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Cincinnati, OH

Joseph Kennedy of ChallengeRunner

Meet Joseph Kennedy, founder of ChallengeRunner, which helps companies create and track wellness programs for their employees.

How did you start your business?
I’d been writing a prior software application for years—it was a hobby that turned into a business. Once, I did a demonstration for a Cincinnati company. Although I usually I do them over the phone, this was one I could do in person, which seemed great, but as the demonstration wore on, I watched people zone out. I didn’t get the client.

Still, all the people I talked to wanted to know more about the fitness challenge aspect of the service, so that’s how ChallengeRunner spun off. It was taking the fitness component of my old software, revising it and creating a new entity from it.

What is ChallengeRunner?
ChallengeRunner is software as a service—a company can use it to create a fitness or wellness challenge for pretty much any criteria. Participants track their progress using the software, and the software can rank and select awardees at the end.

Right now in the United States, 60 percent of companies have some fitness challenge during the year. Generally, they’re run by suggestion of a health insurance company using a simple spreadsheet, but it’s difficult to track. ChallengeRunner has a website and a mobile app, and even lets you text in your information through a mobile device.

Are you a fitness buff?
Twenty years ago, I was a PT instructor in the army, and I later became a trainer. I’ve been into fitness most of my life and that’s how my initial piece of software was born.

What have you learned along the way?
If you build a better mousetrap, the world doesn’t necessarily come beating down your door. Just being noticed is the hardest part, particularly when you’re trying to create your own niche. The market for this [software] is enormous, but most of the choice falls on human resources, and the human resources administrator may or may not know anything about fitness. Most human resources administrators are not searching for this type of thing, so the challenge is making them aware that these resources are available.

In terms of employee wellness programs, what works?
It all comes back to communication. A lot of that is having the right kind of analysis, and a lot of these companies, they’re not involved in this for the right reasons. They’re doing what they’re told and hoping they’ll get a reduction in their premiums by doing what they’re told, but they haven’t changed their culture at all. And they’re not eliciting feedback from employees as to what types of challenges they’re interested in. The biggest challenges people love are pedometer challenges or weight loss challenges.

Having people make a lifestyle change requires a corporate culture change. People have to realize it’s not just something they do, mark off a checklist and they’re done.

What about motivation?
The best things I’ve seen to motivate over the years are team challenges, particularly the way they’re done. It’s allowing a particular representative within the company to lead the group—choose an extrovert—and using them as a cheerleader.

Also, you have to provide the right incentives. Having a minimum incentive for finishing a challenge helps so people who see they won’t win halfway through have a reason to continue. Time off, like a half day on a Friday or a few hours here and there, can be a great incentive.

What’s next for you and your company?
ChallengeRunner’s going to change quite a bit. The next step is to create a collaborative environment for these administrators or consultants to share challenges. My current clients have agreed to share their challenges—how many people started and completed a challenge, what they accomplished—so other community members can copy and use the same challenges.

Interview by Robin Donovan

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