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Wellness, On Demand: Zeel Expands “Uber for Massage” with New Service Lines and Markets

StartUp Health

Wellness, On Demand: Zeel Expands “Uber for Massage” with New Service Lines and Markets

When I sat down to talk to Alison Harmelin, Co-Founder of Zeel, she’d just finished a 90-minute workout on the tennis court. The enthusiastic entrepreneur was still in her athletic attire, but ready to talk shop. “I’m not 25 years old anymore, and my back is now killing me,” said Harmelin. “If I want to play tennis regularly for the next 25 years, I’m going to need to take care of my body.” This is no mere chitchat. Harmelin isn’t one to toss around platitudes when it comes to self-care. Neither is it a pitch. It’s her story, and it’s the Zeel story. Seven years ago, she and her husband, Samer Hamadeh, co-founded the on-demand massage service. The launch of Zeel was largely in response to their own need for more accessible wellness services. Harmelin had just delivered two babies within an 18-month period (with another one on the way) and was experiencing lower back pain. Samer’s back was also beginning to be a regular bother. “The different aches and pains we were starting to experience in our 30s and 40s were the result of a kind of human wear and tear,” says Harmelin. “We said, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’” Since 2012, the husband and wife duo, along with Edward Shen, Co-Founder and Vice President of Operations at Zeel, have been working to carve out that alternative path to wellness. When they launched their on-demand massage platform they became the first company to bring same-day massages to customers in their homes, hotels, workplaces, and spas. The platform boasts a membership program for consumers with industry-leading security standards, award-winning customer service, in addition to one of the most robust menus of B2B wellness services. Today, the mobile app works with more than 11,000 professional massage therapists who collectively service 100+ cities across the U.S. By the end of 2019, Zeel will have paid out over $100 million to therapists in the form of massage base pay and tips. This year, the rapidly-growing global wellness brand is expanding. They’ve added yoga and meditation to the B2B side of the self-booking app. This means, their 2,000+ corporate wellness partners now have on-demand access to professional yoga instructors and meditation experts. They are also beta testing a B2C assisted stretching service with select customers in New York City. “In the first iteration of the company we offered yoga,” says Harmelin. “Initially, we pivoted to massage because 80% of the appointments people booked were for that service. We decided to first get on-demand massage services right, but we always planned to expand back out into other wellness services.” Discovering the Zeel Appeal, Firsthand Because I’ll take any excuse to get a massage, after talking with Harmelin, I decided to see for myself what the Zeel appeal was all about. I downloaded the app onto my iPhone and followed the prompts to enter the type of massage service I wanted (deep tissue - these knots aren’t going to smooth themselves). Then, I input my requested location (Home), and date/time, which was about three hours from the time I clicked “Book Massage.” There were additional questions, like if preferred a male or female masseuse, if there was a staircase, and if a dog or cat would be on premise (dog, though he acts more like a cat). Over the next 45-minutes, I received a welcome email message from Zeel, along with text updates letting me know they were on the hunt for a therapist that could meet me in my home in northwest Baltimore. Once the appointment was confirmed, I received the name of the therapist – Toyin Akintilo – and her confirmed time of arrival. Another text reminded me to set out two sheets and one pillowcase. The therapist would bring the rest. A few minutes before my appointment time, I prepped the room where I was planning to have the massage. I cleared space to make room for the massage table (Zeel recommends a 6x10 ft space), grabbed some linens, dropped my favorite essential oils into a diffuser, and chose a music playlist that I’d named “Zen n’ Stuff.” Akintilo arrived and within five minutes had the table setup, ready to go. I wanted to hear about her experience with Zeel from the angle of a massage therapist, but multitasking between relaxation and a game of 20 Questions proved difficult. She politely encouraged me to hold my questions and agreed to answer all of them… after the massage. “You need to enjoy this,” she said. I followed her advice. Once the massage was over, Ankintlo explained that for her, Zeel isn't just a job. It's a way to balance her own life. It brings both flexibility in schedule as well as mental/spiritual balance to her otherwise hectic life. Earlier that morning, she was teaching a special education class at an elementary school in Baltimore. It’s something she does Monday through Friday, for half-days. She’d been a full-time teacher, but says it became emotionally draining. She needed something that would “return energy to her.” “Being a massage therapist gives me that balance of energy,” says Akintilo. “With a platform like Zeel, I’m able to manage the time I want to spend massaging, and coordinate around my other work and family life.” Akintilo is just one of the 11,000 massage therapists in the Zeel network, but her use of the app is an accurate representation of how wellness professionals in the gig economy are able to use the platform to augment their personal business. Zeel also automatically adds gratuity to the cost of the service, ensuring professionals like Akintilo are appropriately compensated for their service. “Being a massage therapist gives me that balance of energy,” says Akintilo. “With a platform like Zeel, I’m able to manage the time I want to spend massaging, and coordinate around my other work and family life.” Having used Zeel for two years now, Akintilo was well-versed in the app. I asked if I could peek over her shoulder to get a look at how the platform worked for her. First, she ended our appointment time. “If you don’t end it, Zeel will check in on you to be sure you’re OK as a measure of safety,” she said. Echoing Akintilo’s comment, Harmelin noted that security and safety has been part of the Zeel DNA since day one. “Providing the best in mobile massage at home means providing top security and safety protocols for both customers and massage therapists,” says Harmelin. “We put the safety of both our therapists and customers first and have a strictly enforced no-tolerance policy for inappropriate behavior.” Before I bade adieu to Akintilo, she showed me the appointment notifications she had received through the app for later in the day. She accepted one, and dismissed the other. “You know, to maintain the balance,” she said. Perfecting the Recipe Baltimore is one of the 100+ cities where Zeel’s on-demand wellness services are available. And the company continues to grow – in number of cities they reach, but also in the number of wellness services offered and in market saturation. “One of the things I care about with regards to the wellness space is moving away from what I call the ‘Instagram pathology of wellness,’” says Harmelin. “There is a skewed perception of wellness that says if you're not pushing out another selfie of your flat stomach every day, then you're not perceived as well. That’s completely unrealistic. I want wellness to be something that is healthy. Not something that makes people anxious.” In addition to their move beyond massage and (back) into yoga and meditation, a few months ago, the company began implementing a broad launch strategy. Call it an exercise in brand and change management. Harmelin and Hamadeh have created a secret sauce when it comes to gathering top-notch wellness professionals on their platform. They don’t want to spoil the recipe for the sake of doubling the batch. “We’re being intentional, not exclusive in our launch,” says Harmelin. “You only get one chance with a customer. They download the app, they press the button and if no one shows up in an hour, you’re not going to keep their business.” When it comes to the assisted stretching service, for now, the company is dipping their toe into the new wellness service offering, working out the best algorithm for bringing on people who are qualified and top notch. Message Alison on StartUp Health HQ or email zeel@startuphealth.com. “With assisted stretching, it’s not as black and white as massage therapy, where if you’re not licensed you never make it into our system,” says Harmelin. “Without giving away the secret sauce, we go to great lengths to vet people beyond the normal licensure.” For Harmelin, despite the company’s busy year ahead, Zeel’s mission remains front of mind. “One of the things I care about with regards to the wellness space is moving away from what I call the ‘Instagram pathology of wellness,’” says Harmelin. “There is a skewed perception of wellness that says if you're not pushing out another selfie of your flat stomach every day, then you're not perceived as well. That’s completely unrealistic. I want wellness to be something that is healthy. Not something that makes people anxious.”