ALVIN TAN

Alvin Tan started his own hygiene and sanitization service business in 2006. He came up with an ingenious water-based silver ion technology sanitizer that protects the keyboard free of germs from 24 hours and does not tarnish the wordings on the keyboard. He took an additional step to child-safe all their products, to make it environmental and user friendly for both adults and kids.

Business Profile:

SureClean Pte Ltd was established in 2006. SureClean is one of the leading suppliers for hygiene and disinfection technology that includes cleaning, sanitizing, food safety and infection control products and services to industries in Singapore & the SEA region. SureClean sanitizers have effectively brought HFMD (Hand Food Mouth Disease) and other childhood infections under control in childcare centres.

We supply to childcare industry, hospitality and the restaurant industries. SureClean educates to provide our customers with a clean and germ-free environment so as to enhance their health standards and productivity.

Interviewer's Comments:

SureClean's corporate branding registered immediately into my head when I first heard of it. This is by far the most inspiring and motivational interview I have ever sat in. Mr Alvin Tan's confident and well-articulated aura made me feel that anyone can achieve success as long as they set their goals and work towards it. Besides being passionate about his job, he also ensures that her staffs are well treated as he strongly believes that his staffs' efforts also contribute to the company's success in addition to work experiences. He showed me that by having an optimistic and persevering attitude, it is possible to fulfil one's dream.

Interview: 

1) What is the nature of your business?

I decided on this SureClean brand name because it's easy to remember and as there's a Singaporean Slang that easily registers into our minds.SureClean Pte Ltd is a supplier of hygiene and disinfection products and services, including cleaning, sanitizing, food safety and infection control products and services to industries in Singapore. We are the leading supplier to the children industry, we supply to the hospitality and restaurant industries. We seek to educate and provide our customers with the capability to operate in a clean and gem-free environment so as to enhance their health standards and productivity. Our clients are mostly childcare centres, hospitals, homecare centres and restaurants. To date, childcare centres take up 75% of our revenue.

2) When and why did you decide to become an entrepreneur/take over your family business? Do your parents have their own businesses too? Have they inspired you in one way or another?

I have always aspired to start my own business since young. During my national service days, I took up a part-time degree in IT but had little ideawhat to do. I secured jobs in Hewlett Packard and other SMEs to help them to setup IT infrastructure: Firewall, LAN etc. Knowledge gained from my IT degree was put into good use when I managed to increase the productivity of my previous workplaces utilising my IT background. I graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Information Technology from University of Western Sydney in 2006. It was in 2006 that was the year I decided to take a leap of faith to be my own boss as I had little or no commitments then. During the initial stages, much of his time was spent on brainstorming for the firstproduct, which also became a best seller, our toilet seat sanitizer. When he first started out, we marketed the toilet seat sanitizers through various sales points: bazaars push carts stalls at shopping centres, flea markets for the initial first two years. Alvin worked long hours, sales was marginal then. Soon Alvin realised that this business model was not sustainable, there were hardly any rebuys, and he ended up chasing sales every other day. It was exhausting. He then marketed our toilet seat sanitizers on the shelves of Carrefour and Beaute Spring, it did helped a little but sales, was not tremendous. He thought it was a product problem and so he came up with a keyboard sanitizer. He came up with a silver ion technology that is water­ based instead of a normal alcohol sanitizer which could protect the keyboard for 24 hours and does not tarnish the wordings on the keyboard. He took an additional step to child-safe all our products, to make it environmental friendly for both adults and kids. He did the same, placing the keyboard sanitizer on the shelves of Carrefour and Beaute Spring, again this business modelproved not sustainable. Sale was disappointing, it did not exponentially or linearly grow, and sales volume was extremely erratic. Until one day, a child care centre accidentally picked up the keyboard sanitizer, the pre-school teachers love its scent and the fact that it was safe for use around toddlers. They came back to me to ask if we have a 5L keyboard sanitizer for sale. It turns out that they used the sanitizers to spray on almost anything, from the tables, chairs, keyboards, toys and sleep cots areas for children. This time, instead of producing 10,000 bottles of, we produced a smaller batch of 80 5L bottles of Surface Disinfectants for sale. The school was also provided with a 500ml spray bottle for dispensing, the following month the same child care centre came back to me for new orders. It then dawned on me that this business model is very sustainable that leads me to building more sales of the same kind, more rebuys.

