When it comes to business success stories, inspiration strikes in many ways. For MALO founder Sonya Khouri, that lightning-bolt moment arrived in the form of, well, a very shitty situation. And yes, of course I do mean that literally…
“I’ll never forget having a mini meltdown in the middle of a busy department store”, she recalls of the brand’s genesis. “Here I was juggling a dirty nappy, the pram and my handbag, while my hand was covered in sticky nappy rash cream. I just looked at that gross tub of nappy rash cream thinking to myself ‘did I double-dip in that thing and contaminate the pot?’…Fast forward two years, and I had made it my mission to turn nappy cream into a natural liquid spray.”
The brand’s name comes from the Slavic word meaning ‘little’, and is a term of endearment for a baby or small child. It’s also the nickname Sonya and her husband call their son, MALO’s original inspiration.
“When I first launched I never expected anyone other than family or friends to actually buy the product. So on the eve of our launch, when my phone pinged at 11pm with an order from our first real customer, I thought, ‘oh gosh, this is really happening!’ It was so exciting but also super daunting. Their original product is the no-rinse Baby Bottom Spray, which helps protect and clean little bums at each nappy change. Simply spray on, or – as Sonya discovered by happy accident – use to create an instant wet-wipe with tissue, cloth or toilet paper.
The Baby Bottom Crème is a soothing treatment dispensed via a hygienic airless pump which releases just the right amount in each pump to keep fingers clean and ensure no contamination of the jar.
Baby bottoms aside, MALO is even more versatile than Sonya had imagined. “One of my customers keeps it on her nightstand and uses it for her face every night before bed”, she tells us. “She doesn’t even have children!”
We speak to the mastermind behind MALO about trading her high-stakes corporate career for a passionate side-hustle. The ride hasn’t been quite as smooth as a baby’s bottom, but it’s been well worth the (baby) bumps…
What was your work background prior to launching MALO? Did you have product development experience?
My career started in investment banking and I was exceptionally driven. In my mid-twenties I was working internationally leading the ASIAPAC strategy for an investment firm. By my late twenties I was an Executive Manager for a large Australian Bank, and by age 31 they had asked me to act in the CCO role (Chief Customer Officer) for a new division.
It was everything I had been striving towards since university. I was at the pinnacle of my career, and now leading the launch of a new product to market. I was a young female in a heavily male dominated industry, breaking stereotypes and sitting on a leadership team. Reputation meant everything to me, so I worked harder and strived higher to prove that I was the right person for the job. And yet I second-guessed every decision I made.
Tell me about the moment you decided to go for it and make these products yourself. Was that a scary prospect?
I’ll never forget having a mini meltdown in the middle of a busy department store. I needed to change my baby’s dirty nappy and there was no restroom in sight. He was 4 months old, and had bad diarrhoea and nappy rash. We had been travelling abroad for 2 weeks, so it was a stressful first trip with baby.
Here I was juggling a dirty nappy, the pram and my handbag, while my hand was covered in sticky nappy rash cream. I just looked at that gross tub of nappy rash cream thinking to myself “did I double-dip in that thing and contaminate the pot?” Not wanting to chance putting that on my baby’s bottom, I threw out the tub and was left figuring out how to clean my fingers and attend to my baby.
Turns out, this would be the start of a constant battle at nappy change. Whether changing the nappy in our car boot or in the middle of a busy restaurant, each time was the same – a messy hand covered in nappy rash cream, and wrestling with my baby to put on the diaper.
Fast forward two years, and I had made it my mission to turn nappy cream into a natural liquid spray. I’d derived so much inspiration from our frequent trips to the US. The chemist shelves there were full of different baby products, and unlike anything I’d seen in Australia so the ideas started flowing.
Was it daunting? Absolutely! The fear of failure constantly weighed heavy on me. I had no prior experience in the baby industry, and didn’t even know where to start. I mean, if you’d told me 10 years ago that I would one day quit my corporate job and launch my own baby product, I would’ve thought it was crazy!
Where do you start when launching a business? Did you outsource much?
In the beginning one of the biggest mistakes I made was not scaling back and focusing on the core reason ‘why’ I wanted to do this. I started developing a whole range of baby skincare products, and it made me really confused, stressed and unhappy.
One morning I was in bed asking myself ‘why am I doing this?’ Then it hit me. I had lost sight of my original vision, which was to simply solve nappy change and messy fingers.
So I sat down that day with a big notepad and started breaking it down into a mind-map, covering ‘why, what, how’. I had once seen this method in a TED talk by Simon Sinek, and it stuck with me throughout my corporate career.
