IN 2011, Vivian Hoong was a spa therapist working long hours. On top of that, she had to meet quotas to earn the commissions that would bump up her low basic wage.
She wanted to strike out on her own, but was held back by high start-up costs and her lack of business expertise.
She inspired her sister-in-law Deborah Chiam to come up with the idea of a spa co-operative - one that would give its franchisees - that is, spa therapists - greater autonomy as their own bosses.
Ms Chiam, an information technology entrepreneur who started her own IT company in 1994 and has dabbled in other businesses, opened Immanuel Beauty at Forum the Shopping Mall in 2011, partly so that Ms Hoong could work there. Back then, it was not yet a co-operative, but like most spas, it had to deal with low staff morale and a high turnover.
Immanuel registered itself as a co-operative last November, becoming South-east Asia's first spa co-operative. Yesterday, it opened its first branch - run as a full-fledged co-operative - at the Parkroyal on Kitchener Road hotel. It has five franchisees there, and six at the Forum outlet, including Ms Hoong.
Ms Chiam said that she aims to have 10 spas under the franchise here in the coming year, and perhaps expand into South-east Asia.
But she has her eye on the franchisees - she believes that when they become their own bosses, they can take ownership of their careers, thus easing the staffing challenges endemic to the industry.
The five Immanuel franchisees at Parkroyal have entered the spa and beauty business at relatively low risk and with minimum start-up funds. They pay the rent and for the spa products that they use, receive a percentage of royalties, and get to choose their work hours.
The franchisees lean on Immanuel's established infrastructure, including its online reservation and payment system, and acquire business expertise through in-house training.
Ms Chiam said: "This frees the therapist to focus on her services and do what she is best at - caring for her clients."
The therapists are encouraged to refer clients to each other for a small commission, since they may each have different specialities. They may also lease their treatment rooms to other therapists for income while they are away.