About this episode:
In this episode of UB Insider, Utah Business’ online editor, Lisa Christensen speaks to Amelia Wilcox. Wilcox bootstrapped a different kind of massage practice, where she and her employees went to clients at their places of work. Six years later, Incorporate Massage has seen year-after-year triple-digit growth and expanded to 26 states. Along the way, Wilcox says she’s learned a thing or two about smart growth and keeping a tight company culture when her workforce is scattered across the country. Subscribe or download this episode on iTunes and Stitcher.
Lisa Christensen: Hello and welcome to UB Insider. I’m Lisa Christensen, online editor at Utah Business magazine and with me today is Amelia Wilcox.
Amelia Wilcox: Hey, thanks for having me.
Lisa Christensen: Thanks for coming. Amelia has owned and operated her own private massage therapy practice since 2004, but in 2010 she opened Incorporate Massage. That’s a little bit of a different business model than your own private practice. Tell me about it.
Amelia Wilcox: Definitely. So in 2010 I decided to take the benefits of table massage, where you come into a massage therapy clinic or a chiropractor’s office and get that full body, full hour massage. There were only so many people that I could massage with my own two hands. There was so much of a demand I thought, we should bring this to the workplace. We should find a way to get employers to pay for the massages for their employees and integrate that into their wellness program. So that’s exactly what I did.
I kind of reached out through my own personal network and put together some brochures and a logo. I just kind of put my feelers out there and wanted to see if there was a demand for it. And there was. So that’s what we do. We go into businesses and massage their employees at work. Either as a one-time thing for like a health fair or an employee appreciation day, or some people have us come in every day or every week. It’s a really unique benefit that’s becoming more and more popular, actually.
Lisa Christensen: Tell me more about how it’s expanded in the last six years.
Amelia Wilcox: So it started here, just in the Salt Lake valley. We have kind of grown organically over the last four and a half years. Then about a year and a half ago we started expanding outside of the US and we just have been, like, tripling ever single year. We’re in 26 states now. We’ve grown our team from just a team of four and now we have over 300 people on our team.
Lisa Christensen: Why do you think that it has grown so well? Why do you think that that’s a model that has caught on so well?
Amelia Wilcox: I think it’s kind of a perfect alignment of the corporate wellness market, just growing and employers becoming more and more aware of how health and wellness affects employee performance. And also a little bit of the competitive marketplace, especially with the tech companies. They’re kind of our primary market that we serve. And they’re all looking for engineers and programmers and there’s only so many of them. So having a more competitive benefits package attracts people.
I think that the massage market has also just grown a lot. People have become more open to the idea of getting massages and kind of understanding more of the actual health benefits of it. And so now there’s just more of a demand and more of interest than there was before.
Lisa Christensen: What drew you initially to massage?
Amelia Wilcox: So I’ve suffered from chronic headaches since I was a little kid. Even my parents sent me to a chiropractor, I went to a whole bunch of different doctors. One of the doctors told my parents to have me stop putting my hair in a ponytail, was like my prescription. Just don’t wear your hair up and you’ll be fine. I wasn’t really satisfied with any of those answers. So when I came to Utah to visit my aunts that live here, I met a girl who went to UCMT and she took me to the school to get a massage from the students there. So my very first massage, I noticed a difference and my headaches had started to go away. And so I just wanted to go to school and provide that same pain relief for other people.
Lisa Christensen: When you started Incorporate, you bootstrapped it from the ground up. Tell me about that experience.
Amelia Wilcox: So in the very beginning, like I said, we put together a logo and a brochure. And in the very beginning I just had a friend of mine who was a designer and I just traded him for some massage. I just said hey, let’s just try this. I went organically through my network and booked events just through some of my friends’ employers to begin with. And then as we’ve grown we’ve just taken the profits, so for the first three years I didn’t even really pay myself. Because we fed the profits into the business to keep it going. And I have the luxury of being able to do that because my husband works full time. So we didn’t have to have that income and I could kind of just let it grow slowly.
So bootstrapping has been really, the way that I wanted to do things I really didn’t want to take on investors. I wanted to kind of be in control of my baby and watch it grow and shape it the way I wanted to. I also didn’t want to go into debt. So it was really important to me to be able to just like, learn what our cycles look like and figure out how to predict when we needed to hold onto cash and when we could spend to grow.
Lisa Christensen: What in your background helped you do that? Or was it a completely new learning experience?
