Like many of us, 34-year-old Damian Chow felt “self-conscious” working out at public gyms, he told Business Times (BT).
But he believes that it’s important to exercise regularly because it helps him be more productive and creative.
Damian envisions his ideal gym to be one that can provide “privacy, certainty of space, adequate equipment” and at a location either near his home or workplace.
“It was really a personal itch that I wanted to scratch and thought that some others may face the same issue too,” he said.
So in August 2017, he came up with the idea to put a gym in a shipping container, and launched the first Gym Pod in June 2018.
A Solution For ‘Gym-troverts’
As the sole founder, Damian didn’t want to rush into things as he wasn’t sure if many people shared his gym insecurities.
So he listed down different behaviours of his friends, ranging from gym rats to busy fathers with newborns, former school sportsmen getting out of shape to startup founders working odd hours, and females who attend fitness classes, among others.
“I talked to everyone to understand their motivations and challenges of working out regularly, and also to get their thoughts of a private ‘share-able’ gym,” he recounted. “The idea of using a shipping container for the pod actually came from one of these friends.”
He also engaged his friends, Gerald Tan and Lucius Andi, whom he described as a “fitness enthusiast” and a busy startup founder respectively, to do design and marketing work for The Gym Pod.
With their help, Damian got The Gym Pod up and running.
Housed in a bright, cheery yellow container, The Gym Pod is fully automated so it’s accessible 24 hours a day, and the cosy space is fitted with a treadmill, a dumbbell rack, an Olympic EZ bar, and a Smith machine.
Other types of equipment include a resistance band, yoga mat, and an adjustable bench.
Up to three persons can use the Gym Pod at any time, and they can unlock the door by keying in a PIN number.
The pod automatically powers up the lights and air conditioning when there is a booked session and powers down when the session ends.
Not One To Get Weighed Down
Had The Gym Pod been just a regular pod-looking structure, perhaps it wouldn’t have caught the attention of Singaporeans.
“I wasn’t even 100% sure that I will be using a shipping container as I was still researching for various methods to construct a ‘pod’ quickly,” Damian shared. “I actually went about seeking the license to operate before I procured a shipping container.”
Damian added that fortunately, the landlord of Launchpad @ one-north, JTC, was “very supportive” and in no time, granted him permission to pilot.
With the location settled, the next problem to tackle was setting up the pod itself.
“I relied on the old ways of Googling and asking friends for contacts to shipping container suppliers,” he told me.
It took Damian about five months after securing the location to launch the first Gym Pod.
“The production of the pod is actually much shorter but there was a lot of learning required during this first iteration of the pod.”
In hindsight, Damian said starting up The Gym Pod was difficult at the start as he handled every aspect of the business on his own.
But having his friends come onboard to help halfway during the production of the first pod helped greatly as they could resolve problems quickly.
A challenge he continues to face is getting authorities’ permission to operate The Gym Pod on their premises, he told me.
When he began this venture, he reached out to various town councils as well as JTC, and so far, only the latter gave the green light.
“Since our launch, several private developers have already expressed interest in launching Gym Pods in their premises, but the process with the government authorities is taking much longer as various agencies are required to evaluate the proposal of The Gym Pod,” Damian continued.
“What we do for now is to keep in constant engagement with them and provide regular updates to demonstrate public interest in having Gym Pods near homes, as we have received many written requests asking for more locations near homes.”
Along the way, he has had some critiques say The Gym Pod “is not a ‘real’ gym” as they felt that the equipment are too basic and that the model of charging customers in blocks of time is “limiting”.
He explained that they handpicked the particular equipment because of space and safety constraints but they took it as “constructive feedback” and went on to gather more sentiments from other users through focus group sessions.
Flexing His Passion For Creation
Inspired by Thomas Edison and Alexander Bell, Damian wanted to be an inventor just like them when he was young.
“But somewhere along the way, I lost that dream and just wanted to make money,” the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) graduate shared.
