ACE 2013 - WorkGuru, a Lean Start-Up: Building Innovation Into Your Business

Stephany Carolan, CEO WorkGuru

We have ordered the marketing pencils and the fridge magnets, worked out that a shell scheme requires more than a few laminated posters to decorate its walls, and fire-retarded the bunting. We are all set for the annual CIPD conference and exhibition.

I am the founder of WorkGuru, an organisation that provides on-line, evidence based, supported self-help aimed at helping people to build resilience, increase effectiveness, and manage workplace stress. We began trading earlier this year and this will be our first major exhibition.

In the next posting I am going to blog about mental resilience, what it means, and the things that we can all be doing to improve our resilience, but I want to begin by reflecting on the methodology that we have used to develop as a company. As a small digital start-up developing an innovative product, we have had to ensure that we remain agile: testing our ideas, listening to customers, understanding how people engage with us and adapting and adjusting accordingly.

The methodology that we use is relevant to any company, whether they are a small digital start-up like us, or a large well established corporate organisation looking to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation.

Lean Startup is a term first coined by Eric Ries and developed further by Ash Maurya in his book Running Lean. It is based on a synthesis of Customer Development, Agile Software Development and Lean Manufacturing.

There are a number of key principles and processes that are involved in implementing a lean start up approach, I have highlighted the ones that we found most helpful below:

Articulating the problem
Innovation begins with articulating the problem. For us the problem we identified was stress in the workplace. The recently published CIPD report Employee Outlook: Focus on employee well-being tells us that just under half of the employees surveyed said that they have seen an increase in stress over the past year, that 16% said that they feel under pressure every day, and that over a quarter of respondents had seen an increase in presenteeism. Stress remains one of the leading causes of long term sickness absence (CIPD 2013), with 10.4 million working days lost each year because of stress related sickness absence (HSE 2013).

Having a vision
Having articulated the problem the next step is having a vision of how that problem can be solved.

The WorkGuru vision was a simple one. An easy to access, evidence-based resource that helps people to increase their mental resilience. We all know the things that we could be doing to keep ourselves physically healthy (eating 5 fruit and veg a day, exercise, etc), but we are not so clear on the things that we could be doing to keep mentally healthy. Our vision was that WorkGuru would provide the fruit and veg for the brain. As a work psychologist I knew there was a strong evidence-base of things that we could all be doing to build our mental resilience and manage our stress. We wanted to create an evidence-based resource that showed people how; a resource that helped to prevent people from experiencing problems, rather then providing a service when they were already unwell.

Having had our vision now was the time to test our hypothesis.

Testing your hypothesis
One of the themes running through the television programme Dragons’ Den is participants presenting their product to the incredulous Dragons, telling them that they have re-mortgaged their house and used all their savings on the product, and that their family and friends think it is a great idea.

Lean Start-up encourages us to test our vision before we re-mortgage the house.

WorkGuru is a predominantly business-to-business model. Employers purchase access to our site for their employees and then either offer it as part of an evidence-based wellbeing initiative, or target employees who they know are experiencing problems through their line-management process.

Our hypothesis is that employers will see workplace stress as a problem worth solving and that they will pay to solve that problem.

We tested this hypothesis by speaking with a number of large and small, public and private sector organisations and asking whether they saw stress as a problem, what if anything they were already doing and whether they would be interested in purchasing the service WorkGuru would provide?

The response that we got was that many employers recognised that stress was an issue, and that they really liked our preventative approach. Many of the larger organisations already had in-house counselling services or access to EAPs but they saw our approach as a cost effective addition to those services.

So having identified the problem, had the vision and tested the hypothesis now was the time to build a minimum viable product.

Building a minimum viable product
It is tempting to want to leap straight to building your solution – the all-signing, all-dancing final product. But if you are building something new, if you are really innovating, then it is foolhardy to believe that you have all the answers already.

We began by testing our material and our approach using pdfs. We identified an already established on-line community, and began to pilot the material through them, getting feedback and making adjustments until we felt confident enough to build our first on-line version. On completion of the first iteration of our website we began trading in February of this year, and we continue to learn, innovative and iterate. We are just heading towards our 4th major iteration each time improving and adapting what we are doing, moving closer to a product/market fit without wasting money on programming and services that nobody wants.

Talking to your customers and potential customers
To be really innovative and agile you have to move away from your desk and start engaging with your customers and your potential customers. We can presume to know what an evidence-based approach to building workplace resilience is (that is our area of expertise) but we can not presume to understand how people are going to engage with our interactive material, how they are going to access our on-line service or how employers are going to want to support their staff to benefit from what we offer. We only learn this by spending time with our customers and our users.

The CIPD annual conference and exhibition is a perfect opportunity to continue to have these conversations. We would love to talk with you about your experiences of managing stress within your own organisations, and how you would see WorkGuru as forming part of your stress management and absence management policies.

Come and say hello, we are stand number 581 – you can come and check out our bunting, and help yourself to our fridge magnets.

Wishing you all a productive and inspiring conference.

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