Let’s face it, going to a gym can be intimidating.
Beyond feeling self-conscious about how loud you’re panting on the treadmill, or how light the weights you’re lifting are, the rise of the toned #fitspo physique on social media is making us think that we need to look a certain way before we can even step into a gym.
But let’s face it, the majority of us don’t look like that.
This sentiment is something that Ian Tan, co-founder and COO of the Ritual gym chain, is familiar with.
Where I feel other services sometimes go wrong is that the focus is on ‘me vs. the hot guy next to me with his shirt off and abs showing’ or ‘me vs. the girl with the perfect butt over there’.Ian Tan, co-founder of Ritual
In an interview with Vulcan Post, Ian shared that he completely understands how this mentality is “extremely intimidating and off-putting for regular people like you and I”.
Ian, is, of course, being extremely modest.
The 32-year-old doesn’t just have a MSc in Strength & Conditioning, he was a Head Coach for Orange Kettlebell Club in California, and served as a Strength & Conditioning Coach for FightG gym in Singapore.
He even represented Singapore for kettlebell lifting at the European Championships in Russia in 2012, and even clinched top honours in his category at a Hong Kong tournament a month later.
Ian’s illustrious fitness career and interest in martial arts has pretty sombre origins, though.
“Not to get too dark, but from the ages of about 6 to 9, I was physically abused by a tutor pretty consistently,” he shared.
“[But] once I figured out a way to get out of that situation – not an easy task at that age – I promised myself that I would never put myself in a position where I’d have to feel powerless ever again.”
When he flew alone to the US for studies, the pressure to “be bigger so people wouldn’t mess with [him]” further exacerbated his insecurities.
In 2007, right after completing his psychology degree, he went to Phuket and trained in a Muay Thai camp for four months – where he got into “the best shape” of his life.
“It was a great time and some of my most trusted friends come from that era of my life,” he recalled. “I wasn’t all that good at it, but in hindsight, that exposure was critical in my development.”
“Over the years, martial arts taught me very important life lessons about patience, discipline, respect and calmness, all of which feed into confidence and a deep connection with my physicality.”
A Thrive-ing Gym Business
Ian is best known for the Ritual brand, but it wasn’t his first brush with entrepreneurship.
In 2011, he opened his first gym, Thrive, with a $10,000 loan from his father.
Even then, it was already apparent how Ian wanted to create something different from what was already being offered in the market.
While he is thankful for the early experiences and for the clients who “helped [him] find [his] voice and a sense of purpose”, he still found himself “frustrated with the industry and the services available”.
For one, he found it “ridiculous and unacceptable” when personal trainers and/or clients need to cancel training sessions due to scheduling issues.
“For example, your slot is at 7pm. [Sometimes], you’ll have to text me at 6pm and ask if you can come a half-hour later, because that’s what life is like these days – we get stuck in traffic, called in to last-minute meetings, etcetera.”
In such situations, personal trainers typically need to reject requests because they have other clients scheduled after.
“On the days that you do make it at 7pm, you’re probably going to be tired from, you know, life, and usually only need to and have the energy to do about a half-hour of exercise.”
“But because everyone sells 1-hour sessions, we play this weird game of filling up the time with other stuff, instead of you getting an extra half hour at home with your kids. Also a silly problem.”
Another observation he had was that as compared to one-on-one training or “a bootcamp with 30 other people in it”, clients simply wanted a “higher quality, more personalised service”.
Then, Ian’s mind was full of “lofty ideas” to address these pain points, but he admitted that he “had absolutely no idea how to actually execute any of these, let alone make it commercially viable”.
“Quite frankly, I didn’t even know where to start.”
Ritual: A $500K Investment
It was around then that he got reacquainted with Brad Robinson, who would soon become the co-founder and CEO of Ritual.
A friend he met while training at FightG, Ian got Brad to train with him, after finding out that the latter had hit a plateau in his weight loss journey.
Initially, Brad was skeptical of the “short, intense 20-minute sessions” that Ian was conducting, but after seeing the results, “became obsessed with the science behind it”.
Having personally experienced the benefits of the programme, Brad even got a couple of friends – all of whom had different fitness goals and were of different fitness levels – to join him for the sessions, which were happening a few times a week.
It was at the end of one of those sessions that Brad said to me: ‘This shouldn’t be a secret’.Ian Tan, co-founder of Ritual
Realising that Brad “was strong in every area that [he] was clueless about”, Ian pitched a “basic, unpolished idea of Ritual”, listing down all the reasons why people don’t exercise and frustrations they had with services in the market.
“Effectively, we reverse engineered it and started to build the foundation of the business.”
Six weeks after the brainstorming session and armed $500k from friends and family, the duo opened the first Ritual gym in Raffles Place.
From Singapore To São Paolo
While the brand has its roots in Singapore, Ritual has found its way around the world, having opened in locations as far as South Africa.
“The first overseas outlet was in Brazil,” said Ian. “[This was] primarily because we found the perfect partner there – experienced entrepreneurs with a great track record and the resources to scale.”
“Even more importantly, they are just great people.”
Ian isn’t just saying this as lip service.
Ritual operates on a franchise model, so finding franchise partners who “believe in the brand and the ethos” is extremely important.
We’re interested in building a brand, not just putting dots on the map.Ian Tan, co-founder of Ritual
In fact, Ian listed getting “franchise-ready” as of his most challenging period of running the business to date.
“We had to put in over 2 years of effort to build out the systems necessary, from legal and tech to staff training and fit-out.”
“A really specific example that comes to mind was the challenge of developing and implementing systems for quality control, because we’re determined to not just maintain our standards, but to keep improving on them.”
“But I am so proud of what the team accomplished, because what we have now is real-time feedback and seamless communication between us, our franchise partners and our gym users, and a centralised support team that keeps their finger on the pulse of each outlet.”
What we’ve realised over the years is that the culture and the people must be aligned if you want to stay ahead of the curve, and you have to nurture those relationships consistently.Ian Tan, co-founder of Ritual
“None of our achievements would have been possible without this tribe of amazing humans around the world who we get to work with each day,” he gushed.
“Thousands” Of Clients So Far
To date, “thousands” of clients have walked through the doors of Ritual, and Ian has plans to open even more Ritual gyms everywhere.
To sum up his philosophy for physical fitness, Ian shared that those interested in getting fit should always understand that the journey is about them – “what they’re ready for, and what’s appropriate for them today”.
By designing Ritual to cater specifically to busy people with actual lives out of the gym (aka all of us), Ian and the team want to ensure that exercise remains a “complement, not a hindrance”.
It’s important for workouts to be challenging, but we also understand that if we push you so hard at your 2pm session that you have trouble focusing at your important 3pm meeting, we haven’t done our jobs well.Ian Tan, co-founder of Ritual
“Come in, do what you need to do, and move on with your busy day.”
We’d like to thank Ian for his time!