HiSmile: How did two entrepreneurs built a $20m dollar business in just 18 months
We interviewed one of the brightest stars of online retailing we’ve seen for a while. Alex Tomic, co-founder of HiSmile with partner, Nik Mirkovic have built a successful online business with a turnover of over $20m in just 18 months. Alex had some fantastic insights for entrepreneurs and business owners alike.
HOW DID IT ALL BEGIN?
How did it all get started, and what was the inspiration behind starting HiSmile?
After 6 months of university, Alex knew he wanted to get out there and do something on his own. He and his business partner Nic Mirkovic could see that online and social media were the way forward. Very early on they identified that was where they needed to be. Alex and Nic wanted to enter a market where nothing much was happening. After 6 months of intensive research looking at different industries, they felt that teeth whitening was by far the most boring industry and nobody was making any significant changes.
“We knew really early on that the key was to look at where the customers were focused, what companies were lacking and what customers were complaining about. We felt we could speak to customers a lot better, in a way that they could understand. We decided to step away from being very cosmetic and dental based and instead represent lifestyle, happiness, positivity and be different by standing out in the market with this approach – not by being focused on teeth whitening itself. Instead of putting teeth whitening at the forefront, we wanted to be something really different and stand out in the market.”
We asked how did the two entrepreneurs settle upon teeth whitening and how did they pinpoint the opportunity?
Alex and Nic took the reverse approach and looked at the teeth dental hygiene and market and what customers had to say.
“We absolutely researched what was lacking in this industry. What is the product lacking? What is missing? What are customers complaining about on social? We found that teeth whitening was time-consuming, inconvenient and messy. We identified it needed to be fast – under 10 minutes, without the need for moulds and it needed to be an easy gel application. We worked hard speaking with chemists and professionals in the industry to get a product that delivered all of that. From there, we then developed HiSmile and then developed the very clear messages for the people we wanted to speak with.”
Once you decided on the gap in the market, how hard was it to source and develop your products?
The key thing when you start a business is to know your key strengths and what you’re not so great at. For us, we knew we weren’t dental professionals but there were people out there who were. So we approached many different people along the way to help us and contacted between 20 and 30 suppliers and manufacturers because we wanted something very specific. We didn’t just want a default product, the same as all the other products. We then worked with 10 different chemists and researchers to ensure that the product was actually going to work.
We wanted to know what some of the failures or challenges were before they finally found a product and strategy that worked…
I think for new businesses, one of the challenges is that it isn’t until you bring the product to market that you can really start to understand what customers really want. Then you can get the opinions of the people that you want to speak with. At first, our approach was “let’s just speak to everybody” in terms of marketing. In the beginning, we were still deciding on who is our customer, who do we want to speak to? We then identified our audience as 16 to 25-year-old females as they were the ones engaging most with what we were putting out there. From there we started to tailor content, the website and absolutely everything for this audience.
The key thing to take away when you’re starting out is you won’t know who your exact audience is until you’re out in the market so just get going and from there you’ll learn so much more.
Once you had a website, a product to sell and a target audience determined, what did you do next?
Our strategy was to use Influencer Marketing so when we finally got the products, we decided that half of the stock would be sent to people who could then share their experiences. We felt it was most important to get the product in the hands of people who could share it online. We sent them products and asked them to just share their experiences on social media. For us it was just about getting the product in the hands of as many people as we could.
We can see you have 5 sub-domain websites tailored for customers all over the world – what challenges do you face in terms of shipping from Australia? How do you manage logistics?
At the start, we were just writing out orders but we were all about finding processes to speed things up. We researched software that could just grab the orders and do the labelling and after searching we found Starshipit who could all the things we needed. If only we had done that even earlier – although we started using Starshipit about a month in which is still pretty early on. With any business, try to refine those processes as much as possible as it will free up time to think about the business and grow your business even more. Get an account manager with your preferred carrier like Australia Post and then find a company like Starshipit who can import all the orders and simplify the shipping process.
TEAMING UP WITH AUSTRALIA POST
Why did you choose to team up with Australia Post?
For us it just made sense. They have the biggest network in Australia, they’re able to grow with you as fast as you can. The good thing for us was that very early on, we were hassling our local Australia Post Centre as we wanted to get an Account Manager straight away. We were very proactive in getting that process happening straight away instead of waiting for somebody to get in touch with us. They have eParcel, the biggest network in Australia and they are very good at integrating with businesses such as Starshipit.
HISMILE AND STARSHIPIT
And what made you choose to partner with Starshipit?
Starshipit offered the easy integration we were looking for, they integrated with Australia Post which was our preferred carrier and it could do all the things we needed it to do like import the orders, create the labels and make it really fast to get orders out the door.
