Happy Nomad · Renee & Shaun Phelan

Happy Nomad is an online business selling eco-friendly yoga mats and accessories. Their products are sustainable, and for every mat sold they plant 1 tree in Australia.

October 5, 2022
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Table of contents

  • Happy Nomad
  • Founders - Renee & Shaun Phelan
  • Based in Melbourne
  • Started in 2020
  • 2 founders, 2 employees
  • Annual revenue - $80,000
  • www.happynomad.com.au

Renee, what's your backstory?

I grew up in Brisbane and from a really young age have always been passionate about design and technology inspired by both my parents. My dad studied computer science and is a cartoonist in his spare time whilst my mum taught herself to design and build websites. 

I followed my passion by studying design and technology at uni but I always had a desire to start my own business and this led me to start a web design business while I was at uni where I created websites for small businesses around Australia. I couldn’t believe my luck, I was having fun making websites and learning new skills and people were paying me for it. It was a great little introduction to the world of running my own business which I loved. 

After I graduated and joined a startup as a product designer and stopped creating websites altogether. It wasn’t until my husband Shaun and I wanted to start Happy Nomad about 5 years later that I finally got back into web design. I was able to use all the skills I’d developed and combine them with what I’d learned in my product design role to build our initial Happy Nomad brand.

Tell us what your company does?

Happy Nomad is an e-commerce business that specialises in eco-friendly yoga mats and accessories. Our goal is to inspire more people to practise yoga and become more connected to their minds, body and the environment. Our products are completely sustainable and for every mat sold we plant 1 tree in Australia.

How did you come up with the idea?

We have been practising yoga for many years but had always been frustrated with the mats on the market. We really wanted something that was made from sustainable materials first and foremost but that didn’t need to compromise on performance factors to achieve it. At the time the mats you could buy were either eco-friendly but really thin and hard to practise on or they were the opposite, cushiony, non-slip and high-performance but made with toxic materials using unsustainable practices. 

Our idea was born out of this frustration, essentially we started the business to solve our own problem, we couldn’t find a mat we loved so we decided to create one ourselves. 

As for our name “Happy Nomad”, we originally had the idea to start the business when we were living in our campervan travelling around Tasmania staying in beautiful national parks and practising yoga in nature. It was pretty simple, we were Happy Nomads and it felt like the perfect name for the type of brand we wanted to create.

How did you go about building and launching the business?

To build the Happy Nomad business, we started by exploring a number of different eco-friendly materials in search of something that would feel great to practice on, where you didn’t feel like your hands and feet were sliding around as soon as you got sweaty. This search eventually led us to the incredible material that is cork. Cork has a lot going for it which is why it is now starting to be used in so many products. 

Firstly it’s naturally non-slip, it’s also antimicrobial to repel nasty bacteria that tend to live on standard rubber yoga mats. But more importantly, it’s harvested in a completely sustainable way. Rather than cutting down trees, the outer bark layer is shaved off. This encourages the tree to regenerate bark and filter more CO2 from the atmosphere making it 100% sustainable, exactly what we were looking for. 

Cork seemed to provide the perfect balance of eco-friendly and performance factors, especially when compared to the alternative materials on the market.

Next, we got to work designing our brand and our first yoga mat, we then found a trustworthy supplier and ordered a few samples that we could use for testing before committing to a full order. 

We were pretty confident that cork yoga mats solved a real problem for yogis but we wanted to test this first. We set up a realistic landing page and ran an experiment to see if we could generate demand for our product before we even had it.

We also handed out our samples to friends during the yoga classes we were teaching to get their real-world feedback.

This process allowed us to validate our idea and collect feedback that helped us refine our mat design ahead of our first proper order, we made tweaks around logo placement, mat thickness and pricing.

How have you grown the business?

We intentionally kept Happy Nomad really small and simple to begin with launching with only one product and an initial order of 300 mats to sell. This was key as it meant our initial costs were low but it also simplified everything else; we only needed to learn how to ship one product at a time, we only needed photos of one product, we only needed a website with one product listing, simple! Starting this way allowed us to not overextend ourselves both from a cost and time perspective. It did feel a little odd to have an online store only selling one product but luckily it worked. 

