While claims that “sitting is the new smoking,” may be slightly alarmist, there’s no doubt that our sedentary society is contributing to increased obesity, diabetes, heart disease and a myriad of other chronic conditions.
Since office work certainly isn’t going away anytime soon, one attempted solution that companies have embraced is corporate wellness. Workplace wellness programs can contain elements of exercise, fitness, stress reduction, mental health and more. In addition to healthier, more productive employees, companies see health insurance cost savings — potentially a hefty amount, since the majority of insurance claims come from preventable conditions.
But in order to reap the benefits, employees have to actually participate in the program. What’s more, they have to continue participating, meaning it has to be engaging, sticky and maybe even a little bit competitive. In other words, fun.
Mike Tinney, an entrepreneur with a background in the video gaming industry, thinks team-based wellness should be treated like a video game.
“We don’t consider ourselves a corporate wellness company,” Tinney says about his five-year-old startup, FIX: Fitness Interactive Experience. “We consider ourselves to be a gaming company that produces games that people play to make themselves healthier.”
What do those games look like? Their latest iteration is The Outbreak, a team-based, six-week fitness challenge that puts players into a world experiencing a zombie outbreak. The game is played partly in the real-world, as it integrates with fitness trackers (or users can track their own activity), and part digitally as the players use their exercise tracking to escape from and battle zombies.
Though running from the undead isn’t everyone’s idea of a workout, FIX’s statistics show the program works — they average a completion rate of over 92 percent. Tinney says comparable programs see somewhere around a 50 percent completion rate, “so we’re really creating a behavioral change engine that’s extremely entertaining.”
The genesis of the concept came from Tinney’s first foray into gaming in the ’90’s, when, as a side hobby, he designed live role-playing murder mystery games for hotel guests.
“I didn’t know it at the time but that was actually my first startup — I was doing it on nights and weekends while working full-time at an insurance company,” says Tinney.
The success of the game attracted the attention of Atlanta-based White Wolf, a game publisher that wanted a competitor to the wildly-popular Dungeons and Dragons. They acquired Tinney’s startup and he went to work at White Wolf, eventually becoming CEO and guiding the team through the digital gaming transformation as they were acquired by mega-gaming company CCP.
After six years at CCP, Tinney “just got the itch to start another company.” He was training for a half-marathon at the time and started thinking about how to build a game around encouraging consistent physical activity.
In 2012, FIX was born. But at first, Tinney wasn’t quite sure how to merge gaming and exercise in a way that made sense. Who were their customers; what was their target audience?
“We had a product idea and we weren’t quite sure what market to take it into. We knew that a consumer-facing market needs a more complete monetization scheme, and requires quite a bit of design and iteration to figure that out,” he says. “But, a corporate product with an HR department buying the product for employees, didn’t need that.”
“The user cohort from a behavioral design perspective for a group of co-workers is a lot more straightforward than random consumers.” When Tinney did his research, he also noted the size of that corporate wellness market — almost $30 billion globally, according to recent figures.
FIX has released several iterations of their products with different challenges and has worked with about 200 companies ranging in size from 300-8,000 employees. Corporations including Coca-Cola, Ernst & Young, Cigna, Home Shopping Network and more have gone through their programs.
The cash-flow positive company has been largely bootstrapped, according to Tinney, but took outside capital recently when they entered the Techstars MetLife Digital Accelerator, which focuses on technology companies impacting the insurance industry (insurtech). Tinney says the Techstars program will help them figure out how to expand into new markets, perhaps going beyond corporate wellness.
“We believe that our incremental behavioral change engine can be applied in other markets,” he says.
Though the leadership team is currently spending a lot of time in North Carolina for the accelerator program, they intend to continue building the company in their hometown of Atlanta.