This article was published in the Summer 2019 edition of Silicon Slopes Magazine.
By Amelia Wilcox, founder/CEO, Incorporate Massage.
In 2010, when I first started Incorporate Massage, I was just a massage therapist with an idea. I wanted to bring the benefits of massage to the corporate world. It seemed simple enough: I gathered a group of massage therapists and started to offer chair massages to companies here in Utah. And it worked — at first.
Like most new startup CEOs, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I just wanted to provide supplemental work for local massage therapists, and an awesome employee benefit to local businesses. There was no technology, no real bells and whistles to it. Just a group of awesome people doing awesome massage.
It took awhile for the idea to really catch on. I know that today seeing massage therapists in offices is fairly commonplace, but back in 2010, it was still considered “weird” and not universally accepted as an employee benefit. I spent a lot of my time educating potential clients and showing them how massage truly was an investment with a return.
Fast-forward a few years, and it became a totally different marketplace. Companies were ready and willing to make the investment into their employees, and Incorporate Massage was growing quickly. We were expanding quickly into other states, and sales were growing exponentially each month. I quickly realized that what was working for us originally just couldn’t keep up with our growth any longer.
PIVOTING IS OFTEN EVOLUTION, NOT REVOLUTION.
I originally thought businesses that decided to pivot must have had this great epiphany where the clouds parted and the light bulb clicked on. My experience (and the experiences of other CEOs I’ve talked to) points to the contrary.
As we were growing, I knew what I had built could not sustain itself. As I dove deeper into the world of corporate wellness, I found that customers biggest complaints were around managing the massages – from booking being clunky and custom, to managing employees wanting to reschedule. While the original mission stayed the same, I realized we needed to pivot to be able to bring massage to the masses in a completely stress-free experience.
WHEN “GOOD ENOUGH” ISN’T GOOD ENOUGH.
Making the decision to pivot from a simple services company into a technology-enabled services business that was powered by our own platform (think GrubHub or Uber) was not an easy one. Even with the limited knowledge I had back then, I knew the change was going to be expensive. It would take time, and I’d have to make sure my entire team believed in the new path this would take us down.
I knew making the investment into the technology would be risking everything — but staying the same was simply no longer an option for me. For me, “good enough” wasn’t good enough anymore. I wanted to offer the best experience for my employees, massage therapists, and my clients.
For a while I was alone in my determination to pivot the business. But I was able to get us where we are today by doing a few hard things.
SELL THE VISION
One of the hardest parts of pivoting into a technology company was the fact that Incorporate Massage was doing just fine. We were still growing aggressively, profitable, and it all seemed to be working.
Because of this, we ran into some push back internally and from potential investors when we started to turn the boat in a new direction. “Why change things if they are working?” one investor asked me. And “can’t we just slow down our growth?” was a common employee question I ran into.
In order to get past these barriers, it took time, a lot of over-communication to our team, and some hefty internal marketing before everyone was on board.
HAVE THE RIGHT PEOPLE IN PLACE
During the first few years of Incorporate Massage, I remember hearing other CEOs talk about how their companies had outgrown some of their team members as they scaled. And in my limited experience I thought that was the most horrible thing I’d ever heard. I definitely passed some harsh judgement on those poor founders!
A few years later, now that I’ve walked across those same coals, I can attest that it’s true. Not everyone who’s built a company from nothing to $3M has the skill set required to take a company from $3M to $10M. The same holds true in a pivot. Some can, and some can’t. In order to succeed, you have to make sure you have (or you recruit) the right people to get you there.
BE PREPARED TO STRETCH
Going from Massage Therapist to CEO to Product Designer over the last few years wasn’t easy. I had no real background in software development or design, so for the first year that was my life – learn everything you can about software development from Kanban boards and velocity charts to database design and APIs.
In the process, I made a lot of mistakes, but I learned so much. And it really stretched me. It’s painful for everyone on the team to go through this kind of change, but the leader should feel it the most and lead the team by example.
ALWAYS BE PIVOTING
For a while I was alone in my determination to pivot. And it took time, intention, research, communication, internal marketing and sadly, some personnel changes to get the whole team on board.
For us it has all been worth it — every penny, every challenge, and every frustration. Without changing direction, we wouldn’t have been able to scale and grow the way we have and grab market share at the right time. For us it made all the difference.
Pivots aren’t always easy. In fact, they rarely are. But if we make sure we have the right people, listen to feedback, and keep learning, we will get there.