Happy 4th anniversary to Hygieia Strength & Conditioning!
This month marks the 4th year since Hygieia Strength and Conditioning opened its doors. Usually, we’d commemorate every anniversary with a BBQ outside the gym, to thank everyone for their support, to celebrate another year of being in business, and to look forward to the next.
While COVID restrictions have prevented our traditional BBQ this year, one of our clients, Patricia, suggested having an article on the history of Hygieia mark the occasion.
We thought it was a good idea as well so here we are, talking to Shaun Pang, the founder of Hygieia, about his coaching and entrepreneurial journey, as he shares some personal stories from the gym’s archives.
Pat: Why did you decide to open your own gym?
Shaun: I’d been a freelance personal trainer since 2008, and had toyed on and off with the idea of opening a gym. But I only seriously started thinking about it in 2015.
There were a bunch of things that just came together.
At that point in time, I was training myself with the Starting Strength method and was actively coaching it to all my clients – almost everyone loved the feeling of being stronger and all the health benefits that came with it. But I wasn’t a Starting Strength Coach (SSC) yet.
Then one day, on a whim, I googled how many SSCs there were in the world. To my surprise, there were not only none in Singapore, but also none in the whole of Southeast Asia! This gave rise to the seed of an idea – to work towards being the first SSC in Southeast Asia (SEA).
Around the same time, various people were encouraging me to open a gym. My wife, my parents and a few of my clients. They had different reasons, but the common theme was that I was ready for the next stage of growth, so I should do it.
By then I had been a mobile personal trainer for 7-8 years, and had basically hit my limit with that. I wasn’t really growing anymore, and of course I could continue, but I wanted something new and challenging.
So I spent a lot of time thinking about it, and crunching the numbers. You have to, because it’s a huge leap, especially when you consider things like rent and other business expenses and still having enough for my daily necessities.
But the idea of becoming the first SSC in Southeast Asia had taken hold of me. I couldn’t turn away from it, knowing that it was the next logical step for personal growth.
Pat: So you’re the first (and only!) Starting Strength Coach in Southeast Asia?
Shaun: Actually, one of the very few outside the US. I was the first in SEA but not the only one anymore. I’m proud to say that my colleague, Marvin, became the second SSC in SEA in 2019. And Hygieia is the only Starting Strength affiliate gym outside the US.
Once I made up my mind to open my own affiliate gym, I knew I had to become an accredited SSC.
It actually took me 4 tries, and 4 trips to the US. Along the way, there were countless hours of coaching, practising and studying. It’s a long story, but after spending many sleepless nights working on the theory exam, I finally passed and was the first SSC in SEA.
I can remember the moment like it was yesterday. It was 530am, and my phone alarm woke me. After switching off the alarm, I saw an email notification from the Starting Strength organisation. I opened it and realised that I had passed! I was now an accredited SSC! I immediately woke my wife up to share the good news with her.
Pat: How did you find your gym location and decide that it was the right place?
Shaun: I spent many hours trawling through property websites and going for viewings. The requirements for a gym are pretty specific; it was a fine juggle between location, rent, space, and the layout of the unit. During this process, I learnt more than a bit about zoning laws in Singapore.
Anyway, the process of location scouting took a couple of months. It’s one thing to juggle those factors above, but it also has to feel right.
One day while I was driving around the Katong area. I saw a “for rent” sign outside a shophouse. I parked my car and had a closer look. The location was good, the layout was good. Next was the rent. I called the number listed and scheduled a viewing. After some negotiation, we settled on a price. The next step was to sign a lease agreement.
At this point I was quite nervous. Because the moment I sign the documents and hand over the cheque, there’s no going back. It was for real.
And, the clock was ticking. We had to get the gym up and running before the 1st month’s rent was due.
Pat: You mean you got everything set up in less than 2 months?
Shaun: Yes, we had to. We had no choice! That was our rent grace period, so everything had to be ready ASAP.
Thankfully, my wife is in the logistics business, so she handled the ordering of the gym equipment. It’s pretty complex – from the ordering to shipping arrangements, clearing customs, the paperwork, and then delivery to the door.
While waiting for the equipment to arrive, we had to do renovations and painting – this had its own challenges. Our contractors gave us a paint scheme that wasn’t what I asked for. I wanted grey on bottom half, a red line in the middle, and a white top (for our walls). But when I dropped by one day, something looked off, like it was really dark inside.
