"the world always looks brighter from behind a smile," people often say. Indeed, the puissance of a smile is not to be underestimated- and Dr. and Mrs. Tan know exactly that. Hence, their dedication in their work; to spread the joy of having beautiful, lovely smiles-with SmileInc.
Smile Inc. is at the forefront of innovative and rapidly developing field of cosmetic dentistry, and is committed to providing the finest aesthetic restorations and cosmetic dentistry. It also has an international reputation for being on the cutting edge of innovative aesthetic dentistry.
People from all over the world come to see them; I sincerely admire Dr. and Mrs. Tan's drive and conviction. Truly vanguard innovators, they are always on the lookout for refinements. They have made vast transformations to people's lives-giving them reasons to smile.
1. What is the nature of your business?
The nature of our business, apart from providing the latest techniques in dentistry, is the business of creating and beautifying smiles. The smile is a key part of your unique look, personality and how the world sees you. It is a crucial factor in your image, self-expression and how you interact with others. Having an attractive new smile could enhance your confidence, improve your personal relationships, enhance your ability to communicate, to project a confident & vibrant you. For many of our clients, we have transformed crooked, discoloured and misshapen teeth into pure brilliance whilst retaining 100% of their natural strength in as little as two visits. Our signature services include (i) Instant Braces- providing instant straight, white and attractively shaped teeth in just 2 visits, and (ii) Laser Teeth Whitening- the gold standard available in teeth whitening.
2. When and why did you decide to become an entrepreneur / take over your family business? NOTE: If it is not a family business, ask: Do your parents have their own businesses too? Have they inspired you in one way or another? (Select appropriate question according to the entrepreneur being interviewed.)
We were motivated to take on a different approach to dentistry. We had innovative views about how a dental clinic could be run. You know, in the old days, like 12 years ago, dental clinics always had a foreboding feel attached to them. People would only visit the dentist when they were in pain, and hence you can understand why a visit to the dentist was not a pleasant one. We wanted to change that, to create a welcoming feel when one visits the dentist, very much like how one would when visiting the hairstylist or deportment school; to want to visit the dentist for maintenance and makeovers, to emerge from the dentist's office with a brand new smile and feeling good and confident about oneself. Hence, we came up with the name Smile Inc. instead of Drs. Tan and Tan or Drs. Chong and Chong.
We were into changing the mindset of the Singaporean population towards dentistry: from being one of reactive dentistry to one of preventive and lifestyle dentistry. This was important as with reactive dentistry, patients tend to wait till there is pain before visiting the dentist, and once this happens, usually the problems have become larger, more extensive to treat and also more costly. We also focused on inculcating this disposition towards dentistry in the young, having also started the first full-fledged dental practice in Singapore catering to children and kids.
In addition, we also wanted to focus on cosmetic dentistry and create beautiful smiles. Smile makeovers were a regular procedure at Smile Inc. long before the much televised makeovers of today.
3. What are your reasons for choosing to do business in this particular industry?
Dr. Ernest Rex Tan is a trained Specialist in Prosthodontics. In addition, our focus from the start was in cosmetic dentistry, which had great potential for growth and development. We also had the vision of making Singapore the dental hub of the region. This industry and profession is doubly satisfying as it provides not only a valuable service to our patients, but also allows for innovation and advancement in technology and techniques.
4. How did you put together all the resources needed to start your business? For example: getting the start-up capital, hiring staff, doing sales and marketing, advertising, etc.
For the start up capital, we started with a hire purchase as the best and latest dental machinery and equipment was capital intensive. For operational matters such as staffing, marketing, etc., we did everything ourselves simply because we were very sure with our focus and directions, and it was very efficient and cost effective. We were very blessed as we could clear all loans on hire purchase within a year, been profitable from the first year, and punch 7 times above our weight in terms of revenue generated per dentist when compared to the National Average.
5. Do you have any interesting stories about your patients to share?
One particular patient's transformation has been poignant and meaningful. He was brought in by his family. Their main request was to transform their father's smile and remove the gaps between his front teeth. The father had agreed to the procedure although he had lived with the condition all his life. It was explained to me that at his company's dinner and dance, one of the games that was played involved guessing the names of staff from the various photos of their features flashed on a big screen. When a picture of the father's smile with his "gappy" front teeth was flashed on the screen, the entire room roared with laughter and shouted out his name. Everyone had a good laugh except for my patient's daughter who was very upset over what she felt was an insult to her father. It had continued to bother his daughter and that led to my patient deciding to do something about his smile. His smile was successfully transformed and the family were very grateful. The joy brought to both the father and his family from the Smile Inc. Makeover also brought immense satisfaction to us.