Amelia Wilcox: In my personal background, my husband and I had been in a lot of debt from a business that we had closed when the recession hit. We had had an online outdoor retail store that we ran for five years and in 2008 everything just fell apart. We had all this inventory and we had to sell it for less than we’d bought it for wholesale. So we just had like $70,000 left over from that. I was like, I’m not doing that again. I’m not going back through that. So if I want to create another company then we’re going to have to figure out how to do it without going into debt to make sure it’s a proven model. Now the company is big enough that if we want to take capital to grow, we can do that because we have a system that’s been proven. It would work.
Lisa Christensen: One of the ways that Incorporate distinguishes itself is that you have an easy software platform for clients to share costs without taking on extra administrative burden. How did you hit on the idea for that platform? How did you create it? And how has the process been?
Amelia Wilcox: So I had a friend of mine when I went through massage school, who right out of massage school she had a brother in law who was a VP at a big company downtown. He was like, we just want you to come in and massage our employees at work every Wednesday. She had been doing this for seven years when I approached her. And I just said, hey, tell me how you do this. Tell me how it works. She’d never taken on any other clients. This was just something she did nice for her brother in law’s company. And I wanted to see how it worked for her. So I knew that there was one company out there that did it. So there had to be others.
I just interviewed her. I said, what works really well? How do they sign up? They had like, a paper sign-up sheet at the front desk that they would use. I was like, well we can do better than that. How can we make it easier for the employers? Because I understood that a lot of these people were really busy. Especially in HR which is primarily who hires us. So they don’t have a ton of time to be managing the program and running after people who forget their appointments or managing a sign-up sheet and making sure all the slots are filled.
So I just kind of took what was already out there, what I’d already seen being done and trying to figure out how we can innovate on that and just make it more beneficial for the people that we’re serving. Just make it more delicious for them.
Lisa Christensen: And what was the process of implementing that? How did it ease the process or what was the transition like?
Amelia Wilcox: So when we started, we had a platform where people could book online from their desktop computers and then we added in a mobile app so that people could also book from their phones. Because we also serve a lot of people in manufacturing where people are like, out on the floor. Or we have some offices where people are transient and they’re coming in and out all the time. So the people at the desk job had the benefit because they would be able to book until the time booked up. And then the other people who were in and out of the office were missing out on appointments so we determined that we needed a mobile app for that.
You know, calendar integration, email and text message appointment reminders, just everything, I love technology. So it’s like, everything that I love, when I find it in another piece of technology or in an app that I’m using I’m like, ooh, ooh, we need that. We need to add that into our platform. And so we’ve just tried to think… We listen to our clients too. If they tell us, this is a specific pain point for us, we think, how can we use technology to eliminate that?
Lisa Christensen: It sounds like one of the focuses that you put on your business is being nimble and responsive to customer input. How do you keep doing that even though your business has now grown to 26 states and over 300 employees?
Amelia Wilcox: Yeah. We have a sales team who is very well trained in being able to communicate with the client prior to services, throughout the services and then at the end. And just collect a lot of feedback. I have a really open communication policy, too. Any of the clients are able to reach out to me directly with problems or issues. We definitely want to figure out what’s wrong if there’s anybody unhappy for any reason as soon as we possibly can. And we have really, really happy customers because of it, and we have really high retention rates. But a lot of it just comes down to our people and how we train them to listen to the clients and to check-in and to get feedback constantly.
We automatically check in with people quarterly just to make sure that they’re happy and their needs are met. So I think that communication is super important to me so I’ve been able to instill that in my team so that they value that as well.
Lisa Christensen: A couple of years after you launched Incorporate, you guys tried to trademark your name, right? But you ran into some problems with that. Tell me about that and what you had to do to overcome that challenge?
Amelia Wilcox: Yeah. So we started off with a different company name. We were called The Massage Advantage. And we still have the common law rights to that here in Utah, so I can say that. There was another company that launched in another state, at the same time, with the same name. They weren’t doing the same thing as us, but it kept us from being able to expand nationally. Which I knew we would do eventually. Even though the first five years we were staying in Utah. I just knew that that was on the horizon. So I didn’t want that to limit us. Because we could have trademarked just for the state, but we would have lost the national trademark opportunity. So we decided to cut our losses right then and to just rebrand, smarter this time, do a little bit more research.
We hired our law firm to do the full search in every state. There’s a whole process that they do to make sure that all of the due diligence is done beforehand so that we get our trademark. So we definitely learned that lesson and won’t make that mistake again. That was an unfortunate rookie mistake that we learned and had to eat that cost. It kind of set us back a year because we had to redo everything all over again from a branding and marketing perspective.
Lisa Christensen: What other challenges did you guys run up against when you were trying to expand?