What tangible benefits do you enjoy using Australia Post and Starshipit for your shipping and tracking orders?
We needed something that would just grab orders and do the labelling for us. And that’s where Starshipit really took Australia Post to the next level. Being able to just grab orders and label automatically – this reduced a substantial number of hours on that side of things. It allowed us to grow even faster by focusing on other areas of the business. We saved at least 15 -20 hours per week by using Starshipit.
I would recommend to any new business starting out, to identify what will allow you to simplify your processes. Identify which are going to take the most time and look for a solution to free up time so you can focus on other things. Get on to that ASAP. And to take it even further, it looks more professional to your customers and this has been a massive benefit for us.
How have customers found your shipping process?
In Australia, it’s been awesome. Australia Post is a trustworthy, recognised brand in Australia so customers have no issues using them. With the Starshipit integration it is simple to get through all the orders and to make sure all the orders have been input correctly.
How do you manage the returns process as this is a sticking point for many online retailers?
We have a team of 2 that manage returns and input the information from returns that identify the reason for return. For us, the returns are very very minimal from Australia. The most returns come from overseas which is due to the customs side of things and we are now in touch with the head international team at Australia Post to refine the process even more.
The biggest thing for us is that it is a learning process along the way so it’s really up to you how you take whatever comes at you. We have a philosophy of taking any negatives as a positive, learn from it and ask how does it help us improve our processes even more? So no matter what happens as long as you look at it as a positive and know that you’re going to learn from it, having this mindset will help you learn and grow. I think this is really important for business owners when running a business.
We can see that you used social media extensively and reached out to influencers to spread the word about your product. What advice have you got for others who would love to use social influencers in this way?
If you’re starting out as a new business then I think the best thing you can do is get your product in the hands of as many people as possible. The key thing in terms of strategy in marketing is to start small, you don’t need to get to the biggest influencers but get it in front of as many as you can and ask them to share their experiences with your product. If you truly believe in your product and you believe your product is good then I’m sure you’ll get a great response from whoever uses and reviews your products. Give it to people and get their viewpoints and listen to what they have to say about it. From that, you will learn so much about how your product is received, how you can improve it even further and how you can take your brand to the next level.
We noticed you have nearly 1 million Facebook likes and followers now – how did you achieve this in such a short timeframe?
We started with Influencer Marketing which got HiSmile in the eyes of as many people as we could. We then needed a platform to convey our message and really spread the word. Once we knew who our key market was and what the key messages were, we used Facebook. If you’re a business starting out – or any business regardless – and not already on Facebook, then get on it. Facebook is by far the biggest driver that allows you to convey very clear messages, show videos to whoever you want – once you have identified your key customer.
You just have to go on it, really learn and understand it. For us, it really is the biggest driver in sharing our content, key messages, key videos that really represent what our brand stands for and what we do. Whether you’re an owner of the business or in the marketing team, you should start now and get onto Facebook as soon as possible.
HiSmile used influencer marketing to rapidly grow awareness.
What other digital marketing or social media do you use?
We use absolutely everything – some platforms are better for us than others. We’ve done everything and tried all the different platforms. We’re on Snapchat, Twitter, YouTube – as many as we can be. For us there’s no right or wrong. You just need to represent yourself and your brand in the best way you feel you can. Not everything is going to work but you’re going to learn so much from just trialling and testing and seeing how customers are reacting and what they have to say. This is what we are really most addicted to – testing out all the different pieces of content and seeing what customers have to say and how they react to each one. Try all the different platforms, test them and react to what the customers say in response to what you do on them. We’re doing in excess of 200 posts a day – not all of them work but this really helps us figure out how to speak to our customers even more.
Any upcoming plans for HiSmile this year?
Yes absolutely – in the next month we have massive things happening. We have some new product launches, we’re doing some cool stuff with some cool people internationally, we’re going to try some new things. We love to try new things, learn from them and see how our customers react to them and understand what works – we’re very reactive to our customers.
We asked Alex what advice he has for other entrepreneurs who would love to follow in his footsteps and start an online business?
One; try everything and the only thing you need to understand is the reaction it gets. The only person who knows if its good or not is the customer. You can think it’s right but until you actually get it out to the customer you don’t know. Whether it’s about the product or the messages, listen to the customer. Try the different platforms to convey your messages. Learn to react to what the customer is saying.
Two; look to play with all the different platforms and tools out there to learn how you can convey your messages out to customers.
Three; the biggest thing that Nic and I have done is to learn every process of the business. Whether you’re the owner or not be 100% engaged with every aspect of the business and really understand the processes and how you can improve on them so you can grow it further.