An idea popped into the minds of relationships expert Emma Merkas and her husband Denis, a remedial massage therapist with 13 years of experience. The idea was pretty simple: teach couples how to massage each other sensually in the privacy of their own homes. Before you roll your eyes, point your nose in the air, and think to yourself ‘ugh, how very low-tech!’ know that Emma and Denis are a tech-savvy duo.
They’ve managed to hack the massage industry and turn what is traditionally a service-based business into a product with a tech twist, and it’s working for them on a global scale. In March this year, they officially launched the digital version of their venture Melt: Massage for Couples, which combines cinematography with expert instructions to teach couples how to massage. Customers receive instant lifetime access to the tutorials and can stream the videos directly to their smart TV, laptop, tablet or smartphone.
The digital side of the business, however, started off on rocky grounds. Emma admits it wasn’t really gaining much traction in the beginning. But fast forward to today and the entrepreneurial duo have crowdfunded their venture, been to Los Angeles and back to complete a film shoot with cinematographer Gabriel Bienczycki, and are now selling lifetime memberships in countries all over the world including Australia, America, Canada, the UK and South America.
No-one wants a sub-standard massage, especially from a loved one. This was one of the reasons why Emma and Denis decided to go full-speed with their venture. They point out that massage between couples has been proven to build trust, increase intimacy and help forge a closer connection: “every relationship deserves a little bit of massage”.
“We realised that most couples already try giving each other a shoulder rub every now and then, but the complaints were always the same: hands get sore after a few minutes, they aren’t sure if they’re doing it right, they get bored,” says Emma.
“[Melt] was designed specifically so couples would be able to massage at home with no special equipment and no jargon. Your average couple massaging at home doesn’t care if they’re massaging the stenocleidomastoid muscle – they just want to hit the spots that feel good. We did away with the technical names and came up with easy to remember techniques and names.”
For 10 years, prior to launching Melt, Denis ran Melbourne-based hotel massage company, Merkas Health. He was hosting massage workshops for couples as a side project in response to friends asking him for massage tips. In October 2013, he and Emma decided to take the plunge and scale the workshops, transitioning to a video platform to reach a wider audience and better adapt to their growth.
“We were putting on multiple classes in one day to help meet demand; the videos were the next logical step in delivering our content so it could be shared internationally. I’ve worked in the wellness industry for my entire career as both an acupuncturist, a massage therapist and the owner of a large massage business and the natural progression for the entire industry right now is to figure out how to make the most of online opportunities, or risk dying out,” says Denis.
Emma adds, “The growth of the workshops has been so organic that we didn’t even realise that they were booking out,” Emma says.
She says they’ve put a lot of thought into the setup and design of the online video courses, so that couples are entertained and engaged. The videos are completely exclusive to members, and only accessible through their website www.couplesmassagecourses.com. For the time being, the company is using Vimeo PRO as it’s more cost-effective than self-hosting, where bandwidth costs would put a strain on their hip pockets. Emma also says that Vimeo PRO offers privacy options so that videos can only be available on particular URLs.
You may think ‘how is Melt different to YouTube how-to videos?’ Denis admits that YouTube is flooded with “how-to” massage videos, and there are plenty of massage therapists teaching couples how to massage in live classes.
“But for some reason, everyone is teaching couples how to massage the same way they’d teach a massage therapist,” he explains. “I would never give a professional massage the same way I massage my wife using the Melt: Massage for Couples system.”
Denis assures that although Melt focuses on couples massage, the videos are not overly sexual: “it’s quite PG”.
“The inspiration for the seated position we teach with comes from the movie Ghost, where Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze are getting hot and heavy with the pottery. It’s a pretty sexy scene. We developed the techniques from there to suit any couple at home. When we’re teaching the techniques, it’s kept clean (in both the videos and live courses) but what couples get up to behind closed doors is completely up to them!” Denis adds.
This differs from most other courses that teach couples on massage tables or lying on the floor.
“It’s not practical, it’s not sexy and it’s not comfortable. We’re aimed at couples who don’t own massage tables (which is most people),” says Denis.
He adds that Melt does not aim to turn everyday couples into professional massage therapists. They’re simply giving them an opportunity to set up a date night at home for two.
“The videos are an experience, but down into bite-size clips (3 to 5 minutes). It’s palatable; they don’t need to commit to an epic DVD feature,” Denis says.
The videos are also shot in 5K resolution, so that each massage technique can be viewed in detail, with voiceover commentary by Emma and Denis. At the end of each segment, there is a follow-along massage routine so that couples can watch and replicate a 5-minute, 15-minute and 30-minute massage routine.
“We haven’t seen anyone else in the world that has produced couples massage videos of the quality and depth that we’re offering, and our system of teaching without tables and without technical jargon is totally unique as well. The idea that couples can learn at home in their living room straight from their smart TV is also making the most of cutting edge technology, not something the massage industry is known for pursuing,” says Emma.
