CEO Series

Not Just Skin Deep: A Love Story That Turned Into A Multi-Million Aesthetics Business

IDS Clinic, at its core, is a business that was started out of the love Dr. SK Tan has for his wife, Mrs. Janifer Yeo-Tan.

From chuckling heartily at inside jokes to downplaying their own contributions to the business so as to credit the other, I experienced firsthand the affection the genial pair had for each other during my interview with them.

Known as the ‘grandfather of aesthetics’ in the industry, Dr. Tan is the founder and medical director of well-known aesthetics brands in Singapore – IDS Clinic and The DRx Clinic.

dr sk tan
Dr. SK Tan / Image Credit: IDS Aesthetics

The latter was sold to India-based Kaya Limited in 2010 for an eight-figure sum – a deal that created quite a bit of buzz within the circle – but Dr. Tan admitted that they “should have waited some more, because [they] had built it very, very successfully”.

Someone else who was upset by the sale was Mrs. Yeo-Tan.

ids aesthetics
Mrs. Janifer Yeo-Tan / Image Credit: IDS Aesthetics

“I didn’t want to retire,” she sighed.

Dr. Tan comforted her, saying that they could start a small clinic to make her happy again.

She laughed: “Then I could have my laser and botox treatments without needing to go somewhere else!”

This ‘small clinic’ turned out to be IDS, which has since expanded to include IDS Skincare, which products are formulated in-house and then distributed to consumers through their online shop and retail outlets.

What’s interesting about the story of IDS, though, is that Dr. Tan initially didn’t harbour any dreams of practicing medicine, let alone being a renowned doctor in the aesthetics industry.

“By Default, I Became A Doctor

As a schoolboy in Malaysia, Dr. Tan shared that students who did better academically are sorted into the science stream. From there, students could choose to specialise in maths or biology.

“There was no fixed plan [for me] to do medicine, but it was generally assumed that if you did well academically, you become a doctor or engineer.”

“I had no interest in maths, so by default, I became a doctor,” he added matter-of-factly.

Even while doing his Bachelors of Medicine (MB) and Bachelors of Surgery (BS) from the University of Malaya, Dr. Tan was more motivated in playing sports, his main passion at that time.

After graduation in 1971, he became a flying doctor in Sarawak, taking helicopter trips to the jungle weekly to treat natives.

It was during these visits that he noticed “all sorts of things like skin problems”.

This observation was further reiterated at the 40-bed hospital that he ran by himself, where he too realised that a lot of patients suffered from skin issues.

“That sparked the interest (in dermatology).”

A few years later, he decided to take his interest to the next level, and enrolled in the St John’s Institute of Dermatology in London to do his training.

During his years in England, he also worked at a skin hospital, which only proved to him one thing – “that skin problems comprised of quite a big proportion of patients in general practice”.

In 1983, Dr. Tan migrated to Singapore and practiced at the Island Group Clinic, a general practice medical group.

The group split within a year, but Dr. Tan secured some financing and promptly bought it over.

Skincare products and various aesthetic treatments might also be prevalent now, but the case was very different a few decades ago.

“I don’t think there was anything called aesthetics then,” recalled Dr. Tan.

“Practicing, I realised that skin problems were also aesthetic in nature – it’s not just rashes. The young ones [came to see me] for pimples, and a lot of women had problems like pigmentation.”

These were the problems that made me realise that people wanted…needed, to look good for their self esteem.

From Skin Doctor To Life Partner

Longtime friends before they became partners in life and business, Dr. Tan was also the only doctor who managed to successfully heal Mrs. Yeo-Tan’s “very bad skin”.

Their first meeting was anything but a fairytale romance, though.

Then working as a skincare and beauty product distributor, Mrs. Yeo-Tan and Dr. Tan first got acquainted when she visited his clinic with her Indonesian distributor.

Quipped Mrs. Yeo-Tan: “Even with all my makeup, this guy (Dr. Tan) walked in and looked at me saying: ‘I can treat that skin.'”

“I was so embarrassed, and I thought: ‘I don’t want to see this man again!'”

As fate had it, the two met again a few years later, when her aunt ‘tricked’ her into visiting his clinic once again.

“My mum, my aunts…all of them saw Dr. Tan [for their skin issues], so they insisted that I also needed to go and see him.”

“I was so resistant because by the time I was introduced to him, I had spent over $150,000 seeking help from salons and GPs over 10 years…and they made [my skin] worse! So I said: ‘No, I’m not going to let another doctor make any more money from me.'”

