By Deborah L. Cohen
(Reuters) - Bryan Van Noy got a pink slip in 2007. After dusting himself off, he set out to launch a business that would challenge traditional notions of corporate wellness, ultimately taking on his former employer.
Four years later, sales at Carlsbad, California-based Sonic Boom Wellness are approaching $2 million. Van Noy's startup is fighting office sloth by promoting unorthodox activities such as lunges en route to the restroom and hula-hoops in the halls. It relies on a social media platform that encourages employees to interact and inspire each other.
"We were willing to take a huge risk," said Van Noy, 39, the former national sales director for American Specialty Health, who said he was let go during a sales retreat after he raised a "red flag" about what he perceived to be an outmoded strategy.
"All the big (wellness) companies were going down the same path - health assessment, biometric screening and telephonic coaching," he said. "We knew the door was left wide open."
It didn't hurt that Van Noy's wife and co-founder is Danna Korn, a recognized expert and author in the field of gluten-free diets. She had set out on her own unintentional career path some 20 years earlier after her young son was diagnosed with celiac disease and she spotted a void in dietary information.
"We started to say, 'Gosh, why isn't anyone using social networking? Why isn't anyone using high tech for team-based competitions to get employees healthier?" said Van Noy, who married Korn in 2008. "Danna put the bug in my ear. She'd always told me that the place I worked seemed a little constrained."
Sonic Boom users, who engage in a host of fitness and educational challenges to reach goals and win prizes, are anything but constrained. They embrace office rivalry, create custom challenges and reward each other for good behavior. "Sonic Striding" allows them to track everything from lunchtime walks to weekend bike rides using a wireless device that attaches to their shoe, uploading their data into a personal profile.
"We focus on changing people's habits, making it fun and energetic," said the effusive Korn, 49, who often travels to a new client's office for a kick-off event, inciting workers to engage in imaginary football passes, invisible jump rope contests and other affronts to office protocol.
"Last time I did this, I couldn't get them off the stage," Korn said, noting Sonic Boom's nationwide employee participation averages 65 percent - a rate she contends is significantly higher than the industry average.
The co-founders concede it hasn't all been smooth sailing. Several times they were close to packing it in, after burning through their own seed money of $100,000 and making costly mistakes such as spending $50,000 farming out development to India.
"We had to completely start from scratch after that," confessed Van Noy. "We learned the most valuable lesson - never outsource your core competency."
For two years they went without paychecks, operating with a skeleton crew in a cramped spare bedroom of their home. At one point their accountant warned of bankruptcy.
"We were selling air," Korn said. "We'd go out to companies and we'd talk about this program but we had nothing. We didn't have software developers yet."
Persistence paid off. They convinced three small customers of the benefits of their points-based wellness program. They gained more momentum after bigger companies such as Cricket and Kyocera, came on board.
"They signed up, they took the leap of faith and then from there we just started refining the program," Korn said.
Healthy Bottom Line
The company's early foibles have been invisible to customers such as Janet Wickstrom, director of employee benefits and wellness for Super Store Industries, a Stockton, California-based processor and distributor of dairy products. She said the founders' enthusiasm is contagious.
"You can't bottle that kind of energy," said Wickstrom, noting one of her workers had lost over 50 pounds and gone through "a complete transformation." Nearly half the company's 750 employees are actively using the plan.
"We had done pretty much the standard wellness fairs, lunch-and-learns, weight loss programs with healthcare providers," she said, "but nothing where the employees could go in and have their own Web page, receive their own information and then interact with their peers."
Today, Sonic Boom, which employs 15, counts nearly 100 companies in its customer roster. Participating employers often give workers who demonstrate measurable health improvement, such as lower cholesterol levels, breaks on healthcare costs. The program costs about $3 to $4 per employee each month, but companies with large user populations sometimes pay less.
Cost reduction is a powerful incentive for both workers and employers during a time when the future of healthcare is uncertain and costs are rising significantly, said Mary Gotass, an analyst who studies the wellness market for research firm IBIS World.
"It sounds like Sonic Boom is really trying to take advantage of the rise in social media, with people challenging each other and becoming more of a team," Gotass said.
Van Noy and Korn are continuing to push ahead with technological improvements. With sales projected to reach at least $2.5 million in 2012, they are now focused on expanding their platform to run on iPads, cellphones and the like.
"Some people don't have daily computer access but almost everyone now has a smartphone," Van Noy said. "We've got this Web-based program, and it's looking great. Let's take it to the mobile space."
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