JumpByDesign: Health and Wellness in Startups with Heather Waibel and Jonathan Axelrod

The quest to find meaningful corporate wellness programs is an ongoing challenge. Not only do CEOs and start up founders discover that healthy and grounded employees are more productive employees; entrepreneurs at the helm need to stay sharp and focused so that they can remain inspirational leaders.

The goal of developing a company wellness program that provides employees with real value, give them a sense of community, and doesn’t simply feel like a cynical ploy to reduce the company’s health care costs has proven difficult, in part because the tools to manage a successful program haven’t been in place.

Today, we’re talking with the CEO and founder of Welnys, Heather Waibel. Heather’s company connects screened wellness providers with employees and gives her corporate participants a way to track the programs’ overall success, providing the analytic tools and structure to help companies implement meaningful wellness programs. A proven entrepreneur who survived (and learned from) the failure of her first start up, Waibel is also a certified scrum master.

We’re also talking with Jonathan Axelrod, founder of the Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator (ERA). Axelrod is another proven entrepreneur and inventor whose first start up, MusicGremlin, was sold to SanDisk in 2008. ERA has thus far launched more than 165 new start ups — including Waibel’s company — creating two billion dollars in market shares and at least a thousand jobs.

Listen to all the great things they have to tell us! 

The Need for Corporate Wellness Programs

That wellness is essential to the health of a company — not just the people who work for it — is a given. Employees who are engaged and feel essential add more value than the cost of health insurance itself, let alone a wellness program, because such employees are more likely to stay with the company, contributing their experience, for years to come.

But many companies struggle to implement programs that work and even make mistakes, hiring one-off vendors to give workshops or paying employees to use the program. These strategies lead to wellness classes that become silos of overlapping or irrelevant information and employees who resent being pawns in the company’s desire to cut costs.

A winning corporate wellness program is one that starts with the CEO and founders and must in some way reflect the company’s values. Waibel understands that. Allowing employers to track how well the vendors and workshops they choose gives the leaders the ability to craft programs that get results and bring the workers together into a culture where their input has value.

Wellness as an Entrepreneurial Mindset

Axelrod chose Waibel’s pitch out of the thousands of annual applicants who compete to go through the accelerator because “corporate wellness is a huge trend, and Heather had experience as an entrepreneur.” He told us that start up experience is one of the main things he looks for in selecting companies to participate in ERA. Youthful talent is another, and evidence of a winning idea is still another factor.

ERA has a network of founders, mentors, investors, and other companies that can provide valuable onboarding experience to new entrepreneurs, and Axelrod thinks the mentorship process is just as important as capital investment. It’s fair to say that his primary concern in selecting start ups to participate is determining companies that will continue to grow and remain healthy.

Waibel agrees, noting that while perseverance is essential for entrepreneurs, it can easily turn into a flaw. To illustrate, she tells the story of her failed start up, a cigar bar in Austin, Texas. Despite knowing that the business was underfunded, Waibel kept giving it her all for five more years before realizing that she didn’t want “an expensive hobby.” She views that experience as invaluable because it taught her the difference between tenacity, which is a healthy entrepreneurial trait, and “thick-headedness,” which can lead to failure.

“Ask yourself two questions,” she says. “‘Are you making progress?’ and ‘Are you enjoying it?’ If the answer to both questions is ‘yes,’ then you are tenacious.”

One Test for Gauging Corporate Wellness: The Pivot

Healthy companies are a bit like the definition of comedy given by Alan Alda, who plays a cynical television producer in Woody Allen’s film, Crimes and Misdemeanors. If a company is healthy, it can bend. If not, the act of pivoting may break it.

The pivot, Axelrod notes, “is a refinement,” and these are valuable to the health of a start up precisely because some founders lack the experience to know how to create a strong and vibrant company. Then there is what he calls a “teleport,” or a “giant pivot where you change the whole business” due to unforeseen problems in the business climate. Those are a whole lot more difficult to survive.

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Susanna Arntzz