Thursday, April 20, 2006

Broken Teeth Lead To An Unusual Business

Simon Purchall Story

For most people, a trip to the dentists is a potentially painful experience to be avoided unless absolutely necessary. Simon Purchall’s trip to face the whirring drills and mouthwash was much like any other, except that it gave him the inspiration to set up a groundbreaking business.

Purchall cracked his teeth in a biking accident and was horrified when his dentist told him over £20,000 was required to repair the damage. There seemed little option other than to pay the hefty dental bill until his Hungarian wife, Veronika, suggested that he get the work done in her native Budapest.

“Like most people, I had a few reservations about going to an ex-Communist country for dental work, but it was amazing,” Purchall recalls. “The level of service and expertise was fantastic. I decided to have all the treatment done there and saved about £16,000.”

Back in the UK, Purchall realised that such trips could form the basis of a potentially viable business. An IT freelancer for the previous decade, he admits that becoming an entrepreneur was a long-held ambition.

With Veronika being a qualified dental nurse, and the obvious candidate to provide translation in negotiations with Hungarian dentists, the couple decided that the opportunity should be exploited.

After plumping for a suitable name, SmileSavers, Purchall was confronted with an array of tasks to get the business off the ground. Starting up a UK-focused company presents entrepreneurs plenty to chew over – adding the Hungarian element left the duo with a tangle of extra concerns that needed to be thoroughly ironed out.

Purchall had to undertake research into the legal and insurance ramifications of recommending dentists to UK patients, as well as working out what qualifications the Hungarian dentists had, and what they meant.

Luckily for Purchall, when Hungary joined the European Union in the formative days of SmileSavers, Brussels decided to accept all of the country’s qualifications without demanding further training.

“We looked at prices and what was available on the NHS compared to Hungary,” Purchall explains. “Fortunately, the dental systems in the UK and Hungary and very similar.

“We got legal advice and contracts drawn up with dentists so that we were covered and patients got a decent level of service.”

Several trips to Hungary followed, with Purchall running the rule over various clinics he’d found via the internet.

“We networked with Hungarian dentists and took plenty of expert advice, but we also considered our own experiences as to what a good dentist should be,” he says. “We wanted people whop could fully communicate with clients. The moment we had a hint that someone wasn’t right, we didn’t use them.”

Purchall funded the set-up costs of the business with his own savings and continued working while Veronika dedicated herself full-time to the venture – a move he admits was a mistake: “I probably should’ve stopped working much earlier, but it was a big leap I was taking.”

The couple approached their bank for advice, but were told that would be little financial assistance required as their outlay was comparatively small. The website development costs, potentially the greatest burden, were negated by Purchall’s IT expertise, allowing the job to be done in-house.

SmileSavers was initially publicised by Google ad words, despite the expense of the search terms Purchall needed. However, the website now has a good page ranking and is positioned properly, allowing the business to cut costs on ad words.

Purchall also invested in magazine advertising after the business’ launch in 2003, opting for publications such as Saga in the belief SmileSavers had a greying target market. However, it was only after the hiring of a PR company did he see results – eventually. SmileSavers has recently been covered in several national newspapers.

“We were naïve, because our target market is broad, it isn’t just older people,” Purchall explains. “A friend of ours worked at Westbury Communications – we hired them for six months and we got virtually no coverage out of it. They were tearing their hair out because people weren’t biting.

“It’s only now that contacts they made are coming off, so it was certainly worthwhile.”

Purchall has struck deals with several Budapest hotels and apartments, further cutting down the cost of the trips. Despite originally planning to refer patients to large numbers of practices across Hungary, Purchall now works with just two large Budapest clinics that are able to cope with demand.

Although contractually prevented from talking about how much commission SmileSavers has made from referring clients to Hungarian dentists, overall sales were over £600,000 last year, with expectations of a £1 million turnover in the next 12 months.

Customer numbers have rocketed, prompting plans to expand the business significantly in the forthcoming year.

“We need to get the message across that Hungary is the centre of excellence for dentistry,” Purchall says. “Saying that, we don’t want to alienate ourselves from British dentists.

“We’d like to forge better links with dentists here so that they feel completely comfortable referring patients to us.”