As working from home continues to be the “new normal,” many employees and employers alike are trying to find new ways to keep connected and stay motivated. Pandemic fatigue is becoming more and more common, but burnout at work has always been a risk.
It was a problem that Martha Switzer and Christina Ford, Co-Founders of Sprout, recognized years ago when they began their careers. As former roommates in university, they stayed in touch as they navigated the corporate world and noticed a lack of adequate technology to help workplaces tackle health and wellbeing.
“I realized that they were all spending millions and millions of dollars on wellness programs for employees but the programs weren’t working,” said Switzer.
As former competitive athletes, they began to think of a way that connected employees and brought a gamification aspect to health and wellness at work. You could say an idea sprouted.
Founded in 2012, Sprout is a corporate wellness platform that allows employees to become more aware of their wellness levels and creates a social aspect around bettering one’s overall health. It encourages employees to increase activity levels and healthy habits, through fostering a corporate culture that values staying active.
With group features and leaderboards, Sprout helps connect employees over shared interests and brings forth friendly competition. For Switzer and Ford, this was especially important, as the social aspect brings people together and encourages them to participate.
Given the platform’s purpose and ability to be used on a personal level, during the pandemic, Sprout has become a go-to way for employees to stay connected and stay active. In addition to activity prompts, Sprout includes a Wellbeing score so users can assess where their overall health is at. The co-founders say that even their staff are using it more and more because there’s a greater need for social connection and putting wellness first.
“It’s a tough time and we all have expectations of what we wanted this year to be, but it’s different. It’s a different time,” said Christina. “We’re just grateful to be in the spot to be helping people.”
Connection and health are more important in the workplace than ever before and Sprout offers a solution for both. For this week’s Start-Up Spotlight, Bay Street Bull spoke with Martha Switzer and Christina Ford about the changing trends in corporate wellness, pandemic burnout and what it was like to start a tech business from scratch.
How did you get together and come up with the idea for Sprout?
Martha: Christina and I both grew up competitive athletes: I was a competitive dancer and a marathon runner and Christina was a competitive swimmer. So, sport and activity were ingrained in us from a young age. We were healthy people who were always active, but once we were in our respective jobs, we weren’t active anymore. From my side, I saw the insight that companies were spending millions on wellness, but it wasn’t personalized or tailored to employees. There was no technology behind wellness, so it was not measurable, not sustainable, not scalable in any way. Even as an active person, I wasn’t utilizing any of the things that were offered. So, I knew there was a gap and I knew that there needed to be a technology that was personalized for employees.
Christina: For me, we didn’t have many programs like Martha described. We were left to our own devices. You’re working long hours and I think for me, I struggled a little bit more because of the lack of sleep and lack of exercise. My colleagues and I were trying to figure out a way to get healthier more efficiently: walking more, eating healthy, etc. but you really had to rely on your colleagues around you to motivate you. It was tough.
I think a lot of people are there these days where there’s a lot of long hours and people aren’t getting paid for those hours. You’re seeing so much burnout, apparently 40 percent or more during this pandemic. So it’s getting quite serious.
Martha: We saw that rise, even back then, before the pandemic. That was one of the catalysts to start Sprout: we saw all our colleagues who were burnt out. At the time, Christina and I didn’t have kids, and I looked at my colleagues who did like, “How are people juggling all of this?!” At that point, we decided to leave our corporate jobs and start Sprout and we’ve been at it ever since.
What was it like making that decision to leave more stable careers to start Sprout?
Martha: It was scary. Christine and I didn’t have tech backgrounds and we were starting a tech company. So, off the bat that was challenging because we had to figure out who our tech team was going to be and how we were going to build out our product. We didn’t have any funding at the time, so it was definitely scary.
Shortly after leaving our jobs, we decided to apply for a Nike Accelerator with TechStars, which was happening down in Portland. We decided that if we could get in that would be a great way to get investment and kickstart our business. It would also allow us to plug in with Nike products, wearables, because wearables are a big part of our strategy and Nike had a closed API at the time, so, we really wanted that partnership.
We were chosen out of 500 companies and I think that surprised us. We were like, “Oh, we got in!” So, we packed our bags and moved down to Portland for three months. I think that was a real catalyst to getting Sprout off the ground. We were scared at first, but then we were all in and it’s kept moving ever since.
