Nicolas Huxley is the CEO and Founder of Elephbo which upcycles cement packaging material in Cambodia and uses it to produce high quality fashion products whilst maintaining a societal impact. Here’s Jack with an exclusive interview!
Hey Nicolas, some really awesome products! So tell me where did the name Elephbo come from?
Thanks! Well, I’ve always been in love with Cambodia, ever since I first visited on a trip around south-east Asia, You may or may not already know that the elephant is the national animal of Cambodia. Oddly enough, the first batch of bags we produced only used a type of cement bag with huge elephants on so I thought it was something that had to be incorporated into our name! As a result Elephbo is a cross between Elephants and Cambodia
Neat! So the idea occurred whilst traveling – but how did the whole idea come together? Was there for example a particular eureka moment?
I’ve always been searching for a project that a social twist and I liked the idea of working in a developing country purely because I could see so much opportunity existed here.
“Elephbo really stuck because everyone really loved the uniqueness of the product and this positive feedback really motivated me”
Cambodia was so unlike my home in Switzerland which was so clean, organised and developed. I already had a few projects on the go whilst I was studying but Elephbo really stuck because everyone really loved the uniqueness of the product and this positive feedback really motivated me. After about 10 messages from my friends I knew I had something that people wanted and I was ready to really commit myself to this project!
What made you decide on this unique combination of Italian leather and upcycled Cambodian cement bags?
The first products were initially made entirely from recycled cement bags and after a few bags were sold (30-40) I would hear from my friends that the bags would break only after a couple of months.
“I was shocked!”
I didn’t want to be selling a poor quality product so I changed tact immediately and began working on a new design which would look great and last a lifetime. I found a great designer in Switzerland Giulia Pasani and we began looking at different materials and designs – it was then that we decided to upcycle the cement bags alongside real Italian leather to create a truly unique and high quality product.
It took about 1 year to design and make a final prototype that would then be manufactured, I could now begin thinking about our Kickstarter campaign. It was all finally coming together!
Throughout your journey founding Elephbo what have been your 3 biggest challenges?
Overall, there have been 3 main challenges for Elephbo and I over the past few years.
- Building up the guts to just quit my day job and focus on Elephbo full time. It was also quite difficult in the early stages to keep focused because, hey, my boss was gone. Although, this was an unexpected challenge it has also been a great learning curve and I’m now much more organised and motivated with my day to day work.
- Dealing with the media! Later, Elephbo began to get a lot of media attention and my one piece of advice is just to let the haters hate! There will always be people against your idea but at the end of the day any publicity is good publicity! We were sure that in the long-term people would understand our ideas and ethos better and this has grown with the business.
- DON’T THINK ABOUT OPPORTUNITY COSTS – I quit a role in finance to begin this venture and if I thought about what I could be earning (which sometimes I have) I’d be totally demotivated! No, what I do now for me is so much more fulfilling and rewarding than the corporate lifestyle I had before and I know the money I reinvest into Elephbo is going to go to good use! Also, work doesn’t feel like work anymore – I enjoy every minute of what I do!
In regards to your supply chain did you have to provide any specialist training to support the businesses you work with in Cambodia? or any of your partners for that matter?
I spent 5 months in Cambodia to organise everything – I even hired a tuc tuc driver Komnit Nit who later became my right hand man; helping to translate, oversee quality control and to distribute money to all our workers who just didn’t have bank accounts.
We were first producing in Cambodia but unfortunately the quality wasn’t quite good enough. We then moved the final production to Switzerland but I soon realised we couldn’t maintain these high costs if we wanted to survive.
“As I looked round the factory the next day – I knew immediately this was a man I could trust!”
I then found a small family run factory in Bosnia, they’ve been such great partners and have really made consistent high quality bags for us ever since. The father who actually owned a farm alongside the factory put me up for several nights in his guest house. As I looked round the factory the next day – I knew immediately this was a man I could trust! The factory has 7 workers and I know them all by name, which is very gratifying. We still maintain our facilities in Cambodia who focus on preparing the recycled cement bags for production in Bosnia.
It is Elephbo’s hope that as we expand we can invest more into upskilling the cambodian workforce, so that in the future a large proportion of our bags could be completely manufactured in the country itself. However ensuring we maintain a quality product means that this process will take time but something we are completely committed to seeing through.
Being an entrepreneur has its own rewards but for you what has been the pinnacle or most valued success story to date?
Most would argue our Kickstarter which raised over 34,000 Swiss francs would’ve been my pinnacle – it really accelerated our growth and our media attention really exploded.
However, the real peak of the project so far for me was when we had enough money to reinvest into Cambodia, we built a new production hut that is also used as a schooling centre, and it was all made of wood and natural materials. It was fantastic, each day I would see it develop a little more, and then a little more until it was finished. Seeing the final structure with local people using was so gratifying and it was the most rewarding thing I’ve done at Elephbo so far!
To anyone out there hoping to incorporate social and environmental values into their business, what advice would you offer?
My advice would be that it’s great to be driven by core values and I think having social values embedded into a business is really fantastic but you must never forget about the business aspects.
Without making money, your business model isn’t sustainable and you have nothing to reinvest back into your business to allow it to grow. It is our hope at Elephbo, to move away from leather to animal-free materials and cater for a more vegan friendly market. Over time we hope to keep investing into Cambodian infrastructure and to one day have a production facility which can make a bag from start to finish.
So to summarise, DON’T FORGET THE NUMBERS!
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