt at a brand and I had a family to consider I was conscious to launch Cocolux with very little financial investment and risk. So I used my own skills and home garage to get the business up and running. Aside from the basic materials to make the product, coconut wax, fragrance, packaging and the vessels everything else we did ourselves. Branding, website, preparing vessels, pouring, packing, shipping, sales and accounts. After launching the website and having an online presence I started to approach stockists that I loved and thought might like our product, we had an amazing response from the stockists saying they loved the brand and placed orders and from there we grew with the help of the global exposure Instagram gives you. My husband could see me swamped with the invoicing and took over the accounts to relieve me and allow me to focus on sales and building our stockists. He now handles all the financial and logistical side of the business. Things got off to a great start and within the first 3 months Australian fashion brand Aje asked us to design a collaborative candle and scent for their Vihara collection. We had a thousand of our copper candles lining their runway show at Mercedes Benz fashion week in Sydney. We had some press exposure in the UK and in the sixth month of launching we had two different buyers from world famous department store Selfridges email as wanting to stock Cocolux. At that time we were shipping (to them) from our garage and we couldn’t believe our luck knowing how hard it is to get your product in front of buyers of such a prestigious department store let alone having them track you down. Now only a year and a half in we have more than 300 stockists globally and Cocolux candles can be found around the globe including recently launching in luxury fashion department store Boutique 1 in the UAE & London. Our garage is freed up so we can park our cars and we now have a proper manufacturing warehouse and a really awesome team that i couldn’t do without. There are also several amazing things in the pipe line for us this year that we are very excited about and that will stand out as great achievements for the brand.
I think it is really important people can explain their main message in a concise paragraph – if the above is the full version - What is you elevator pitch on what you do? Cocolux Australia is a niche luxury lifestyle home fragrance brand aimed at the high level consumer market with a strong focus on nature inspired materials. Cocolux candles are hand crafted using earth-friendly coconut wax, high quality fragrance and hand poured into vessels that are derived from natures pure brass, copper & onyx. In little over a year Cocolux has secured more than 300 stockists globally across Australia, New Zealand, Europe, UAE, Taiwan the USA and the UK. Within 6 months of Cocolux’s conception we were picked up by world famous department store Selfridges and more recently luxury fashion department retailer Boutique 1. We have attracted several high profile collaborations including with fashion label Aje, Luxury lodge of Australia Pretty Beach House, New Zealand and Bali day spa chain Spring Spa and have partnered with Luxe Houses Australia.
Are you doing what you thought you would be doing 10 years ago? (If not, what did you think you would be doing?) Yes, in terms of running my own business and being an entrepreneur and No, I didn’t know it would specifically be in the area of home fragrance.
I have always had a passion for creating new things, and an entrepreneurial spirit. It amazes me how concepts that start out as a rough sketch on paper can turn into timeless pieces that people love enough to take into their own home. So yes in the sense that i have always known that i wanted to forge a place in the fashion or homewares industry, but in terms of fragrance, I would have never guessed!
What does ‘success’ mean to you, and do you consider yourself ‘successful’? Both yes and no.
My vision and plans for Cocolux are far from reached, there is a long road ahead and no doubt many roadblocks and obstacles to overcome. Cocolux is still so young, only a year and half old. We haven’t even scraped the surface in terms of what we can achieve both in terms of growth and product development.
I do however feel we have successfully given birth to a business and brand that has the potential to achieve even greater things.
To me personally success doesn't mean reaching a point where you are happy and content, I think success is more a way of approaching business where you are constantly striving for new heights and slowly but surely conquering your long term goals.
What do you still want to achieve (personally & / or professionally) Professionally I would like to see Cocolux Australia as a leading global luxury home fragrance brandand establish a strong retail portfolio globally. In regards to long term achievements I would love to see us open flagship Cocolux Australia boutiques in major cities around the globe.
Personally I would like to be able to achieve a good work life balance to ensure I have time to see my girls grow up and be there for them and to share in their experiences.
Did you study anything specific for the career you are in? I studied graphic design at Encore design centre in Sydney although dropped out and half way through and completed Fairfax advertising award school. I also dropped out of high school in year twelve so study is not my forte. I love to jump in the deep end and feed off life’s experiences.
What have been the most rewarding things in your career to date? One of my high points is definitely Cocolux being picked up by Selfridges within six months of launching. It was an incredible feeling when in the same week two different homewares buyers from Selfridges emailed us asking to stock our brand not knowing that the other had made contact. At the time we were still just finding our feet and own style in the industry. It was an incredible opportunity for us and gave us the confidence boost we needed to keep thriving.
