How Amelia Wilcox founded Nivati
The Founder Series is a column by and about Utah founders and how they got to where they are today. Click here to read past articles in the series.
Nivati isn’t where I started but where my collective experiences have led me. I had entrepreneurial tendencies long before I ever became a company founder. My dad encouraged my ideas, saying I could do whatever I wanted in my life. I believed him.
In middle school, for example, I sold giant wholesale chocolate chip cookies to my classmates at double my cost, and it was great—until my school shut me down.
My mom, brother, and I once sold homemade Christmas cards. We bought stamps, ink, glitter and paper and spent days and nights stamping and designing cards, then selling them to the neighbors. Years later, after my husband Chris and I were married, we found a store that sold discounted merchandise. We’d buy the product, then sell it on eBay until the supply dried up.
When Chris got a job at an outdoor retailer, it led us in a new direction—one neither of us expected to go. His wholesale account allowed us to build an e-commerce website selling camping gear online. It was the first time I talked to big business people, pretending to be far more experienced and savvy than I was. I’d have conversations convincing huge retailers we could carry their products, selling them on giving us merchandise worth thousands of dollars.
We financed that business on student loans and home equity lines of credit (HELOC), all terrible ways of financing our inventory. And when the recession happened in 2008, people stopped buying outdoor gear altogether. The problem was that our garage was so filled with tents, backpacks, and avalanche beacons we couldn’t even park in it.
That meant selling everything for less than we bought it for. We got out as quickly as possible but still ended up with an unwanted souvenir: $60,000 in debt.
A lightbulb moment
Along my journey, I became a massage therapist. I graduated from the Utah College of Massage Therapy and did between four and five massages a day. My hands had started to hurt from doing so many. Chris was busy, too, working three jobs. He was a firefighter, drove a concrete truck on the weekends, and worked security at night at Kennecott. He was working all the time.
I was a young mom with two babies at home, and we’d racked up considerable debt. In the midst of all else, we bought a townhouse. Our mortgage interest rate nearly doubled our payments overnight, and we thought we’d lose our home altogether.
Sitting at the kitchen table one night, coming from a place of complete desperation, I was determined to come up with a solution. We knew we couldn’t outwork the problems we were having. Neither of us could work any harder than we already were.
Could we scale what I was passionate about instead? Could I increase the size of my massage business without needing to do the massages myself? It was then that I had an idea: I’d sell massages to corporations in bulk instead of individuals. Canada and Silicon Valley were already doing it, but it hadn’t hit Utah yet. We’d lead the charge for corporate massage in Utah.
Scaling my passion for massage
In 2010, I started the massage business. Even though we didn’t have the money to do it, my husband and friends were all super supportive. One friend helped us build a website. Another had an embroidery machine. I did everything on trade, giving out massages in exchange for help. I started handing brochures out to my friends to take to their human resources departments, not knowing if any would bite.
The first company to do so was a law firm in Salt Lake City. They wanted three massage therapists for Administrative Professionals Day. I had kids crawling all over me when they called, and I ran upstairs to hide in a closet and put on my best professional voice.
I didn’t even have massage therapists hired yet. I was half tempted to do some myself and earn more, but I also knew I could not scale this business if I was also doing the massages. This was my sign to leave behind doing massage and start growing a company. We hired a few therapists, and everything worked out.
Driving through Salt Lake City afterward, I immediately called my dad and said, “Oh my gosh, I just made $900, and I didn’t have to do any of the work!” It was the moment I realized I was going to build this business. Incorporate Massage was born.
The help of angels
When we signed Entrata as one of our first contracts, they wanted us to bring massage therapists to their location in Dallas. I didn’t have any massage therapists in Dallas, but I said I’d figure it out.
In 2012, I started building a system that would allow us to interview, score, hire and manage therapists virtually, way before the days of Zoom. They’d submit a video doing chair massages, and a team of massage therapists would score them based on specific criteria. We only accepted 12 percent of applicants.
Once we succeeded in Dallas, we knew we could repeat that process anywhere. We were in three cities when I got into the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program, which allowed me to fill in some gaps of knowledge I had about finance and HR.
Everything was starting to grow. We were profitable and sitting at $300,000 in revenue. At about this time, I met a guy at a conference who asked me about my business processes. We were scheduling massage therapists via text message and keeping track in a spreadsheet. Everything was being accomplished manually. He introduced me to the world of building technology and said he could automate our processes. Because we were already profitable, I took a plunge: I hired his company, and we built technology to automate our internal processes. Then, we started to scale even faster.
Our sales and staffing processes were automated. Nobody had to talk to a salesperson if they didn’t want to. I took what we built to a pitch competition through the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity and won $100,000. It was a grant, but to get it, I was required to raise matching funds—something I’d never done before.
When I pitched it to my first angel investor, he said I needed to raise at least $300,000. And that’s a lot of money! I took the advice and raised $335,000. I was oversubscribed. That allowed us to pour gas into that marketing machine and meant more growth, taking us up to $2 million in revenue by 2018.
The following year, we decided to dive deeper into the transformation from a services company to a tech company. We would be more profitable that way, not to mention more scalable. I wanted us to be like a software company without losing that human touch.
Companies were bringing everything into the office then, and not just massages. Yoga, meditation, dental cleanings, chiropractors; it was all being brought on campus. We got requests for services, which I referred out to partners. Could we bring these vendors in on our platform, expanding and becoming a marketplace for onsite services for corporations? We’d fulfill the massage part of our contract and take a revenue share on any other services.
Our investors loved the shift, and another $600,000 in angel funding was raised.
