Kong Lee talks about early struggles, work processes, and everything in between

Zenyum is a revolutionised dental care in most of Southeast Asia. Their online services made premium dental care accessible without the hassle of traditional dental appointments. Behind Zenyum’s success is Kong Lee,  the head of operations. The man is dedicated to resolving complex issues and providing customer-centred care. With his drive for their work system, his people, and their customers, he sure does make Asia smile more.

What makes Kong Lee into the person that he is today? Let’s find out.

Q: What is “empowerment” to you?

A: Empowerment is the belief and the ability to competently make independent decisions and drive the execution of an objective.

Q: Tell us something true but nobody agrees with you.

A: There is no work-life balance. My mission is to create value and impact and my work makes my life rewarding because it allows me to channel my energy into initiatives that I feel rewarding.

Q: When did you get your first paid employment, and how old were you? What was it, exactly?

A: I started working since I was approximately seven years old. My first job was being a waiter at the Swensen’s at Causeway Point.

Q: Tell us a little bit more about your journey.

A: It has been a heck of a journey so far. I started out working in most food and beverages establishments from the time I was 17. I was initially considering a vocation in the Air Force until I met a friend from school who started his nightlife marketing agency.

 I took on a one night trial to become a party promoter and it turned out surprisingly well – the client told me that 90 percent of the club’s crowd were my friends that night. I quickly decided that I had the chops for this and went headfirst into this new adventure, growing my Facebook friend list from 78 friends to 4,000 plus in just a little over two months and pulling in an average of 800 party-goers a night. The company eventually was bought over by a larger rival company and things started to go sour from there. Long story short after a series of delayed payments I decided it was time for a change of scenery.

In the next part of my journey, I worked with a client I met through my previous job. We started a business to build and sell websites and mobile applications. This business was probably the biggest moral struggle I have ever encountered in my life – my partner was an amazing salesman who could sell milk back to the cows but did not have a single ethical bone in his body. I once asked him why he sold a USD 15,000 website to a person who ran a small business that did not need it and his reply to me was, “If we don’t take his money, then someone else will.”

The previous two roles had been a huge drain on my confidence and spirits. Despite the countless late nights and relentless optimism, I had nothing and no accomplishments after almost 6 years of my life. I decided to then take a short stint in the construction industry thanks to the generosity of my uncle who gave me an opportunity, and it was my first taste of a structured environment working in a large organisation with multiple functions. I gained such an admiration for the foreign workers whom I work with every day who give so much of themselves into their work. I remember how one of my team members put his hand into a fire sprinkler that had burst to act as a stopper for almost 3 hours standing on top of a ladder while waiting for help to arrive.

After 2 years in construction, I yearned the ownership, freedom and the sense of building something in a startup. I remember how I took a ten-minute phone screening call from Julian at Zenyum during my lunch break that turned into a forty-minute conversation. I took the rest of the day off and met him at the JTC Startup Launchpad the same day at 5 p.m. where I met Fred, his co-founder. His passion and honesty were amazing, I had applied for the role of a customer success officer and after our conversation, he offered me the role of a partnership manager the same day two hours after our conversation. I felt so immensely valued and it was probably the most genuine and thrilling job hiring process I have ever gone through in my life.

Q: Let’s talk about your current occupation or business. What do you do?

A: Zenyum was born out of a very simple idea: That straightening your teeth and visiting the dentist does not have to be scary nor complicated. We wanted to make it the best experience for anyone who had the desire to get their best and brightest smile. Our entire process is built around that: to create the best customer experience. Being the first of our kind model in Asia where we combine our lead generation and marketing efforts with an in-clinic dental consultation to ensure the entire experience is as seamless and as safe as possible. In the early days, we would turn down customers whom we felt had cases that were too complex to be treated rather than risk a poor treatment outcome. We also have our app to allow our patients a single platform to record and track their progress, as well as communicate with a dedicated customer care team member so that they have someone accompany them through this journey (which can be rather difficult and uncomfortable at times).

In line with our goal of creating products and experiences to spread smiles across Asia, we have also since launched a line of ZenyumSonic toothbrushes as well as ZenFresh flosses, mouthwash and toothpaste to continue spreading smiles to our customers!

At Zenyum, my team and I are the backbones that build the capabilities across treatment planning, production, fulfilment, customer support, purchasing and quality management functions to support our ambition of being the largest company of its kind in Asia. We are thinkers, builders and executors – designing processes and systems, identifying and solving potential bottlenecks and carrying out the activities behind the scenes to ensure our customers always receive a high-quality product and experience on time.

Q: How did you come up with this concept and carry it out?

A: I find that the way that works best for us is to listen to the customer. The “customer” could refer to someone who purchases and uses our products, or it could be an employee or external stakeholder who has feedback or concerns. We receive the feedback either through speaking with them or observing patterns and behaviours through data analysis to help us identify problem areas or areas for improvement.

Through ruthless prioritisation, we find the initiatives that will yield the highest impact and focus our efforts to solve these problems. We believe that easy problems can be solved by anybody; it is through solving the difficult and yet truly needle-moving issues that will give us that edge over the competition.