3) What are your reasons for choosing to do business in this particular industry?

The idea of being the provider for hygiene and sanitization services was founded by chance, which made me who I am today, an accidental entrepreneur. The sanitization idea spun from our minds from the first time he came up with the first toilet sanitization spray. He felt very happy that the idea was very well-received and became commercially viable eventually.

4) How did you put together all the resources needed to start your business? For example: getting the start-up capital, hiring staffs, doing sales and marketing, advertising etc.

I started out alone, on a one man operation with additional help from family, the initial start-up cost was $25,000. Al<;mg the way, he depleted a lot of his savings to survive. It wasn't until the second or third year in the childcare industry that I hired my first staff. I did everything on my own from sales and marketing, delivery, administration, accounting.  I was working from 18 to 20 hours per day. Slowly, I decided to out-source for delivery service and warehousing, it helped me focus on bringing in more sales for my company. As sales increases, and so does my paper workload increases, I decided to hire an admin and accounting staff to handle my accounts through MYOB, churning out invoices, delivery orders, sale tracking, inventory. In 2008, two years after I started, I managed to earn enough to hire more sales staffs and also to rent a small office for my business. Along this entrepreneurship journey,  I learn how to handle customers, my sales staffs and to manage my staffs effectively. It has been a rewarding journey.

5) What is your company vision and mission? How do you convey these to your company staffs and team members?

Our company's vision is to be the frontier of hygiene excellence through our franchises and distributors around the world, so as to improve the quality of life for our customers and empower them to live life to the fullestWe do this by educating our customers with the capability to operate in a clean and germ-free environment so as to enhance their health standards and productivity.We live by our company 5 Core values represented by the 5 Stars on our logo.

Team Work (Working Cohesively Together) - We respect and care for each other, communicate and work cohesively to pursue a common goal

Integrity  (Doing the right thing) - We are honest fair and impartial and always deliver what we promise to our customers.

Innovativeness  (Thinking of new ways to do things) - We challange the status quo, reinventing ourselves to add value to our customers and staffs

Customer Focus  (Knowing what the customer wants) - We respect our customers and are proactive and responsive to their needs. We go the extra mile and work beyond our boundaries and seek value added solutions to our customers.

Education (Continuous Learning) - We strive to continuously upgrade ourselves through education so as to improve ourselves to serve our customer with better value added services and knowledge

6) What are some of the challenges you faced when you first went into business?

Inexperience with the use of the initial limited budget to get the initial product up for sale was one of the early stage hurdle. There was a need to constantly chase sales to convert cash from the inventory to grow. Constant chasing of sales was the biggest initial hurdle. Alvin reinvented the business model to do B2B sales to childcare, sales picked up and the business was more sustainable.The next hurdle was lack of company structure, the company infrustucture was not set up and Alvin was a one man operations, he was handling all business operations from sales, to delivery to billing, soon he had to outsource some business functions to free up more time for Alvin to bring inmore sales. With his time freed from delivery and paperwork, he concentrated on sales and soon hired more sales staffs to grow the sales to what is Sureclean today.

7) How did you overcome these challenges? Please share some specific examples of the action you took to overcome the challenges.

Inexperience with the use of the initial limited budget to get the initial product up for sale was one of the early stage hurdle. There was a need to constantly chase sales to convert cash from the inventory to grow. Constant chasing of sales was the biggest initial hurdle. Alvin reinvented the business model to do B2B sales to childcare, sales picked up and the business was more sustainable. The next hurdle was lack of company structure, the company infrustucture was not set up and Alvin was a one man operations, he was handling all business operations from sales, to delivery to billing, soon he had to outsource some business functions to free up more time for Alvin to bring inmore sales. With his time freed from delivery and paperwork, he concentrated on sales and soon hired more sales staffs to grow the sales to what is Sureclean today.

8) When was that moment you realized the business would work and support you?

