Dr Jacky Lam, the CEO and Founder of Smile Dental, explains how he started and grew his business into New Zealand’s largest private dental group.
Why did you become a dentist?
Dr Jacky Lam: I was born in Hong Kong and I came here when I was 17 because I had no chance of getting into university in Hong Kong, it’s too competitive. So, I managed to come to New Zealand, finished my high school here, and then my brother is a medical doctor, my mom’s a nurse, so I always thought I will become a doctor as well.
There’s only two university in New Zealand that offer that, one is Auckland one is Otago. So, in Auckland and Otago can can do your first year and usually from your first year you apply medical school.
So I ended up in Otago and tried to get into med school, but I think same old story, I would say, like the people who’re trying to get to med school, they couldn’t get in. Then I thought about pharmacy and dentistry. Pharmacists prescribe pills for the rest of their life, and dentists, well, you can call half a doctor. So I just signed that piece of paper and got into dentistry. I had no idea what I was going to do in dentistry.
I think it actually suit my character and suit my personality as well. I think doctors get the better status, but I think dentists have their feet on the ground more and I like doing business because my dad is a businessman as well. I enjoy the business side of running a dental practice.
Loran: From what I can see, dentistry offers a real opportunity for clinical work, and also business. So if you’re minded that way, you can take advantage of that and fulfil your potential in those two areas, if you enjoy the clinical side and the business side.
Dr Jacky Lam: Yeah, that’s right. Smile Dental, where we are, it’s fully owned by myself. We start back in ’96, I graduated ’95 actually, so start working January ’96. I started my first business about six months after I graduated.
I bought an old run-down practice in Otahuhu from an old guys who was retiring, and I just talked to myself, “Alright, okay, if I’m going to fall, I’d rather fall early, so I can stand up again when I was young.”
I picked a lower socioeconomic area – probably one of the lowest in Auckland – and then just start from there. I learnt my lessons; learnt how to run the business, how to manage that. Fortunately, I’ve got a lot of good people around me, so it slowly grew from one practice to about 14 or 15 now.
What are the biggest marketing challenges that you face and how do you deal with them?
Dr Jacky Lam: I just got emails when I was at university. The internet wasn’t out there, so I guess most of the marketing back in the early days will be more word of mouth, Yellow Pages, newspaper ads and radio ads, and things like that.
Then certainly, media shifted with mobile devices and a lot of people started doing marketing online and on internet as well. Now most people have got a cell phone; most people go online. So the question is, ‘how you can market your practice different from other people’?
Marketing has changed considerably in recent years. What does that mean for dentists? Is it easier now or harder?
Dr Jacky Lam: If you know what you’re doing, it’s easier, if not, then certainly, it’s harder. I will say some of the more mature or well-run practices, they got their patient base, so they may sort of neglect or not put in enough resources. Then it might be that they have reached their maximum capacity already or nearly max capacity, so they don’t need so much marketing.
I guess with marketing, it depends what phase of your company growth you’re in as well. For us, because we keep expanding and have new practices, we need to keep pushing and to fit like 30 dentists so we need a lot of people walking through the door.
You can be really specific now [with how you market]. With Google AdWords, you can target certain age group or area. If you like doing orthodontics and Invisalign, you can purely market your practice right there and get a lot of patients that come in and ask for the service. So, I think it’s good for marketing nowadays.
What role does cosmetic dentistry play in your practice today, and what do you think the future holds?
Dr Jacky Lam: In New Zealand, most of the people don’t have insurance. So I guess it will be quite fragmented. People who are looking for like high-end cosmetic industry, the demand is always there, but I guess it depends on the disposable income.
I’m sure, everyone wants better-looking teeth and face, but in New Zealand, most people can afford the basics – make sure there’s no pain and that’s okay. But I can certainly see it changing now. Instead of having a denture, they go for an implant if they can afford it, especially younger people.
I think cosmetic dentistry is driven from the newer generation: “Oh, my teeth are not aligned.” Probably even just slightly out, they’ll say, “I want to have Invisalign” and something to make themselves look good. I think the self-image is different from people in the ’50s or ’60s. They’re more like gumboot, grass root people, so they don’t really care about how their teeth look.
I think certainly with the influence of the media, film stars and Hollywood, the trend will pick up here. The generation nowadays, they don’t really think, they just follows what’s online and what people say. So, I think it’s easier from a marketing point of view if you can find the right tune, find the right key, then you can target those young people and steer them into the treatments or trends that we do here.
How do you manage the dual roles of being a respected dentist and a business owner? What tips do you have for other dentists who are starting out?
Dr Jacky Lam: First of all, you have to be a good dentist. I think that’s the rock bottom line. You have to do good dentistry and you have to be ethical as well. We’ve seen some dentists that do really good marketing campaigns – do a lot of crowns and veneers – but sometimes we’ll just wonder, is that for the patient? Are they providing the correct treatment options?
So, I think number one is become an ethical dentist, because at the end of the day, when you go home, you want to be mind-free and know you’ve done the right thing.
Let’s talk about running a business. When you first start, you should use external sources like some marketing company or people who know Google campaigns and Google AdWords – some kind of specialist to help you. It will give you a kick start.
Once you have a more established patient base, then you can focus on internal marketing, because word of mouth is probably still the most important source of referrals for new patients. Google reviews and what people said about your practice is very important.
So, I think if you get the right people to help you with your business then you don’t have that your mind and you can focus on doing quality dentistry, and let the professional do their best like marketing.
What do you think about the future of dentistry in New Zealand?
Dr Jacky Lam: Whoa, that’s the big question. I think, New Zealand has only a few dental school, so we always have slightly less supply of dentists. So, I think the demand for dentists will be still there. In Australia, I think they have like seven or 13 dental school, plus every year 200 overseas dentists registered in the country.
So, I think that New Zealand is in a way blessed, but I think eventually some of the Australian dentists will come to New Zealand and competition will go up, especially in Metro, in big city like Auckland, Christchurch, Wellington. In rural locations, it probably wouldn’t change much, because not a lot of people would like to go rural. So, as far as I know, rural business are quite steady, but I think in Auckland or in big cities, that the competition will keep increasing.
As I said, there’s more cosmetic-driven awareness or the awareness of dental health is increasing. So certainly, I think there’ll be increase on that part. But on the other hand, in New Zealand, the average income is not as high as another state or maybe in Australia, and we don’t have insurance scheme, so I think it’s quite segmented. On one end of the scale will be the richer people who can afford very good dentistry, while the other end will still have a full mouth of decays, gum disease, and things like that.
So, I think the challenge for New Zealand and the government is how we can protect the weaker group and provide some sort of a basic or elementary services, so we can get them through. And then, at the same time, it might be bad for us, but bringing in more dentists probably would drive the price down for dentistry in New Zealand.three