As women who entered into the tech and STEM field, did you face any challenges? What was your experience like in taking on this whole new world as two female founders?
Martha: I definitely think there were challenges. For starters, when we got into that Nike program, I had just had my first baby. She was only eight weeks old when Christina and I got in and we were like, “What are we going to do?” We knew that we both wanted to go and be part of that program. So, I actually brought my newborn, which had its own challenges—Christina had that to do a lot while we were down there.
We got a lot of mixed reactions because I would strap my baby in the BABYBJÖRN and she would come to all the meetings: investor meetings, with senior executives from Nike, VCs, you name it. In the end, I think it showed that we were really dedicated to the business. I wasn’t gonna miss it. We wanted to be there. So, I think we were better for it in the end in a way.
But, even with raising money, I think sometimes Christina and I got those questions like, “Hey, are kids on the horizon? Are you guys really into this? Are you really serious about doing that?” So, we had a bit of that along the way as two female co-founders trying to start a company and raise money.
Christina: I was going to say the same. I think it’s hard to say if things would have gone differently for us if we had been men. I think it made us probably work a bit harder and step up to the plate a little bit stronger than we may have if we were in a more female-led industry since tech and finance are traditionally being led a bit more by men.
It’s hard to say how things would have gone, but we hopefully changed a few minds—especially with Martha bringing her baby! I think that was very brave of her. I know it was a lot of work, but hopefully, that raised some awareness and opened some people’s eyes.
That is awesome! With Sprout promoting wellness within corporate cultures, have you seen a rise in the emphasis or interest of what Sprout does over the years?
Martha: Definitely. When we started Sprout, it was “nice to have.” We would go in and we’d pitch big companies and they would love it. They were like, “Oh, this is awesome. We would use this.” But they didn’t have a budget or they had no one specifically for wellness in the company. We’ve seen a huge shift over the last couple of years, turning Sprout into more of a “need to have.”
Then you layer on the pandemic and now it’s a whole different conversation. Not only are companies realizing that they may not come back to work, but they also need a social way to connect people because that’s a big part of people’s jobs: water cooler chats, walking out to grab a coffee, going for lunch. I think companies have woken up to the fact that they need something to create this community within their culture long term.
And of course, health has become so much more important. Employers are making sure they’re on top of their employees’ health and employees are demanding it. So everyone is more aware of their health and want to make health a priority in their life. The time is now for companies to get something like Sprout in place.
Christina: Yeah. And I think there’s less of a stigma around speaking about health issues. Employees are wanting to share more and provide help to others; employers are finding it a little bit easier to have that conversation. I think Sprout makes it easier for employers, but it’s certainly changing and evolving where people are really recognizing that something needs to be done and they’re doing more. So, that’s great to see,
Something that sets Sprout apart and probably why people like it so much is that gamification aspect. It’s not just, “Hey! Health is important.” It brings that competitive spirit you both grew up with into the workplace. Why did you choose to do it this way and have you heard any like really good feedback about it from users?
Martha: The social piece has always been important to Christina and me because it drew from our respective jobs. When I was in the corporate world, the reason that people would get up and do something is that they saw someone else doing it. So if I got up and went for a run at lunch, people would be like, “Oh, that’s a good idea. I should probably go and do that.” Right? The more you did things like that, the more that people wanted to get involved—the more they kind of wanted to compete. It was fun to be like, “Hey, what’s marketing doing?” or “Hey, what’s sales doing?” We’ve always been competitive. So, this idea of the leaderboard and being able to compete against different departments or different people in your friend circle within your company was a key part of what we wanted to include in the product to drive engagement and keep people coming back.
Christina: For me, in my past, I knew that I could perform better. When you’re hit with a lack of sleep or a lack of exercise, you start to see that you’re not where you could be performing. You’re not being as productive or as effective in your job. The idea that you could bring that athletic mindset to work and improve productivity and overall fulfillment and happiness and joy, was something that motivated us. It was something we knew was missing in the workplace culture. So, it was really exciting to move into that area.
As Martha said, we learned more and more that the social aspect was going to be a key part. Now with the pandemic and missing the social component, I think the lack of connection is probably one of the contributors to why people are experiencing so much more burnout—they don’t have that community. They don’t have that safe network to share and be heard.