Our products offerings, customer interaction policies, processes and systems are all designed with the same goal in mind which is to make Asia smile more.

Q: What about your line of work excites you the most?

The thing that excites me the most is the tremendous challenge of building a company so focused on creating the best customer experience alongside a group of young, hungry and ambitious teams. Watching the team grow from eight people to more than two hundred people across seven countries in just a truly remarkable experience, and watching people adapt to growing pains without breaking stride is a testament to the grit of the team. I am inspired by my colleagues every day and I truly believe in our mission and our ability to accomplish it.

Q: What has been your most challenging obstacle, and how did you overcome it?

The most challenging operations obstacle most definitely has to be the initial COVID-19 lockdowns. The borders were shut and our supply chain was heavily affected, resulting in long waiting times for our customers.

The customer care team worked relentlessly with our production and fulfilment teams to find solutions and keep our customers constantly updated. Through displaying full transparency and openness with our customers, as well as some resourcefulness on the side of our operation teams we managed to keep the customers happy, informed and ultimately cleared the backlog very quickly the moment border restrictions eased up.

Q: What motivates you to go further in your business or career?

A: I think the struggles I went through early on in my life makes me grateful for the opportunities that I have today. I would have never imagined that I would be part of a company like this and watch it grow right from the beginning, and knowing that I can execute at this level motivates me beyond measure to find out the limits of my potential. I want to continue to push the envelope to explore the realms and possibilities to find out the full extent of my capabilities and ability.

Q: What do you consider to be the most valuable talents you’ve acquired and implemented during your journey?

A; The most valuable skill I have acquired and implemented has to be empathy. My struggle has been so profound to me, that I am no longer fazed by failure or setbacks as I realise that they are only temporary and I have a chance to get it right the next day. I also hugely empathise with the people I have to work with on a day to day basis, whether they are my customers, colleagues or business partners.

This helps me with hiring, team building and development, conflict resolution, alignment and communication, negotiations or simply being able to make someone’s day.

Q: What is the most significant mentality shift, belief shift, or “ah-ha” moment you’ve had in your business?

A: There are so many of these moments that have impacted or affected us throughout this journey but the most important one for me would be realizing the importance of culture. As the saying goes, “Take care of your employees, they will take care of your customers and your customers will take care of your business.”

 It is the first time I have worked in an environment where regardless of nationality, age, gender or educational background where we have such a hugely diverse team that connects so strongly, has each others’ backs and wants to achieve the same goals so badly. I truly believe now that hiring, and creating the right environment for your team to grow and thrive is one of the strongest weapons a company can have in its arsenal.

Q: What would you do differently if you could go back in time and do things differently knowing what you know now?

A: I would not change a single thing of my journey, I believe that it is the trials that I went through that has shaped me into the person and led me to where I am today.

The only thing I would have done differently would be to reiterate a lot faster. It is my utmost belief that while we should allow things to run their due course, we should also not be blinded by sunk cost fallacy and cling to ideals or decisions simply based on blind faith. The ability to objectively judge a situation and decision in real-time, and make a rational and unbiased decision regardless of previous ones is how I try to conduct my affairs today.

Q: What attributes do you believe are the most necessary for a successful entrepreneur?

A: I believe that a successful entrepreneur needs to have a lot of passion, grit, humility and a basic understanding of how a business operates.

Q: What are some of the most crucial aspects of establishing a successful company?

A: I find the two most crucial aspects would be to make something that people want and to hire the right people for the company. You can’t force people to buy a bad product that they do not want, and having the right people on the team will give you the humility and the ability to accept and respond to feedback to create a more successful product and company.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you have ever gotten?

A: “Even when you are climbing a mountain, take some time to look back and enjoy the view.” There are two meanings to this: Sometimes we are so focused on the outcome and our work, that we forget to celebrate our achievements and how far we have come along. The journey can be really hard but upon reflection on the far we’ve come, this can create immense energy that we need for the push forward.

Secondly, it is also a lesson in empathy and being able to understand the struggles of the people who are following in your footsteps but are some way further back than you. Through spending time to reflect on your journey, you can become a powerful enabler to empower others to more quickly arrive at theirs.

Q: What advice do you have for aspiring and first-time entrepreneurs?

A: I remember how I would try to ensure everything was perfect before putting something out. Whether it was the product, the company name, the logo or the website.

What I learn now is “Do not let perfect be the enemy of the good.” Push the product out and let the market give you their feedback as it is their opinion, and not yours that truly matters. Do not try and avoid failure, but rather seek to fail well.

When venturing into the unknown you are going to face multiple setbacks, whether it is rejection from customers or business partners or a packaging defect or machinery breakdown. It simply comes along with building something new, and the most important thing you can do is accept the feedback take back the learnings from it before quickly reiterating.

Q: This is a book that every business person should read:

A: Traction: How any startup can achieve explosive customer growth by Gabriel Weinberg.

Be the next featured entrepreneur! If you want to share your experience as an entrepreneur, connect with us at People’s Inc.

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