On the guise of helping her deliver food to a friend, her aunt successfully managed to trick Mrs. Yeo-Tan to enter the doors of his clinic once again.

Indignant at her aunt’s ploy, she told Dr. Tan that there was “no way [he was] making a dime out of [her]”.

Even after this initially unpleasant introduction, the two eventually became friends, and Mrs. Yeo-Tan impishly quipped that she “made good use of him” by making him do tests and read the labels of the products she was distributing.

“Through time, I saw all the before and after photos and testimonies (from Dr. Tan’s patients), and I said: ‘Ok, I’ll let you [cure my skin]. But no charging!'”

Her skin problems vanished, and convinced that his approach to aesthetics worked, Mrs. Yeo-Tan soon joined him as his business partner.

Image Credit: IDS Aesthetics

On DRx: “Friends And Family Thought I Was Crazy!

At the Island Group, Dr. Tan ended up seeing a lot of skin cases and soon took in a partner, who he subsequently passed the group to.

“I decided to separate the aesthetics part (of the business) from the Island Group,” Dr. Tan shared.

But that was also when detractors started emerging.

A lot people were making discouraging comments. ‘So stupid. So crazy that you do aesthetics. You might as well do dermatology.’ Some also said there was no market for it.

Even his friends and family expressed their concerns on how he would be able to find enough patients to support the business, given that aesthetic treatments were still somewhat of a novelty in the mid 90s.

But Dr. Tan held true to his belief that “when people want to look good, they don’t want to be sitting next to people with bad rashes, infected skin”.

“I wanted to introduce this purely aesthetics clinic, where people just came to see me for cosmetic and aesthetic reasons.”

He also realised that patients didn’t have effective skincare products that they could use.

“Whatever was available in the market then was ‘feel good, smell good and marketing’,” said Dr. Tan.

“Something a lot of my patients told me is that ‘Oh, it doesn’t irritate my skin!’ I said: ‘So what? Water doesn’t irritate your skin.'”

A lot of people buy products and as long as it doesn’t cause problems, they’re happy. I think our consumers need a lot of education.

With this mission in mind, Dr. Tan pushed ahead with his vision and opened the DRx Clinic in 1998.

Surprisingly, while getting a steady flow of customers wasn’t an issue, a challenge he faced was that there was only one of him.

Shared Mrs. Yeo-Tan: “He could only see a limited number of patients.”

That was when she had an idea that would change the direction of their businesses forever.

“We brought in a lot of therapists. I think we were the pioneer here [to do so].”

As a quick overview of how this model works, while Dr. Tan and his doctors consult and prescribe the products, it’s a therapist who walks through and educates a patient on the treatment.

She was also the one who introduced spa and salon elements like facials to the clinic.

Image Credit: IDS Aesthetics

“This concept by Janifer worked very well because aesthetics is not purely medical.”

“When the consumer wants to look good, it’s not just seeing a doctor. They need other services as well, which I wasn’t familiar with,” admitted Dr. Tan.

IDS Was Supposed To Be A ‘Mom And Pop’ Business

As mentioned at the start of the article, the DRx practice and clinic was sold off in 2010 for an undisclosed eight-figure sum.

While some might assume that the reason for the sale was purely to cash out, the actual motivation is more sentimental.

“Haha, it’s a very romantic story,” laughed Mrs. Yeo-Tan.

“SK was worried that if he doesn’t sell off (the business) and have some cash put aside, […] I’ll be left in the lurch if something happened to him.”

Well, it was a bad decision.

Even after selling the business, they still harboured the wish to have a clinic of their own, “like a mom and pop thing”.

Quipped Mrs. Yeo-Tan: “We were just going to be happy and take it easy!”

Calling it IDS, this ‘mom and pop’ clinic opened its doors in 2014, but after a year of “cruising along”, Dr. Tan’s good friend, Jacob Waugh, a promising young doctor who started US firm Revance came with a chance for the couple to do something more with their expertise.

“He asked if we could start a research lab together.”

The couple with Jacob Waugh / Image Credit: IDS Aesthetics

“I was very surprised. In the US, he’ll be paid millions, but he just didn’t trust corporations there.”

“So we started and came up with this innovative technology [which] is now used in a number of our products. It’s a delivery system, an ingredient that makes the absorption of active ingredients very effective.”

