Limeade CEO Henry Albrecht On Why Healthy, Happy Employees Are the Key Ingredient to a Thriving Business

It’s not often that you meet a CEO who works a maximum of 55 hours a week, participates in push up challenges with coworkers in the office, and wears the company values—which read “anything is possible,” “speak plainly,” “we make things for customers,” and “be it”— on a dog tag around his neck. But for Henry Albrecht, it’s all part of his corporate and personal mission to create a better kind of company culture through happier, healthier, and well-balanced employees.

“Life is too short,” Albrecht says. “We really want to create a better kind of company. We want it to be OK to be yourself.”

The 41-year-old entrepreneur founded the software startup Limeade in early February 2006, with the aim of doing just that—helping companies succeed by improving the wellbeing and productivity of their employees.

Albrecht himself came from an economic strategy, and business, brand, and marketing background. After getting his bachelor’s in economics and literature from Claremont McKenna College, he spent a year playing basketball in Portugal. Then he found work as an economic consultant, went through business school, and worked his way into a tech career at Intuit, the Mountain View, CA-based software company.

Today Albrecht lives back in his native Northwest, is happily married, has three young kids (ages three, six, and 10), and a young a thriving startup with 25 employees that follow the same creed as he does. Juggling all that, he still manages to get out of the office long before most startup employees do, and more importantly, he is more productive than he’s ever been and enjoys the time he’s at work—a lot. In fact, Albrecht wakes up every day excited to go to the office. The phrase ‘case of the Mondays’ is not in his vocabulary.

“Like many people, I go through life trying to figure out what really makes me tick, makes me passionate, and gets me psyched in the morning, and I’m super fortunate to have found something that I feel that way about,” he says.

The company values he and his employees all wear as emblems (though Albrecht admits he’s a little behind in ordering the tags for the whole staff) may be simple, but they represent the idea behind the company: that personal wellbeing is the key ingredient to success—in life, and in business.

Using Limeade’s Web-based system, employers can actively focus on improving corporate health and productivity, working from the specific needs of each individual employee up. After completing an initial—and private—health assessment through the system, employees can log their daily status against personal health and wellness goals they set themselves, or those set by the company, journal about their progress, engage with fellow coworkers for challenges that capitalize on social gaming strategies that make self-reporting wellness more fun, and track their stats over time. Employers get valuable insights into the wellness of their employee population, and are able to initiate incentive programs or challenges to help their employees meet their personal goals, which in turn help the company have a richer, stronger, happier, and more productive culture.

And so far the mission is paying off. In four short years, Limeade has raised two successful financing rounds from friends and family, and angel investors—one for $2.4 million in July 2009, followed by another for $3 million in January—and boasts some big-name customers, including the State of Washington, Jamba Juice, Group Health, and REI.

Last week, the company signed on two new clients, the Texas-based Scott & White Healthcare (very similar in size to Group Health), and a popular national restaurant chain. At this rate Albrecht estimates that the company will break the profitability barrier this year, and plans to double its staff in 2011 as it expands.

I sat down with Albrecht a couple of weeks ago and spoke with him about Limeade, the burgeoning health IT/wellness space, and what makes his company different, especially compared to other startups in the space that have been on our radar, such as Mindbloom. Here are the highlights from our conversation, edited, as always, for length and clarity.

Xconomy: Where did you get the idea for Limeade?

Henry Albrecht: Having studied marketing in business school, I consider myself a little bit of an amateur psychologist, and I like to study what makes people tick and what makes people move. A lot of my interests revolve around that? What motivates people?

Intuit was doing some neat things with consumer directive and small business software, and taking all these complex factors that, let’s say, predict a healthy financial life, or predict a healthy business, and reporting them back in crisp, easy to understand ways. Here’s your whole personal portfolio, here’s your payroll, here’s your checking balance and your savings, and here’s what you need to do about it.

Having spent a lot of time in that environment, that helped brew a passion in me. It helped frame a question. If you could do this type of thing for your financial well being, what if you could do something like that for your overall wellbeing? Something that helped you measure and get all the inputs—all the facts in place—and then helped you improve your overall wellbeing in a statistically significant, evidence-based way?

Then I moved up to Seattle and got a job at an enterprise software company for a couple of years, but in the back of my mind I had this idea that I was slowly cultivating. And then, I was actually getting a rash on my face from my prior job because of stress—because I didn’t have what I have now, which was showing up and loving every minute of it—and I realized I had to pursue something that I just was hyper-intrinsically motivated to do. So I quit my job, took a road trip with my family, refreshed my batteries, and just set out on the task of figuring out if you could design a system that measured and accrued everything that drove human well-being.

I was lucky enough to meet a woman named Dr. Laura Hamill, who at the time was a PhD organizational psychologist working at Microsoft. And at Microsoft she had done some very interesting things. She was a psychometric expert, which means she measures people—peoples’ attitudes, the culture of a company, and the engagement, the performance, who to hire, who not to hire—all that stuff. So she designed assessments of how to measure all of these things. So I started working with her, creating hypothesis about what helped measure and improve wellbeing. And we came up with a whole bunch of dimensions based on a bibliography of over a hundred peer reviewed pieces of research on everything from energy level, or resilience, or self-leadership, or back health, or exercise—all of the things that the literature proves relates to wellbeing.

In conjunction with the assessment expert, I also started meeting with behavioral science experts, psychologists, cognitive behavioral therapists, psychiatrists, sociologists, statisticians, other physicians of various types to work on not just doing the assessment piece, but also doing the improvement piece. Then we just started as a software company—a small ragtag crew of zealots, and geeks, and stat and software people, designing, and wire-framing, and protecting, and building a system for measuring and improving wellbeing.

