Martha Switzer and Christina Winkels were both sports buffs in the most un-sporty of environments: the high-stress executive offices of corporate Canada. Winkels was a competitive swimmer who found herself pulling 24-hour shifts in investment banking, while Switzer was a marketing executive who ran marathons on the side.
"We were working for multinational companies for 10 years, watching fellow employees at work more and become less active," says Switzer.
It wasn't just employees' health that was suffering: The high-stress, low activity, lousy-food lifestyle that comes with cubicle was taking its toll in other ways. Sedentary lifestyles lead to more sick days, lower productivity, higher staff turnover. It was a business problem – which meant there was a business opportunity.
"Employers pour millions into wellness initiatives," explains Switzer, whether it's work-sponsored runs or yoga at lunch. "But the reality is, they weren't measuring the impact it was having on their business. They had no idea of what their employees were actually doing."
So Switzer and Winkels, who both studied business at Western University in London, Ont., founded Sprout at Work, an online platform where employees can create, manage and track their own office workout regimes, and employers can see, at a macro level, what's working and what's not.
Sprout isn't an exercise program in and of itself; rather, it's a platform for plugging in activities that employees can compete in or simply track their own progress. New registrants fill out a survey about their fitness interests, which the software uses to connect them with others in the company and the city. On the competitive side, leaderboards and public scores can, as it were, "gamify" the fitness experience.
But the software also features group-creation tools that anyone in the firm can use, much like Facebook asks users to create their own events. That way, Sprout encourages the formation of, say, ad-hoc running groups (or swimming groups, or dodgeball groups, etc.) and can help employees coordinate their own get-togethers and events.
From the business side of things, managers can see what's going on and track the uptake on their initiatives. It's all aggregated, though: "We can't tell them that Bill in finance has lost 5 pounds," says Switzer. Are employees using the programmes they're paying for? If so, great; if not, time to retool them.
After launching last year, Sprout has already attracted clients like the McKinsey & Company consultancy and the Dominion of Canada General Insurance Company. The two co-founders run the business between Toronto, where Winkels lives, and Vancouver, where Switzer and their ten employees are based.
This spring, Sprout was accepted into Nike's first TechStars-run accelerator program in Portland, Oregon, which has forced an even more rigorous workout on the entrepreneur. Switzer's daughter, Blake, was born three months ago – leading Switzer, her husband, and daughter to make the five-hour commute a week at a time.
"I've been bringing her to all the mentor meetings," says Switzer. "I don't know if that would have been accepted a couple of years back, but you can do it – and it works."
Special to the Globe and Mail