Amelia Wilcox: Some of the challenges are, it’s the people that are challenging because there’s the whole independent contractor versus employee issue. They’re a little bit different in each state. Employment laws are a little bit different in each state. And it’s really important for us to have our team brought on as employees because we want to provide benefits. That’s something that’s really important to me as a massage therapist because there aren’t a lot of benefits available.
Most companies that have massage therapists just work them. They really work them until there’s injury or burnout or something like that and there’s no benefits available because a massage therapist can’t work 40 hours a week. Your body can’t do that. So full time for a massage therapist is more like 25 hours a week. And it’s really hard to get benefits for somebody that works part time like that. So that has been really important to me. So we have taken our team and tried to get them working a certain amount of hours so that they can be brought on as employees and they can buy into that culture and get those benefits made available to them.
Lisa Christensen: How have you been doing that?
Amelia Wilcox: So we hired, as we’ve been expanding, we’ve hired an HR Director. So now we have a whole HR division and we’ve built, kind of these tiers. You have to work X amount of hours a month to reach employee eligibility and, you know, there’s a few other criteria. And once they do that they can come onto our benefits platform and have access to the different things that we offer. And it’s a really small minimum right now.
I think we’re doing like 10-12 hours a month. Something like that. And that works really well. Because in some of the cities where we’re newer, there’s not the opportunity for those people to work more hours if they wanted to. Like here in Utah, people can work as many hours as they want. There’s tons of work available, we’re always hiring. But in a newer city that we’re breaking into like in Boston, we don’t do as much work there yet because we’re just breaking into that market. So there’s not the opportunity for them there. So I want to create the bar kind of low so that there’s the opportunity for them to get those benefits even when they’re starting off really, really part time.
Lisa Christensen: So you have been in the industry for more than a decade now. How have you seen it change and evolve?
Amelia Wilcox: When we first started, it was kind of like, I would come to an employer and be like, yeah, we want to massage your employees at work. And they’d be like, that’s weird. You want our employees to get massages? It was that early adoption phase where people couldn’t really think about massage in the workplace. It just seemed strange or some people thought it was inappropriate. Here in Utah, especially, we ran up against that a few times with different companies. But over the years we have seen that totally shift. And the market has shifted. Now we have competitors all over the place. They’re just coming out of the woodwork. Companies are calling us up all the time. There’s just a demand for it.
So even from an SEO perspective, when I first started, words like “corporate chair massage” weren’t being searched for in Google at all. Now they’re getting searched for all the time. You know how, maybe if you’re familiar with SEO, it will just say low volume for the search number. That was how it started, and now there’s like numbers next to those because people are actually searching for them.
Lisa Christensen: Is it easier to sell people on the idea now that’s been more widely adopted?
Amelia Wilcox: Yeah. In fact, mostly we don’t have to sell people on the idea anymore. So we’ve had to shift our marketing strategy from this like, educational marketing strategy. This is massage, massage is good for you, it can do all of these things. People already know that. They don’t need us to tell them that anymore. So now we have to say, you want massage. Everybody wants massage. Here’s how we’re different and here’s how we do it better. And so it’s more selling them on our system than it is selling them on massage as a modality that is appropriate for the workplace.
Lisa Christensen: Do you think that yourself in 2010 would have believed where you’d be six years later?
Amelia Wilcox: I don’t think myself in 2010 would believe it would happen this fast. It’s just the last couple years we’ve really focused on an inbound marketing strategy. So blogging and content creation and that has just really fueled the online growth that we’ve had. We just get forms, contact forms coming in constantly, all day long, from all over the U.S. Sometimes in areas we’re not even in yet. And yeah, it’s been a wild ride the last two years.
Lisa Christensen: You have been doing some of that content creation yourself. You’ve been featured in the Huffington Post, interviewed for Forbes, what insight has your business brought to you regarding scaling a business outside of your local market that has given you the expertise to be on these national platforms?
Amelia Wilcox: Yeah. Our business model is kind of unique because we are a virtual team. So I have been able to have people on my team, on our administrative side even, that are kind of all over the country. And so I definitely have a little bit of expertise in virtual teams which are more prevalent now. More and more startups and companies are starting that way. I’ve even come across a few companies even here in Salt Lake that started as a brick and mortar and have gone virtual because the culture of that team wanted to be a virtual team. They didn’t want to have to come into work every day. And I feel like our culture is shifting that way a little bit more. And so my experience being able to manage a virtual team and, you know, motivate and inspire our people and keep us connected, those are skills that a lot of other companies that are looking at virtual, there’s just not a lot of information out there on that. So I think that’s one of the things that I have to offer is that we’ve done that and we can help other people do that too.