The COVID-19 pivot
We were sitting at about $6 million in revenue when COVID hit. We went to zero in 10 days, a complete stop. I can’t think of another industry that could have been hit as hard as in-office massage. Customer service requests were through the roof because everyone was calling to reschedule. At this point, nobody thought businesses would shut down. Everyone assumed it’d blow over in a week or two and we’d return to normal.
The calls kept coming in, but we needed revenue. We had been winning at life, growing and expanding, ready to raise venture capital for this new marketplace. Overnight, our whole world changed. I was forced to furlough my entire team of 30 people to stop the bleeding and give me time to figure out a plan.
I wondered how we were ever going to make money again. What else could we sell? We worked with the state, using our scheduling platform to assist with vaccine appointments. We contacted Amazon to see if our massage therapists could be mobilized as truck drivers. They desperately needed the work, and we were also trying to help them. Nothing was working out.
Our massage therapists could do more than massage, though. We had massage therapists in our midst who were registered dieticians, fitness instructors, life coaches and meditation practitioners, and we came up with six or seven additional services we could offer online. We started offering wellness services virtually to our existing clients in Utah, but I quickly realized it wasn’t a scalable business model. There was a need for it and people were using our services; we just weren’t making any money. We’d have to work 10 times harder to sell a tenth of the revenue we were used to. It was a very demoralizing realization.
Lightbulb moment number two
Then two things happened. One, our clients wanted the ability to record these sessions so they could go back and repeat the same meditation whenever they wanted to. Two, our life coaches were beginning to work with people who had real mental health issues—but they were not trained as counselors.
I didn’t want to leave these people hanging, especially when they needed clinical help. I asked mental health clinics across the state if we could send them referrals, but the clinics were backed up for months. Nobody could help us.
Then, aha! A lightbulb moment. Were people not getting help because there weren’t enough providers, or could they just not get in? I’ve seen a therapist for years and have always recommended therapy to everyone. “Everyone needs therapy” has always been my mantra.
"Whenever I meet someone who’s been there, I want to know all they know. I take them to lunch or ask for an introduction, collecting mentors like baseball cards. You can learn so much from those smarter than you. Find those who are strong in the areas you're weak. Seek their help. Most are happy to give you advice for free and want to see you succeed. Most will help you out of the goodness of their heart. No one does it on their own."
I brought my recruiting team back from furlough. They had a decade of experience scaling service providers in massage therapy. Could they leverage that same playbook to hire mental health therapists? The goal was to hire half a dozen licensed counselors and sell that service to our clients.
Money was coming in from the federal government (PPP funding, EIDL funding, ERCs), and I treated it like seed money. The thought was to buy at-home video kits, send them to a few providers, train them how to film themselves, add content on our platform, and see if I could sell it. At the same time, we built a tiny provider network in Utah, and I went to sell that, too. I had two potential businesses at the same time. We had a couple of months of runway. It was a gamble.
After landing a couple of clients—Blade HQ and Homie in Utah and a real estate firm in California—I decided we might be onto something. After months of selling the two different business models, I had another lightbulb moment: Why not combine these two services? Our wellness content is proactive care that can help people, maybe even preventing them from having a crisis and needing a therapist in the first place.
By the time we got our first six clients in 2020, we decided we would reshape the way corporate wellness is approached. We began to sell that combined package, getting more and more clients and raising another $830,000 in angel funding for the new Nivati model. By 2021, we had 70 clients and raised $4 million in seed financing with venture capitalists, my first venture round. That’s the genesis of Nivati’s model today—the only multidimensional approach to employee mental health.
On a personal note
When Incorporate Massage crashed, we were in the middle of building our dream home. Once again, I thought we were going to lose our home. You can’t sell a half-built house, and all we had was a foundation. I was terrified we would lose everything I’d worked 10 years for. I was running for my life.
While working hard to pivot the company, working 90 hours a week and not sleeping, I developed Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disease. I did get better—I’ve been in remission for nearly two years—but I made myself sick from the stress and anxiety.
There were other health scares, too. When COVID hit, my oldest daughter started experiencing depression. Two weeks later, after closing our $4 million venture round, I learned she was suicidal. I had to go to my new VCs and tell them I had to take two months off to save my daughter. We determined the right solution for her was wilderness therapy. It was the most painful experience I’ve ever had.
And she did it! She slept under a tarp on the ground, made her own food and got mentally healthy over three months. While there, she was diagnosed with other issues that meant she needed more help than we could provide, resulting in another nine months of care outside of our home. Because of her results, we tested our youngest daughter. She had the exact same diagnosis.
All of this happened simultaneously: house, business pivot, health, kids. We kept pushing. It was the most challenging time of our lives. Over the last few months, our oldest daughter finished high school and graduated. She was accepted to Utah State University. This story has a happy ending, but it ties me to mental health deeply and in a uniquely personal way.
People need the tools Nivati offers to manage stress, anxiety and depression. It helps arm parents with what they need to raise their kids. Getting this platform into the hands of the younger generation will have a huge impact in 10-20 years. I want everyone to have access to all they need to manage their mental health so they can be healthy and happy and make the world a better place. It’s idealistic, but I can’t help it. You have to start somewhere.
When I saw the opportunity to take something I was passionate about, that my family needed, and that was adjacent to wellness and my background in nutrition and health, it was a natural decision. It felt 100 percent right for me to move into that space.
My best advice
For those of you considering or in the middle of building a business, I suggest establishing a strong mentor network. A lot of the things I did through the pivot were brand new to me (building a SaaS platform, HIPAA compliance). I needed a lot of help. Whenever I meet someone who’s been there, I want to know all they know. I take them to lunch or ask for an introduction, collecting mentors like baseball cards.
You can learn so much from those smarter than you. Find those who are strong in the areas you’re weak. Seek their help. Most are happy to give you advice for free and want to see you succeed. Most will help you out of the goodness of their heart. No one does it on their own.