“Choosing to major in Banking and Finance seemed like a surer path to financial success.”
During his time in university, he started up a website development outfit together with a programmer friend.
“As we developed more websites for clients, we started to see patterns in the recurring issues that clients faced. From there, we [made] an e-commerce software product that [is] cheaper and easier for non-techies to use, and that was the first official product [I helped create],” Damian recounted.
After graduation, he landed his “first real job” as a Risk Management Executive for a real estate investment firm and worked for a few years.
But the desire to create products and services that can benefit others was always within Damian, and he felt uncertain if he could find that in the banking and finance industry.
In 2009, he co-founded an e-commerce software platform called, Paywhere Pte. Ltd., with some friends and six years later, it got acquired by a Philippines-based company.
As for that website development company he started in university, it has since grown into a mobile and AR technology company now known as Massive Infinity Pte. Ltd.
“The company is now capably run by my partners so I’m less involved with the day-to-day operations,” he shared.
Damian revealed that he has invested $50,000 into The Gym Pod and has since raised another $200,000 of seed funding from a couple of angel investors.
“One of the investors actually tried the Gym Pod and like it so much that he reached out to us,” he quipped.
The Gym Pod is also seeing healthy growth in the number of booked sessions in a month.
When the first pod launched at Launchpad @ one-north in June last year, there were slightly over 100 sessions in the first month and in November 2018, there were close to 600 sessions.
They also opened their second Gym Pod at Alexandra Technopark in November.
An Uplifting Journey
Damian believes his prior entrepreneurial experiences have helped him put in perspective the fear of starting up and possibly failing.
“Sometimes we may [get] paralysed by fear or could simply have just been overanalysing into inaction,” he said.
Through his past failures, he understood that he can’t please everyone and learnt to stay focused.
“Many early feedback with regards to The Gym Pod ranged from including elderly-friendly exercise machines, to having power racks that will satisfy seasoned bodybuilders, to group classes,” Damian shared.
“However, these are all very different types of users from our target group. While we may one day [meet the needs of] these other types of users, our primary focus is still on providing accessibility, affordability, and privacy for people to get started on their fitness journey in a safe manner.”
He’s also become a better manager, and at raising funds, reaching out to customers, and networking thanks to his entrepreneurial streak.
Damian also believes that it’s important for startup owners to not skimp on things that can help make business processes more efficient and added that there are many types of software that can help automate parts of the business.
“Many times, as startup owners, we want to save as much money as possible and try to do everything ourselves or try to do things manually. Instead, we lose time, focus, and energy,” he explained.
After identifying the non-core processes, functions, and skills they may be lacking in, Damian suggested finding solutions to automate or outsource these jobs so startup owners can focus on key areas.
Another thing he believes they shouldn’t skimp on is personal time.
“When we lack the experience, I think it can be mitigated partly by reading more and learning from the experience of others,” he shared.
His advice to people looking to go into completely different industries from before: “There should be a deep interest and/or passion for the new industry.”
“For me, it’s fitness in the case of The Gym Pod. Look carefully at areas where your previous experience and current skillsets may set you apart from the incumbents.”
Combining knowledge, skills, and experience might even provide benefits unique to you, Damian added.
“As a personal example, I combined my understanding of real estate development, technology, and interest in fitness for The Gym Pod. My depth of understanding in some of these areas are mediocre at best, but together I believe they amplify the impact,” he said.
He advises speaking to industry professionals and study materials related to it.
Understanding that changing industries can be scary, Damian recommends using a fear-setting tool he uses himself that you can try here.
Wrapping up our conversation, he told me that they are currently working with several developers to roll out Gym Pods to service commercial and industrial areas in Singapore.
He aims to have Gym Pods in public areas near residential homes and parks as they want to make working out as accessible as possible.
Damian also revealed that The Gym Pod will be making its entry to the Hong Kong market in Q2 or Q3 of 2019 as talks of a partnership is underway.
Featured Image Credit: The Gym Pod