© New Zealand Broadcasting School 2021

FRINGE: Venture

Gerrit Gray Doppenberg
IMG 1436
Jon Heslop with some of the merchandise at Shakti's Christchurch warehouse   Gerrit Doppenberg

Success might have spoiled some of Jon Heslop's fun.

The co-founder of New Zealand success story, Shakti Mat, is currently on a photo shoot for Bird Shirts, the company which is the brainchild of his partner Arna McAvoy. He’s invested in the company but is taking a backseat on the shoot, letting McAvoy take the wheel. He simply donates his midsection to show off the merchandise.

He sighs a little bit, reflecting on the last 10 years of his life - the success of Shakti, future endeavours and what it all means in the grand scheme of things.

The 28 year old Christchurch entrepreneur doesn’t look a traditional businessman. He’s wearing a Bird Shirts’ hoodie. A moustache hides a smile, the kind of smile that suggests he knows something you don’t, until you look closer and examine the warmth underneath.

And maybe he does. From growing up on a small farm in Leeston with limited access to the internet, to a rocky road of entrepreneurship that has taken him across the world, he’s spent the time during Covid sitting back and thinking about what it’s all for.

“I think in your twenties you tend to think a good life is committing yourself to a good cause and changing the world.

“But as you get older your world shrinks. I care a lot about my girlfriend and my family and friends. Maybe a good life doesn’t have to be a grand life. Maybe it’s just being a good partner, a good friend, a good son.”

Jon and Arna at the photo shoot
Heslop and McAvoy at the photo shoot Gerrit Doppenberg

Growing up on a small farm, he says he didn’t appreciate what he had until it was gone.

“When you’re a kid, I thought that my mates in the city who could walk to McDonalds had it the best. I felt super deprived.

“But looking back now, the internet wasn’t really a thing in our house. That left a lot more room for imagination and creativity.”

He grew up beside his best friend and co-founder of Shakti, George Lill. They spent a lot of time together, exploring the properties and developing a bond that has stood the test of time. Heslop attended Leeston Primary - which he describes as very wholesome – and Ellesmere College.

Heslop started studying law in Wellington, but after a trip down to Dunedin, he realised what he was missing out on. He says the university experience at Otago needs to be experienced.

Heslop decided to travel during a study break, and quickly grew to love it. After a childhood spent mostly in the confines of Leeston, the experience was life changing.

"I fell in love with travel as a way to live my life. I think it completely challenged and disintegrated this idea that objects were what brought you happiness versus experiences.”

Jon Heslop with Bird Shirt
Jon Heslop wearing a Bird Shirt hoodie Gerrit Doppenberg

At the end of a trip to Thailand, Heslop met up with Lill at a beach that hosted an alternative community. A completely alien experience to what he considered normal life, he fell in love with their lifestyles.

“It was largely comprised of intelligent, capable and driven people who had opted for a life that wasn’t just make as much money as you can and then get fat and buy a porsche. Make as much as you need in order to enjoy the simple and wonderful things in life. Which is like, live on a beach in Thailand for 30 bucks a day.

“We became obsessed with this place and just kept going back. I’ve been there 11 times.”

On that beach in Thailand, Heslop learned two things. One was a vision of a life spent seeking fulfillment and not material gains, and the other was the product that would later become Shakti Mat.

“We met a guy on the beach who raved about this acupuncture mat his friend had invented in Sweden. He got it out for us, and we tried it out. I didn’t get it at the start. There was no foam for a start, but George just had this wow moment that customers are familiar with.”

The pair didn’t think much of it, until the idea of selling the product set in later.

“We mailed the guy and asked if we could have the rights to distribute it in New Zealand. He was like, where’s New Zealand? Yeah, sure.

“He asked how much we wanted, and we ordered 2000 units.”

And Shakti was born.The pair put everything they owned into the business and borrowed $5000 from their parents.

The charity collection at Shakti
The old charity system at Shakti - now done through spreadsheets. Gerrit Doppenberg

There were some early hurdles. The pair were so enthusiastic about launching Shakti that they went to a farmers' market in Riccarton with only two units in the country. At the end of the day, not a single person had shown interest in Shakti. Now, looking back, Heslop finds inspiration in those early struggles.

“The problems are different now. It can feel a lot harder when your decisions have impacts on other people and your decisions suddenly can benefit or harm people. But it’s like hey, if we can sit in a farmers market for eight hours in the heat and still high-five at the end and say this is gonna work, we can do it.”