For this first launch, we did everything ourselves, including photography as we didn’t want to invest in a proper photographer until we knew our mats were successful in the market. Once we began to sell consistently we then began to figure out how to extend our product line, with the plan to sell and ship multiple products. 

We decided to extend our range to include multiple designer mats and cork blocks. Both of these options were something we knew our customers were already searching for online. We engaged a talented Melbourne based graphic designer (@Emmawinton) to design our mats and after a bunch of mockups and testing, we narrowed it down to 5 designs for our new mats (which you can see on our site today). When these arrived we invested in a proper product shoot rather than just taking a few shots in our living room.

We used survey monkey to gather feedback on which designs resonated most with our audience.

Ultimately we’ve taken an iterative approach to grow our business, starting with a simple MVP and only expanding once we were ready. We relied on data to come up with ideas and then tested them before committing which have been our keys to growing successfully.

What's your biggest selling product/service?

Our original cork yoga mat is our biggest seller closely followed by our cork blocks. Cork is a beautiful surface and our more simplistic styles are most popular.

What have been some of your biggest failures along the way?

The biggest failure would be significantly underestimating the demand that COVID lockdowns would create for our products. We recently completely sold out of our most popular mat within a few weeks and now are left waiting for new stock to arrive. Ordering the right amount of stock can be challenging in these unpredictable times but the lesson for us is to order more than we think we will need!

What books have been a great inspiration to you as a founder?

Right before we started Happy Nomad I read Tools of Titans by Tim Ferris and found it incredibly inspiring. It features interviews from a diverse range of successful people and they speak about their lessons learned and advice. 

A big takeaway for me was when starting something new, focus on an idea that you are passionate about and don’t worry about trying to be the best in the world. Instead, find your niche and chances are high that there will be enough people out there who share the same passion as you. 

This insight gave me more confidence to try something new and just see if it works rather than not trying in the first place out of fear of failure.

Any podcast/websites that help you run your business?

I love listening to the “How I Built This” podcast to learn (much like this blog) about the stories behind how products and services were created. The host Guy Raz purposefully delves deep into the specific details of each founding story. It’s always interesting to learn about the failures that founders were able to bounce back from which always make them stronger.

Any quotes you live by?

Latley I have two:

“You can’t win ‘em all”  


 “That’s life” 

Two simple reminders that not everything is going to work out the way you want it and that’s okay.

What do you love and hate about being a founder?

"I love the freedom and creativity. I hate the admin."

What do you do to look after your mental health as a founder?

We started Happy Nomad because we love yoga, we still do it every day and always have our mats with us when we are travelling around in our van. Having a regular practice of yoga creates space to slow down and create balance in our otherwise pretty busy and hectic lives. 

Specifically, we start each day with yoga and meditation and put boundaries in place to keep a healthy relationship with social media and technology. For example, only using it at specific times rather than ALL the time. Or reading rather TV or scrolling the internet at night. 

In a few words, sum up what it means to be the founder of a business

"It isn’t as hard to start something new as you might think, so give it a crack!"

What are the biggest pieces of advice you’d give to other founders?

If you have a great idea that you are excited about, make sure to validate with real people before investing too much time or money in it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a physical product, a service or a digital tool you must test your solution with real people (not just friends and family) to understand if it resonates and gain confidence to proceed. With Happy Nomad we did this by setting up a simple landing page, driving traffic to the site and tracking how many people tried to purchase our mat. We did this before we even had a sample and it was a crucial step for us. 

We’ve done the same with our new products too, testing our ideas on yogis to understand what they liked. Turns out, it was completely different to my original ideas so I’m grateful we tested things before ordering hundreds of yoga mats with designs that no one liked. 

Always test your ideas first!

What makes you smile?

Our Cavoodle, Beans!

Where can people find out more about your business?

Website: happynomad.com.au

Instagram: @happynomadstudio


We’ve written another post that goes into further detail about how we started the business here

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