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VIDEO: Urban Massage’s founder on the challenges and joys of growing a tech startup

urban massage

At the recent Unbound event in London, I interviewed seven startup founders to find out more about the highs and lows of creating a successful tech business in the UK. Here’s the interview with Jack Tang, founder and CEO of Urban Massage.

ES: Jack, can you  give us a brief description of your company, for those who don’t know what Urban Massage is?

JT: Sure so Urban Massage is a wellness service marketplace, so we connect a supply of qualified massage therapists with the general public through our app and website.

Okay and where are you based?

So we were founded in London and our headquarters are also in London

And so how many years have you been running so far?

For us, just over three years now.

Where did the idea for the platform come from?

So previous to Urban Massage, I was an internet entrepreneur. After the exit I was thinking “what do I do next?” and one weekend I tried to book a massage online and I went through the whole stumbling block of the cumbersome process of booking a massage and I thought “surely there’s an easier way to do this”. And I thought “surely there’s an app that I can press a few buttons and someone could come to me to do a sports massage” and actually I fell into the industry.

Having done a lot more research I kind of understood how fragmented and how inefficient the whole industry was and then that led me to then actually thinking about really building a really neat brand and customer experience-focused platform for the wellness industry.

Okay so talk us through exactly how how the app works from a consumer point of view.

So simply you tell us where you are, so you enter your postcode as you would enter your postcode for food delivery or whatever might be, then we present to you a list of treatments so you can put anything from relaxing massage all the way to deep tissue, sports massage, pregnancy massage, it really does everything for everyone.

Then, in real time, our technology platform works out the GPS locations of all the therapists on the platform and also works out what other bookings they have and basically the net result of that is it presents a really neat grid of times available for you book.

So you could say “okay I want a deep-tissue for 6:00pm” and then they’ll say “these are the available therapists in the area”. You can look at the reviews, their ratings and then check out using Apple Pay or another payment method.

What kind of traction or success have you gained so far?

So we’ve been around for three years officially, but we launched into the market two-and-a-half years ago, so we currently operate in three countries, so in the UK, in France and also in Austria.

What was the reason behind choosing those countries?

So the UK market – obviously London is our home, we’re based here – so in the UK we’re in London, Manchester and Birmingham. The reason for those cities is because, being an urban business, we focus on urban density, so we cater for a population that is highly stressed, that has the need for massage treatment and stress relief.

In Paris we launched it about six months ago and the reason why is because Paris has a very similar market/sort of behaviour as London. The customer’s behaviours are the same – they invest a lot in their well-being and lifestyle.

The people in Vienna – it’s typically a bit of an older population, they definitely invest a lot in their lifestyle, healthy eating and regular exercising, and so in terms of the need for the service, it’s definitely there as well.

Going back to the traction question – around customer numbers or investment raised, can you share any of that information?

So we don’t tend to disclose how much we’ve raised, mainly because as a business we are very humble and we stick to the values of that, and we don’t want the perception externally of “hey you know that’s so cool dude you raised so much money”. The reality is that we focus on delivering a great experience and a fantastic product to the end user.

Traction-wise, I’m happy to disclose that. Within two-and-a-half years we’re now in three countries, we’re looking to expand to many many more countries globally, but we are now delivering in excess of 300,000 treatments annually to individuals in people’s homes and offices.

There are a few companies that have come up in this space and they’re offering all sorts of hair and beauty treatments from home. Why have you decided to just stick to the massage? Or are you looking at expanding into that sort of area as well?

So for me, in 10 years, the vision is very much about building a brand empire – Urban being a brand empire for us. And really I’m a strong believer in focus. Being an entrepreneur you always have great ideas, and you have a customer calling saying “hey do you do shellac nail polish” and that sort of stuff, and we say “no” and you think “that’s now £40 gone”, but it is really about keeping your eye on the big mission.

For us we focus on the massage market, because massage is a $77bn industry globally, and second of all 88% of massage services are delivered for the purpose of pain and stress relief, which are sort of necessities rather than a discretionary spend.

It also caters for a much wider demographic. Both male and female customers need massage treatments, for whatever reasons – you might have an injury, you might need physiotherapy – and also the industry itself is, in many countries, backed by private medical insurance companies, the NHS pays for it as well and so it is a need rather than a luxury and there is a broad audience.

Who would you view as your major competitors? Would you view them as being these new companies that are emerging into the space, or is it the traditional bricks-and-mortar massage places?

I think anyone that is offering any form of professional massage therapy is a competitor per se, but I really encourage competition. I really like that because I think it lifts all boats and it also creates a really friendly ecosystem and atmosphere in the industry and it educates the market much quicker than you can do by yourself.

We do have obviously online competitors. Since we launched we had probably 20 new ones that have launched in London alone. There are loads in the US that have launched and raised a huge amount of money and they shout about it.

So what sets you apart?

I think the key thing is that we really focus on innovating on three key pillars. One is brand – so brand is such an important asset of our business. Two is our technology – our proprietary technology. My CTO hates me because I say “anything is possible right?” and I’m like “why is this not possible?”

So one of the things for us is that we are catering for an industry where there is a one-to-one personal interaction and relationship between the client and the professional provider. So we’ve provided a platform where anyone can book specifically the therapist that they wish to book, because you know that person knows you best, but our competitors put themselves – their brand – as the shop front to booking a service. So for example, with one of our competitors, you go and say “I want a massage at 6pm, send me anyone,” but for us is about “I want this person specifically”.

Anyone in the industry, even the brick-and-mortar businesses are competition for us, but really what we’re trying to do is is to really help consumers to integrate massage as an integral routine of their lifestyle. So it’s as important as a healthy meal or regular exercising – massage is a body maintenance thing.

You said you had worked in tech companies before this and you’d exited, but maybe you could tell us a bit about the main challenges you faced setting up those businesses and this business in particular.

So I think, specifically in tech, I think when you start out the most important and the biggest challenge is always finding the founding team and I think continuously my biggest challenge is always about people – people and talent.

Just finding world-class people, regardless of what stage of business you’re at, is always a challenge. We proactively look to attract, world-class talent so it doesn’t matter what stage we’re at I think that’s always a big challenge for us.

And do you think that’s a problem specific to the UK or the industry in general?

I think it’s just the industry in general because there’s so much competition – so many startups out there. The big boys are taking everyone, because they can. So for the startups it is a bit more difficult, and so really as a founder what I find myself having to really really push for and really refine is the vision.

It’s really making sure that whoever I speak to over a coffee, or whatever it might be, really shares the same vision that I have as a founder and then that collectively we see it as like “let’s work together to make this happen” rather than just “do you want to come work for me?”

If you could give just one key bit of advice to someone who is setting up a tech company, what would it be?

I think firstly knowing your market really really well and finding a solution to a genuine problem is the most important thing. I think we all have ideas, we’re always pushing innovation and we’re always thinking “oh what if there was this thing that would help me do this better?”, but I think do your research and genuinely find the actual pain point that people will pay for – I think that’s the biggest advice I can give.