Wednesday, June 12, 2024
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From Scrawny Kid To Gym Owner: He Didn't Draw A Salary For A Year To 'Work Out' His Biz

For the 30-year-old founder of Field Assembly Gene Leong, his 2 years in national service were a truly transformative ones – both physically and mentally.

“I was never athletic,” he recalled.

“My heavy smoking also meant that my fitness was non-existent.”

But as fate had it, he was enlisted into the Commando unit for his national service.

Known for its gruelling training regime, Gene admitted that he had such a “rough time” that he was “constantly looking for reasons to get kicked out”.

Slowly but surely, however, the prospect of becoming a Commando started growing on him.

“The instructors in the Commandos were very good at making you feel exceptional, as long as you stay on track to becoming a Commando,” he explained.

With that new mindset, becoming fitter and stronger became an “empowering experience” for Gene, and he found himself wanting to “dive into it a lot deeper”.

He eventually started training and competing in combat sports like Muay Thai, Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ).

To supplement his training, he started on strength and conditioning training and studied sports science, effectively completing his transformation from a “scrawny and unhealthy kid who was only interested in music, could not do a single pull up, and who ran 2.4km in 15 minutes” to a “Commando and combat sports athlete”.

From History Major To Gym Owner

A graduate of the National University of Singapore, I wondered how he went from “never imagining [himself] running a business” to owning a popular gym.

“I went into university wanting to study something that I had never done before, and also something that will help me excel in the corporate world.”

“Problem was, I was in the faculty of arts and social sciences [and] the perception at the time was that nothing in this faculty will arm me with anything useful for the corporate world,” he said candidly.

Narrowing his choices down to economics and political science, he gave them up after doing poorly in their introductory modules.

Having done well in history in junior college and retained interest in the subject, he picked the subject as his major.

In university, his interest in fitness and sports also grew stronger, and he became more and more certain that post-graduation, he wanted to “somehow blend this passion with [his] ambition to teach”.

Being familiar with the scene as a consumer, Gene knew exactly what fitness enthusiasts like himself needed, but more importantly, what the industry lacked.

For one, he felt that there “weren’t enough qualified fitness professionals who cared”.

“[On the flipside,] small boutique gyms with passionate owners could better educate consumers on training programs that work, react faster to market demands, and refine systems so better overall service is delivered.”

More than that, Gene also deeply believed that fitness training “can translate to positive ways beyond gym walls”, and there shouldn’t be a “narrow focus on fitness for fitness’ sake.”

“Being a gym nut is great if that is what you want, but I wanted to encourage clients to think about how their training can benefit their lives.”

No Salary For Almost A Year

Fortunately for the budding entrepreneur, an opportunity to take over a space presented itself and together with a co-founder, he opened the doors of Grit Gym, a “modest, single-storey space” that only offered 2 classes – Strength and HIIT.

While he didn’t invest any cash, Gene forwent having a salary for almost a year, something he was glad his parents and then-girlfriend (now wife) understood.

“[They] would constantly check in to make sure I was doing okay, stress-wise and financially. They never hesitated to fund my daily expenses,” he said.

For the newbie entrepreneur, the biggest challenge was getting people to trust him.

Only 24 then, he sensed that “older people in organisations that [he] had to work with – the ex-landlord, banks – tended to trust [him] less”.

With clients, he also needed to convince them to trust him with their money and training.

“No one had heard about me before, and with the fitness industry growing quickly, there were plenty of options out there.”

In an attempt to get new leads, he and his co-founder hired someone to do PR for them, but most of it came from “messing around with different social media platforms” and “[relying on his] own gut”.

However, he soon realised that the underlying reason for the slower accumulation of leads wasn’t bad SEO – it was the gritty (pun intended) branding.

“I wanted something real, raw, and simple, and thought that everyone should and will eventually accept the same thing. I was never more wrong.”

“Those brave enough to visit eventually stayed – many of them are still clients from day one – but a lot of prospects were scared away simply by the name of the gym and our black and white motif.”

Rebranding To Field Assembly

It was around then that co-owner Elias Soh came into the picture.

“He’s an old friend – what the business could afford at the time,” laughed Gene.

“We had always talked about how people get put off by fitness because of certain alienating impressions that they might have of gyms and people who exercise.”

“My approach to Grit Gym at the time didn’t feel very approachable.”

But while the execution of how he marketed the gym was far from polished, Gene’s mission for the business was unequivocal – that it should create a “strong sense of community and training to excel in life beyond the gym”.

Testing out several iterations before settling on ‘Field Assembly’, Gene and Elias were satisfied with how the revamped branding accurately encapsulated their training philosophy.

More than that, the new look also sat well with their target audience, and they saw more and more signups.

From a single storey space, Field Assembly has since grown to a 3-storey facility that also offers BJJ, Muay Thai, and Yoga classes.

Regardless, Gene remains modest about their success, stating that while their training floor is often filled, he “always cautions against too much optimism”.

“My focus is really on maintaining and improving on the momentum that we have now.”

Not Just An Enjoyable Place To Train At

When scrolling through Field Assembly’s Instagram, one can’t help but be in awe of how #aesthetic everything looks.

Gene is well aware of it, but is also careful to ensure that having an Instagram-worthy space always remain a tool rather than a priority.

“Focusing too heavily on [being Instagrammable] sucks away resources and attention that could be placed on ensuring quality training – this means a training program that is safe and effective,” he asserted.

“That, unfortunately, is rare these days. I am not sure if this is a long-term trend. That remains to be seen.”

“Luckily, the team at Field Assembly balances it all really well,” he beamed.

The journey of entrepreneurship is a long and unpredictable one, but Gene is certain about his plans for Field Assembly.

“My first priority is to continue building a close knit team and create a culture of a never-ending quest for improvement.”

“Together with this team, I want to build a product that delivers the most complete and useful training experience for any gym-goer – an experience that gets you prepared for whatever adventure you may choose.”

I’d like to thank Gene for this time!

Interested in training at Field Assembly? Check out their classes here.

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