The moment that we found out there were more rebuys of the same products by returning customers in 2008/2010. We realised that we have achieved an exponential growth in the sales of our disinfectants either on a monthly basis or on a contractual basis instead of us chasing for sales every day. The Surface Disinfectant : Germclean was that one product that we found tremendous success in. It came to a point where our childcare centre customers approached me to ask if we carry a variety of products such as hand sanitizers, bath gels, hand washing liquids, dish washing liquids and thermometers and anti-bacterial floor cleaner. Gradually, we started to include more items such as non-slip mats, Infrared forehead thermometer, soap dispenser, dust control mats, interleaved dispenser and paper and air freshener into the list to serve our customers. We stuck to our Unique Selling Proposition, a stabilized silver ion complex, a safer disinfectant, tested to be child safe for both adults and babies. We started getting more requests from our returning customers such as sanitization service, to offer a sanitisation service with manual labour to disinfect the whole childcare centres on an ad­ hock basis, monthly or quarterly basis. So we decided to come up with a package, a 2 year contract between us and our customers, giving them a 25% discount in return on our packages to ensure that regular manual service was provided to childcare centres.

9) What are some of your product business achievements to date? And why are they so important and meaningful to you?

One of them is the achievement of the exponential sales growth with the change  business model with the third product, the Surface Disinfectant Germclean as well as the conditions that I have set aside to grow my company's sales effectively. We give our sales staff good benefits, welfare and commissions when they managed to hit their monthly target. We set aside KPI for our sales staffs to motivate them to bring in more sales for our company. We have a basic pay for each of our sales staff, they will automatically get double that commission as long as they hit their KPI.

10) How do you promote learning within your company? What are the training opportunities that you provide your staff?

We offer an in house training which is done by myself to introduce new staffs to my corporate culture, what we do, our unique selling point, our products and services we provide to all our customers. We send our staffs for yearly training on social etiquette, how to dress professionally, sales presentation skills and persuasion skills, product training and demonstration. Every staff will go for 2-4 trainings a year on their speciality to improve themselves to serve the customer better.

11) What do you see for your business in the next 5 years and does it include any plans for expansion?

Currently we ar very much only in Singapore marketing our products and services to the Local SME markets. Singapore is a good place for businesses to prosper. We have plans to grow more sales from various industries, come up with more production offering to our existing clients who already trust our brand. The next industry we are planning to move into is the hospital and hof)le industry. The main focus for 2014-15 is also to start franchising the bsuiness overseas.

12)1n your opinion, what is a good and ethical business? How do you think this helps you in your company/business?

One of our company core values is Integrity, this includes doing the right thing. We are honest fair and impartial and always deliver what we promise to our customers. We do not do under the table money, we believe honestly and transparent dealing in our customers' money is very important.

13) How will you describe your working relationship with your customers, suppliers and service providers?

We build good rapport with our customers and suppliers, we do these by getting our sales staffs to visit our customers on a regular basis. Building good relationships with all our customers is the key to longevity, we do not do hard sales or keep pushing new product sales to the customers. We always aim to be the first point of contact for our customers to reach us each time they need something. The preschool industry is a well-connected  industry, sometimeswe get one of our pre-school principal recommending our products to another pre-school education. We often send our company's new product offerings to our customer through snail mails. It may be expensive but in the long run our snail mails will never be ignored. Customers will still open the letters at the end of the day compared to email direct marketing where the chances of our emails going into spam or junk mails are much higher.

14) How do you differentiate your business from your competitors? Please provide examples.

We came up with a new technology that is the automatic disinfectant system (ADS), which is able to automatically disinfect childcare centres or offices on aJ nightly basis. Our automatic disinfectant system (ADS) works by using the ADS' iPhone/Android App to preset it. It does the job of disinfecting automatically at the pre-selected time and daily frequency, producing evaporation of aerosols. With the convenience that the ADS machine provides, any preschool centres will be thoroughly disinfected and is pandemic-ready against common childhood infections such as Hand Foot & Mouth Disease (HFMD), Stomach flu, And Chicken pox etc. The ADS machine uses a new generation of disinfectant with hydrogen peroxide and silver ions that leave no residue so it is child-safe and non-messy. Aerosols produced are non-toxic and non-corrosive and creates no germ resistance.We also implemented hygiene training courses: Introduction to Basic Preschool Hygiene Management Course for childcare centres, we schedule a time to train pre-school teachers and principals and cleaning ladies on the importance of hygiene and our product demonstrations. The key focus of this training is to equip participants with the right knowledge of how germs and diseases are spread. We went an extra mile to educate both the pre-school teachers and principals on the transmission of HFMD and other childhood diseases and the common mistakes to avoid so that we can effectively counter the spread of these air-borne viruses. We have to think like a visionary, we have to keep on innovating and not stop at the status quo. We aim to be the leader in our industry, with our automated disinfectant machine and hygiene training courses.

