CEO of Amazonia Dwayne Martens
The journey, rather than the destination, is what matters most for a young “super foods” entrepreneur
Dwayne Martens could be a walking advertisement for what he sells. He’s lean and clear-eyed, his face unlined. He also spouts an almost evangelical knowledge and belief in the health food and supplements that have made his company a success in less than a decade. Martens drinks turmeric tea while he talks. His fashionable fuzz is complemented with a recently acquired Bali tan and he’s turned out in a sharp-cut jacket, T-shirt, casual pants and runners, a corporate ensemble that seems increasingly favoured in the young entrepreneur ranks of which, of course, he’s one.
Martens is founder, major shareholder and CEO of Amazonia, described as a super foods company that now sells over 40 products via three brands attracting sales of over $1 million a month, here and overseas. The venture has attracted many plaudits, including a recent Telstra business award, but it hasn’t been easy going, he’ll tell you, including a near-death experience that took a lot of front, not to mention shoe leather, to survive.
Like most entrepreneurs, Martens started small. Aged 22, he punted a $3000 inheritance to buy out a stock of freeze-dried exotic fruits from a mate. “The packaging was still in Portuguese,” he shakes his head with the memory. “There were all these random weird fruits and I had no real idea of what they were. I tried to sell them to cafes and they didn’t want them. So I was like, OK, how am I going to get rid of them? I had to find something to do with them and that’s why I opened a juice bar.”
Martens began making fruit smoothies at markets and music festivals in Western Australia because, truth was, he had no option but to go out and flog the stuff himself. That said, it was liberating. “It’s a beautiful thing when you’re in a small business. I was young, I had no responsibilities, I could just go for it.” Better still: “I got in the game. I started to do business. I started learning and this business has taught me so much.”
As it happened, one of the exotic fruits he was flogging was acai, a berry on the crest of a super food wave; a wonder fruit featured on the likes of the Oprah Winfrey program. Full of antioxidants, it was touted for anti-ageing properties, weight loss, energy, sex drive and more. Before long, Martens and his partner, friend Chris Norden, were riding that wave.
“We went from zero to hero in a very short space of time,” Martens remembers. But there were plenty of others riding the acai wave and, as it turned out, many weren’t selling the real deal. “There were a lot of scams on the web. You opened these acai tablets and it doesn’t look like acai, not even the colour. They weren’t delivering what they promised. All the bad publicity comes about so here we are hero and the next minute we are zero again.”
Slowly they rebuilt credibility. “For us acai was doing really well. We actually had a really good product and I still think it’s one of our best.” Martens had tried it himself, as you’d expect. “At 22 I thought I was healthy. I’d been rundown, got a little bit of phlegm and I was constantly getting the flu, but I thought I was doing all right. I start taking this product and it opens my eyes to a higher level of quality living. I had more energy and I didn’t get sick. It’s, oh wow! This is why I got so enthusiastic. Health is a journey of self-awareness and I wanted to share this.” That enthusiasm was also fuelled by the kick Martens was getting out of his new venture. “I had purpose. I was passionate as well. There were a number of things coming together.”
That happy bubble burst with the Brisbane floods of 2011. Nearly $1 million of Amazonia’s stock was ruined – not that anyone knew it at the time. Pallets had been moved above the flood line so the team believed their stock had been saved.
It was not to be. Without air conditioning during the inundation, the goods had turned rancid. “The problem was, we sent it out to the marketplace before we realised.” Suddenly, the company’s hard-won credibility was crippled. Nor did insurance make up for the losses, Martens says, because it applied only when a storm came from above. Then came another blow: their woes were compounded by the foreclosure of one of their debtors, a large retail outlet. “These guys owed us a lot of money. We learned from that not to extend credit and we got incredibly strict on our accounts after that.” The Amazonia employees were let go.
“Here I’d been thinking, ‘This is too easy.’ Honestly, back in the day I was too cocky for my own good. Now I thought, ‘This is it; it’s the end.’ ” On the brink of insolvency, Martens rallied. “I put on some sneakers and went on the road and visited as many of my customers as I could. I rang them. I explained the situation to them and that, for me and Chris, was a big thing. We said, we’re so sorry, this is what happened and people understood. They gave us a break.”
On what he learned from the disaster Martens reflects: “The biggest lesson was that it’s not about the business, it’s about the journey. I had enjoyed the whole journey to that point. I wouldn’t have done anything different. Don’t get me wrong, I have goals and I need to set them. But what it taught me was to have a good time doing it; that I can’t be too focused on the goals and forget about the fun.”
Both Martens and Norden, who is a minority shareholder in company, are selftaught in business. They learned by doing, says Martens. “I’ve been the accountant, the delivery boy, the salesperson, the PR person and I’ve built myself up. I’m not perfect. The essence is open-mindedness to accept opinions and advice and the wisdom to understand what is the right advice, then the decisiveness to act on that advice.” Outside professionals play a big part, says Martens: “What I know is how to find people that know.” The pair also closely monitor effectiveness among their 30 or so staff. “The people are the brains trust of the business, they’re everything, but we have to be realistic. This business is growing and we need people performing. Every human resource is an investment and we need a return on investment.”
Despite the company’s fast growth, Martens says there’s been no need to date for any outside capital. Trade and debtor finance – where accounts receivable act as collateral with the company’s banks – keeps the business ticking over. They’ve become careful about spreading their exposure to customers, allowing no one outlet to get above 25%, so as to lessen risk of another major default by a debtor.
A university dropout, Martens had studied health science, labouring to support himself on the way through. With his parents, he’d left their pig farm in South Africa, coming to Australia when Martens was 13. They managed a caravan park in regional Western Australia and Martens remembers his mum’s Tupperware parties; she was the entrepreneur. As an outsider, Martens got a hard time at school, but it wasn’t that bad, he shrugs: “It was just kids being kids. It was a completely different social situation and I had to fit in again. I had to adapt. I go through my loneliness and I go through my friendships. Sometimes us entrepreneurs get lonely, especially people who put too much emphasis on work. What happens then is you’ve got nothing else. I love business and I’m going to put a lot of energy into it. But I’m proud that I’ve got incredible balance. I’ve got a lot of close friends who don’t view me by how much money I make. I’ve got my health,” he says, grinning. “And I need that because I’m in the health food business.”
Just on what he does with the money he now makes, Martens has just bought “a really beautiful apartment” at Bondi Beach, a lifestyle he says he loves. “What money provides for me is freedom. What money has done is allowed me to say, Dwayne, do what you love, because survival is not as much of an issue any more.” Seeking that balance each day, he’ll swim, or watch a sunset, do yoga. What he doesn’t do is get trashed. “I don’t need to drink. I’m not saying never’s never, I just freakin’ want to be on top of the game and feel great.”
What advice would Dwayne Martens have for a younger Dwayne Martens, just starting out, young and naive? He thinks for a bit. “Just don’t get too caught up in it; that you have to make this work. Keep that open mind. When you hold onto something too tightly, you don’t get it in the end because it’s too much of a big deal.”
“I’ve got a lot of friends who don’t view me by how much I make”
Self-taught ... Martens has been the business’s accountant, delivery boy and salesperson.