Martha: We are even noticing it within our internal employees. They’re using it much more, which is so important because no one has those social touchpoints right now. From Vancouver to Toronto, we’re in lockdown. People are isolated and some people just have work—they may not have a family, so work is the social aspect of their lives. So even here at Sprout, we are leveraging it more internally as a result of us all being at home.
How has Sprout grown from what you guys initially created to what it is today?
Martha: The biggest thing has definitely been user feedback and really understanding how to engage people. We’ve now been in the market with big companies and with users for so many years that I feel like we’ve mastered what’s really going to drive users to come back, which is such a big part of Sprout. The two big parts are being able to drive engagement and able to impact health. It started off as a minimum viable product with a couple of features and now we have a full end-to-end solution for companies with a built-in health risk assessment and features that are able to provide data and insights and allows clients to take action and make better business decisions.
In all those years of changes and user feedback, do either of you have a story that stands out to you?
Martha: We have a lot of long-standing clients who we’ve now been working with for six or seven years. When BC Ferries came to us, up until that point, they had done nothing for their employees and safety was a big issue. A lot of their employees were unwell and as a result, getting hurt on the job since the work is very manual. We’ve had some tremendous results with them over time in terms of really being able to impact their health claims and impact the days that people are off due to injuries and things like that.
Christina: The success stories that get to me would be right down to the employee level, like when you see employees losing a certain amount of weight for instance. They’ll say they couldn’t have done it without the support of their colleagues at work and they feel like they’re so young again. Perhaps they were 50 years old and thought that they would never be able to go for a run again and now they see that anything’s possible. I think some people just need a nudge, some information shared by their employer, or ideas from other people. So, those stories are great. It’s really fun to see the difference that you make on an individual level.
As former roommates back in college, is there any advice that you would want to say to yourselves at the beginning of your careers?
Martha: I’m glad that we went to work for big companies and had those big careers. We both studied business in school, so to go and learn and really experience how it all works at big companies where there was lots of process and discipline, was important for both of us. I think we were better for it instead of starting Sprout right out of school. I think it was good to go into the work world, work very hard and get all of those skills because we still use all of the knowledge from our various experiences with Sprout, every day.
Christina: Yeah. I would agree with that. On an individual level, within life and obviously my work career, it would be to listen. Whether it be to colleagues or clients, really be open to what they’re looking for, I think that’s key. That’s how you build great products and how you build a great organization and culture. Everyone equally gives time to others. That’s something that we’ve learned and our community calls it “playing catch.” You’re not the pitcher, you’re not pitching ideas, you’re just listening. Be the catcher.
Along those same lines has there been any sort of standout piece of advice that you’ve received along the way that you kind of look back on and always come back to?
Christina: We’ve received so much advice through the years, but Nike was really great. We had access to so many people that have done this before and people that were paving their own way—we received so much advice at that point.
Martha: “Stay true to why you started it.” A lot of people said that to us. When we put ourselves back as those employees in those corporate companies were like, “Oh yeah, this is why we started Sprout.” We started it because we wanted to help employees and companies be healthier at work and we knew we could do it. I think staying true to that has helped us along the way for sure.
When we were starting a lot of people had mentioned that most startups fail. People would always say, “This is going to be hard. You’re not gonna make it. You need to raise money.” But we kept with it and we kept wanting to deliver on why we started it and stayed positive. Even when there were roadblocks and hiccups, we just kept sticking with it. The good things come and then they keep coming and then you build, and then you go from there. So, I’d also say sticking with it over time.
Christina: Yeah, because you’re going to get a lot of advice and you’re going to get a lot of people telling you what to do. I think that can be great input and something great to consider, but that doesn’t mean you need to go that route. So it’s really important to just step back and really decide what’s good for you and what’s good for your company because you’re different. You’re not like any other company. So, try to not take in too much of what’s going around you and feel confident in what you’re building.
Do you hope for the future of Sprout?
Martha: That we continue to impact millions of lives globally, everywhere. We’re trying to be leaders in this space and the more people that we can impact, the closer we are to achieving that goal. We started to help employees and companies, but then beyond that, how can we help all over the world and really make a difference in overall health?