David Timbs runs his business decidedly outside-the-box. But it does involve a box: that’s where people leave their koha after receiving treatment from him, and it’s the only form of payment he accepts. David first opened his Natural Therapy Clinic doors some 40 years ago, and for the last decade or so, he’s successfully managed to operate on koha alone. The idea is simple, and perhaps a bit idealistic: David asks people to pay what they think is fair, anonymously. And once he started down that path, he’s never given a thought to doing business any other way.
A lifelong student and traveler, David is educated and trained in a wide variety of modalities, and they all influence what he offers at his small clinic at Wainui Beach. The majority of his work is spinal manipulation, but he also provides polarity therapy bodywork and Iridology, a study of the eye’s iris to reveal information about a person’s overall health. He holds diplomas in Naturopathy and Ayurveda, and his treatment often blends the different therapies and wisdoms. David himself admits it’s difficult to describe what he does. For him, chiropractic practice always felt a bit too specialized, “I’ve always been more interested in the whole person. I wanted to draw on other things.” His business card reads, ‘Practitioner. Teacher. Surfer’.
“If you relieve someone of pain and then they put money in your hand, that’s too close. It makes it seem as if my motivation was money”
The koha payment structure arose when he noticed a conflict in client feedback. Until that point, he hadn’t changed his fee for 20 years. Some people were urging him to put his fees up because he was charging too little, while others were clearly struggling to pay and often delaying treatment of their pain as a result. David remembered hearing of a “by donation” system in the States, and he decided to try it out for a week. After the initial week, he decided to continue it through Christmas, which then was just weeks away. “And then I thought, I really like the feel of this.”
The clinic has run on koha ever since. In the traditional fee setting, David felt uncomfortable with how close a connection there was between the treatment and the money. “If you relieve someone of pain and then they put money in your hand, that’s too close. It makes it seem as if my motivation was money”. In David’s mind, the motivation is to relieve suffering. So much so that he aims to have no repeat appointments, hoping that once someone has seen him, their pain is gone.
He has no idea what each individual person pays, and he doesn’t take personally what amount he receives. “When I go to my box at the end of the day, I know that I’ve been rewarded greater than what I would’ve set as a fee. Other times when you realise someone has put a lower value, maybe it’s what they can afford. If I wasn’t any good at my job, people wouldn’t come or wouldn’t pay. So it’s an honest view of where you fit into the bigger system. But I would rather not think about the money, and just think about doing the best I can for each person”.
David’s perspective draws from a lifetime of travel and exploration. He grew up in Wellington, in Titahi Bay, and studied to be a primary school teacher. A keen surfer, he initially came to Gisborne to surf and teach. But at the time, teaching didn’t feel like the right fit. He felt that a person should be worldly and wise before being a teacher, so he set off to adventure abroad, exploring, sailing, and surfing.
On one formative trip David went to America to visit his brother, who was studying to be a chiropractor in Iowa. David arrived in San Francisco with $70, a one-month visa, and no ticket out. He hitchhiked across the country to get to his brother, and found himself joining the chiropractic program.
After nearly a year of study in Iowa, immigration complications forced him to leave, and David resumed his travels in Canada and England. He later discovered Polarity Therapy, and trained with pioneering teacher Pierre Pannetier in California and Mexico before he returned home. Ready to share his knowledge, David opened his first clinic in Gisborne in 1980.
In the ensuing decades, he developed a pattern of alternating work at home with travel and study, adding Iridology, Naturopathy, and Ayurveda to his repertoire. He regularly returned to India and America, both to continue his learning and share his wisdom through teaching. When David’s offspring Darnelle and Robson were in university, he decided to return to study too, earning his Bachelor of Education, “I’m always a student, the more you learn the more you realize you don’t know.”
Much of David’s focus has been Ayurveda, the Indian ancient medicine system, or “science of life.” After studying with prominent international Ayurvedic scholar Dr. Robert Svoboda, the two became close, and David even hosted him here in Gisborne. During one trip to India for an Ayurvedic Conference, the organiser announced, much to David’s surprise, that David would give the closing address. He remembers, “I thought, either I grow a new arm and do this or crawl into my shell. So I did it and it was fine. But I also thought if my mates could see me now, they would be rolling on the ground.”
David is not a man afraid to try something different, and that attitude may well make his patients more receptive to his various methodologies. You may not expect a rural shearer to seek treatment, but it’s not out of the ordinary for David. His clientele ranges from Wainui locals to people coming from up the coast, a diverse group in age, background, and socioeconomic status, and that means a lot to him. When someone walks through his door, he makes sure that they feel comfortable and safe, no matter what their story is.
Now aged 70, David typically only works in the afternoon. In the morning, he goes for a surf or meets friends for coffee at Zephyr cafe down the street, Bosco the dog at his side. Twice a week he teaches Yin Yoga. He lives simply, and without hustle. “Money comes and goes. I don’t ever feel there’s a shortage of it, it’s just how you tap into your share of it.”
David concedes the koha model would be difficult to just pick up and do, and that what he built was based on decades of relationships and reputation. He emphasises, “It’s all based on the relationship with the person. The relationship is the reimbursement.”
In a world where it often feels like everything has a price, David’s approach is remarkable and refreshing. “I’m not trying to sell myself, I’m just trying to listen to the person and be of some use to them.” He’s also careful to say he’s not a healer, “All I’m doing is assisting them to heal themselves. The whole thing is to empower the person, to make them responsible for their own state of wellbeing.”
There’s no doubt David inspires empowerment, showing that a shift in the way business is done is possible, and sustainable. His is a heartening example of what it could be like to operate in an ‘Aroha Economy’ where currency depends a lot less on commodification, and a lot more on community.
Story by Victoria Williams
* This story was brought to you with the support of Tāiki e! Next week is Global Entrepreneurship Week.
The festival aims to connect diverse parts of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, give visibility to key areas of focus, and inspire our Tairāwhiti community to embrace entrepreneurship as a tool for community transformation and long term impact.
It also provides a platform for expressing our own unique Tairāwhiti style and flavour of entrepreneurship which is deep rooted in community and aroha. Stay tuned to find out what Tāiki e! have planned for us!