Another great moment was being asked by Australian fashion brand Aje to collaborate with them for their Vihara collection and having 1000 of our candles on the runway for Mercedes Benz Fashion week. It was so rewarding seeing our candles create such a dynamic atmosphere.
Tell us about your workspace (Office / café / couch / aesthetic) what inspires you about your workspace? Our workspace is mostly a functional factory. We manufacture, pour, label, package and ship our candles from our factory based on the central coast of NSW. The majority of space is used for manufacturing such as storage of raw materials, a temperature controlled room for pouring our candles, a packing and finished product area, dispatch area and an office for our creative and accounts work. The office is white and minimalist with floor to ceiling glass windows. I am an apple girl so we only work from macs, no PC’s allowed.
Its a must to have something green in our office and at the moment we have white orchids and large golden cane palm to bring life to our space. The best part however is the mix of scents that embraces the factory at all times, it always smells amazing when you walk through the door!
What are some frustrations you have experiences on your career journey Frustrations are people who see challenges as impenetrable barriers and allow their own limitations to hold them back. Time and time again throughout my career I have been told by people close to me or by suppliers i work with that you can’t do that, that wont work. Often suppliers say they can’t do something because its just easier for them. To achieve something special that is not the stock standard requires more work and inevitably its going be a challenge. Expect it to be trial and error but if you persist, when you reach the desired result its extremely rewarding and what you have created will be something that is unique and special.
When was the last time you where overwhelmed & cried from something provoked by work / work load? Honestly, my husband. We work so closely that its hard not to clash sometimes. He is incredible and manages the financial side of the business however when we have different ideas about creative things sometimes tensions run high and i can get overwhelmed or emotional. However saying that i am so thankful that i get to share this experience with my husband every day. We really are a team!
Would you say you put pressure on yourself? Has this gotten more or less as you progress in your career? Daily I put pressure on myself, I am a perfectionist and in my eyes there is always something that can be improved. Being a perfectionist is a trait that is an asset and also my own worst enemy. An asset as in it drives me to constantly evolve and improve on something, however on the other hand leaves me feeling unsatisfied in cases or disappointed in myself if something has turned out how our envisaged it.
If you are a business owner – and you often can’t just check out / have a week off when you are dealing with personal things – how do you keep on keeping on with your business when things get tough?
It is definitely something i struggle with. I find myself running into the office on the weekends to fix something up, and even when I'm spending time with my family i can often realise my mind is analysing something that has happened at work. I definitely haven't figured out exactly how to balance work and ‘life’ but i am the sort of person who is naturally driven. I like to throw myself into work when I'm stressed, so i guess I’m lucky in that way.
Has your career affected your personal life / relationships? If so how? I definitely have had to sacrifice some things in my life such as spending as as much as i would like with my children watching them grow, and i have to constantly keep myself in check that i am taking the time to remove myself from work.
However its not all sacrifice. My husband and i have learnt how to be the ultimate ‘team’ and balance school drop offs, kids activities with work. I like to think that we are teaching our girls that with enough commitment and passion you can achieve anything you set your mind to.
Has your journey at times felt lonely? How? I am really lucky that i have always been surrounded by friends and family this entire journey. Of course sometimes you doubt yourself and feel like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders, however during all the stress and sleepless nights I have never felt isolated or lonely. I feel incredibly blessed and grateful for the support system i have around me in my life.
What causes you anxiety / sleepless nights? Business comes with ups and downs, one minute you can be on top of the world and the next worried if you are going to succeed. This can be from as little as one week to another with the highs and lows of great things that happen. This ranges from trouble shooting issues to worrying about how you are going to financially manage everything. With the responsibility of overheads and staff and the pressure i put on myself to remain innovative and ahead of the game there are undoubtably times its overwhelming. At the beginning you have to wear many hats with the business and train yourself to know each and every job that makes your company tick and as things grow you grow your team to relive that pressure, but with that comes the financial element.
If you had your time over again, from when you started your career to right now, would you do anything differently? Perhaps pull my finger out earlier in my twenties to pursue my own venture!
What advice would you give your 21 year old self? I know that there is a lot of encouraging and inspirational things that i could say here, but I don't think there is anything i could say to my 21 year old self that would change her mind. I am strong willed and ambitious and the experiences i went through getting to this point in my life are what have shaped me into the person i am today. It is the moments of despair, or failure, or rejection that let us really appreciate the highs in life. So I guess I would say to 21 year old me to keep persevering, you will get there eventually!
Who are some women in business you admire & why? And I think the women i admire the most in business are the ones i have never heard of. All the women out there like me, who have worked hard to build a business from the ground up. They may not be where they want yet, or there dream may not be working out the way they planned, but it is their persistence and
passion that inspires me to work harder every day.