Heslop spent time in Auckland interning for a top law firmwhile still putting his all into his new business.

“When I moved up to Auckland I was like I don’t want to spend any money on rent. George has already lived at this bird sanctuary, so I set up a tent at the place he stayed at. It was me, this bunch of drifters. I would hang my suit at the centre of the tent, wake up, have a cold shower in the middle of winter. Put on my suit and get a bus to the centre of Auckland.

“I’d go up and work at the law firm until five and stick around and work on Shakti till eight. I’d get home, hang up my suit and go to sleep. I thought it was pretty out the gate aye.”

He laughs at the memory, but he knew quickly that he loved doing Shakti more than law.

“It was such a gear change. It comes down to the purpose thing. I think there’s people at the law firm who have generated purpose for what they’re doing, maybe I didn’t work there long enough. I didn’t have any sense of purpose like I did with Shakti.

Heslop didn’t return to law. Instead he packed up his bags yet again and worked on Shakti in Queenstown with Lill.

“We would work out of a Burger King in Queenstown because our house didn’t have wi-fi.”

Shakti had some initial success, but the growing pains were evident. The decision was made to invest in kiosk in the Westfield Mall in Christchurch over Christmas to try to grow sales. It didn’t. Heslop and Lill were faced with a thirty thousand dollar kiosk that was selling very few mats. Desperate measures were taken - and a boost on a Facebook ad turned the business around.

“We boosted it for $100 and sold 10 times the amount we sold at the mall. We’re like, huh, what happens if we boost it for a thousand? Suddenly we were selling a lot more than we were at the mall just from a click of a button.”

The business took off. Sales were booming. A year later, Shakti had set up shop in Lill’s aunties home, hiring her as an employee and shipping from her home. But one day, the orders started flying in.

“Suddenly it went from her packaging stuff in her living room to having five people packing things in her living room. Her husband and kids were really off it. Like, there’s piles of Shakti mats in their home.”

Shakti mat
A Shakti mat, ready to be sent away. Gerrit Doppenberg

They hired out a youth centre in Christchurch and employed 25 friends to meet growing demand. But the orders were coming in faster than they were able to send them out.

“We were selling product that we didn’t have in our hands. We had to fly the product from Sweden, put the foam in them and mail them out.

“We were sitting in the back of Merivale McDonalds printing out our orders because the internet was better. We were there at midnight, printing, and we had this realisation we couldn’t print the labels faster than the orders were coming in.

“It hit this crux point that we sold 13,000 mats. We realised we weren’t going to get these orders out by Christmas, and it was the first real crushing moment for me.”

But at the final buzzer, a shipment of Shakti mats arrived. A Christmas miracle.

“We turned it around with 25 people in an hour and a half. Got out 99 percent of them before Christmas. It was this huge victory. It cost me like two years of my life.

“It was surreal. Just a surreal moment.”

Heslop and the Shakti team moved their headquarters to Europe, first Portugal and then the Netherlands. There is still a warehouse in Amsterdam in charge of European product. It’s also expanded to have distribution centres in the United Kingdom, while the New Zealand headquarters is based in a warehouse in Christchurch.

Heslop has learnt a lot. He jokes about his limitations in business.

“I’ve learnt that I’m better at starting a company than running it.”

Charity is important to Heslop, and he has spent a lot of time finding the ones with the most beneficial outcomes. His team in Christchurch are given tokens, where every day they can decide a charity to invest in using some of the Shakti mat proceeds - vitamin A tablets, deworming pills, education for the children of employees in India.

Business decisions were easy to make back when Shakti had two employees who were fine to work out of fast-food outlets. Now Heslop is responsible for workers all around the world who depend on him.

“I believe companies have an obligation to the stareholders in the company. Customers, employees. It involves the environment and the rights of society. It’s way harder to balance. It’s easy if you think of a company as a machine designed to make profit. But if a company has 10, 15, a hundred objectives to meet it becomes a much more human endeavour.”

Heslop juggles the human side of Shakti with the business side. He feels the weight of people depending on him.

“You grow up so flipping fast when your decisions have material consequences to real people. You’re banging your head against a wall, you don’t know if you can take it anymore, but you get through it. You have to.”

Maybe he does know something others don’t. Maybe all the late nights and early mornings, the nights spent in a tent, the failures, and the successes of his business have given him an insight that most won’t reach. Heslop’s world might be shrinking, but he’s growing into his responsibilities, one day at a time.