When it came to funding the venture, Emma and Denis quickly realised they’d need external assistance. The level of production they wanted to undertake was expensive, but it was important for the videos to be shot in a certain way.
“It’s very easy for massage videos to look seedy or just plain bad, given that you’re working with a lot of flesh and oil. Our product and brand is completely PG, sophisticated and informative,” says Emma.
They started out by approaching massage oil companies in Australia and overseas to explore partnership opportunities. The idea was for the companies to fund the video production, and in return the videos would market their oil products.
“We spent months in talks with the top management of some major companies but in the end everyone said no to co-funding the production. We were told to come back when we’d made them and they’d “think about it”. But it was the capital that was the problem for us in the first place!” says Emma.
Frustrated by the entire process, Emma and Denis decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign on Pozible instead.
“The product is now 100% ours, no investors, no partners!. We cut down as much of the budget as possible and we managed to raise $12,500 with a Pozible campaign,” says Denis.
That’s not to say that crowdfunding was an easy process. In fact, Denis says he vowed to never do it again.
“In the news, you only ever see the projects that go viral and so it’s easy to think that you’ll be one of those, but we weren’t. It’s difficult and exhausting, we’re glad we did it and made it over the line,” he says.
After eight years of running live workshops, they had the content down to a fine art. Emma and Denis made all their friends do the massage course and provide feedback. From doing that, they were able to recognise what concerns couples have during the learning session.
Although the practical workshops were designed to be fun with a little tongue and cheek, the concern for Emma and Denis was how would they translate that onto video?
“The videos needed to be short and palatable yet still create a “date night” experience rather than feel like it’s a bunch of techniques slapped together,” says Emma.
“When it came to the video production, we sat and broke down every technique that we have into smaller segments that are easy-to-follow for couples and made sure we provided information on troubleshooting the most common problems.
“Initially, we thought we would have to run the course as one long video, which didn’t sit well with us. Then we hit on the idea of breaking the entire course down the same way we do with our live courses – one technique at a time, building up into progressive follow-along massage routines.
Given Melt offers a one-off lifetime membership, it’s easy to wonder whether this is a sustainable business model.
“We are getting lots of advice from entrepreneurial friends to move this to a monthly subscription model, but we would rather the couples have it to use and go back to whenever they like,” says Emma.
It seems that the duo are planning on diversifying their product range to include massage oils and accessories in addition to their current videos and eBooks. This is where the business will make its money.
Emma says the business has growing month-on-month. The sales have been coming through from almost every content in the world. The only continent they haven’t received much traction from is Antarctica.
Their very first advertising effort drew in $1,000 worth of sales overnight.
“For us, coming from a service industry like massage, that’s a huge achievement and exactly what we want from our business,” says Emma.
There have been many obstacles to overcome, which is the very nature of starting up a business. But for Denis, the biggest challenges were hearing the word ‘no’ and being ignored.
“As a startup, you fall in love with what you do, you see the benefits that it provides, not only to the end user but also the person/company you’re promoting it through. Sadly, ‘no’ is the word you’ll hear most as a startup,” says Denis.
“The problem is, others don’t see your product/service the way you do, it’s going to take time and hard work to convince them. But, one day, someone will listen, and if it’s the right fit they’ll agree with you. Over time more will listen. Eventually, some will even become your cheerleaders, this is when things begin to really move. Picking yourself up a series of ‘Nos’ is really hard.”
Another big challenge that Emma points out is the need for a startup founder to wear multiple job hats. She says, “Without much access to money or to an army of workers, it comes down to just us. We are everything – graphic designers, webmasters, technical support, PR & marketing, sales, production crew, directors, writers, actors for the videos.”
One would also think that starting up with your life partner would be hard. The high-pressure environment would surely create tension in the relationship, right? For Emma and Denis, it appears things are well – probably helped by the fact that both can give each other kickarse massages when times get tough.
“It certainly makes for a more intense marriage in a lot of ways. Every pro I have has a con on the other side of the same coin. When business is going well, you’re both happy… when business is challenging, it can be frustrating. Luckily, we don’t tend to both wallow at once. If someone is having a hard week, the other is there to give a pep talk and a boost,” says Emma.
She adds that as a founder it can be difficult to switch off from business and have a clear separation between work and personal life.
“Anyone that is involved with an entrepreneur knows how much brain space and emotional power having your own business can take up. We’re lucky that we’re both involved in the company so we don’t bore each other to death with our business talk – we’re both very invested in the company,” Emma says.
So what’s next for Melt? Denis says their US audience is the fastest-growing, so they are booking a live course tour through the US for 2015.
“[W]e’re looking forward to being in America to build our distribution and sales network so more couples can benefit from our teachings.”
More information is available via www.couplesmassagecourses.com.