For HELM Life founder Elize Shirdel, the third Covid pivot was the charm. During the past two years, Shirdel’s company evolved multiple times, starting with offering child care services, to where it is now: providing diversity, equity, and inclusion training. It was a transition that led to significant growth.
“We’re multiple times bigger than we ever were as a child care company,” Shirdel says.
Today, Toronto-based HELM Life’s clients include the software company Oracle, the real estate company Sundae, and SaaS company GnarlyBooks. The business is expecting to grow its client base from 300 at the beginning of 2022 to 1,000 by the end of the year. HELM Life’s evolution serves as an example of how, in order to survive and thrive, startups need to listen to their customers and be willing to evolve, even if it means fundamentally changing their business model multiple times.
As a company that helped parents obtain child care, both through B2B and D2C offerings, HELM Life was generating “just shy of a million dollars” in annual revenue in early 2020, according to Shirdel. Roughly half of the business focused on providing companies with a child care option for their employees, while the other half connected parents with child care providers directly for all the times they might need someone else watching their children. When Covid hit in early 2020, Shirdel was able to quickly formulate a plan to switch from in-person child care to virtual child care, which she credits to spending a lot of time on Twitter.
“I think I saw this coming earlier than many people,” she says. “We immediately were ready to launch virtual child care when schools closed.”
With the new virtual product, parents could park their kids in front of a screen, where a remote child care instructor would entertain a small group of children for a 40-minute session. Many of HELM Life’s existing enterprise clients bought into the service for their employees, and “it went really well,” Shirdel says. “Parents and kids loved what we were doing, and companies loved it.”
Virtual child care was a temporary business model, however, as schools would eventually reopen. Still, the service was HELM Life’s most successful line of business for six months, hosting 1,000 kids per day, according to Shirdel. It had overtaken in-person child care and given the company a way to keep surviving, but it was about to be succeeded by new ideas for products that came from her customers.
While virtual child care continued for some, the idea for the second pivot came. “Once or twice a week we’d get an email saying, ‘Do you have anything for teams?'” Shirdel recalls. Companies wanted events and bonding activities for their employees, to create a sense of companionship and community amid their virtual workplaces.
Shirdel and her team played with the idea: Given their experience running online engagement, she recalls thinking at the time, “What does that look like for grownups?” They offered some trials in beta, which quickly became popular. The big winner in their beta tests was virtual escape rooms, a video chat version of the popular in-person experience, where players have to solve puzzles to escape from a physical location. For a time, a virtual version of the game was HELM Life’s most popular offering. It was no longer a child care company, but one providing online events to businesses, for team-building entertainment experiences.
Then, a request for an event shifted its lens again: One of HELM Life’s largest customers wanted an educational event about Diwali, the festival of lights celebrated by Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs. Combining ideas about Diwali with strategies for engagement Shirdel’s team had learned in handling their pure entertainment virtual events led HELM Life to a new kind of event that could be characterized as “a little bit of research, still fun, still puzzle-based, and learning about DEI.”
The Diwali experience led to yet more requests to bring a DEI perspective to teams through fun and engaging events, and the opportunity to make team-building events have a DEI focus. Shirdel began seeking out experts to be partners in developing new learning experiences and eventually rebuilt her virtual events team around DEI learning and engagement. DEI events have now overtaken others on HELM Life’s platform, to become 70 percent of its business, and growing. Emphasizing the virtual aspect of the company’s virtual DEI team-building events, Shirdel sees an advantage over in-person events.
“The shift to remote is really interesting in our space, because it helps you bring people together in a different context,” she says, adding that a virtual space allows team members to “learn and discuss and reflect in a better way and in a safer way.”
Still, pivoting to DEI training has been anything but straightforward, particularly in a time when no one has found it easy to put one foot in front of the other.
“Like for everybody else, it’s been a roller coaster for us,” Shirdel says of trying to navigate her company through Covid. If there’s one through line that’s connected all of the different products she’s offered, from child care to entertainment to DEI training, she explains, “our North Star is to build things that are fair and non-exploitative.”
Reflecting on where she started on this pivoting journey two years ago, Shirdel points to her experience as a woman engineer and PhD working in fields dominated by men.
“I think I’ve always worked outside of the system,” she says. “It makes a lot of sense to be bringing people together to make change.”