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Starling Portrait Series: Essentialise – Creating a better workplace for everyone

More often than not, business is about looking at how things have been done before and having the courage and imagination to reinvent the rules. That’s what Anne Boden did when she created Starling Bank, a digital bank for personal and business current accounts. Starling was born out of her determination to give customers control over their money and provide a real alternative to the banks of the past. Starling strives to be fast, friendly and supportive – just like a murmuration of starling birds.

In this series, we’ll be shining a light on other Great British entrepreneurs who, just like Anne, are pioneers of change.

This month’s portrait series features Starling customer, and entrepreneur Lee Chambers, founder of Essentialise. Essentialise Workplace Wellbeing is an organisation that focuses on assisting businesses to implement effective, measurable wellbeing. They work alongside companies to plan and design wellbeing strategies and deliver quality, engaging wellbeing that creates both a positive impact and a sustainable business case. 

 Today the wellbeing of employees is becoming a priority for many businesses, and the topic of employee wellbeing is gaining more needed attention. Those businesses that are focused on bettering their employee wellbeing practice may not know where to start, or how to do it properly – but with the help of Essentialise, businesses can make positive changes for better employee wellbeing. 

The founders’ story 

Founder Lee Chambers’ personal story, and the challenges he has faced along the way, is the main driving factor in Essentialise’s success and the reason behind its founding. Lee grew up on a council estate in Bolton, and being mixed race in this environment had its challenges – he found himself in “interesting situations and a fair share of trouble”, however, he was extremely academically gifted and became the first person in his family to go to university. Though this was an exciting time and a great privilege, it came with its own challenges, and Lee ended up dropping out due to pressure that led to poor mental health. After allowing himself time to work on himself and his mental health, Lee re-enrolled in university and successfully graduated. 

In his final year at university, Lee had drawn up a business plan for PhenomGames, which received positive feedback from his mentor however he was advised that “being young, black, and having an attitude, I should go out into industry and smooth my edges, build a network, and then look to execute when wiser.” This criticism blunted his entrepreneurial flame, however after being made redundant, and finding himself in desperate situations, he began working in a government job to help the funding of PhenomGames, which he was soon able to bring to life. 

PhenomGames became a very successful business which changed his and his family’s life, however, its success was fueled by proving people wrong and showing that he could succeed – which ultimately didn’t feel right to Lee. “It was successful, but that negative energy held me back from delegating enough, from trusting potential mentors, and ultimately from detaching myself from the business enough to give it a life of its own.”

The birth of Essentialise

At this stage, Lee was founding a successful business, but he wasn’t completely happy. Then, everything changed one week in 2014. His son was 18 months old, and his wife six months pregnant – Lee fell extremely ill. “My immune system failed and attacked my joints, leaving me in hospital and unable to walk or look after myself. In hospital for a month, and then into walking rehab, it took me a year to walk a mile unaided.” 

This time, though challenging, allowed him to reflect on his life and business – he began thinking of what kind of legacy he wanted to leave behind, and the example he wanted to be for his children. This is where the idea of Essentialise was born. The success of PhenomGames gave him the ability to not worry about finances whilst he was in recovery, but he knew he wasn’t leaving the positive impact that he desired. 

From his own experiences dealing with mental health issues, his own health qualifications and his knowledge of how mental health was neglected in the tech sector, he came up with the idea of Essentialise. 

“This journey ignited my passion to empower others through adversity and to value their health. I scaled PhenomGames down so I could spend time with my children before they started school, and have the space to complete my Master’s in Environmental Psychology. When Annabel began school in September 2019, the time to launch Essentialise was a natural transition.”

Essentialise as a concept was formed in September 2019 and launched in February 2020. Through his experiences and challenges, Lee felt that time was ripe for effective evidence-based wellbeing. He started to research and surveyed businesses to see what SMEs were currently providing, what challenges they faced, and what they felt was missing – and several common threads came to light:

– A lack of strategy connecting all areas of wellbeing 

– Challenges in measuring the impact and evolving delivery 

– Making a sustainable wellbeing business case

– Getting employees to engage in initiatives

So the framework around Essentialise is to create solutions that tackle these challenges, starting with strategy.

