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Childhood Friends

This is my team. Before the concept of a Followers Friend Request, and now — a  “Close Friend” on Instagram, these are my first true friends.

From left to right, that’s Thomas, Karen, Richie, and finally me.

Thomas and Richie were those friends— you know, the ones who were down the block who I’d swing by to see if they were free to hang out. We went to the same elementary school, PS20, in … shoot, I don’t even remember— 4th grade?

Thomas and Richie were those friends— the ones who crushed on the same girl (not Karen, more on her later) you liked because she was cool and hung out with us after school.

We did everything together. We would go to the corner deli after school, walk home together as a group, watch The Simpsons relentlessly, and team up for battle on snow days.

Books and Quiet Time

I don’t know why and how this happened, but another important place Thomas, Richie and I would go to together was the Flushing Library. Yes, I say libary with emphasis because, in retrospect, Flushing is not the best town to raise your kid.

Before the superstore gentrification of Flushing, my home streets were pretty dangerous to walk around at night, ridden with gang violence, theft, and just a lot of poverty I never stopped to notice.

But this grand libary opened in 1998, right before I met my friends. By the time we were in 5th and 6th grade, this libary offered after school tutoring and help for kids free of charge. This is where we met Karen.

Karen

Karen, the girl in the photo above, was a student teacher for that afterschool program in Flushing Library. Karen’s seven years older than we are— so back in 2001 she was padding her volunteer credits for her high school honors diploma at Townsend Harris High School.

Karen was the best, but she was mean, partly because I was the biggest brat, full of energy (from that candy), and had a terrible mouth (think the Asian Cartman).

I don’t think any of us realized this back then, but Karen acted as an incredibly powerful role model for us at an important stage of our childhood. It’s honestly very easy to screw up and get caught up with the ‘wrong’ crowd after school. For whatever good reason I can’t figure to remember, Thomas, Richie and I would attend after school tutoring frequently to do work, but mainly just hang out in a safe haven within Flushing Library.’

Glue

It’s been  around 14 years since I first met the crew, and with all friends, not just your first ones, it takes massive effort to keep the friendship and memories going. I’ll admit I am the worst of the crew with keeping tabs on our group and actively going out of my way to make plans. Karen is the glue to our group, she’s always the person wrangling us together for dinner and meetups, and I’m thankful for that. I go through highs and lows with grasping the importance of upholding friendships; not later, now. I’m going to try and do a better job moving forward, but even to this day, Karen is still serving as an amazing role model for me.


Parsing old memories is a strange thing— I can barely remember the unforgettable moments with my friends in elementary school. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I remember what I felt more than what I actually did.

Moments from 2011 feel so long ago, but not 8 years long. Jeez.

And pictures from today look like they should be swapped with ones from past because I appear even younger now. As distorted as my timeline feels to me, I’ll never forget my childhood friends.

Categories
personal work

What I learned building a fitness app as a personal trainer-turned computer programmer.

The fitness industry does not need innovation.

I’m Leo and three years ago, I pivoted from pursuing a three-year post grad degree in Physical Therapy at New York University to learning how to code. Prior to that, I worked at NYU as a part-time strength and conditioning coach for its Division III athletes, and as my first job out of college, it was a dream come true.

nyu_leo_kwan

Graduating from SUNY Buffalo with a degree in Exercise Science, I always wanted to train athletes and work in the athletic world. I interned around the country as a student, and I was a disciple to industry leading coaches and organizations in sports performance.
I was never tech savvy growing up, but I considered myself a nerd to anything I put my interests in. You know, that person who learned through the textbooks and came off a bit awkward to others because that person thought he knew everything. That was me (might still be, I hope not).

I was a student of the game.

I graduated college in 2013, and immediately, I went straight down to Pensacola, Florida for a summer internship with Athletes Performance, now named EXOS. Athletes’ Performance (AP) was regarded as the cream of the crop of sports performance gyms in the US. They trained the best collegiate and pro athletes in all major sporting organizations, particularly American Football.

athletes_performance

I learned a whole lot interning at AP. I won’t get into detail but it was a top notch facility with world class coaching. Side note: growing up in NY and living in Pensacola for 3 month— big culture change.