Lisa Christensen: You’ve also been pretty vocal about the benefits of massage. Not just for short and long-term health benefits, but as a means of employee moral improval. What kinds of conversations do you have about that now?
Amelia Wilcox: Definitely. A lot of employers are wanting to know how they can make their employees happier, how they can make them more productive and how they can improve employee retention and get more recruiting. So we definitely like to have that conversation with clients and with the business community in general by featuring some of our clients and kind of having them tell their stories and how it’s made a difference for us.
I know we’ve got multiple clients who have talked about their customer satisfaction scores going up since they’ve implemented their programs, and people talking about how their retention rates have gone up too. Just like, less people leaving because they’re happier with the benefits package. And then there’s kind of this other area where people use our services as an intervention for physical therapy. So especially in a manufacturing or in anything where people are doing repetitive motion they will bring massage therapy in to treat inflammation, and treat different injuries before they progress to the level that they need PT. Because PT is about double the cost of massage. And then you have to report that to OSHA and Worker’s Compensation claims. It just gets very expensive. So this is kind of like a little new, emerging market for our services that wasn’t there before that there’s starting to be a demand for.
Lisa Christensen: Where do you see Incorporate going in the next six years?
Amelia Wilcox: Oh the next six years. That’s a big number. We’re growing at a rate of 230% this year compared to what we did last year. So that hurts my brain to think about six years. I can definitely say in the next three years we’ll be completely nationwide. I think we’ll be everywhere.
We do already have a lot of demand in Canada and Australia and in the UK. And so those are kind of areas we’re exploring what the laws are like and how the taxes work in all those different countries. Because I’m not quite ready to go global. I’m like, let’s nail the U.S. first and then we can expand into different countries. But, I definitely see us starting to go into at least some of the English speaking countries. Because we’ve really been able to attract a lot of attention in different areas of the world.
Lisa Christensen: Growing more than 200% over the last year and growing so much in the previous years has got to be challenging in terms of continuing to bootstrap yourself and retaining the quality and the culture that you have had. How do you do that?
Amelia Wilcox: Such a good question. I’m going to take it in two parts. In the first part you kind of talk about the financial side of it. And that is really, really challenging. Because there’s, basically I have this list of all these things that this is the next thing we’re going to do, and then we’re going to do this, and then we’re going to do this and this list is just sitting there. So whenever we have piles of cash from a really productive month or a really productive quarter, it’s really tempting to take that money and just want to put it towards all of these projects and just feed the growth, and feed the growth, and feed the growth. But we have to just look at our cycles.
And I’m really close to my numbers. We map everything out. I can tell you exactly what our high months are and what our low months are and so we can predict those cash flow needs. And I think that’s something that if you’re a VC company or you have any kind of financial backing, you don’t have to do that quite so closely. I think you can be a little bit more loose… I don’t know because I haven’t ever had a VC backed company. But what I have heard from my other friends that do have investor money in their companies, you just don’t have to watch things quite as closely.
So I have to be very, very in tune with my numbers and very aware of what our cycles are. And then the second part of that is the culture. And that is really challenging. So that is something I work very closely with our HR team on how to take what we’ve done here in Salt Lake, because we have a very, very close core team here of about 30 massage therapists and most of our admin are here. And how do we take that and take that culture and that closeness and that camaraderie and just stretch it out across the U.S. to these other teams who haven’t even met us face-to-face for the most part. And that is just something that we’ve spent a lot of time and energy working on. And so we’ve done a few things to bring them…
Like a company Facebook group where like, we can all have discussions and things like that. Employee newsletters just so people kind of understand what the company’s doing as a whole and what’s going on. And they feel a little bit more involved instead of just seeing something posted on Facebook and they didn’t know we won an award this month. They finally see it on there. I want them to feel like they’re a part of it. We started spotlighting some of our employees. In any state, if we get positive feedback on somebody it goes into our newsletter and, you know, they get a gift card and all this stuff. And trying to find ways to really recognize and reward people outside of Utah. And so that does take a lot of communication.
We’re building in a system right now where we’re going to have lead therapists in each metropolitan area that will kind of be that extra layer of management that can really help us connect even deeper with our teams in each state. So that’s what’s on the horizon.
Lisa Christensen: Well great, good luck with that.
Amelia Wilcox: Okay, thank you.
Lisa Christensen: And thank you so much for coming in today.
Amelia Wilcox: It was my pleasure.
Lisa Christensen: And thanks also to Pat Parkinson for production help today. Have any thoughts on today’s episode? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org or on our website, UtahBusiness.com or Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. You can also find out more about Incorporate Massage by going to IncorporateMassage.com. Thanks for listening and have a great day.