We caught up with founder Lee to get some insight into his journey, how the business fared during the pandemic and what we can expect to see from Essentialise in the future; 

Tackling the pandemic 

“I can certainly say we’ve been on a journey, especially given we launched a month before lockdown hit. A big part of our business was designed around an in-office delivery model, and we lost a few of our launch clients before we’d even started, alongside postponements that hit us hard as we piloted services and methodologies.

However, being a startup, you have a readiness for things to change in a heartbeat, and with the support of Lancaster University, we had digital tools and frameworks built within a month. While health and wellbeing were suddenly on the agenda, many businesses were focused on COVID response and their own survival, so we initially had spare capacity. We put this to use by spending time to refine processes and deliver more social impact work to build credibility and relationships. This included frontline NHS employee support, a radio show for isolated rural communities and working with local charities, as well as our continued work in SEND education and delivering meals to children.

This investment in time has paid dividends, as we have gradually built up our client base and ended Year 1, achieving our forecasts, despite all the volatility. This has given us the fundamentals and foundations to grow, more than doubling our revenue and profits in Year 2, executing a more refined sales and marketing strategy, and adding to the team. Naturally, being recognised by the Great British Entrepreneur Awards was a standout moment, and felt like validation we were on the right path and should keep doing the basics well while innovating and evolving our services.

As for myself, I’ve been through my fair share of adversity and am grateful to be in good health and good spirits. The pandemic certainly gave me the push to keep moving and developing, and I received my autism diagnosis which has given me an increased clarity on the skills I have and the areas I need support with. If there’s one thing I will take away from the pandemic, it’s that after homeschooling my children, I will never go and try my hand at teaching and have the utmost respect for those that do!”

The secret to success 

“It’s never easy to look at it and boil it down to one aspect, as everything is interconnected. If I had to select something that I feel is valuable, it would be a willingness to experiment alongside a hunger to learn. Essentialise Workplace Wellbeing is my second business journey after 10 years with PhenomGames, and it could have been easy for me to try and apply lots of aspects from my last business to the new one. Instead, I went back to basics and treated myself as a beginner, becoming curious about how things had changed, not being afraid to fail and creating space to evaluate our direction of travel.

The other element of this is experimenting and learning has got me clarity on my values and what fuels my passion. This has given me the resilience to keep progressing on those difficult days, the ability to sense opportunities and a deep focus on collaboration and co-creation, which have all been a part of our continued momentum in the right direction which is purposeful and sustainable.

It’s funny when I reflect on my previous business journey, as on paper the business looked successful, and it certainly was financially, but I didn’t feel successful, I felt trapped. The feeling of Essentialise, while not hitting those big revenues yet, is much more a slow-burning fire rather than a firework, and it feels like it’s on a pathway to success that will change the way we see workplace wellbeing in an increasingly digital and ever-connected world.”

The future of Essentialise 

“We are currently in an interesting period, where we are actively building on top of the foundations we have built over the past 2 years. We’ve got a handle on where we operate best in a relatively new and dynamic industry. Our two core services, designing wellbeing strategies and delivering bespoke wellbeing training, are consultative in nature and require resources, and we now have 4 associates within the model to give us the capacity needed. We have recently onboarded additional global clients, and it’s exciting working with them and learning from the challenges they are facing.

We are currently in the process of piloting our on-demand wellbeing platform, which provides data-driven insights, guidance and a selection of core training, which is both interactive, scalable, and can provide access to wellbeing and inclusion at any budget. Alongside this, we are also working on an immersive VR training experience, which takes employees into other people’s perspectives and facilitates group learning. Both of these will complement our core services and offer evidenced-based, engaging and repeatable pathways for clients, both current and new.

The longer-term plan is to continue to scale and innovate in a sustainable and considered way, executing our plans while being flexible and adapting as client needs evolve. Being in such a young industry, there’s massive potential to forge pathways never previously stepped on, and a fine balance between risk and reward. We are currently in the early stages of building a curriculum to train the Wellbeing Directors and Happiness Officers of tomorrow and will have both a People Board and Directors for SMEs to utilise if they haven’t got the ability to have an internal member of staff.

It’s been quite a journey so far, and it’s only 2 years in. But more than anything, we are enjoying it, celebrating the small wins and not losing sight of the bigger picture. We live and breathe workplace wellbeing and inclusive cultures, and we are not stopping until we’ve impacted at least a million employees. While we never take anything for granted, we are both excited and optimistic about the future and the opportunities it will bring.”

For more information on Essentialise and their work, visit their website here.