Wearing dust masks and heavy black work boots, sweat dripping down their foreheads and covered with sawdust from head to toe, Mohd Hafiz Johari and Nooradzrene Mohd Noor stepped out of their small woodworking workshop in Kampung Dato Tatah, Pantai Dalam in Kuala Lumpur after a long day’s work.
“I have never been so comfortable in a job, ” says Mohd Hafiz, breaking out in a smile. “Yes, we’re always covered in dust and our hands and our faces are black by the time we go home for the day but it feels great. This is our own business and it feels good to be working for ourselves, ” he says, voice bursting with pride.
Mohd Hafiz, Nooradzrene and their best friend Abdul Razak Latif set up Kawood, a small furniture making business, in June last year amid the pandemic. The business has been their lifeline, having lost their jobs just eight months or so prior to that.
The trio were formerly press photographers for a national Malay daily – their first jobs straight out of university.
“Being a photographer was great. We got to meet all sorts – from the prime minister to celebrities and athletes to ordinary Malaysians with wonderful stories to tell. We traveled all over and were right in the thick of things until one day in October 2019, when we turned up at work and were told that the company was shutting down... in two days, ” shares Abdul Razak, 35.
“We were stunned, as you can probably imagine. There was no severance package, no one month’s notice, nothing. In fact, we hadn’t been paid for two months before that, ” he relates.
The first couple of weeks of being jobless were the worst, shares Abdul Razak.
“I’d wake up in the morning and go to bed at night with the same thought in my head: how was I going to support my family? I have three children and the youngest is only four. Thankfully, my wife still had her job. I managed to sell some of my photos to a stock photo sites which brought in some income but it wasn’t enough. I did some odd jobs here and there... whatever I could find but without a fixed monthly income, it was very unsettling, ” he says.
Mohd Hafiz and Nooradzrene or Bob as he is fondly known, were in pretty much the same boat: they did food delivery and e-hailing to earn some money. “I was prepared to work as a security guard, ” says Bob. “When you lose your job, you have to chuck your ego out the front door. I asked my wife if she’d be ok with me working as a security guard and she was fine with it. I was this close and that’s when I got a call from these two guys with an idea for a business, ” says Bob.
But it wasn’t the furniture business that the trio wanted to venture into. That came later, pretty much by accident.
The initial plan was to start a Nasi Kandar Melayu food stall.
“Bob is an exceptional cook and he actually had a food stall before but it didn’t work out after some time, ” says Abdul Razak.
As luck would have it, the day they found a stall to lease in March last year was the very same day the Prime Minister announced that the country would be under a movement control order... in two days.
“We were crestfallen. There was no way we could start our business... at least not at the moment. It felt like we were back to square one again, ” shares Bob.
Knock on wood
Both Mohd Hafiz and Bob are woodworking enthusiasts, completely self-taught, who would build miscellaneous “stuff” like bed, tables or shelves for their homes “just for fun”.
Thanks to the current plant craze, Mohd Hafiz’s wife asked if he could build her a planter shelf to stack her plants.
“I wasn’t working so I readily agreed. I did some research and built her one which turned out pretty well. Abdul Razak’s wife also wanted one and so I made another. Both ladies posted the shelves up on their Instagram accounts and suddenly I had requests to make the planter shelves for their friends and also their friends.
“In just three days I had about 10 orders!” says Mohd Hafiz, 35.
It was a light bulb moment and Mohd Hafiz called his two best buds and suggested they start a furniture business.
“I had so many orders, I knew I couldn’t do it on my own. I needed help. Then, I thought that this could be our business. If we could turn our hobby into a business... what would be better, ” he recounts.
In the beginning, they worked from Hafiz’s home near Pantai Dalam. But they pretty soon realised the impracticality of that arrangement: the space was insufficient and they were filling his home with dust.
And that’s when they found a vacant space for their workshop nearby.
“We started with nothing. Just the basic tools that Bob and I had. But, Alhamdullilah, we have had consistent orders since we started and were able to buy proper tools, bit by bit every month.
“We are also drawing a decent salary. At one stage, we had 20 or 30 orders a day and I drove almost 300km a day delivering our shelves just around the Klang Valley. Of course some weeks are more quiet than others, ” says Abdul Razak who is the only one with no knowledge on carpentry at all.
“I have zero knowledge but I’ve learnt a little so that I can help the both of them if we have large orders. But I’m mainly in charge of operations: I handle our orders, deliveries as well as promotions and marketing on social media. That’s my forte, ” he says.
Though they started off making the planter shelves, the boys now have 13 products in their portfolio. And, they also accept custom-orders. They’ve also incorporated the use of metal in their product to cater to the current demand for “industrial-style” furniture.
“We are constantly doing research and development, trying to improve on our products and introduce new items as well so that we remain ahead of the game, ” says Mohd Hafiz.
Though they are ambitious in trying to upscale their business, Abdul Razak says that they are always upfront with customers.
“If they want to commission something we’ve never built before, we tell them right away that though we’re confident we can do it, we haven’t done it before. I think customers appreciate such honesty and sincerity and so far, we’re humbled by their trust in us, ” he says.
Opportunity is everywhere
Losing a job, says Bob, definitely isn’t the end of the world.
“Malaysia is really the land of opportunity... if you are willing to work hard, there will always be something you can do. But, you have to be willing to get out of your comfort zone and maybe do things you would never have imagined doing, ” says the 39-year-old father of three.
Mohd Hafiz is in full agreement.
“We can never be complacent or too secure in whatever it is we are doing. If there is anything we have learnt is that we need to be versatile. Learn a skill or two so that if the worst happens, you have something to fall back on that can generate extra income for the family. We may not be able to do our dream job but there will always be work. But it is whether we are willing to do it, ” he says.
Though the work is hard, they are grateful to have work and to be doing it with each other.
“Sometimes when I’m in the workshop all covered with dust and sweat, I do wonder how I ended up here. I’m not complaining at all. But it wasn’t something I ever imagined. And, if we can do it, anyone can too, ” shares Abdul Razak.
“There are many things I have learnt throughout this whole year or so but the one thing that stands out is that Malaysians really support home-grown businesses. Although our customers were initially from our circle of friends and contacts, we now have clients from all over and all ethnic groups. We even have requests from Sabah. We truly are humbled and appreciate the support, ” says Abdul Razak,