Own your journeyby
From pain to pain:
Ian Tan cuts a lean figure as he sits in the corner of the dimly-lit bar. The side of his face is faintly illuminated by the pink neon lights from a wall. The 29-year-old calls out for an Old Fashioned from the barkeep. “You want one?” He asks. We now have two Old Fashioneds from Lucky Bar—a hole in the wall that can only be accessed from a grimy alleyway. Tan’s stance during our conversation is centred. He speaks with conviction; a bannerman of the entrepreneurial spirit.
In 2011, Tan opened his first gym, Thrive. There he concocted the earliest iteration of his now famed 20-minutes training programme. Brad Robinson, who was training to be a mixed martial arts fighter at that time, had his first taste of it. He reminisces on the days of lying on the floor after a session—exasperated and all. Robinson, along with television host Oli Pettigrew, partnered with Tan and opened Ritual the following year.
Having trained in Muay Thai for nearly a decade, which included a dedicated four-month stint in Thailand, and being mentored by renowned American coach John Wild Buckley in the States, where he was introduced to hoisting a kettlebell for 10 minutes, these were just some of the catalysts for Tan’s training hack. But the building blocks of Ritual wasn’t just a result of Tan’s training experiences. The arduous wild bends and disappointing dead ends led to a rebirth of Tan as much as it was for the founding of Ritual.
Tan places his glass of Old Fashioned on the table and leans back. What transpired was a trip into the philosophies and frameworks of one of Singapore’s most successful fitness entrepreneurs. It wasn’t a lesson on success, Ritual is a reflection of the man and his quest to right the wrongs.
A ship is safe in harbour, but that’s not
what the ship was built to do.
You had many reasons as to why you started Ritual, but it all seems to feature a common element from the past: pain. What were some of your toughest setbacks and how did that translate into your ideas and vision for Ritual?
I’ve never thought about it that way, but I suppose there is truth to it. My journey into fitness was born out of frustration from multiple injuries because of improper training methods and a flawed understanding of exercise. Eventually, this led to my desire to create a balanced and efficient system of training based on science.
I knew it had to offer a better, healthier and a more efficient alternative to the then-current methods of training. I also wanted to offer the idea of making exercise a ritual that you can commit to, because thinking about exercise in that manner automates consistency and patience, and enables the benefits of it to extend beyond simply looking better.
Another noteworthy struggle that isn’t as much of an issue anymore was that when I first started out on my own, before Ritual, I was young. Based on first impressions, people found it hard to accept that I could handle my own as an entrepreneur. My response was simple: I faced this with sheer work ethic and paid close attention to every detail to find things that could be improved on.
I decided to just try harder at every opportunity. My obsession and personal challenge were to do things so well that you get blown away every time. I feel that in some ways, this attitude has transferred to our culture at Ritual—we operate with a heightened sense of responsibility and attention to detail in all that we do.
Another point of frustration came later, after a few years in the industry. I was frustrated with the way fitness services were sold and used—it didn’t seem very effective or efficient for the service providers or the consumers. This led us down a path of trying to fix the problems on both sides of the fence through Ritual.
Ritual also faced its own struggle early on. The ideas that we were pushing for were very new, so there was a need to educate the market. But, before you can provide the education, you have to actually get people interested in the conversation. So, on top of the usual struggles every new business faces, we also had to manage skepticism and doubt.
We met these challenges with a firm standing in the science of training, patience and exceptional customer service. Once people started to see great results from training with us, our brand presence started to grow, and after a year or so, most people already knew about the benefits of our short, quick workouts even before walking through our doors.
Setbacks are inevitable in any business and they will keep coming. I feel that our team at Ritual is able to respond well and learn quickly from these setbacks, and I think that this skill is key to our long term success.
You mentioned that the fitness industry is broken and have failed to serve its purpose. Why do you think so?
In general, services in fitness revolve around the provider, not the consumer. How many times have you seen friends and colleagues frantically rushing to make it to a 6pm gym or yoga class? Furthermore, if I was your personal trainer, and our training slot was Mondays at 7pm, wouldn’t it be accurate to say that you’d likely have to reschedule or cancel half the time?
People are busier than ever, no matter what their profession is. Instead of playing by those outdated rules, we felt that it was imperative to learn from these frustrations. We decided to focus on building a better way to do it.
Fitness offerings generally aren’t suited for the times that we live in. Instead of requiring clients to come at a certain time, our message to you is to just show up, whenever you can—we just need 30 minutes.
If it’s 7am today, and 3pm tomorrow, no problem, book and re-book on the app in seconds, show up in your full suit, don’t worry about packing clothes, don’t worry about what to do when you get there, we’ll take care of it.
