We recently got a chance to sit down and talk to Azlan and Aina, a vegan couple to share their journey and experience on how they started their vegan ice cream business.
What inspired the both of you to start Kelava?
Azlan: I was from an accounting and finance background, I left because I’ve always wanted to start something of my own but just didn’t know what. Then we noticed that the vegan community in Malaysia is still relatively small and there aren’t many vegan options in the market currently, let alone ice cream. So, we thought why not start our very own vegan ice cream business.
Aina: There weren’t many places that sell vegan ice cream, so with the influence of our vegan lifestyle, we decided to start this ‘passion project’. Thus, we launched Kelava in August of 2017
How difficult is it to start an ice cream business, let alone a vegan ice cream business?
Aina: It was pretty difficult for us as neither of us had any F&B background. We are not really great cooks ourselves either, so there was a lot experimenting and research done to get to where we are now, especially when it comes to creating the right formula.
Azlan: Because we make the ice cream ourselves, we needed to do a lot of research to obtain our desired texture and consistency. We started off taking recipes online and try to find out what typically goes into making a plant-based ice cream. There was a lot of trial and error, because what you see on the internet is not what you’ll get. We had to tweak the recipes several times till we finally got what we wanted.
Aina: I think the main thing we needed to get right was the texture and consistency. Because we don’t use dairy products such as milk, cream, or even eggs, thus it’s harder for us to achieve that creamy texture of a regular ice cream.
Besides that, we also did a lot of market research on the vegan community. Other countries like Singapore and Australia is more developed, so there were more options and choices for consumers. We learn that they used produce such as soy milk and almond milk instead of regular milk. However, this makes the ice cream slightly lighter in terms of texture. We decided on using coconut milk as our diary substitute because it gave us the texture we were looking for.
Azlan: That’s why our name is Kelava. The name Kelava is derived from the word ‘kelapa’ (coconut in Malay) and love.
Aina: A lot of people don’t even care if the ice cream is vegan or non-vegan, they just want good ice cream. There are times when they tried our ice cream and didn’t even realize it was vegan. Because our ice cream mimics the taste and texture of a normal ice cream, unless they don’t like coconut. (Laughs.) We made sure the flavours we offer blends well with the coconut base such as our ‘salted gula melaka’ flavour.
How long was the research process like and did you have to invest money into it?
Azlan: We spent roughly 3 months experimenting with the formula. At first, all we got was blocks and blocks of ice. (Laughs.) Once we got the formula down, we had to convince our family on our business. We were quite convinced that people who are lactose intolerant would enjoy our non-dairy ice cream alternative.
After coming up with a sell-able recipe we moved on to do our market research, as well as creating a business plan. Our research wasn’t as thorough as I would have wanted it to be simply because we didn’t have access to a lot of data. Since I was from an accounting background, I managed to come up with a budgeting plan. But there were still a lot of assumptions to be made. We also came up with a competitor analysis and how we were going to sell our product.
Finally, we decided to just launch it. Because we felt that the important thing was to just launch it first and then adapt to changes as we go. As for investment, we wanted to keep our cost as lean as possible, we didn’t want to spend money that wouldn’t add value to our business unnecessarily.
Currently how big is your team?
Azlan: It’s still a two man show for now. (Laughs.) We didn’t want to expand the team mainly because every time we considered hiring someone, we would ask ourselves, ‘Can the both of us handle this’?
Aina: I think we will only hire if we’re really swamped. We are a very lean start-up and every single penny counts because this is all from our savings.
Azlan: There were times where we had to stay over due to overlapping events. We had to stay up all night because we needed to make more ice cream. We do everything ourselves. We even stand at the booth to scoop the ice cream for the customers ourselves.
Aina: Our product is special in a way because there was a lot of effort and man hours put into it.
How do you see Kelava growing?
Azlan: We think that if we really put our business out there we definitely can grow. We do have some reserves to make things happen on a bigger scale. But we wanted to start small and evaluate if this business can sustain itself. We are getting more convinced and we do plan on taking Kelava to the next level.
What are some aspects customers looking from the outside-in wouldn’t know about the ice cream industry?
Azlan: How competitive the ice cream industry can be. Since the barriers to entry are relatively low, there are so many ice cream brands in the market currently, making it difficult to set yourself apart form others. In terms of retail, there are a lot of imported brands out there, especially at places like Bangsar, Mont Kiara where there are a lot of expatriates and it’s hard to compete with those existing brands.
Aina: We’re not planning on opening outlets, we still want to remain as a ice cream brand that people have at home. Right now, we’re still an ice cream delivery business. But ultimately, we want to venture into supermarkets. Many have asked aside from our website where else can they get our ice cream? That’s why we decided on going into supermarkets where they can easily shop for our ice cream.
Do you see other regular ice cream parlours as your competitors?
Aina: Yes. They noticed that the vegan community is on the rise. To be honest, anyone in the ice cream community can easily be our competitor.
