As the backbone of Panama’s ever-expanding economy, Panama City is constantly under pressure. Many of its residents work high-stress office jobs, sitting for eight-or-more hours a day, staring into computer screens.
Eventually, we all need a break… and I recently discovered where in the capital to find one. Feelin’ Relax is an online portal that sends a massage therapist directly to your door, allowing you to enjoy a massage from the comfort of your home, hotel room, or office.
My experience with Feelin’ Relax took me by surprise: It only took a few clicks to arrange for Ana, a professional massage therapist, to be at my apartment that afternoon. She set up her massage table in my living room, converting it into a peaceful space with calming music, and provided a combination of relaxation and shiatsu techniques…
More than just relaxing, though, what surprised me was how efficient the service was. Efficiency and customer service don’t often top the list of most companies’ priorities in Panama. I wanted to find out who was behind the operation and met Hugo, a French/Spanish hybrid and 20s-something entrepreneur…
ST: How did you end up in Panama?
Hugo: I’m from Mallorca, Spain. My parents are from France, so I am half-and-half and always had kind of a double culture.
I studied in Spain and then went to university in France, getting my master’s in economics. I did internships with different countries, which gave me some experience… but I realized I didn’t want the kind of life where I’m always working for someone else. The idea of creating something has always been at the back of my mind.
I came to Panama because I have some family-friends in Santiago. I arrived and thought, “There are so many opportunities here.” But I didn’t know where to start, you know?
ST: Where did the idea for Feelin’ Relax come from?
Hugo: Honestly, when I first came here, I had no idea that I’d start a massage company. Bit by bit, I started coming up with ideas… services I knew would work in my own country, so I thought maybe they’d work here too.
Panama’s a finance hub and there’s lots of stress because of that. I asked myself, “Is there any way to help people reduce stress?” and I didn’t find anything. So, I thought, “Let’s try a company that focuses on wellness…” That’s where the idea for Feelin’ Relax came from.
They say you need two years to know if you’re business is going to work or not… At two years, we had five massage therapists, and our business structure was consolidated.
ST: Do you or your employees have backgrounds in massage therapy?
Hugo: My background is in economics, but if I hadn’t pursued that, I would’ve studied massage or osteopathy… something related to medicine. I’ve always had a general interest in massage and even practiced a little when I was younger.
As for the Feelin’ Relax employees—yes, all of them are professional massage therapists. We also train them in customer experience. An instructor comes regularly from a school of massage to give tips and improve technique.
We’re always trying to be better and provide the best service possible. We send a customer survey after every massage to find out about the client’s experience and take the responses very seriously.
ST: What steps did you have to take to set up a company in Panama?
Hugo: First, it was the administrative part, which took about three months. It’s really inexpensive to start a business in Panama compared to other countries, about US$2,000 to US$3,000.
The most important thing is to find a good lawyer… and then stick with that person until the end. There are so many lawyers in Panama and prices and quality vary a lot, so it’s best to choose your lawyer based on a trusted recommendation.
After that, it was about finding good employees. If you have a company in Panama, 90% of your employees must be Panamanian. But because we act as an intermediary between clients and massage therapists, we pay our employees a commission as opposed to a salary, so we avoid that rule.
That was crucial because we didn’t find many Panamanian people working as professional massage therapists. That’s another reason to have a really good lawyer—you need someone who understands the local rules and can advise well for your business.
Having a good team is the key to success. I was lucky because I co-founded this project with two of my best friends.
ST: I see… So how did you go from setting Feelin’ Relax up to actually providing a service?
Hugo: Initially, we were working with multinational corporations like Nestlé, Adidas, Air France, etc. who wanted to provide employee benefits. These companies have a mindset for this type of thing and a budget for it.
They were always asking us, “Do you offer these services at home?” As an entrepreneur, you find a solution wherever there is a problem, and so we launched a website and online booking system and started doing massages on demand in people’s houses, as well as in offices and hotels.
Our biggest resource has been word-of-mouth recommendation… At the beginning, it took time for people to trust us, but after a while, we built up a relationship with a few loyal clients who recommended us to others. That’s what helped us become the first official massage platform in Panama.
ST: Can you tell me a little about your work with local hotels?
Hugo: Sure. We do business with all the hotels in the area… Novotel, Best Western, Hyatt Place… These are big, brand-name hotels that have given us their trust. You don’t get that unless your service is good.
Step by step, we’ve collaborated with them, and now hotels are our best source of revenue. Most of the clients are tourists so they are more attracted to massage… our most common customers are expats.
ST: Who is your main competition in the wellness industry here in Panama?
Hugo: Our competition comes from individuals working as massage therapists…
Lots of people work freelance through Encuentra24 and other forums, but they aren’t always professionals.
So Feelin’ Relax is a solution for professional massage therapists because we provide marketing through a digital platform that makes these professionals more visible. And it’s a safe and trustworthy platform. That’s not always the case when you use the other online forums…
ST: What’s been the biggest benefit of starting this business in Panama?
Hugo: Taxes are low, and we don’t have an office, so overhead and fixed costs are almost nothing. Our costs depend on demand because we pay our massage therapists a commission.
We’ve been able to source labor from other places. Our employees are from other countries… We set up the Feelin’ Relax website with people from India. As I mentioned before, part of being an entrepreneur is solution-finding ability. Thanks to globalization, the world is full of solutions… good solutions, too.
ST: What are the most important things to you as a business owner?
Hugo: I invest a lot in customer service… it’s hard to find good service here in Panama. I’m always trying to find the equilibrium between good price and good service, and I feel we’ve found it because we receive really positive reviews.
ST: What’s been the most challenging part of the process so far?
Hugo: Starting with nothing. The thing is, when you don’t have a lot of money, you need to have a lot of ideas and be persistent. Try not to get discouraged… You need to keep focused on your vision and believe in it, because you’ll have a lot of ups and downs in the beginning.
Also, my age—I’m still young… If I had more experience, I might not have made so many mistakes over the first two years.
ST: What’s been the best part of the experience?
Hugo: Actually, the mistakes. They help you to learn a lot and increase your way of working and dealing with problems.
ST: What’s next for Feelin’ Relax?
Hugo: I’m starting to look for investors and advisors… Here in Panama, the market is small, so we need investors to allow us to expand.
I thought about expanding to Latin America before, but it’s not ready for this kind of industry. They don’t put a lot of emphasis on mental health and wellness yet.
One day, we’d like to expand to the United States. That’s where all the big massage companies are and where we’d like to go.