It’s a family affair

How two siblings came together to start a business helping the medical profession through COVID.

As a busy, young, front-line nurse, Van Ngyen became frustrated with uncomfortable scrubs she had to wear during busy shifts in emergency. Together with her sister, Linh, Van set out to develop their very own comfortable, wrinkle free scrubs with a fashionable twist. The sisters’ this clever insight into healthcare attire has seen the side hustle experience exponential growth in response to the shifting apparel choices of doctors nationally in response to the pandemic. Professor Declan Murphy, Director Of Robotic Surgery at Peter MacCallum Cancer Research Centre in Melbourne, is one such professional who had ditched his ’suit and tie’ uniform for the sisters’ more comfortable scrub..

ISB: What was the inspiration behind you setting up your own business producing scrubs?

VN: The inspiration for Scrub Lab came about when I graduated and became a Registered Nurse. There wasn’t anywhere locally that I could buy good quality scrubs, and healthcare workers such as myself were paying way too much for shipping in order to obtain decent quality scrubs from overseas. After a discussion over lunch with my sister Linh, we realised there was a gap in the market and an opportunity for us to make a change. All I really wanted was some stylish, functional and comfortable scrubs that would enable me to show up every day, feeling good about what I do and how I looked. Fortunately, our mother is a very talented seamstress who was able to bring our prototype to life.

“There are days you want to pull each other’s hair out but there are more days when you’re so grateful to have each other.”

One thing led to another and the amount of interest I received after wearing my prototype to work was overwhelming, confirming that there was really a need for premium quality scrubs that were function and stylish, and hence Scrub Lab was born!

ISB: What were the biggest challenges you faced in starting up your business in the middle of a pandemic, and how did you overcome them?

VN: Originally, we wanted to launch in September 2020 but the pandemic caused a shortage of scrubs throughout the hospitals. Suddenly it wasn’t just nurses and doctors that had to wear scrubs – all of a sudden admin staff and allied health professionals were also requiring scrubs. The demand was 10 times more than before. So, we decided we needed to respond to the high demand. We worked harder and faster to push our scrubs into production sooner, and launched in June 2020.

Our biggest challenge was first and foremost launching a product during the pandemic, alongside the fear of the unknown. We wanted to respond to the current shortage but at the same time we weren’t sure how to navigate it all. But with careful planning and a lot of long hours we were able to launch.

Along with other online businesses we really struggled to get our shipments delivered on time. Despite ordering well in advance, four months after launch we faced a two-month delay for new stock, something we could do nothing about. We were so grateful for everyone’s understanding and support during that time. All we could do was apologise and keep them updated. But we got there in the end and learnt a few lessons along the way.

ISB: The business is a partnership between siblings – what are the pros and cons of such an arrangement?

VN: You know what they say – you can pick your friends but you can’t pick your family. However, you can definitely pick your business partner! Growing up we were both pretty close – there are days you want to pull each other’s hair out but there are more days when you’re so grateful to have each other. The pros definitely outweigh the cons.

The pros are trusting each other and knowing that you both share the same values. It really drives the business when you’re both on the same page and want the same things. And siblings get over arguments more quickly than friends – one minute you’re real mad, the next you’re asking each other what you want for lunch. It’s like you’d never had a disagreement and all is forgiven.

The hardest part is distinguishing between personal lives and business. Since we’re both so close, sometimes it’s hard to divide our time between business and family time. One minute we’re talking about nothing to do with the business, the next it’s about scrubs and what new colour we should be bringing out. Somehow it always end up coming back to work!

ISB: How has the reaction been to the scrubs among the medical profession, and how has the choices of its luminaries such as Professor Declan Murphy influenced your products?

VN: We had a lot of positive reactions among the medical professions. It has changed the way they perceive scrubs and has really allowed them to bring a bit of their personality to work. It’s not always the same ill-fitted pants and tops anymore. It’s different colours with different designs that provide comfort and functionality. We recently introduced a collared top that was well received by some senior doctors because it‘s formal enough to consult with patients but at the same time more comfortable than a collared shirt.

Professor Declan Murphy came to us by chance. He stumbled across a colleague wearing our scrubs and was impressed with how they looked. He then ordered scrubs from us we approached him to obtain some feedback. He was incredibly happy with his scrubs and has recommended them to many of his colleagues – we could not be more grateful for his support and loyalty.

ISB: What has been your approach to marketing your products in such a niche field, and how can other small-business owners in niche areas learn from what you have done?

VN: Our approach has always been to create brand awareness and build a reliable and exciting brand. We focus heavily on understanding our customer’s needs, wants, desires and feedback, and really aim to solve their pain points. As a healthcare worker myself, I can relate to them, and, therefore, deliver a product the resonates with them and their pain points. We communicate through different channels such as user-generated content on social media, our website and collaborating with key players in the market. Our advice for other business owners in niche areas is to really get to know your audience and use marketing channels to explain to them how your business as a whole can service their needs. Understanding your customers puts you in a more influential position to better serve them and connect with them.

ISB: Having gone through the huge effort of getting the business up and running, how are you steeling yourselves to keep it growing and sustainably successful?

VN: We are devoted to working even harder in the short term to ensure we can cope with the overwhelming demand. Sustainable practice is also something that is really important to Linh and I – we are constantly challenging ourselves to improve and to remain innovative and sustainable, through research and self-growth.

We aim to continuously engage with our audience so that we continue delivering exceptional customer service. We also believe that  we must continue to truly honour and demonstrate our core business values – integrity, honesty, transparency, passion and dedication – in everything we do.

ISB: Finally, what is your vision for the development of the business in the next couple of years?

VN: This is a very big vision, but we hope to place Scrub Lab at the forefront of the medical apparel industry across Australia, and to be the household name in scrubs for all medical professionals. We have strategies in place to expand into the New Zealand and Asia Pacific region. We know have a long journey ahead, but we can’t wait to further challenge ourselves and see where it takes us.

This article first appeared in issue 32 of the Inside Small Business quarterly magazine