For every success story in business there are so many that didn't work out. Sometimes you can do everything right and that still isn't enough. But watching women pick themselves back up and keep following their dreams is, to me, incredibly inspiring. I have so much admiration and respect for women in all industries who are overcoming hurdles and sacrificing, innovating and taking risks in order to build a business and legacy.
What traits do you admire in people you surround yourself with? Positivity and passion. Definitely passion. People who are passionate about what they do are what inspires me to persevere and see the importance of truely believing in yourself and your ability.
And I think it is really important to surround yourself with people who are happy for you. When something good happens in my life I don't want people who are jealous or negative around me. I want to celebrate my achievements with other people who are genuinely happy for me. Those are the same people who lift me up when things go wrong or when i am feeling disappointed. Positivity really is infectious! I like to think that you get back from people what you give.
Work life balance… Does it exist (I don’t think it does!) and how to maintain it, or a sense of it? For me it doesn't exist or otherwise i haven’t been able to find it. No matter how hard I try I am never able to fulfil work, family and life in the way I wish I could. Its non-stop with a business, husband, two kids and pressure of making everyone happy (including myself). Having kids and giving them the attention and time they deserve is difficult and has been sacrificed to an extent given i am running a business. Because I am not there during the daytime, the evenings when I get home from work is when I spend my time with them helping with homework, reading and hanging out.
Have you ever thought about giving up / quitting? If so, does that feeling hit from the same triggers? Why haven’t you quit? As with all businesses there are moments where i stop and think to myself‘why am i doing this?’ When you put your heart and soul into a product its hard not to feel disappointed or helpless when things go wrong. But that is part of business. If i ever feel like giving up i think about how far we have come from making candles in our garage at home to having an incredible presence on the world stage, with a dedicated team who care about the product and the brand. We have created something really special here, and remembering all the moments of joy and happiness that comes from reaching little goals that we have set is more then enough to remind my why i do this everyday.
What is the biggest misconception about what you do? I think the biggest misconception is in relation to our product itself. Sometimes people look at candles and think that its just some wax and scent in a nice vessel. But it is so much more than that. We are constantly hitting barriers with our product and have to think on our feet to come to a quick solution. Its the little things that you don't even think about… If its too hot or tipped on its side there are issues with the wax’s melting point, however when its too cold wax contracts and other issues arise. From the lacquering of our vessels to the percentage of scent to wax, all the way down to making sure our packaging is perfect, there is constantly unexpected hurdles that we have to face… it is so much more than just wax in a vessel!
What advice would you give someone who is starting out in your industry? Develop a strong brand vision and aesthetic, know who you want to be and where you sit in the market from the beginning and stay true to that. Don't try to please everyone, it impossible. Keep things simple when starting out, and do what you decide on well. Be optimistic, whilst you need to listen to what people around you have to stay, you need to distinguish between what you take on board and what to put to the side. There will be people who will say ‘that wont work’ or try to hold you back out of fear of failure. If you truly believe in your idea/brand follow your heart and remember it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t succeed because the journey and lessons are so much more rewarding than not having taken the risk.
If you knew what you know now, about how much work was involved to get you to where you are now, would you do it again or do something different, if so, what? I would always do it again, its in my nature and i can’t help being creative and coming up with new ideas. I certainly knew how much work was involved having previous attempts a businesses. Every business/brand positioning is different so its difficultto say i would do something differently.
The journey involves constantly evolving and learning, I am under no illusion that there is an easy way or quick fix. I love the journey and the challenges, thats part of the fun and the knowledge gained is what you take to the next venture or opportunity.
I like the quote ‘Don’t just have a job, have a purpose’ - What do you want your legacy to be? I want my legacy to be my brand. I hope for Cocolux Australia to live long after me. I look at brands i admire that have been passed down though generations and become renowned in their industry. I want us to stay true to our Australian roots and forge our place in the home fragrance market. Cocolux Australia is bigger than just myself or our team, it is a name that i want to become a household name that is timeless and constantly evolving.
The SAMANTHA WILLS FOUNDATION is about bringing women in business together – why do you think this is important / (why did you want to be involved in this interview)? As one of three girls our father has always inspired us to think outside the box. There are definitely still barriers to women in the industry and I think the best way to overcome this is by supporting other women. Having somewhere to look to and derive inspiration is really important. I think the Samantha Wills foundation creates a space for women that is entirely new and exciting. A network that women can look to for inspiration is something that so many women can benefit from and i am so honoured and excited to be a part of it.
What are some of your favorite quotes?