Eventually I took the plunge and reached out to an Australian skincare manufacturer with over 30 years experience. I thought it would be as simple as “here’s my idea, let’s make it happen”. How wrong I was!
There was a lot of trial and error, and many failed formulations. After almost two years and just when I had given up, we had returned from an overseas trip to find Formula Sample N784 sitting in the letterbox. I thought, “oh, here we go again…” but I gave it a try and it worked! I couldn’t believe it, but it was perfect!
I also remember taking on everything myself in the beginning. I finally had a formula, and needed packaging, labels and a website. So I started searching for everything myself. It was the worst decision I made. I should have definitely outsourced these tasks and focused on my core strengths. It chewed up a lot of time and was an extremely costly exercise.
What's your career mantra ?
True leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders. I have always loved this quote because many great leaders have inspired me during my career, which has led me to where I am today. And if I have the opportunity to inspire others, then for me, there is no greater measure of success.
I also love how transient this saying is across personal life. As a mother, the success of my child, in happiness and whatever he chooses, means I have done my job.
Tell me about your experience of the newborn phase...
It was both exhilarating and terrifying. I couldn’t believe I could love so hard and so fast. I was fiercely protective, but I also had so many worries and put a lot of pressure on myself to do everything right, like breastfeeding. I’d had such high hopes that it would come naturally, and even when it was painful, I pushed through because I was so determined to make it work. I mean, I had given birth to a 9 pound baby! He was constantly hungry, and I was constantly judging myself on whether I had enough milk to sustain him.
We also travelled abroad a lot with our son from when he was 4 months old. At the time it was daunting, but my husband and I quickly became a strong team when it came to parenting and dealing with the new challenge of caring for a small baby in a foreign country. We were both in it together, and troubleshooting through feeding schedules and sightseeing.
What's been the most challenging thing about being a mother?
Always questioning what I am doing, and second-guessing every decision I make. I have never been more critical of myself than when it comes to making life choices that now impact a little human.
I mean, all I do is worry “will he remember this when he’s older? And will it change who he is?”
And the best?
Watching a human grow in front of my eyes. I am just in awe at how my son has developed, from his first laugh to his first steps, to starting preschool this year. It is incredible to think that we created this person, that he came from my body and now he has a little personality of his own. It blows my mind to think that we are over here raising the future generation of our world.
What are your dreams for the future of MALO?
I hope to be in the nappy bag of every mum across Australia, and one day the world.
I am very committed to remaining Australian made, and supporting our local workforce.
Our long-term goal is to start a foundation that works with mothers and focuses on socio-economic issues. I really want MALO to be part of something bigger, that gives back. This is also a personal goal of mine, and while we are not there just yet, it is something I am extremely passionate about.
MALO is natural, vegan, cruelty free, made in Australia - were these all non-negotiables for you when you dreamed the brand up?
Absolutely. Becoming a mother really changed the way I was previously so nonchalant about ingredients and environmental issues. I really started to take an active interest in what I was putting on my baby’s skin, and what I was putting in my own body.
Natural, Vegan and Australian Made remains the core of MALO’s values. I was so passionate particularly about remaining natural, that I spent countless hours researching the benefits of different ingredients that would work together to both soothe and protect little skins. Like our hero ingredient Kakadu Plum, native to Australia has the highest source of Vit C in the world. It is extremely beneficial in soothing and healing irritated skin.
What's the most surprising thing you've used the spray for?
I actually get a lot of emails from customers using it for everything from dermatitis to dry skin. One of my customers keeps it on her nightstand and uses it for her face every night before bed. She doesn’t even have children!
For me (when I developed it) the goal was always to address parent’s messy fingers at nappy change. By the time it officially launched we were already toilet training. I remember the day we ran out of wet-wipes. It was during the height of coronavirus, and I was dealing with a messy little bum after toilet training. Needless to say, the dry toilet paper wasn’t cutting it. I thought, let me try the spray on some toilet paper, and there it was! I had made an instant wet-wipe.
Since then, I have never bought wet-wipes or flushable wipes again. We have a spray in both bathrooms and one is always in my bag. And we use it for everything from cleaning little one’s bum at toilet time, to wiping clean hands.
I notice you're sold out of many of your products - how has the response been to MALO?
When I first launched I never expected anyone other than family or friends to actually buy the product. So on the eve of our launch, when my phone pinged at 11pm with an order from our first real customer, I thought, “oh gosh, this is really happening!” It was so exciting but also super daunting.
Since then we have received such an overwhelmingly positive response from our wonderful customers and stockists. We don’t advertise, and our only presence has been via Instagram and word of mouth.
It has truly warmed my heart to know we have helped hundreds of Aussie mums who are looking for a modern solution to nappy change with #nomessyfingers