X: Why did you decide to design a wellness product that markets to companies, rather than individuals, as many in this new health IT space do?

HA: It took a few iterations on the business model to realize that maybe every consumer isn’t totally rational, as we thought we were, about structuring this equation and solving for it. But luckily over time we’ve honed in on what a very valuable proposition which is that employers care a heck of a lot about happy, healthy, high-performance people in their organization, because they stay longer, work smarter, deliver higher profits, don’t cause problems, become future leaders, cost less for health insurance—in pretty much every way they’re profit engines for companies. And what we found in our research is that there’s actually a very strong causal relationship between wellbeing and outcomes like health, and productivity, and job performance, and employee retention, and customer satisfaction.

We landed in the middle of this corporate wellness industry when the dominant thought at the time was that people should be treated as health risks, and told when they’re fat, and problematic, and costly to ensure, and of course that will be very motivating to them, right? And as we all know, we love to be told things we already know and told to fix them. So as it turns out the industry was ready for our approach.

X: What’s the biggest difference between Limeade and other goal-oriented wellness startups like Mindbloom and 43Things?

HA: We’re very focused on building high performance companies, and that focus means that it’s not just about weight loss, or just about working—it’s about everything tied to performance. That’s one differentiator. Another is people/employees engage with and use our service, which is not the norm in the wellness industry. A lot of the buyers we speak to and our customers been gone through the ringer with other wellness programs, where it launches great, or they have to pay people a couple hundred bucks to complete an assessment, and then it kind of falls flat over time. Ongoing engagement in the program is a big differentiator for us. We do that with fun, easy to use, personally relevant applications, but also one that is tailored specifically to the culture of the company.

X: Do Limeade’s employees use the system?

HA: Oh, absolutely. We totally walk the walk. We always have a couple challenges going on in our company. We have three employees who have lost over 30 pounds this year, even though we never had it as an explicit goal to do weight loss as a company, but because we’re doing things about talking about where we’re going to go to lunch—and is it Subway, or is it that other place that has the triple bacon behemoth burger?

We have pushup challenges in the office. We tie the insurance benefits that we pay to the participation of things like biometric screening to predict diabetes or heart disease, and other health conditions. But we always try to make it fun.

X: Why do you think employee wellness is so valuable for employers?

HA: Whatever you do, it has to be sustainable. It doesn’t really do you any good to have someone jamming for 90 hours a week, who is going to quit after 10 months, because their work/life balance sucks.

The bar for performance at our company for all of our employees is high—and it should always be high—and our philosophy is to meet or exceed that bar, you have to be healthy, you have to bring your A game, you have to have high energy, you have to have slept well and have balance, and be able to bounce back from bad things that get in your way, whether they’re health, or a relationship, or financial. You have to take care of yourself. I don’t know that startups should be held do a different bar than any other employer in that—you should have a set of people who are dedicated to a core set of values who passionately pursue those things.

X: But how does the data connect wellbeing to productivity in the workplace?

AH: Everything we measure in this model—from work related things like belief in the company, to belief in your abilities, or fit with the work culture, or health, or personal goals—everything in here is statistically predictive of wellbeing, productivity, health, or two or three of those things. And our statistical analysis shows that this whole personal approach predicts productivity about 11 times better than just looking at health risks alone.

X: How much time does the average employee have to invest in tracking their wellness through Limeade for it to be effective?

HA: After initial assessment, our goal is that they spend less than 20 seconds a day, or as much time as they want to, to improve their wellbeing.

It’s not a big investment in time, and quite frankly, even if it were a big investment in time, it’s for a good purpose. And if it’s not strategic for the company to have high-performance people, then we’re probably not the right solution for them.

X: How much does Limeade cost employers?

HA: It’s a couple of bucks a month per employee. It’s the cost of a 16 oz CocaCola a month, except it’s better for you.

X: When dealing with medical records and personal information, especially in the workplace, the issue of privacy always comes up.

HA: We take privacy super seriously, and security as well. We never share personally identifiable health or wellbeing information with the employer, except in aggregate—we can share a snapshot of their population, but we can’t share your personal data with the employer, nor would we want to.

X: So what does the employer get to see?

HA: We have different types of information that we share with employers. One of them is engagement information. We believe that the employer should be able to know at any point in time how many people are engaged in the system—how many people have been invited, have completed assessments, are using behavior change features, etc. So we provide that, we make it actionable, so right here an employer can create a challenge for their workforce. We come with come pre-canned suggestions. We have a library of hundreds of example challenges in a library we can share with employer users.

We also support peer-versus-peer challenges, so you as an employee can challenge some of your coworkers, or friends, or the team your work with activity-based programs, weight loss, or one time events. And then you can earn points, or something else—thanks, giftcards, charitable donations. And then we give people options on how to promote it. The goal is not just reporting, but how to make it actionable. We summarize what actually drives productivity, wellbeing, and health for a company, with targeted recommendations for that population. We get at some of the actual drivers that are often overlooked that reinforce productivity.

Things like openness and optimism, that’s not something you’d find in the traditional health risk assessment.

We have a medical advisor named Dr. Michael Parkinson, who is the former president of the American College of Preventive Medicine, so we have that acumen on board, but we all know that you can have as many letters as you want behind your last name, and that’s not going to motivate someone to make a change.

X: Limeade already has some clients with international presence—is a global expansion in the cards?

HA: There are some things that are especially valuable in certain types of structures of the insurance industry, but the central promise of what we’re doing—helping people improve their lives and be happier, healthier, high-performance—is not culturally specific or geographically isolated.

X: Any plans to market a wellness tracking service direct to consumers?

HA: Our strategy today is we’re helping companies deliver this wellness blueprint in a better, faster way. That’s not in our current plans, but as one of our values says, ‘anything is possible.’

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