I have been a registered massage therapist (RMT) in British Columbia, Canada, for just over 30 years. For my first five years, I worked at a busy, established massage therapy office in Vancouver that had all the neighbouring doctors referring to it. Following the tradition of taking five years to earn a “black belt” — a time frame that our school’s founder John Ranney said to us — I spent that time learning the craft as best as I could, taking more training, learning to apply it, and just learning to work with people and whatever conditions they had. But life happens. During that five years, I got married, moved away from Vancouver (two cities away), had a longer daily commute, bought our first home, and had our first child.
I never meant to be a massage therapist. I was an expected gifted learner at a young age. I got my elementary school’s equivalent of valedictorian in its final year of Grade 7. I entered into the “enriched program” right into high school in Grade 8, but I left it in only one week because I thought I was with the wrong group of kids. Eventually, I became a computer science and philosophy major at a university.
However, I did not continue with my education. This probably started when I was what I consider an early victim of bad ergonomics, although modern pain science tells us it is not that simple. As someone who was always hunched over books, writing or typing papers, doing programming either for school or as a hobby, I developed a stiffness sensation in my body, followed by neck and shoulder pain.
My doctor first told me to get my mother to rub my shoulders. When that didn’t work, and the nerve pinch progressed to where I couldn’t lift my arm sideways above my shoulder height due to presumably the signal not reaching the muscles, I was sent to the university’s sports medicine clinic.
I was told that my “posture is terrible!” So, I was given vertebral manipulation and mechanical traction on a electrically powered traction machine (in supine position, which now I would never recommend!), and I was instructed on how to correct my posture and ergonomics. Months later, the pain abated, but I still had years of stiffness, pain, and tension in my neck and shoulders.
It’s not like I wasn’t trying to look after these aspects. I was an avid bodybuilder, or at least as much as a 5’8″, 140-pound skinny nerd could be. I learned every stretch I could, every muscle to strengthen with weights. But it wasn’t enough to get rid of the pain. All of my life choices and interests paved the way for me to be a registered massage therapist in ways that may not be only every one of my colleagues has experienced.
I actually never set out to be a clinic owner either. I was quite ready to simply be “the therapist” indefinitely. It seemed quite enough practicing, studying, and learning new techniques. But life moves on. When we got married and moved, we put down our roots in our new city.
Here is where everything just seemed to point in the direction I am at now. First, when we consulted with our bank’s loan officer about getting financing to open up a new office, no sooner did we tell him our plans—and without any exageration—he said “No problem!”
I was shocked, as I was expecting to have to sell the idea to him, and simply said “That’s it? Really?”
“Yes,” he told us, that a massage therapy clinic was considered a low-risk endeavour for them, that demand for our services was high enough!
Although she claims it was all my idea, my wife suggested to me, “Why keep commuting to Vancouver all the time? Why not open up your own place?”
So I looked around to see what was available, and put the word out to friends and acquaintances of our plans. While visiting another therapist friend of mine, I chanced upon one of my massage college classmates and fellow graduates who had just moved into town and was looking to work locally, too. This was the beginning of my partnership with my friend, Sharon.
One thing led to another, and soon enough we were scouting locations together, having meetings with commercial real estate agents, though to no initial avail. One day, to my surprise, she had found in the classified ads of our local newspaper an opening for lease in the building I had inquired about but was fully occupied before I had met up with her.
The size of the suite was right, the room layout was just about made for accommodating the two of us, as well as one or two other therapists. It had enough room for a waiting and reception area, as well as what every massage therapist needs: a laundry and staff room area.
We had a contractor and designer check our plans and flesh them out more on paper, got an estimate from the contractor to tear down and build up whatever walls needed fixing. They built a reception desk, counters for the staff room, electrical plugs, and laundry and sink hookups for the staff and treatment rooms. We added paintings and a carpet, installed a washer, drier, and fridge, and we were off! This was in December of 1994 when we had finalized everything.
In March of 1995, we were open. Because I was still paying down our first mortgage, and we had a new baby, I played it cautious and worked about half the week at my original office in Vancouver, and half in the new location, about five or six days a week.
Around this time, we were also pounding the pavement. We had printed up intro letters, referral pads for our office, business cards, and we had hit up all the doctors’ offices in the surrounding area. We introduced ourselves to existing nearby clinics, had booths at local health fairs for exposure, had ads in the local paper — whatever we could think of to get things going. Of course, we had a sidewalk sandwich board!
At the time, one of the important factors for a clinic actually was your Yellow Pages ad, the big, thick paper book of businesses and their phone numbers, some with graphic ads from a little box to a full page. These were delivered to every location that had a landline. We opted for a small box ad with just our contact info and a small blurb of text.
Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait too long, as in those days, the new Yellow Pages came out in May of each year, and our grand opening was March 15.
That seemed to be enough. Patients would get referred by their doctors for treatment of pain, various injuries from work or car accidents, chronic health issues, and would simply search the Yellow Pages for the closest clinic to them. Luckily, we started in a pretty central and high density location. I wrote progress reports to referring doctors to let them know we weren’t “asleep at the wheel,” as well as to let them know who we are, and what we could do.
I wish I had totally quit my old job and put 100 percent of my time into the new location, since it only took about six months till I was satisfied that having two locations to hedge my bets wasn’t necessary.
A year later, we were busy enough to hire another therapist to fill up one of the empty rooms, and we followed the typical multi-therapist clinic model that is still common all over in British Columbia. Over next few years, we typically had two or three associate RMTs working with us, a business model that lasted till 2013, when I decided I was happiest at the time I started — just concentrating on learning and practicing the craft, and being the best I could at it (which might be an article for another time!).
We made the place, put the word out, maintained professional relations with referring and associated other professionals in the area, and used print advertising and public events to keep a public profile as opportunity came up. In the 1990s, that was how it was done, having laid the foundation for my career to this very day.
Ken Leong, RMT
Ken is a 30-year veteran as a Registered Massage Therapist (RMT) in Great Vancouver since graduating from the West Coast College Of Massage Therapy’s program in 1989. He has a full-time, general clinical practice at Sixth Street Massage Therapy Clinic, focusing on working with people who have pain and injury, of all ages and occupations.
When he’s not working, hes a busy family man, even with two adult-aged children, three cats, and occasionally finds time to read books, play some piano, jogging with friends (has officially completed two half-marathons), maybe even watch a movie or two.