6. What are some of the challenges you faced when you first went into business?
One marked challenge would be acceptance from the dental community. As mentioned, we wanted to create a different environment and remove the prohibitive connotations attached to dentistry. Hence, it was difficult for the community to accept our views at the beginning. For example, when the media came to take photographs of our clinic (as it looked very different from the usual dental clinics), though not by our invitation, the profession looked upon the editorial in the magazine as advertising. Remember that we are talking about 12 years ago. Today, advertising within the profession has been liberalised and is commonplace, and it could be said to be a breakthrough made with our case.
7. How did you overcome these challenges? Please share some specific examples of the action you took to overcome the challenges.
Professional jealousy by competitors led to complaints which resulted in attempts to discontinue the operations of Smile Inc. However, we chose to stick by what we believed in, and pressed on to fight for justice, we brought our matter to the Singapore High Courts and won the case.
Interestingly, our win in the High Courts resulted in a full page, coloured article on the front page of The Straits Times, thereby, providing enormous 'free advertising' for us.
8. Can you remember your worst day in business or a time when you felt like giving up? For example, have you ever met patients whom are too difficult to deal with?
It is never about giving up. There are no difficult patients, only issues of communications. It is critical to discuss and communicate appropriately with patients. In fact, my patients are like my friends - we have follow-ups and they often introduce the clinic to their friends and relatives. And between us we have assurance, trust and rapport. It is important to look after patients' interests and the ability to gel with different nationalities and races is just as vital- it is not just a technical matter really, but it also where the X factor and EQ come in.
9. Can you share some of the lessons you learnt from overcoming your own business challenges that you think will help other businesses?
It is critical to remember- it is never about SALES but SERVICES. In this line of business, and many others, really, there should be no half measures.
10. When was the moment you realised the business would work and support you?
It is very fulfilling, especially when we have our fingers-on-the-pulse; we know exactly what is going on in our business even as it grows and expands. To see the changes we have made- it is all about transformations, lifestyles and enjoying what you are doing, really. When friends of patients come to us and our patients refer us to people they know- it shows our dedication and sincerity is all worthwhile.
11. What are some of your proudest business achievements to date? And why are they so important and meaningful to you?
We have made improvements to how sterilization is being done. 12 years ago, strict and graded sterilization was not conventional. We initiated autoclave (sterilization at 134 degrees Celsius) sterilization procedures and such hygience practices became especially critical during periods such as the Mad Cows' disease and SARS. Even though it is costly, it was a good investment not only for us, but for our patients. We also presented instruments in sealed sterile packs. In this way, we are very upfront and at the cutting edge. On top of that, there's the 'Laser Teeth Whitening'- our speciality and is widely featured (in many magazines). It was the first in Asia and is most effective - takes barely an hour and only one visit to see up to 15 shades of improvement. It is very fulfiling to see the genuine smiles on patients walking out of the clinic and their confidence recovered.
12. How do you differentiate your business from your competitors? Please provide specific examples.
We are very driven and dare to move ahead of time. We see the importance of investing in research and development- our technologies are all tried and tested as mistakes are not allowed in the case where our patients are concerned. For example, there is our 'Smile Inc. Makeover' which includes laser whitening and instant braces- no extraction required and no need to wait for 2-3 years. It is the key to transforming lives and building up confidence by giving people reasons to smile.
13. What are some business ideas you have implemented that created great results in your business?
There are quite a few- for example, the mentioned changes to how a dental clinic's name and philosophy could be like, and how a dental clinic is furbished in order to create a welcoming and uplifted environment for our patients. When we first started out, people thought we were a modeling agency. The new environment was well received. Also, our cutting edge technologies- such as the effective and popular laser teeth whitening procedure; an FDA approved and patented procedure from the United States which was first brought into Asia (outside Japan) by Smile Inc. in 1998, and our signature Smile Inc. Makeover. We have had patients from all over the world including England, Germany and Saudi Arabia (just to name a few) fly into Singapore to see us specifically for our services. Our patients are our ambassadors. They help to create the global reach and our part in medical tourism in Singapore.
14. Where or who do you get your business ideas from?
The concept of "Smile Inc." was conceived while Mrs. Grace Chong-Tan was working on and helping to conceptualise the blueprint of Tourism21, and the Economic Development Board's Singapore Inc. concept. We wanted to apply the very principles that made Singapore Inc. successful and test bed these within a private setting framework. The rest is really a lot of dedication in research and development, the daringness and willingness to marry tried and tested technologies and procedures with new ways of delivery. And the spotting of trends and strategizing ahead of the field.
15. How much have your business grown since you have started? In terms of $ revenue, customers base, number of employees and number of branches? (rate of growth in percentage or numbers)
What do you see for your business in the next 2 to 5 years amid the current market condition in 2009, and does it include any plans for expansion?