It turns out the painters had almost completed painting the entire unit grey! They were nearly done – if I didn’t get there in time, our walls would have been solid grey! When confronted, they insisted that they were correct and tried to convince me that it was a nice colour. Well, it wasn’t nice, and it made the gym look dark and small. I called them out on it, and they grudgingly redid it.
So that was our first hiccup.
After that, our shipment of 20 kg black cast iron plates arrived. But they looked smaller than usual (20/25kg Olympic plates typically have a 450 mm diameter).
So I measured the plates, and realised to my horror that they were smaller than they should be! I had naively thought that all Olympic plates had standard measurements – it turns out I was wrong.
Smaller plates aren’t a problem when lifts are done from the rack. However, in a deadlift, smaller plates means that the bar will be lower than the standard height, which isn’t acceptable. So I quickly searched for locally available 20 kg Olympic plates and ordered 3 pairs, rush delivery. Lesson learnt: always check, don’t assume. Things will cock-up, and to always have extra dollars for unexpected issues.
Another big challenge was that we had to bootstrap everything because funds were short. Paying for labour to set up equipment was expensive; thankfully I had my dad, who had very useful handyman skills. He helped set up the rack, the platform, and ran cables to all corners of the gym to connect speakers to the sound system. He was actually retired at that point, but was at the gym every single day to help with the setup. He got so exhausted that he actually fell ill. If it wasn’t for him, the gym wouldn’t be what it is today. And he wasn’t the only one – my wife and friends helped out whenever they had spare time.
Oh, and another unexpected thing happened. Our shipment for the horse stall mats arrived. They were stacked on a pallet that couldn’t make it through the glass door, so the movers just left them outside the gym. Now these were big and heavy – each piece was 4’ x 6’, very slippery from the manufacturing process, and weighed about 50 kg.
I wasn’t about to pay for more movers, so my good friend Patrick and myself moved 75 of them inside, piece by piece! It took hours, and was extremely exhausting.
Moving 75 pieces of horse stall mats by hand. Not fun. Thank you Patrick for helping out!
As you can see, setting up the gym was a real team effort. To everyone who helped in the early days, thank you!
Pat: Sounds like a lot of work! It must have been intense. How did you manage?
Shaun: It was basically daily non-stop work, during which I continued coaching my clients.
In between coaching sessions, I’d head to the gym to continue setting up. Whenever I wasn’t coaching, I’d be at the gym. My life was wake up, coach, set up, sleep, repeat.
The equipment was heavy, the weights were heavy (duh). I tried to keep up with my training, but realised that it was useless because my body was just too fatigued from the hard work of setting up and the lack of sleep. I basically decided not to train until everything was finally done.
Pat: So tell us how you felt on opening day.
Shaun: Another moment etched in my memory – when we completed the set up, I looked around the place and couldn’t help smiling from ear to ear. It was so extremely satisfying, I can’t even describe the feeling.
We held an opening party, and invited all my clients, my family and friends, and everyone who helped. It was a really fun day!
After the gym was open, only then could I apply to be an SS affiliate gym. I submitted my application, and had to fill in lots of forms and testify about the equipment and facilities, about whether they were up to SS standards. Finally, after some back-and-forth emails, my application was approved.
Our gym was now the first and only SS affiliate gym outside of the US. When I finally stuck the SS gym sticker on the door, I stood back, looked at it and smiled – it was a tough few months but I did it. I’m the only SSC in Southeast Asia, and I run the only SS affiliate gym outside of the US – it was an awesome feeling.
Pat: Running a gym business is different from freelancing. What was the transition like for you?
Shaun: It’s a whole different thing.
First, my current clients were affected. They knew that I was going to open a gym, and I told them that once it opened, I’d stop doing house calls. Well, some stopped training because they didn’t want to travel. Some of my older clients who had started coming to the gym also dropped out when they realised it wasn’t sustainable for them, probably due to location or travel time. Still, the majority stayed, which was helpful for the business.
But new business was slow. On many nights, I’d sit in a completely empty gym with absolutely no one and I’d think, “What have I done? Did I make the wrong choice?” It was a genuinely scary experience.
Before, as a freelance personal trainer, there wasn’t much overhead, just a car to get me from client to client. Now, there was rent and utilities. I desperately needed new clients, because now I had much bigger expenses.
