How a Massage Company Pulled Off a Radical Covid Pivot

On a list of business models likely to hit headwinds as a result of Covid-19, in-office massages would probably be near the top. Fortunately for Amelia Wilcox, whose company billed itself as “the largest national provider of onsite massages,” she wasted no time pivoting to a new business when the pandemic hit. Rebranded from Incorporate Massage to Nivati, the Salt Lake City-based company reinvented itself as a virtual wellness business and now has 11,000 users at companies around the U.S.

Founded in 2010, Incorporate Massage had just hit its stride when Covid struck. In 2019, the company landed at No. 678 on the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. It made the Inc. 5000 again in 2020, landing at No. 1,619. The company had a network of 1,200 massage therapists and Wilcox and her husband finally paid off $60,000 of debt from a previous venture.

“We were blowing up all of our goals,” Wilcox says. “It was awesome.”

Wilcox had a plan to grow into additional onsite services, such as yoga, chiropractic, and other areas of wellness. Further down the road, she was even eyeing some automotive services such as windshield repair and tire rotation. “That is the bright future we were gearing up for,” Wilcox says.

As massage cancellations started coming in during February and March of 2020 due to the pandemic, however, the business outlook for Nivati changed rapidly. On March 13, Wilcox had to put all of her staff on furlough. “We had a couple hundred thousand in the bank, and we would have had to close in about four weeks,” she says. “That was like the darkest time of my existence. I’ve never felt more lost and hopeless.”

As Covid wreaked havoc on the business, Wilcox thought about the prospect of losing everything she’d worked for during the past decade. Her board told her to focus on finding a new direction. The message, she recalled, was, “Let’s just pretend massage never comes back, and let’s see what you would do with the platform and the people that you have in place.”

At first, Wilcox tried to think of any work that her network of massage therapists across the country could do to keep drawing a salary. She even looked into offering delivery and logistics help to Amazon and others, but “none of that seemed to pan out,” she says. At first, the company worked with a group of its massage therapists who had other skill sets as yoga instructors and life coaches. Wilcox purchased in-home video kits and brought on teams of videographers to teach 15 practitioners how to shoot their own videos. The company launched a mix of one-on-one sessions and live airings of group sessions on their platform, and offered it to existing clients, “just trying to retain revenue and avoid refunds,” Wilcox says.

Live events had limited success, but there was consistent feedback from practitioners about a different kind of service that the company should be offering. “A couple of our life coaches came to me and said, ‘I’m talking to these people, and they have serious problems,'” such as anxiety and PTSD that were going unaddressed amid the pandemic. At first, Wilcox sought out a mental health partner to whom they could refer clients, but clinics were responding that they were overloaded dealing with their existing clientele and “booked out for months.”

Realizing there was a shortage of mental health professionals available to service these clients, Wilcox enlisted recruiters to identify mental health professionals who could work with the platform. A handful of therapists were willing to make the jump and worked with Nivati to set up appointments. By October 2020, the company was a virtual wellness platform for businesses and offered live classes and therapy appointments, plus a library of wellness content, including yoga instruction.

In early 2021, Nivati raised $830,000 in an angel round. The company now offers additional content and services with an eye towards mental well-being. It’s also offering services that aren’t often associated with mental health. While digging into data on mental health, Wilcox learned that financial stress was a leading cause of unhappiness. Shortly thereafter, Nivati launched a financial learning program.

For Wilcox, part of Nivati’s goals is making it easier for customers to seek access to mental health services. Employees don’t need to go through HR to get access to counseling or related services, for example. They can just ask for access to Nivati and can therefore be more discreet with their colleagues. This path also offers users the ability to ease into mental wellness services, focusing at first on something that seems tangential, rather than going straight to counseling.

The company’s customers now range from a variety of tech startups to school districts and hospitals. Nivati has about 60 companies on the platform and is adding one to two clients per week, according to Wilcox, with technology firms accounting for roughly half of its portfolio. The company is close to closing on a larger venture capital funding round in which it which its pre-money valuation has “more than doubled,” Wilcox says.

Reflecting on her radical pivot over the past two years, Wilcox says one of the things she learned from the process is that she’s stronger than she thought she was. And while the pandemic posed an existential threat to the business, it also left the company in an even stronger position.

“Somehow, the company is worth more than it was pre-Covid,” Wilcox says.

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