We have been growing at 100 % every year. We are very fortunate as the business has always seen very positive returns. For example, even in the SARS period when we were audited by Ernst and Young, our auditors were surprised at our marked increase in revenue
during such a difficult period. It shows that the standards we have been keeping are being recognised and people appreciate the high hygiene levels practiced at Smile Inc., which proved to be all the more vital during such a critical period. In the current economic crisis, there has been no slowdown and growth has been very positive instead. And we are set to unveil our fourth and most modern concept in dentistry on Orchard.Road this year. We are often approached by venture capitalists businessmen to join hands or expand aggressively overseas. There have been many overseas ventures being offered to us, for example, one in 2000 (and again in 2005 and 2006), to start 150 Smile Inc.s in China. However, we have been very selective and careful as quick and mindless expansion will dilute the quality of our practice, since dentistry is one that is skill intensive and quality control is paramount in our philosophy. In any case, Smile Inc. has done a tremendous job in developing medical tourism by bringing inbound tourists/patients into Singapore.
16. What does entrepreneurship mean to you?
Quality is really critical. And though cliched as it may sound, the old saying is right when it said "No Venture. No Gain." One must have the attitude of "no choice but to succeed"- there should be no half measures; only the desire to make things work out - and work out well and good. Entrepreneurship means moving out of one's comfort zone and when necessary, taking calculated risks to take advantage of opportunities presented. Being able to spot future trends and being ahead of the game in terms of vision and strategy is also crucial. Most importantly, "Entrepreneurship" means successful execution of the plan in order to achieve one's vision.
17. What are some entrepreneurship qualities that you have which has helped you come this far?
One such quality would be business acumen - which we noticed had rubbed off on our son. He is always eager to make suggestions as to how we can make improvements to our clinics, or marketing efforts to increase patient flow, though he is only eight years old. One family friend commented that our son, though a "small kid", "says things that actually make sense". Another is the ability to bond with people of different races and backgrounds - this is especially important when dealing with people, and we see people from all over the world all the time. Also, fluidity and resourcefulness are also critical in adapting to changes. We are also blessed with a good team and good support.
18. In your opinion, what other qualities does a person need in order to be successful in business? And why? (eg. Educational qualification, work experience, family influence, attitude, etc)
Attitude is important - the tenacity of the entrepreneur, the "nothing is impossible" mindset and the ability to be steadfast and work things through. Having the passion and vision in his /her chosen field and the desire to be the best. Determination and perseverance to see things through no matter how difficult the challenges may be. Luck also plays a part too- doing the right things at the right time is critical.
19. In your opinion, what does it mean to have the 'spirit of enterprise'?
It means the spirit to capitalise on opportunities, to turn adversities into challenges, create new markets out of nothing, and again, always bear in mind that "nothing is impossible."
20. Who or what motivates and inspires you?
It is more of something that is within oneself, I guess, personal beliefs and the deep desire in wanting to have things done successfully and to exploit one's talents and opportunities to the fullest.
21. What are some of your business values and what would you like to pass down to others, particularly the younger generation?
Back to the basics, really. Always start with the belief that nothing is impossible. It is also our motto. Having the right mindset is very important. Always think big, set your goals and go for it. Perseverance is a must have, one must not be afraid of hard work. Also, one should have the tenacity to succeed as well - such factors and attitudes, coupled with the determination to succeed, are important in stepping up.
22. Can you share some of the more significant events / incidents that affected or shaped your business philosophy and the way you conduct your business? i.e. SARS, new competition or shifts in market behaviour and trends, etc.
From the very beginning, our focus was to make available to everyone good quality dentistry coupled with full sterilisation procedures, without the added costs- this arose from the fact that during the early days, patients were made to pay for sterilisation procedures in other dental practices. We started Smile Inc. and offered the highest quality and full sterilization of all instruments and equipment used; without the extra charge. Our rational was simple: patients should not be paying for the use of sterile instruments on them; it is the right of the patient that sterile instruments are used on them.
Hence, during the SARS period, our reputable hygiene standards came to people's minds and it accentuated the importance of having patients' trust. Our patient numbers witnessed a leap during that period.
23. With the changes in the market today, do you think it has become harder or easier to succeed in business? Why do you say so?
Market cycles and changes will always happen, they are inevitable. One needs to keep the positive mindset - the tenacity to go through thick and thin, seize opportunities and be steadfast. Fluctuations are a constant, it is your own attitude that can make a world of difference. We strive never to rest on our laurels and to avoid the pitfalls of complacency, greed and arrogance.
24. What advice would you give young people who want to start their own business?
Always be 100% committed. Hard work and sacrifice are part of the game. Never lose the passion to succeed. Put in your heart and soul.