Eventually, they patented it and subsequently had to move their lab to the US, “because the big boys (pharmaceuticals) wanted to use this license”.

Developing New Products, Experimenting On Themselves

While IDS’ line of products are developed and produced at their US lab, they also have a lab in Singapore that is mostly used for prototyping and simple field tests.

“Our lab in Singapore is GMP-certified and recognised worldwide,” beamed Dr. Tan.

Having their own lab also means that moving from idea to product development is a whole lot faster, and they won’t need to conform to the practices of other manufacturers.

When one of our current scientists joined us, she was shocked. She said: ‘You put such a high concentration in the product? In the previous company, a household name, we just put a tiny amount so we can claim that we put X in that.’

“In our set up here, we put 20 to 30 times of that amount,” revealed Dr. Tan.

“We need to put in this amount to make it work.”

For him, customers needs are also his inspiration behind the creation of new products.

“In practice, I see patients and I see what they use. I see what’s working and what’s not working and what extra (products) they need.”

Dr. Tan also makes sure to keep abreast about the market – “I see what they have, and how and why they’re selling them.”

“When I see a brand coming up with a new product, I see all the marketing hype. Looking at the ingredients and what they want to offer, I reverse engineer it in my head: ‘Does this work? Can I do something better?'”.

Dr. Tan and Mrs. Yeo-Tan have also taken ‘hands on approach’ to the next level – by experimenting not-yet released products on themselves before launching it to consumers.

“We try it on ourselves [because unless] we’re convinced, we won’t introduce it to the business,” assured Mrs. Yeo-Tan.

She laughed as she recalled a time when all the tests conducted at DRx left her with burns on her skin.

“It was really bad! [However,] IDS was a blessing because my skin got healed by – not trying to sell you any products – the RC (Rejuvenating Complex). It took care of all the sensitivity that I developed (over the years of testing).”

Even Dr. Tan isn’t spared from the experiments.

There was a spa treatment where she (Mrs. Yeo-Tan) literally bloodied my whole face!

Speaking of the RC, Dr. Tan recalled the time when he used the prototype on his own skin and did regular biopsies to track the effect it had on his skin.

“I don’t think any other product prescribed by doctors has ever gone through this type of tests.”

“After a month or so of treatment, the skin [I used the RC on] was actually repaired, and the amount of collagen and elastin tremendously increased [and] we can prove that it works.”

“This is what I mean by science backing up the products.”

14,000 (And Counting) Clients Served At IDS Clinic So Far

ids aesthetics
Image Credit: IDS Aesthetics

IDS managed to turn a profit within a year, and I asked them what they think made their approach work.

“I think it was his name. It was SK. I think we leveraged on his reputation,” gushed Mrs. Yeo-Tan.

Added Dr. Tan: “I think our business model is very different from other aesthetics clinics. Most doctors start an aesthetics clinic just offering services. They buy a laser and when a patient comes in, they offer the laser programme.”

“Their skincare is also nothing unique. It’s something that’s literally over the counter, just with their name on it.”

Our philosophy is different. We give you products that make a difference. We actually build up a reputation of the products.

“You can use a skincare product forever, but you cannot be doing lasers every day.”

Since inception in 2014, IDS has seen over 14,000 patients to date, adding to the 40,000 patients that Dr. Tan saw during his years at DRx.

Keeping The Faith, And Becoming A Household Name

Having worked together for over two decades now, I asked them for advice they have for couples who also work together.

“Even at work, we draw lines. So there’s this thing – ‘your turf, my turf’. If you cross into my turf, I will be hitting the roof,” Mrs. Yeo-Tan said, laughing heartily.

ids aesthetics
Image Credit: IDS Aesthetics

From what was supposed to be a ‘small clinic’, IDS has since grown to a dominant player in the aesthetics field with a 60-strong staff operation in a matter of 5 years.

I asked them about what keeps the IDS team going.

“Faith, I suppose,” said Mrs. Yeo-Tan. “Believing that the product works and that we are going somewhere.”

As for future plans for IDS, there are hopes that it will eventually be a household name in Singapore. “We’ll also like to make some headway into the international market.”

Added Dr. Tan: “Interestingly, one of the things that’s happening is that some government agencies have noticed us and have come forward to offer their help to help us grow.”

“I think that speaks a lot about what we’ve done.”

I’d like to thank Dr. Tan and Mrs. Yeo-Tan for their time!

This article was written in collaboration with IDS Aesthetics.

 

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