Joel Ho started his first business selling general electrical appliances in 1998 when he was just 27. Juggling two retail shops was tough then, but the situation was made even worse by the economic crisis. Faced with numerous financial problems, he had no choice but to give up both shops.
Despite those early setbacks, Mr Ho's wife encouraged him not to give up. A ray of hope presented itself in the year 2000, when Carrefour Singapore offered Mr Ho an opportunity to boost the sales of its air-conditioners. With no experience selling air-cons, he reached out to many wholesalers and suppliers for trade support. His hard work paid off as sales at Carrefour Singapore's air-con counter soared.
Thrilled, Mr Ho decided to venture deeper into the air-con market. After speaking to consumers and trade partners, he identified that there was a lack of quality portable air-cons in the market. In 2006, he struck up a partnership with a Chinese firm that specialised in research and development (R&D) on portable air-cons.
In two years, Mr Ho's company, Trends Home, created some of the world's firsts: portable air-cons that evaporated excess water, digital heaters that customised temperatures to one's preference, and a 4-in-1 appliance with cooling, heater, fan and humidifier functions.
Mr Ho's determination to improve did not wane. "We are small, but we have to do something that is different from others. If not, why would people want to choose (our) brand," he said. That led him to think about his next steps.
In 2013, he grew determined to build and promote a Singapore brand. He wanted to create "Made in Singapore" products that the world would know of. He approached IE Singapore, which provided financial assistance for Trentios to hire a brand consultant - AS Louken, to help rebrand and position itself as a premier and quality air-con brand, transforming what was known as "Trends Home" to the "Trentios" of today.
IE also helped Trentios gain more targeted entry into Asean markets, by accessing major retailers and distributors. In particular, IE linked Trentios up with 36 Giant hyper-marts across Malaysia. With the assistance of IE's overseas centres, Trentios was able to navigate specific market complexities such as Standar Nasional Indonesia (SNI) certification for Indonesia and regulatory requirements for Thailand.
Trentios also tapped on IE Singapore's Global Company Partnership scheme to secure patent rights for its products in various markets. "For a company that specialises in manufacturing of air-con and with large investment spent on research and development, securing patent rights is a natural move. Our business and research partners are more assured and willing to partner us," said Mr Ho.
Presently, Mr Ho continues to push for R&D, not only to innovate new products, but also to adapt products to different market needs. "Don't always think about how to earn money, how much you want to earn, but see (how) you can help the consumer and partners to create something," said Mr Ho.
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His experience of heading overseas has shown him the importance, particularly for SMEs, of identifying each country or city's consumer challenges. Once, his team had to produce an energy efficient air-con that would work for customers in Indonesia. Village households typically have an electricity limit of 1000 watt, but a typical portable air-con unit requires at least 762 watts of energy. This caused even the best available portable air-con in the market, to trip the village households' electricity supply, when used with other appliances.
Taking the challenge presented by their consumers' needs head-on, the Trentios' R&D team developed an energy efficient portable air-con that ran on just 162 watts. Mr Ho said, "If it's not the right product and you go into the market, it (wouldn't) benefit the consumer. You'll spoil the brand and everyone will talk about it … then you'll have a problem."
Mr Ho is also keen that Trentios' products elevate the "Singapore brand". "I make sure my products really benefit the consumers. If not, there is no point. Singapore is so small… trust towards us is very important," he said.
For example, Mr Ho identified that air-cons require frequent maintenance and competitors typically pump air bubbles into air-con pipes to locate leakages. To improve the servicing experience, he pushed his R&D team to develop a proprietary smart diagnostic system to be built into their air-cons. Through this technological innovation, Trentios' technicians are able to identify issues and recommend next steps to their customers easily.
Looking to the future, Trentios aims to continually improve their products especially in the areas of energy efficiency, smart technology, and making sure their designs are user-centric. With such offerings and services, Trentios is in a continuous partnership with IE Singapore to expand to the rest of Asia, Europe and the US.
As CEO and founder of Trentios, Mr Ho says he never forgets the efforts of his team members, many of whom have been working with him for over ten years. Together, they desire for Singapore products to be known as "fantastic", and believe that what they are building now is not for themselves, but rather, for the next generation.