As a freelancer, there’s not much consequence to not earning every day. But as a business owner, every day ticked closer to the rent and utilities due date. It was a pretty stressful time.
But instead of constantly worrying about it (which I admit was hard), I put my efforts towards changing the situation.
Pat; I’m glad you didn’t give up. But what turned the tide?
Shaun: I’d say it was a focus on marketing and having an entrepreneurial mindset.
It took me a while, but I finally realised the mistake that many first-time business owners make. Most small business owners are “technicians” – people who do the craft, in this case, coaching. But running a business requires you to be an entrepreneur. Being a coach is totally different from running a coaching business.
A client, Martin, was one of the people who pushed me to open the gym. He recommended a business classic, “The E Myth” by Michael Gerber, that questioned my assumptions about what I needed to know to run my business. This book opened my eyes. I’d recommend this book to anyone who’s starting a business.
Anyway, I realised I needed to improve my business skills. As the months went on, I started to read more books about marketing, sales and small business ownership. I started to aggressively market the gym and our services. To tell the truth, I started out as a total business newbie. But I kept at it, and fumbled through marketing and learnt a lot during the process. Slowly, clients started to come in.
Pat: Tell me about your meets. It’s not typical for a new gym, right?
Shaun: Yes, you’re right. The first meet was actually held within 2 months of our opening! But we wanted to put ourselves out there – a meet forces you to level up, both for the lifters and for me as the business owner.
Again, this was Martin’s initiative. He kept pushing me to hold a casual meet as a way to drum up publicity. He went out of his way to help, even asking competitors at other meets to join our meet. It was only our first year, but we held our first meet on 29/4/17 with a total of 11 lifters. The meet ended with a BBQ, which started our tradition of BBQ parties!
Our first meet was a casual meet. No singlets required. Note that we didn’t even have a proper competition rack and had to use squat stands!
The first meet was well received, and since then we’ve held meets 2-3 times a year. It’s only been until Covid-19 that we weren’t able to hold physical meets. Last year, it was Martin once again who suggested that we do an online meet instead – a little something for lifters to have something to train towards. We did that and had 27 lifters, and it was a great opportunity to bring our Hygieia community together during different times. So there’s always new challenges, but also new things to learn.
Pat: It’s been 4 years now. Has your approach changed since the beginning?
Shaun: Not really. I’d always had the idea of focusing on older clients. If anything, this focus has only increased over the years.
When I first starting coaching using solely using the SS method, I realised I found more satisfaction in coaching people who need strength more – older people.
Yeah, it’s cool to get a young kid all strong. But it’s far more satisfying to witness an older person being able to stand up from the floor when they previously couldn’t. Strength makes such a huge difference to their quality of life. It just inspires me to see them reclaim their health, and I’m really grateful that I can apply my skills to those who need it most.
So yeah, the past 4 years have confirmed my decision, and we’re going to keep doing this.
Last but not least…our interviewer, Patricia, 65 years old, deadlifting 111kgs
Pat: One last question. Why the name “Hygieia”?
Shaun: The name “Hygieia” was actually suggested by my good friend Eric, back in 2008 when I started to do freelance personal training. I needed to register a company to operate my personal training business, and needed a company name.
Eric asked me what I believed in, and what were the principles of my coaching. I said that I believed in health, and the difference that being healthy, fit and strong makes to a person’s quality of life.
We discussed a few names but none really clicked. Then suddenly, he had an “a-ha” moment. He got onto Google, typed something, then showed me the screen – it was about Hygieia, the Greek goddess of health.
I immediately felt a connection to the name Hygieia, because it represented what I believed in.
And with that, I registered the business under the name, and Hygieia Strength and Conditioning was born.
Pat: It’s your 4th anniversary. Any closing words to your readers?
Shaun: Throughout the 4 years that our gym has been opened, we’ve been very grateful for the continued trust that you, our clients, have in us.
Some clients have mentored us, giving us advice and going out of their way to help us. Some clients have become good friends. And all of our clients have shown up regularly to train, and to be part of our community. We’re very thankful to have you with us.
To the people who were integral at the start – my parents, my wife Adeline, Patrick and Martin – I’m very grateful. Hygieia would not be where it is today without you.
Let’s look forward to a traditional BBQ next year!