Mobile massages are no longer a novelty, but how would you like to book your in-home treatment as easily as you order food delivery?
With her on-demand massage app Theraply, launched in February, founder Valerie De Costa, 43, hopes to eventually become "the Grab of massages".
The mother of three boys has been offering facial and massage services, mostly to mothers, for 19 years at a brick-and-mortar establishment called Nouri Face & Body Concepts in the Lavender area.
Over the years, she had toyed with the idea of rebranding, but it was the preponderance of "errant practices" in the massage industry that finally pushed her to do it.
Since 2011, she started noticing more new clients with the same complaints - having overpaid at other parlours without seeing results and being pressured to upgrade their packages.
"I observed that the market had opened up to less-than-capable freelance therapists and (copycats)," she says. "Wellness spas were using aggressive and dishonest tactics and forcing people to sign up for expensive packages that did not produce results."
As consumers lost "trust" in the industry, this impacted her own business, she adds. "Pushy salespeople made it harder to speak to clients and convince them of the treatments they need. Customers looked at us with fear and lumped us together with errant providers."
To address this, she began developing the app in 2018, wanting to create a transparent platform where customers could book what they wanted with no risk of being upsold. Users have a virtual wallet and calendar to manage their sessions, and can browse available packages at their discretion.
While Theraply started out focusing on postpartum and prenatal massages, it is branching out to more general treatments such as deep-tissue, Swedish and aromatherapy massages. Prices range from $90 for a lactation massage to $110 for a postnatal massage; deep-tissue massages are $98.
With no physical outlets, a therapist goes to the customer's home with a massage bed, towels and oils. "When you have brick and mortar, you transfer the cost to customers," says Madam De Costa.
Besides looking out for customers, the former therapist hopes Theraply can create a better working environment for massage therapists.
"Many often spend long hours at work and are pressured into hitting high sales targets, having to bear their own transport and meal costs," she says, adding that she has seen poor work-life balance take a toll on many a therapist's home life.
"Most people don't respect the trade and are not willing to pay for it," adds Madam De Costa, who employs around 15 locals and permanent residents.
Her staff can choose their work hours and are paid by the number of jobs they take. They are ferried to assignments by the company's vans, which are cleaned every two hours.
Launching just before the circuit breaker might have seemed like bad timing, but Madam De Costa made the most of it, using the downtime to do online training for her therapists.
The pandemic may have even helped business. Customers are more open than before to having treatments done in the comfort of their homes. Many also avoid visiting spas, she adds, to minimise the risk of catching Covid-19.
"Clients know they can vet their visitors. They get to see us sanitising our massage beds and keeping ourselves clean in front of them," she says.
She plans to expand her team and will provide basic training to anyone who wants to join, "especially Singaporeans looking to make a career switch or who just got retrenched".
New therapists must fulfil a minimum of 300 hours of training before they can serve customers.
She hopes to see more in the industry pivot to offer mobile services. "We hope to lead the way for more companies to digitalise their business and come up with more ethical practices."