How Dr. Els van der Helm of Shleep is helping the world sleep better for a more productive, healthier, and happier life.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Dr. Els van der Helm: Thankfully we are doing well now, though I did actually catch COVID-19! As someone who survived and did not require hospitalization, I feel lucky, but the effects were significant, including lasting cognitive impairment and general fatigue. I really had to practice what I preached in terms of making rest, and especially sleep, a priority for both my family and me.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Shleep.
Dr. Els van der Helm: I first became interested in the topic of sleep at the age of 16 after reading a book on the topic. I followed my passion which led me to study the effect of sleep on memory (Netherlands Institute for Neurosciences) and emotional processing (Harvard Medical School). Then as a Fulbright scholar, I studied the effects of sleep on the brain during my PhD in Psychology (University of California Berkeley), resulting in peer-reviewed articles in Current Biology, PLoS One, Psychological Bulletin, SLEEP, PNAS and other books.
I really enjoyed academia, but I felt I wanted to make a bigger impact than just doing research and so I made a big switch into management consulting at McKinsey. While there, I realized that, ironically, people who are hired to think were not managing their sleep in a way that allowed them to do so at their best, and so given my background, I saw an opportunity and developed and facilitated training programs for both McKinsey consultants and clients. Some research I did on leadership and sleep was published in Harvard Business Review and the McKinsey Quarterly, my programs gained traction both internally and externally, and I decided to start Shleep as a way to help even more people improve their lives by improving their sleep.
I am proud to say that over the course of a few years, we have helped over 150,000 employees of some of the best companies in the world sleep better and am super excited to announce that we’re even moving into the B2c space, taking our learnings from helping that many people and turning it into a personalized program for individuals, called our 30 Day Sleep Better Program.
How does Shleep innovate?
Dr. Els van der Helm: We use an agile innovation approach: we experiment with new ways of how to help our users and learn constantly from them what works and what doesn’t. We also try to stay abreast of new product developments in the sleep industry and ensure our product offering integrates them/stays relevant but also stays true to what our clients know. As an example, we’ve added new sleep tracker integrations to the Shleep app but also improved our manual sleep tracking option for those without the newest Fitbit.
And, as a foundation, all we do is always rooted in the science of sleep.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Dr. Els van der Helm: No. Thankfully, we have a small, lean team comprising both full-time employees and interns, and we were able to keep everyone on.
For us, some of the most difficult questions in this department are how to work as efficiently and “together” as possible while being physically apart. I’m really happy with the way the team has adapted and been able to retain our company culture through weekly team meetings where we dedicate half of the time to personal life updates, as well as bi-weekly team “happy hours”, which have been everything from trivia nights to after-lunch group “walks”!
Since some of the main complaints of remote workers (even pre-pandemic) are loneliness and isolation, one of the lessons we are still learning is how to stay connected without causing Zoom fatigue.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Dr. Els van der Helm: As our core business was already a digital sleep coaching platform which served clients all over the world, not too much changed. Of course, there were instances where we used to conduct in-person meetings with potential clients or conduct in-person kick-off sessions with new clients, which we’ve had to change to webinar format. We haven’t used any specific tools other than what everyone else is using: either Zoom or Microsoft Teams.
Having absolutely everything be virtual has given us a bit of an opportunity to focus on expanding and improving our Shleep app, which is the centerpiece of our digital offering. We’ve made some significant changes during COVID, including, as mentioned in my other response, responding to popular demand and creating a hyper-personalized, mostly on-demand 30 Day Sleep Better Program for individuals (b2c)!
Your final thoughts?
Dr. Els van der Helm: If there is a silver lining to all of this, it is that we’ve seen a big increase in awareness around the topic of sleep since people’s routines have been thrown upside down due to the pandemic.
People are realizing, by working and existing in a stressful global (and many times home) environment, that health and wellness is not just a nice tagline, but something which is essential to our functioning. And, of course, that sleep is a key piece of that.
For anyone who could use some support reducing stress or improving their sleep (due to COVID or otherwise!), please join us for our next 30 Day Sleep Better Program by preregistering on our website below