Azlan: The thing is, these businesses are already in the ice cream community for a while, so venturing into a different product line like vegan ice cream would be easier for them. It’s difficult to compete with these bigger players because they would already have the facility, knowledge and expertise compared to us.
With that being said, what were some of the most difficult challenges you had to face?
Azlan: We had a period of time where sales were pretty low. Especially, when we first started.
Aina: It’s not that we don’t believe in our product. I think the reason behind the low sales at the beginning was because there weren’t many people out there who knew about us. We needed to do more marketing, instead of waiting for people to approach us. We should be going out there, looking for opportunities. So now we’re constantly getting ourselves out there by approaching businesses and events. But of course, we have to pick and choose our events carefully as we’re sill a two man show. Our main priority is to get people to know our brand, regardless of the volume of sale. We even manage to create partnerships with several café’s as well.
Azlan: We figured that the more we engage on social media the better reactions we will get. We have to spend more effort into crafting our social media platforms. Currently, we mainly focus on Instagram because most of our target market (foodies) are located there. We didn’t use Facebook too much because its harder to get engagements there.
Can you describe how does the café partnership work?
Aina: Our ice cream is now being sold in several café’s/restaurants, for example Sala. Sala is a vegan restaurant in Sri Hartamas. Most people have our ice creams there when they want to get it instantly. How this works is that Sala will buy our ice cream in ‘cups’ and they would serve it on its own or in conjunction with their desserts. We provide the option of selling them in ‘cups’ or 2 litre tubs. We then give them a recommended price because we don’t want out prices to vary far from our events as this will affect the end user.
What’s the process of making and delivering the ice cream like?
Azlan: If I start in the morning, the first step is assembling all the ingredients together to make the base. This may take roughly half an hour to an hour depending on the quantity I’m making. The next step is chilling it, you need to let it set before you can put it into the machine. The chilling process might take up to 3 hours. I’ll let it chill at room temperature for about an hour, and then I’ll put it into the fridge for the next two. Once the mix has cooled down I’ll put it into the machine to make the ice cream. The process also depends on the flavor, whether we to need add in things like chocolate chips, Oreos, cookie dough, etc.
Then we’ll move on to the packaging process. It can be quite tedious because we do everything ourselves. Especially when you’re working with ice cream, you don’t want to leave it out in the open for too long because it’ll melt, and it might damage the quality of the ice cream. The last step is freezing the ice cream, and then we send them out for delivery.
Aina: So, when the mix is chilling, which takes roughly 3 hours, that’s the window where we do our delivery. We usually plan what we have to do a day before because when orders start coming in we need to see how much ice cream we have to make. The more the orders we get, the bigger the batch we have to make.
Azlan: We even have to plan our delivery trips. We plan our route in an efficient way that maximizes our time and petrol. We bought a portable freezer to ensure our ice cream quality does not deteriorate during the delivery trip. Our portable freezer can go as low as -18 degrees, to that the ice cream will still be at its best quality.
What is the next step for Kelava in terms of growth?
Azlan: We’ve already spoken to some supermarkets and we’re trying to measure the nutritional facts of our ice cream. Because there are certain packaging requirements for supermarkets to label all the nutritional facts on the product.
Aina: We might have to hire some promoters to sell our ice cream. Or perhaps we can even do it ourselves. (Laughs.) Because who knows our ice cream better than ourselves right?
What are some of the qualities that entrepreneurs need if they want to succeed in this field?
Azlan: I know it’s quite clichéd to say this but, I think you need to be physically and mentally healthy. Because when you start your own business, there are a lot of things you need to do, and you’ll need a lot of energy to do so. You’ll be spending a lot of time and energy curating your business and you can’t afford to get sick all the time. So, eat healthy, get enough sleep and exercise. Another thing is, you need to believe in your product and have the passion for it. There were times that we felt like giving up but we pulled through because we believed in Kelava.
Aina: Yeah. Even though I have a full-time job, I don’t mind spending time doing this late nights and on weekends because this is my passion. Besides that, I think surrounding yourself with people who are supportive is really important too. We are quite lucky to have each other as partners. Having a strong partnership really helped.
What are some parting words of advice for people who want to start their own business?
Azlan: I’ve met a lot of people with big ideas, but they are stuck at that stage and they don’t know how to move forward from it. I think my advice is to figure out how you’re going to start your business. Having a solid plan is good. But sometimes things don’t always go according to plan. There are externalities that are beyond your control and eventually you’ll have to just adapt to it. So, start first and gather as much information as possible. With the information you gathered, learn to adapt and respond to it with the best interest of your business.
Aina: It’s a constant learning curve. You won’t know how things will work out before you start. You just have to start, and work around it, and make it happen. When you talk about a dream, it always seems ‘perfect’, you’ll never see the struggle behind it. There’s always going to be mistakes and failures, but don’t let them get to you. Take everything as a learning curve. Be passionate towards what you do, that will really drive your business.
Azlan: We may be a two man show, but a lot of our strength came from the support of our family and friends. Without them we wouldn’t be here too.
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