Maha Koraiem, 39, had a corporate career in Human Resources for 15 years before getting roped into launching health and lifestyle blog, Swiish.com with sister, Sally Obermeder. Maha chatted to us about writing a best-selling book, changing for photo shoots on the street, and why she decided to make the career jump.
After school I studied Psychology at University. At the time, my sister Sally was working in recruitment and I think she got quite sick of seeing me get up at midday and sometimes roll to class and sometimes not. One day she said to me, “Don’t you want to get some experience in the real world and get some part time work in a field that you might be interested in?” So with her guidance I went for a few different jobs and ended up falling into human resources.
My first job was at Bankers Trust in recruitment and then I moved into Investment Banking and Human Resources at JPMorgan. I worked there for almost 12 years where I grew into a senior role as head of HR, before moving to ANZ bank – All up, I had 15 years in HR.
I had always known in the back of my mind that I wanted to own my own business and I wanted to do something quite creative. But I knew there was nothing wrong with what I was doing; it was relatively stable, I had a good salary and I enjoyed the people aspects and the business aspect. When Sally got sick [with breast cancer] it put everything into perspective, and then she called me from the hospital after one of her surgeries and said, “So I was thinking, we should start a business together and I think we should have a blog.” I was like, “Aren’t you meant to be recovering? Are you high on some kind of medication?” But we both thought if not now, then when?!
We started Swiish while I was still working and about six months in was when I made that leap and decided to give it a real go. I ended up leaving my job, starting a HR consulting business on the side for a few years (after all, you have to pay the bills) and then when Swiish got to a stage where I could give up the side HR business, I did. There is honestly not a day that goes by that I am not thankful for making the decision to take that leap and just give it go.
It’s always quite terrifying to make a career jump, because the first thing that comes into your mind is ‘what if it doesn’t work out, then what?’ It’s very easy to think of all the things that can go wrong, particularly when, you know, had I ever been a blogger before? No. Had I ever had a business before? No. To me, the push was getting over myself. What is the worst that could happen? I would need to go back to HR – is that so terrible? No. Will I be proud of myself for having given it a go? Of course!
We had started the passion for making green smoothies when Sally was in her recovery, and I guess as all good sisters do, you end up getting roped into doing things. She was like, “Here, drink this green thing that I’m having,” and I was like, “Eww, that looks so gross.” I tried it and it was delicious. We ended up making recipes and giving it to each other to try. Then every time we were drinking smoothies people would ask, “What is that?”, and we would scribble down recipes on sticky notes. That made us think, why don’t we actually put this into a book? And that’s where that came from. It also fuelled a desire to have a better understanding of nutrition – I’m a bit of a nerd so I like to have the textbook understanding of what it is I’m doing so I decided to do some extra studies in nutrition.
It was such a surprise when Super Green Smoothies hit number one, because although we knew we loved them and we loved drinking them and creating different flavours, we didn’t expect that it would be embraced the way that it was. When we first had the idea for the book we approached a couple of publishers, both of whom said, “There’s no way that would be popular – green smoothies are just a fad and they will be over in a minute.” There was a lot of rejection so we ended up self-publishing first; we created an eBook, put it on Amazon and iTunes and it went to number one on iTunes within the first couple of days. We doubled the amount of recipes and brought it out in paperback through Allen and Unwin about 6 months after it came out as an eBook.
It’s really not easy to fit it all in. When I worked in HR we used to spend a crazy amount of time talking to employees about how to get work/life balance, and when I reflect on that I think, there’s no such thing; some days you feel like you’re nailing it, and some days it just doesn’t happen. If I’m focusing on one thing, I will give that my attention and try and give it my all and then move onto the next thing. But in our business there’s so many different arms but at the end of the day it’s books and it’s clothes and that’s supposed to be fun.
It would be incorrect of me to say it isn’t a lot of hard work and sacrifice because it definitely has been and certainly in those earlier years of setting up a business there are those 1,2 and 3am nights. We used to sit on the floor in Sally’s lounge room and teach ourselves how to use Photoshop to crop images to fit into the blog post – everything we were doing we were kind of learning from scratch. When I left HR I was thinking, ‘oh yeah, I will be one of those bloggers that sits in a café and taps away at their laptop, has a few lattes and gets to go to a lot of glamourous events. I guess the reality is it’s nothing like that. You can be very creative but there is so much hard work. It’s hard to do it all so you do what you can, with what you have, in the time that you’ve got. You just don’t really beat yourself up and just try to make sure that you prioritise other stuff that’s just as important like spending time with family.
You lose a few friendships because people don’t understand that you don’t have much time and that’s unfortunate, but that’s one of the sacrifices. There’s been things that I have had to say no to because I’m working or I’m doing stocktake. And the other is money, because the pay check takes a long time – it can take years and years to get paid and that’s why I think you need to have the passion for what you are doing. Not having a pay check come in every week the way I did when I had a corporate job has been really hard. And any money that the business makes typically goes back into the business.
My biggest achievement to date is this business – without a doubt, but it’s very hard to pinpoint one particular aspect of it. I was saying to Sally just a few days ago that we should be so proud of ourselves. You don’t often take the time to think about it because you are just trying to do your work but, for two people who had never had a business, had never had a blog, had never had a store, had never developed products, I’m just so proud. I think without a doubt, the business is my biggest achievement.
I encourage students to be willing to start wherever. Be prepared to work hard, to be a nice person to work with and just be willing to do anything. A flexible attitude goes a very long way, a willingness to do whatever; no job is too big or too small – that serves you well. And have fun! Life’s short, don’t forget to have a good time.