Having an allergy to certain cleaning products proved to be a blessing in disguise for entrepreneur Tan Yet Mee. She knew she was not the only one with the condition and wanted to provide gentler cleaning products for others who may also have skin allergy issues.
“One in every 10 persons I speak to either needs detergents that are less harsh or suitable for sensitive skin, or knows of someone who does,” says Tan, who is in her early 50s.
The market, Tan adds, is flooded with products containing harmful ingredients such as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) but people still find it necessary to wash with these products because it’s a case of old habits die hard.
She hopes that more people will be aware of these harmful products and switch to safer and gentler ones. “It’s a tough cause that I am taking up. I feel like I am fighting against convention and habits developed from 50 years of successful marketing,” says the Raub-born, Kuala Lumpur-based Tan.
Not giving up
For six years, Tan worked with a team of people, including chemists, to research on safer products. In January, she launched her own brand of eco-friendly cleaning products like dish washing and laundry detergents, and air fresheners called Ecominim.
The products are made with cosmetic grade surfactant, which is gentler on the skin, along with other food grade ingredients like citric acid and sodium citrate.
“I am serious and committed to producing eco-friendly products that do not just ‘greenwash’ but also not contain known harmful ingredients like SLS/SLES, betaine, phosphates or parabens,” emphasises Tan, adding that most of the products are non-residual.
Planting the seeds of entrepreneurship
Tan first thought about doing her own business when a friend invited her to start a multi-level company.
“Surrounded by dynamic young entrepreneurs, I began to explore the business world. But my idea of business and that of my friend’s differed quite early on. So I thought it over and backed out because it was more important to keep the friendship,” she shares.
Nevertheless, her curiosity for entrepreneurship was piqued. Gradually, Tan started her first business of sourcing for premium gifts in 2003.
She says, “It was a push rather than pull factor. I was out of work and had to think of something to do. The idea of writing and sending my resume out was just not appealing anymore.”
Being a premium gift buyer seemed “easy” enough. “There was the creativity (aspect) of sourcing and matching brands which I liked,” says Tan, who operated her business from home when she first started.
“However, for the first nine months, I had no business. I had to learn about marketing, cold calling and sending in proposals to potential clients but never getting any response back,” says Tan, who also founded the now defunct fashion and lifestyle e-magazine emmagem.com.
Dwindling savings pushed her to do a reality check. Nevertheless, she firmly stood her ground, not willing to give up.
Kickstarting a business
Her first big break came when she joined a networking breakfast club at the advice of a friend. That was when she got a job from a guest invited by the club members who was a buyer from an international optical company.
For her first deal, Tan borrowed RM30,000 from her youngest brother – she is the fifth of seven siblings – to meet an order for diaries. “I repaid that loan immediately after receiving payment,” Tan says.
From then on, she built a successful business portfolio and began to get on the suppliers’ lists of many multinational companies. “As a premium gift buyer, I managed a portfolio of a few million ringgit for retailers of both local and international chains.”
However, after almost 20 years of being a buyer in various multinational hypermarkets, she felt burnt out.
“One day, I left work at 6pm to attend a dinner. I realised that the sun was still out and it dawned on me then that I had not seen a sunset for quite a while,” she says.
Tan was also pursuing her Master in Business Administration (MBA) with Heriot-Watt Edinburgh via distance learning at the same time. All that took a toll on her social life too.
“Working on most days until 9pm meant that I had to study during the nights and on weekends. After a while, the invites to meet up for coffee or other social gatherings stopped coming in,” she says.A few months after completing her MBA, she decided to leave the corporate world for good.
When Tan started her eco- friendly products factory in 2009, many people asked her if she was a chemist and they were surprised to learn that she holds a Bachelor of Economics from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
“It was a combination of timing and being accountable to my words. I believe hard work never killed anyone and business is not all about making money and winning,” says Tan, who set up the factory with the help of a friend and an old family friend.
Starting a factory after 20 years in the corporate world proved to be a steep learning curve but she managed to overcome her challenges.
“(The business world) is about the learning process, power of hard work, keeping your word and possibly paying it forward!” ends Tan, who is grateful to friends and family members who gave her moral and financial support.