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From local to global - lifting a brand overseas

ClearSK's founders set their sights on China as the Singapore market is too small.

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ClearSK's founders hail from vastly different backgrounds. While Dr Shiau (left) used to be a general practitioner, Mr Then (right) first worked in the public sector, before moving to the private sector where he took on the role of chief financial officer in an SGX-listed company.

FORGET plastic surgery; non-invasive aesthetic procedures are here to stay, says chief medical advisor of ClearSK, Shiau Ee Leng. It is safe, it is effective, and its popularity is slowly rising, says Dr Shiau, referring to a talk that she attended, where Brazilian cosmetic surgeon Mauricio De Maio said that non-invasive procedures could one day overtake surgery (while producing the same results).

Riding on the wave of consumer preferences that is shifting away from surgeries to aesthetic clinics for less-invasive treatments, Dr Shiau started up an integrated medi-aesthetic and wellness company with co-founder Daniel Then in 2008.

Interestingly, both founders hail from vastly different backgrounds. While Dr Shiau used to be a general practitioner, Mr Then first worked in the public sector, before moving to the private sector where he took on the role of chief financial officer in an SGX-listed company.

"I spent the first part of my life in the government; in some ways, you wouldn't expect someone to go into entrepreneurship from a rule-based organisation," says Mr Then.

But it is precisely because of these differences that they complement each other well - she provides the medical expertise and he, the management know-how.

From a humble unit in Toa Payoh central, ClearSK has expanded to 12 outlets in Singapore. In March this year, the company marked its overseas expansion with a branch in Shanghai, Pudong and results have been encouraging thus far.

Stepping into China

From the onset, the company's focus was on building a brand-centric business that could be replicated not just in Singapore, but abroad as well. The Chinese market was specifically chosen for three main reasons - size, timing and familiarity.

Mr Then laments that the Singapore market is too small, and that it is easy to get saturated in a small market. Conversely, with an estimated population of 24 million, Shanghai's market is about four to five times that of Singapore's, multiplying the potential for growth many times over.

"And this is only one city. Including other major cities like Shenzhen and Beijing, you're talking about a huge population," explains Mr Then.

Moreover, having studied the Chinese aesthetic market for about five years before this opportunity came along, both founders decided that it was the right time to venture overseas, especially with the Chinese government loosening regulations to encourage foreign investment and knowledge transfer.

It certainly helped that both founders had a good grasp of the Chinese market by then. For one thing, Dr Shiau is Shanghainese and speaks the native language. She travels to the city often to visit her family, making communication with the locals a breeze. Meanwhile, Mr Then is well attuned to business practices there as he has had two years of work experience in China.

"The good thing is that as Singaporeans, we're used to dealing with different cultures, so that's one of our strengths," says Mr Then.

To establish its outlet in Shanghai, ClearSK collaborated with two business partners, a local Shanghainese and another associate from the Shandong province.

"While the Shandong partner is more concerned about connections or emotions, the Shanghainese are more like Singaporeans - work-focused and practical," they both agree.

If there is one thing that Mr Then brought with him from his previous vocations, it is an emphasis on constantly improving processes and systems.

When ClearSK first started out in the midst of a recession, manpower issues were prevalent and staff turnover stood at 30 per cent. Now, the figure has been lowered to 10 per cent, and automation has played a crucial role in the company's operations.

By gathering feedback, ClearSK found that staff members could not focus and faced great stress when they had too many tasks to handle. Thus, the company decided to automate various processes, freeing up valuable time for employees to focus on delivering quality service.

Utilising grants from the Customer-Centric Initiative (CCI) funded by Spring Singapore, ClearSK developed an Automated Customer Experience (ACE) system in November 2013.

Essentially, the ACE system is a centralised e-booking system that allows for the scheduling of appointments across ClearSK's outlets. This greatly improved operational efficiency and in turn, customer satisfaction.

The result is a streamlined process with round-the-clock convenience that led to a 50 per cent increase in customer volume. All this translated to double-digit growth for the company, despite an economic slowdown.

"The human touch is very important," says Mr Then.

He reveals that people might not be aware that great interactions with customers are made possible because of the extensive preparation behind the scenes.

"So when the show starts, it's like a dance with the customer," he adds.

Tapping govt resources

Besides embracing automation, leveraging on the Singapore brand and assistance from IE Singapore have allowed ClearSK to set up shop in Shanghai more efficiently.

"The Singapore brand is quite attractive, it's seen as reliable and honest. I mean we're honest to our graves," says Mr Then with a laugh.

"This is currently rare in China, especially in the beauty aesthetic market where there are exaggerated claims with fake devices and substances."

"So I think the Singapore brand comes in nicely - and once you put the Singapore brand, the trust level increases dramatically," he adds.

To illustrate, when ClearSK first ventured overseas, the company utilised the Market Readiness Assistance (MRA) grant to defray the consultancy costs of entering an offshore market and networking with industry experts. Like ClearSK, SMEs seeking to launch their businesses overseas may receive up to 70 per cent of funding through both schemes.

Mr Then is quick to add that companies require different forms of assistance at different stages of growth.

Since establishing its first foray into the international market, ClearSK is currently working with IE Singapore to deepen its business capabilities and strengthen its market position abroad.

Both founders are not resting on their laurels and plan to grow the company further.

"Now that we've formed a basic scaleable model, we need to scale even more and even faster," says Mr Then. Already, the company is in discussion with parties ranging from Australia to Asean to find suitable business partners.

In the near future, ClearSK is also seeking to expand via a "franchisee-doctor concept". This means starting joint ventures with doctors where shareholders will enjoy equal profits.

Asked about what advice he would give to aspiring entrepreneurs, Mr Then asserts that it is important to know one's strengths and take on multiple roles.

"If you want to be an entrepreneur, be prepared to be a generalist," he says.

Though he trained in finance, accounts are outsourced since Mr Then's main priority today is to oversee marketing and business development of the company.

On the other hand, Dr Shiau surprisingly recommends "burning bridges".

"So when you're doing business, you really have to do it like there's no return," she says.

"Because it's always difficult especially in the first one or two years. Persevere through and success comes at the end. But give up early, and you'll never see that."