In other words, I think we’ve built the fitness offering of the future: convenient, efficient and extremely user-friendly. Moving forward, as we expand into other countries, we plan on keeping this same focus on innovation by continuing to listen closely to our clients.
Another large issue in the industry is that people who enter it usually start out because of a desire to help people, to have positive impact on people’s lives, but quickly get shocked once they start working in it.
The harsh reality that many trainers must face is extremely long hours in an environment that’s more concerned with you hitting your sales quotas than actually positively impacting your clients’ lives. Put differently, trainers don’t get to do enough of what they are good at and aren’t valued for what they value.
We do it differently. We take all of the other stuff away and simply challenge our coaches to focus all of their energy on the quality of their coaching and how much they can help each client, every single day.
The success that we’ve had here with multiple outlets, combined with the lowest staff turnover anyone has ever heard of in the industry, has made us really double-down on this approach, and it’s been one of the things that has drawn many prospective franchisees to our offering.
You were training Brad Robinson and he later became your business partner in setting up Ritual. You knew what your weaknesses were and he compensated for that. How important is it to confront our lack and flaws in the spirit of entrepreneurship? And are there nuggets of wisdom in fighting or training that reflects this same philosophy?
I believe being self-aware is more important than anything else, not just in business, but in life. Being real with yourself, and surrounding yourself with people who are willing to call you out on areas where you can improve, who are willing to work on them with you, and who are willing to be confronted in the same ways, too, is crucial to success. I feel that if you want to be able to accomplish big tasks, you also have to want to accelerate your personal development.
Having met many entrepreneurs and business leaders over the last few years, one thing I’m really appreciative of is the relationship that Brad and I have been able to keep over the years.
We set the tone by agreeing on a few things based on trust, respect and improvement really early on, before the company was even incorporated, and calling each other out and keeping each other sharp was one of them. I think that’s also partially why our internal culture is so respectful, trusting and obsessed with innovation and improvement even as the team grows.
An extension of this spirit, and something I picked up from Brad, actually, is that if you really want to take the business far, you have to want to work with people who are better than you at specific things. You want people with more expertise and passion in key areas. This was hard for me to grasp at the start, but it is absolutely essential and one of the keys to continued growth.
It’s been awhile since I’ve been active in martial arts, but I have learnt some lessons that will stick with me for the rest of my life. A few that come to mind that definitely complement this spirit is that:
- Learning and improvement have no limits. You’ll never hit a point where you know everything. And, if for some reason, you do get complacent, trust that someone is about to come along and knock you down a notch.
- Consistent effort and patience are key. Having the perfect plan or idea doesn’t mean anything if you don’t put in the work. Know that most of the important work happens when nobody is watching, so your drive and purpose behind your goals have to be very strong.
- Be calm in the storm. You have to be able to think clearly when others can’t. It simply takes more to shake you and for you to respond to adversity with bravery.
- Always be willing to fight for it. If you have to, you will grind it out. Entrepreneurship is a lot of work and requires grit, so knowing that you can keep going is an asset. You will simply dig deeper and exist in discomfort.
After all that you've learned and gone through in building Ritual into a success, what do you think is the cornerstone of being a great entrepreneur and why so?
I have a long list, but here are some of the ones closest to my heart, primarily because they were really big lessons for me personally.
Having a great team with you. You must be able to trust your people, so take the time to find the right people. Beyond this, recognise that it is on you to make sure your people can find alignment with the organization’s purpose and values. When you find this sweet spot, and the mutual respect and appreciation is palpable, it is a thing of beauty. Building a strong team is something we spend a lot of time talking about with our franchisees, because the people that represent us really matters.
Don’t ever forget where the magic happens. For our business, the magic happens when we interact with our clients, whether face-to-face, through the app or online. It doesn’t matter how much effort goes on in the back-end if you deliver it poorly when it actually needs to be used. Experience has taught us the importance of this and we're bringing these lessons with us as we scale globally.
If you’ve put in the effort and you’re ready, go big. There’s a great quote that goes, “A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what the ship was built to do.” Set sail. Be brave.
Accept full responsibility. Your fate is 100 percent in your control. You chose this path, so walk it the best you can, and embrace the experiences that come with it. If you don’t like the path, take charge and change it.
Don’t wait for the opportunities, create them. I definitely picked this one up from my business partner Brad. Your work ethic has to match the size of your dreams, so if you have big dreams, be ready to put in the work to make them reality.
I believe being self-aware is more important than anything else, not just in business, but in life. Being real with yourself, and surrounding yourself with people who are willing to call you out on areas where you can improve, who are willing to work on them with you, and who are willing to be confronted in the same ways, too, is crucial to success.
Clockwise from top left: Pullover and denim jeans; jacket, shirt and trousers; all by BOSS.
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