SME Diaries: Covid-19 nearly sank my swimming school. My team voluntarily took drastic pay cuts to keep us afloat

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which make up 99% of businesses in Singapore, have felt the impact of Covid-19 heavily. TODAY’s Voices section features testimonials from small business owners and managers about the highs and lows of running a business during the pandemic.

In this episode, Mr. Tan Jian Yong, 34, recounts how the pandemic nearly scuttled his swimming school. He says he was close to giving up, if not for his staff and coaches who volunteered to take pay cuts. The recovery has been slow, but Mr Tan says he remains committed to his mission of teaching children to swim.

I have loved swimming for as long as I can remember. At 19, after a stint as a lifeguard and swimming coach, I decided I had found my life purpose – I hoped to reduce the number of drownings among young children by teaching as many people as possible to swim. of possible children.

I spent the next 14 years building Happy Fish from a student and coach matchmaking platform to a school dedicated to teaching young children water skills. We were doing well and were about to take our business to the next level with our very first premium offering, Happy Fish Home @ Bedok. Then the pandemic hit – and it hit us hard.

Honestly, we wouldn’t have launched Happy Fish Home without the contractual agreement with our investors and our landlord that we had to respect. We would be forced to forfeit our security deposit and pay a fine. After a 10 month delay, we opened on November 27 last year. Our six other branches, also closed for more than 10 months due to the pandemic, were able to resume their activities.

But it was an uphill battle. We would not be able to achieve what we have today without the support of our staff and a Covid-19 relief bank loan. During our toughest months, our team of 30+ employees and 60 coaches willingly went into survival mode with us, volunteering for an average 50% pay cut. Without them, we would have abandoned our mission.

Later, as other industries began to recover, we were still operating at only 50% capacity due to safe distancing measures and slower enrollment.

Our recovery was also hampered by the rising number of Covid-19 cases as we headed into an endemic era. As we operate indoor facilities, our students – which mostly include unvaccinated children – could not participate in group lessons due to security management measures. Fortunately, the situation is much better now, as we can return to classes of 10, which is around 80% of capacity.

Since the pandemic hit, we have been working to simplify our business processes and reduce our expenses. We have outsourced our administrative work so that we can focus on customer service. We’ve also removed some lessons from the menu, such as platform diving lessons, competitive swimming lessons, and lifeguard lessons.

Despite the challenges, we stick to our guns on training kids because we see value in the courses we offer. Registrations were still cautious but thanks to the support of investors and our team, we are taking advantage of this time to roll out some community programs for underprivileged children in the coming months.

As difficult as it is, Happy Fish is here to stay and isn’t going anywhere. I hope we will be operating at full capacity soon and that I can repay my team for the favor they have shown me over the past two years. We are committed to getting through this difficult time while working to equip children with proper swimming skills, one baby at a time.


Tan Jian Yong, 34, is the founder of Happy Fish Swimming School. It operates eight indoor heated swimming pools in Singapore and five in Malaysia. He is also the father of two daughters, Laura, 7, and Hillary, 3.

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