Cover Story
Kindred Spirits
Grace Lim 
Khoo and Kok have found a way to make their dreams come true

Finding someone who shares your passion is something rare and valuable. And Joanne Khoo and Phebe Kok, both 32, know this well. They are not only longtime friends but business partners who share the same love for a healthy lifestyle.

They have known each other since they were 11 and even attended the same university in Melbourne where Khoo studied law while Kok took up medicine. The former practised law for a few years before becoming a full-time mother while the latter is currently working part-time in the medical-legal department of a law firm.

They are also the founders of Daya Botanica, a natural plant-based skincare brand. As self-professed private individuals, there is a lot of nervous laughter during the photo shoot, but the mood immediately changes to a more open-hearted one the moment we sit down to talk about their brand.

Kok kicks things off. “We were talking about doing something like this two years ago. We wanted to work on something that we know we would enjoy doing, regardless of the seasons of our lives. And that one thing was good quality botanical skincare.”

While they admit that the market already had similar products, “the ones we like are quite pricey,” says Khoo. “The more affordable ones are mostly synthetic and not plant-based. There’s a market gap for affordable all-natural botanical skincare.”

In December last year, Daya Botanica rolled out its first products, hand and body moisturisers as well as hand and body scrubs. “We had to think really hard about what products we wanted as our customers’ first experience of our brand, and we introduced the moisturisers and the scrubs together because we wanted them to have a spa experience at home,” says Kok.

Daya Botanica has since launched a range of hand balms as well as a body treatment oil scented with orange blossom. In fact, most of the products are scented with citrus, which is a conscious decision. “We both love how invigorating and uplifting the scent is,” declares Khoo. “We want our customers to have the same sensation when they use our products.”

Clearly, having their products smell great is important to them. They start listing their favourite essential oils –  jasmine, hyacinth, tuberose, ylang-ylang, among others. I ask if any of them received any formal training in scent combinations.

They shake their heads. “It’s all through trial and error,” remarks Khoo. “It’s something we’re interested in and have a lot of fun doing. We love mixing all the scents to get the combinations we love. We try to research as much as we can but at the end of the day, there’s nothing like practical experience. We get motivated to improve on our products that way.”

They also like to call their brand “luxury skincare”, even though prices range from only RM38 – RM68. Smiling, Khoo explains: “We think of our brand as an everyday luxury. I mean, it feels luxurious and we have done a lot of work to ensure that the products are not only safe, effective and high quality but also that the packaging looks luxurious. Of course, we want people to be proud to showcase the products in bedrooms and bathrooms.”

“It’s all too easy to do what everyone else is doing, and we want to be true to what we ourselves look for in a skincare product,” adds Kok. “In our case, we want to highlight the beauty of nature because we enjoy skincare made from plant ingredients with great therapeutic properties.”

Even the name of the brand is an ode to nature – the word “Daya” is Malay for energy, power or ability. “When you put it together with ‘Botanica’, it literally means the power of plants, and we really want to acknowledge that,” says Khoo.

Thus far, the response has been positive

There is even a page on dedicated to detailing the products’ core ingredients and their respective benefits for the skin and general wellbeing.

“In the skincare industry now, there is a lot of emphasis on what’s not contained in the products, such as parabens as well as artificial fragrances and colourings. We embrace that as well but it’s also important for us to highlight what goes into our products, why we like them, and what they can do for you. More importantly, we make extra effort to ensure that the products are safe and we prove that by using them ourselves. Our family members use them too,” Kok stresses.

Khoo, who is five months’ pregnant with her second child, also feels secure using the products. “For example, the orange blossom body treatment oil is safe for pregnant women in their second and third trimesters. We are very careful with the formulation because even though essential oils are natural, it doesn’t mean all of them are safe for pregnant women.”

Thus far, the response has been positive. “We had feedback from a customer who was an expectant mother and she said that the treatment oil helped to relax her and she could feel that her baby was relaxed too! We live for this kind of compliment,” she laughs.

They both see it as an advantage to be producing the products in Malaysia as they can tailor-make little things like the texture of the oil to suit the hot and humid climate here.

“One of the first things we wanted to make sure was that the oil would not have too sticky or greasy texture. Many international brands’ products work great in dry winters but may prove to be too oily here,” observes Kok. “One of the reasons why the treatment oil is such a hit with our customers is that it absorbs really well into the skin. There’s no discomfort. Plus, it improves skin elasticity and prevents stretch marks, and comes complete with a beautiful scent from the neroli, lemon and grapefruit essential oils.”

A range for the face and hair is currently in the works while a line for sensitive skin will be launched soon. They also reveal that an unscented soap bar for all skin types will be introduced in the near future.


Friendship and humanity

Going into business as friends was an easy decision for them as they both decided from the very beginning that no matter what happens with the brand, they will always put their friendship first.

“People always say never go into business with a friend but I’d rather do it with someone that I trust,” shares Khoo. “We work well together and we are open with each other. Communication is key. I think it helps that we are friends first. It makes a big difference. We place friendship above business, so we won’t make any decisions that would compromise our friendship in any way.”

With that part sorted, the friends set three main values for the brand, namely ‘Capturing Beauty’, ‘Creating Value’ and ‘Doing Good’. “At times when we have to make tough decisions or lose our focus a bit, we always fall back on these values. They always guide us back to the right path,” says Kok.

Khoo agrees, adding: “When you’re so busy, it’s really easy to go off track. Competition sometimes scares us too, which is normal. And when that happens, we always go back to the reasons why we started doing this and it’s all good again.”

In line with these values, Daya Botanica has partnered with the Tropical Rainforest Conservation and Research Centre (TRCRC), a local NGO dedicated to the rehabilitation of degraded forests from rapid development or illegal deforestation. A percentage of the proceeds from the citrus and jasmine ranges is contributed to TRCRC.

“We were doing our research and thinking about how we can give back to the society and make the world a better place. Working with TRCRC is important to us because we can play a role in preserving the living environment for future generations. I also love the idea that our customers get to play a small part in this too,” enthuses Kok.

While this initiative is laudable, Kok and Khoo are not stopping there. In fact, there is an ongoing dialogue with TRCRC on making their products more sustainable, whether it is using non-timbre elements from the forests or adopting a more sustainable method of harvesting the plants.

As they approach the one-year anniversary of their partnership, Kok notes that being genuine and having the right intentions are important to succeed. “People do best when they are true to themselves and express themselves with authenticity.”

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 257.