Coming out of college and internships like EXOS, I thought— why isn’t smarter coaching content available for other sportsy people out there? There are a ton of people like myself who wished they had trained more effectively at a younger age. Can technology solve the problem?

I had an idea

Two years into working as a strength coach at NYU, I realized there should be an app for this. I didn’t know how to code, but in my spare time I learned how to make a website and create mockups like the banner image above.
The idea was called Atrium, and it was a fitness app that would bring teammates together to train as a team, thus the “atrium” name. Awful name, but a lot of motivation.

But what about my career? In the meantime, I was wrestling with my future career trajectory and quickly trying to figure out how I would generate a steady income. Physical Therapy seemed like the clear direction for me. I loved fitness and sports performance, but juggling NYU and personal training at Equinox was hard.

Physical Therapy seemed like the clear direction for me.

Back at EXOS, I was inspired by the sports medicine staff, particularly the athletic trainers and physical therapists. Their work on athletes looked so novel and, for lack of a better phrase, intellectually challenging. It seemed fitting for me, so I looked into Physical Therapy as my next endeavor after strength conditioning.
But what about my idea?
I spent a year completing remaining prerequisite classes (bio 1 & 2), punching in volunteering hours at the hospital and perfecting admissions essays for NYU and Duke’s Doctorate of Physical Therapy program. I was ready to put my idea to rest and move on with a new chapter in my life.
Then… I got rejected by Duke’s early decision process. I was distraught and pretty disappointed. During that time, I remember simply thinking about two things.
I had to focus on getting into NYU. It was the only other PT program I applied to besides Duke, and if I didn’t get in, I’d need to wait an entire year to reapply.
I stumbled upon a free online class about technology entrepreneurship by Stanford.

This class changed my life.

There was nothing ground breaking taught, but for someone like myself who had never took a computer science course, it spun my mental model harder than any other class I took in my life. I eventually got the acceptance letter into NYU, but I had already made my mind. I was going to opt out of Physical Therapy to learn how to code, and ultimately, build my app.

“Atrium” was the initial name of my business. Before I even knew how to code, I sketched out exactly how I wanted my fitness app to look. For future entrepreneurs, don’t do this. Move and adjust quickly.


Fast forward to today

This is personal and hopefully anyone who traveled a similar path can understand its difficulties.
I left strength conditioning, NYU and the fitness world to pursue a field I wasn’t entirely sure about. I learned how to code, got a tech job, and continued building my app in my spare time. I said I would never want to get too involved in tech, just enough so I could build my product and move on. But the truth is when you want to be great at anything, you cannot help but pour every ounce of effort to stand out. I did that with fitness, and I’m trying to do that with software development and technology.
Even though I never hoped to stray far from my passion for sports, programming has opened so many doors for me. I’ve made incredible friends and colleagues in tech that I can’t imagine not meeting. I’ve also developed a new set of skills, particularly computer programming and deep problem solving, that I really lacked before I wrote my first line of code in 2015.


The toughest lesson I had to learn

Up until now, I thought technology would save the day. People use mobile apps and I know how to build them. Innovation in website development has moved really fast, and some web applications just blow me away every time I use them. Big tech buzzwords like AI, AR, machine learning, and deep learning have sprung up in the last three years, and companies like Google, Apple and Facebook are racing to be at the front of these domains.
As a programmer who writes code 40 hours a week, I’ve also adopted the mindset that better software equals better business, and that if I want my apps succeeding in the fitness industry, I, too, need to build smarter technology and take the lead in this innovation race.

Wrong.
Coaches and trainers just need to be better coaches and trainers. Athletes need to be attentive, trust their coaches and put the requisite hours in the gym and in their sport. I’ve spent so much time focusing on the wrong things, because I often forget the core needs of coaches and athletes.

Coaches and trainers have to problem sharing their content on a google excel sheet. Even less complicated than that, I’ve seen coaches share static word documents outlining their premium workout program. This is a really tough lesson I’m learning to swallow: do not add innovation where it is really not needed.


If you’re interested in what I’m building, follow me @imleokwan and check out SuperFit for free on the app store.