15) What are some business ideas you have implemented that created great results in your business?

Our sanitization services we offer our customers in the childcare industry and our Automated disinfection System which is a very exciting new product which the customers are excited about.

16) Where or who do you get your business ideas from?

It was until I got into the childcare industry that I decided to approach someone for advice. I got some advice from Mr Thomas Fernandez, he became my mentor dishing out useful business advices.

17) How do you think your business have made a positive impact or contribute to the community that you serve? For example: creating jobs for Singaporeans or underprivileged, upgrading the skills of employee, improving livelihoods or lifestyles of customers?

I forecast a life-long growth for the hygiene and sanitization industry in Singapore. It will be an important industry for the next 10 years and even more so for the next 20 years because people fall sick from time to time, we are not immune to air-bone transmitted diseases. Our products and services has benefited the health service providers of childcare industry, hospitality services and restaurants. My management style also enforces that I hire only singaporeans as they are a much easier to manage work force.

18) What are some entrepreneurship qualities that you have which has helped you come this far?

Perseverance, attitude and your willingness to innovate more products offering to serve your industry is very important. We always aim to be the leader of the industry we serve.

19)1n your opinion, what other qualities does a person need in order to be successful in business? And why? (e.g. Educational qualifications, work experience, family influence, attitude etc.)

Education, previous work experience and your attitude all plays a role. Education is very important, without my IT knowledge, Iwould not be able to fix mY IT infrastructure, Firewall nor LAN and to research on silver ion technology for my company. With my IT knowledge, I improvised a system that is still kept in place today to ensure an exponential growth in business. I would say your attitude and preservance to succeed and how you manage your work will determine how far you can go in your own enterprise.

20) Who or what motivates and inspires you?

Three important people who motivates me in running my own business: Steve Jobs, Mr Thomas Fernandez and my of course our customers.Steve Jobs, says "Never give up, never keep the status quo. Apple sells a lifestyle, not their products. Steve Jobs is good in marketing and branding, I aim to emulate his business ideas in my business too.Thomas Fernandez wrote a book on "Dominate your niche". He advises us to know our target audience and always aim to be a leader in our chosen industry. Our first chosen industry is the childcare industry, we aim to specialise and dominate our niche in the childcare industry.The next most important thing is to listen to your customers. At the end of the day, customers are our pay masters, we are their suppliers. If we can fulfil their needs, we feel happy too.

21) 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 behaviours and trends etc.)

A lot of people think that our peak periods are usually during the haze periods, in reality we only do sales for N95 masks, we do not provide air purifiers or dehumidifiers or air freshners. Hygiene will always be an important part of our lives. Hygiene was important 10 years back and will be even more important 10 years later. How I conduct my business is to chose the correct industry and excel at being the best of that industry. With being the leader you do not have to worry too much on how the competition is doing. You just have to continuously add value to your customers and have a great customer service and support.

22) 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?

Yes and no, it depends on what industries you are in. Give you an example, the IT industry is a very fast and booming industry, mobile apps get replaced and buy-over very fast. I forecast longevity in the hygiene and the sanitization, industry, people fall sick easily sick due to the transmission of air-borne diseases. Hygiene will be important for the next 1O years or the next 20 years or so, So we aim to keep innovating and come up with new product offerings to serve our customers better.

23) What advice would you give young people who want to start their own business?

Firstly, have a clear understanding in what you are getting into. Knowing that you are in this for a long haul, entrepreneurship is not a one night or a one month or a one year standalone affair. Setting up a commercially viable sustainable business model is the key to building a great company.Understanding what makes a successful business model going and keeping the system in check is also very important. I would advise young people to start small, slowly and surely expand and dominate and conquer one industry first.

24) What does entrepreneurship mean to you?

Perseverance and knowing your goal in managing your own business is very important. Every year end, I reflect on the lessons learnt, be it problems with Government agencies, problems with my customers, suppliers or problems with my sales staff. Being optimistic in finding solutions when problems crops up is important to keep business operations in check.