Ben Allen is pushing his business Oomph Wellness forward with grit and determination - and he's leaving any sensitivities at the front door.
Share this article
Ben Allen created a business to help older adults to stay fit and healthy. By 2020 Oomph! Wellness will have 300 minibuses making half a million visits per year to people who would otherwise be stuck indoors, thanks in part to a seven figure investment.
Describe your business
Oomph! Wellness helps care providers to enhance the mental, physical and emotional wellbeing of old and vulnerable people through exercise, activities and outings.
How did you develop the concept?
I started out as a globe-trotting personal trainer, working with athletes and other clients. For a while I taught at the European Institute of Fitness in Spain where I focused on the psychology of exercise and fitness for older adults.
I could see that few trainers were really concentrating on old people so I headed back to my home town of Scarborough, on a wing and a prayer, to test my hunch with the many old age homes in the area.
At the time, I was running classes myself and also training unemployed people to support me – that’s before we shifted to a licencing model. Everyone thought I was mad! It was never meant to be a big business but I was able to prove demand after a few years spent growing my client base.
How has it grown?
After a few years delivering exercise classes directly, it was time to pivot the business to train activity providers within homes. This was the only way to scale the business and increase the frequency of exercise in the homes.
We’ve now got around 2,000 exercise licencees operating from the Shetland Islands to the Isle of Wight. Then a few years ago, I was approached by a client wanting to improve activity provision. This took off very quickly given we already had a client base.
Oomph helps people stay fit and active
My latest innovation is tackling the fact that too many old and vulnerable people are stuck indoors in care settings because of the well-publicised funding crisis in the sector.
The Out and About service will typically allow homes that organise outings themselves to benefit from up to three times more trips for half the cost because of massive economies of scale on outing planning and access to minibuses and trained drivers.
We’ll grow our minibus fleet to 80 in 2017 reaching 300 by 2020 which is when we calculate that we’ll conduct around half a million individual journeys per year.
Our growth has always been determined by looking at the problems faced by care providers – whether it’s lack of exercise or why getting out is so difficult. We always figure out a solution and build it with clients. I carve out a lot of time to spend in care homes. I must be one of the few people to have visited over 1000 homes in the past few years.
Our turnover this year will be around £1.1 million and we’ve currently got 26 staff.
Is your market welcoming to new entrants?
The care sector is phenomenally hard to break into. It’s quite hierarchical and a very relationship-driven business. But I’ve put in the hard yards, literally knocking on doors and explaining what we can offer. I didn’t ever want to partner with a bigger fish to get access.
I’d say it took 3 to 4 years to break into the market. Just six years in, and we are one of the main players enhancing the quality of life of people in care.
The big opportunity for us now is that the care sector is shifting from its traditional focus on care alone. Customers entering the market are now equally, if not more, interested in quality of life. Even the industry regulator (CQC) has said it is more likely to award top scores to care providers who are getting residents out and about.
What challenges have you encountered?
There have been many speed bumps, largely to do with transitioning the business as it has grown, diversified and adopted new operating models. At the outset, payment terms were slow and I was growing faster than cashflow allowed, which is when I sold my first car to fund the business.
I’ve had plenty of doors slammed in my face too and been told that this business would never grow bigger than a few homes in Scarborough. These put-downs have actually spurred me on and made the growth of the business more exciting!
Ben is not easily demoralised
How are you telling people about the business?
Talking of cars, my latest ruse to develop the Out and About excursion service led to me buying a car that I didn’t even need. I needed a minibus operator to partner with in order to pilot Out and About. I couldn’t find a way to get into the diary of the CEO of a community transport company.
When I spotted he was selling his car, I booked a test drive and, once I was in the driving seat, convinced him to work with me. It would have been rude not to buy the car. And who knew how fun it would be to drive a green Nissan Figaro?
You have to be shameless. I’m always the guy who goes to events and finds a way to nab some time with important people during the breaks. People call me a “mindless optimist”. If you get out there, good things will happen.
What do you find difficult running a business?
The loneliness was the hardest thing to start. That’s no longer the case. My aim now is to work with people who are equally excited about taking Oomph! to the next level – and to continue to hire people that are better than me.
What one thing would you change about doing business in the UK?
Without hesitation, the funding climate. The care sector is chronically underfunded and it is detrimental to older people’s health and wellbeing.
What is your biggest mistake?
I took too long to move from direct delivery of exercise classes to a licencing model. I was too wedded to the initial model and too rigid in my thinking. The quality of the business was also vested in a small number of delivery staff which caused its own set of problems. Indecision is worse than making the wrong decision.
What sets your business apart from the rest and how have you nurtured that point of difference?
We are fun and unafraid. I’ve placed a lot of emphasis on bringing in people that will support each other. It’s a relatively young team and as well as getting on at work, we’re a team who enjoys Friday night drinks with a game of ping pong.
How do you attract and retain staff?
I don’t jealously guard every recruitment decision. I trust my team to bring on board the right people. We have a bunch of incentives for staff including an EMI share scheme and a bonus structure. But these incentives are largely meaningless unless you also have people who want to work together and believe in what they do.