This first post in a series featuring each of the startup teams in our inaugural summer accelerator features Heather Waibel, founder of Welnys.
Workplace stress costs employers over $190B per year due to burnout and attrition. That’s why more than half of companies now have a wellness program, and the trend is growing. Even still, they experience low employee engagement and they don’t know how to track return on investment. Welnys is a platform that makes wellness easy for companies by handling all the logistics of on-site wellness programs. Launched just a few months ago, Welnys already has paying clients including the likes of Paypal and Stanley Black and Decker.
Working with Heather, her bias to action is palpable. She knows what she has to do every single day, and then she does it. We sat down with Heather to capture some insight on what drives her, how she keeps herself moving forward and fearlessly attacks the challenges ahead.
It starts by looking back to her first entrepreneurial experience at the age of 23.
What in the world inspired you to open a cigar bar? That’s really random (and awesome).
I was always drawn to the ambiance of cigar bars- the wood bars, the martinis, the jazz music, and so I became a cigar aficionado early on. But it was the camaraderie that made me a devotee- only in a cigar lounge can you have a judge, a plumber, a student and a tech entrepreneur hanging out, having a great conversation and connecting over a shared interest.
You scored all kinds of crazy publicity. How did you manage that?
I just asked! I sent out press releases and people just wrote about me. It helped that I was unique in the industry. There weren’t, and aren’t, that many 23 year old female cigar bar owners.
Were you hoping for that same kind of media hit to boost Welnys?
No. We’re not focused on press right now. We’re focused on doing things that are scalable and repeatable.
These two businesses are nothing alike. So I have to ask again: What inspired you to launch Welnys?
After the cigar bar, I went to work at a Fortune 500. I traveled a lot for work and I saw first-hand how inconsistently the on-site wellness program was rolled out across different locations. I came to learn that this was because there was no central way to manage and measure the program. Inspired, I started Welnys to help companies by making wellness easy. Welnys solves all of the logistics around on-site wellness programming- from analytic and engagement tracking to vendor management.
While building a cool product gets all the press, growing an actual business is the part that doesn’t get nearly enough attention. You do not have a sales background, and you never sent a cold email campaign before, if I’m not mistaken. And yet, you’ve started seeing results. How did you dive in to something like that?
I had zero sales experience, and in fact, I would say I had an aversion to it. But one day I just woke up and realized no one was going to sell my product for me. I was the sales team. So I spent around 9 months teaching myself sales. I asked sales people I knew for advice, reads tons of books and blogs on sales and marketing, and found advisors to guide me. I even designed my own two-week sales bootcamp where I deep-dove on a topic each day (I blogged about it here).
Most importantly, I just started doing it, and I learned something in every sales call. When I first started, I would quote prices right away, talked more than I listened, and didn’t articulate the problem I was solving before diving into my solution. All rookie mistakes! Today, I’m a much better sales person, and I’m no longer uncomfortable identifying as one. This month, we’re especially excited that we’ve started seeing results from our recently launched email and cold call campaigns.
There are many potential applications for your platform across services, industries and of course, geographies. How did you decide where to focus? Tell us about your go-to-market strategy?
As start-up, it can be tempting to target anything and everything that might bring you revenue. But I wear most of the hats at Welnys, including sales, so I have to ruthlessly prioritize my time and energy. That means I need to focus on targeting the low-hanging fruit: companies of a certain size in a specific geography whose pain points we are most directly solving.
How has that evolved in the last few months/weeks?
One thing that became clear early on in our time at Venture Hall was that the pain point we were solving was actually for a different person/role than we originally expected. Inspired by a session at Maine Startup & Create Week, we decided to do some customers interviews to verify our new hypothesis, and it proved to be true. This shift in target customer changed a lot of things for us- from the leads we were generating to our marketing content.
Another shift was that we realized that many of our qualified leads and existing customers are in a specific industry. We recognized that we could niche our services and sales efforts to target this industry, and that these companies would potentially begin to refer or reference us– the gold standard of leads! We’ve recently begun to see this happen on a small scale– an existing client is referring us to other office locations within their company.
So here you are. Sales are growing, your first clients are not small potatoes, and they’re renewing! And yet, your software is a long way from what you envisioned, isn’t it? You’re growing a revenue-generating business on an MVP and you’re bootstrapped to date?! Were you scared about rolling it out too soon?
I’m actually very proud that we’ve started generating revenue on a MVP product. As Reid Hoffman says, if you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late! By having our v1.0 in the hands of customers already, we’re learning a lot about what features we need and what we thought was important that isn’t. You don’t learn that by building in a bubble.
Now that it’s in the hands of customers, how are you handling your product backlog?
There are lots of things we want to build into our product. Our vision is big. Today, we take it sprint by sprint, listening to our customers and our users, and prioritizing based on their input and the features most relevant to our goals.
As the founder of your company, there’s more work than you can possibly do. How do you keep your priorities in line from one day to the next and ensure you’re moving forward?
My background is in project management so I am by nature very organized and I love making lists. I’m always iterating on my personal task management technique. My current solution is that in the morning I write out each hour of the day on an individual post-it. Then, next to it I put a blank post-it where I write out one single task that I will accomplish in that hour. I pull from my regular backlog of tasks to populate this list. By forcing myself to look at my day in blocks, I have to prioritize my tasks. It also keeps me on track because I know any slippage will cause something to be left undone. It’s functional like a calendar but it works well if you’re visual or just like the satisfaction of a pile of crumbled up post-its at the end of the day. When I am traveling, I use a clipboard to keep this organized and mobile.