WHEN Pauline Ng decided to help her mother revamp her defunct home facial treatment business in 2009, she had no idea that Porcelain, The Face Spa would grow rapidly to encompass its current three outlets and 45 employees in just seven years.
"People ask me, did you envision Porcelain to be the way it is today, with this many stores and employees?" the co-founder and managing director said.
"It wasn't that way when we started. It was more organic. Layer by layer, we added things to the business that we felt would be better."
While this system proved useful in Porcelain's early years, Ms Ng is well aware that it can also result in redundancy at certain levels. As a result, they are currently overhauling their service and product offerings over several months to simplify choices for customers.
An aspect of Porcelain that developed organically was the company culture with a strong system of values.
Ms Ng said: "We thought company culture was fluffy things, like values, vision and mission. Then I realised that it's so important to have things like that, because along the way there are so many decisions that we need to make."
Many of Porcelain's values, like the importance of transparency, reflect her own. Transparency is embedded in the company's name, culture and business dealings.
While "porcelain" in skincare calls to mind a smooth, unblemished complexion, the word also has links to translucence and the idea of high value.
To be transparent with customers, Ms Ng did away with the common practice of offering additional services to them during their treatment sessions, believing that customers should get what they paid for without any hidden costs.
The company also advocates going without foundation, concealer and blemish base as the products tend to clog pores and prevent problematic skin from healing.
The brand's promise to customers is that if they do their part, Porcelain's treatments will clear up their skin to the point that they will no longer feel the need to cover up blemishes.
At the same time, Ms Ng has nothing against makeup when it is used for the right reasons and the skin is cleansed correctly afterward. She views it as a beautiful art, and likens it to a blazer as part of the dress code in some professional environments.
In Porcelain, staff are trusted to work in a transparent manner, and the company does not track attendance. Instead, employees have scorecards indicating the company's expectations for their performance, and can accomplish their work in whatever way they think best.
They are also encouraged to suggest improvements to standard operating procedures, which are developed by front-line staff themselves. "We give people autonomy and I think that makes people feel more empowered to do what is right," said Ms Ng.
Finding the right employees
In the early days, attracting and retaining employees was a particular challenge.
Ms Ng's mother, Jenny Teng, tended to exercise a more autocratic style of management with her two employees when running her home business, but the same methods did not work as well in Porcelain, especially with younger employees.
Learning more about human resource practices helped Ms Ng figure out better ways to communicate with employees so that they feel empowered in their jobs and choose to continue working with Porcelain.
Today, the company still welcomes new staff readily, but the company culture and adherence to its values helps them quickly identify those who are not a good fit.
"Within two weeks, we can know if a person is suitable for us, especially when it comes to more junior positions," Ms Ng said. "It's not that they did anything wrong, but it's about matching job expectations and the culture."
She strives to keep negativity and politics out of her business, and has let go even high performers, because their attitude and behaviour were causing problems.
Ms Ng describes her team as people who can be playful, but take pride in their work, are eager to learn, and have humility and initiative. Crucially, they understand the importance of teamwork and integrity in ensuring Porcelain's success.
Advice for family businesses
Making a family business work involves a great deal of communication and understanding, said Ms Ng.
She advises keeping in mind that each person is juggling two roles, that of a family member and of a professional.
For example, while Ms Teng might nag her daughter at times as a mother, her advice as director aesthetician should not be interpreted as nagging as well.
Ms Ng also learnt to better understand her mother's intentions when she realised that the previous two failures of Ms Teng's home business in difficult times, coupled with her timid nature, have made her more cautious than her daughter in making decisions.
"She was deciding and advising based on fear, for fear that I would follow in her footsteps," said Ms Ng. "After understanding that, I know that I should not fight with her. I should learn to assuage her (fears) and give her confidence."
Spurred by their commitment to make the customer experience as straightforward as possible, the Porcelain team is currently relooking various aspects of the business to simplify their treatment menu. For a start, they recently reduced their in-house skincare range of fragrance- and paraben-free, non-comedogenic (skincare products formulated so as not to cause blocked pores) products from 18 options to 13.
The company's practice has been to add new options periodically according to the needs of their customers, but Ms Ng feels that over time, the number of choices has become slightly overwhelming.
"Right now, people are already confused enough in their lives," she said. "We want to present to them solutions that are simpler to understand, more customisable, and easy for them to digest."
The restructured customer experience, which Ms Ng and her team call Porcelain 2.0, includes a system of creating customised treatment plans for each customer.
Rather than having customers buy packages individually and visit the salons numerous times for various treatments, Porcelain will arrange the necessary treatments for each session, and customers will only have to know how often to visit the salon.
Aside from being convenient for customers, this arrangement gives Porcelain a chance to introduce its other treatments, as most customers know only of Ms Teng's Quintessential facial, but could benefit from other targeted treatments.
"To move on to the next mile (of skincare), you really need technology to complement it," said Ms Ng.
"Hopefully in the next few months when we roll this out, people will see that Porcelain has evolved, and we have grown up and matured into a company that still has that heart and trust. That is the reason we grow slowly, so we can keep that heart at our core."