Jessica Ennis Hill is a former heptathlete, an Olympic gold medallist and one of Britain’s most decorated athletes.
In 2019 she founded Jennis, a platform which helps women to optimise performance based on their hormonal cycles.
She spoke with Sifted’s Mimi Billing at Sifted Summit 2022 about the start-up and the move from professional sport into the tech world.
Moving from athletics into business
“I was very fortunate as an athlete to retire on my own terms,” she said. “Really, those couple of months leading up to the Rio Olympics, I had in my mind that this was my finale, and that I was going to compete for one last time – the ultimate competition at the Olympic Games.”
She’s always focused on the next challenge in front of her, but after retirement she had to think further ahead. “I very much have this feeling of being so passionate about sport for so long. I wanted it [the next journey] to be something that I was equally as passionate about, something that was connected to my previous world within sport, but also something that just gave me huge motivation to create change amongst a large group of people.”
The journey to Jennis
The journey towards Jennis really came about off the back of Ennis Hill’s own experiences. “In 2014, I fell pregnant with my first child. My coach and my team had all these aspirations and plans for me, and I turned up and said, ‘Well, actually, I’m pregnant. Now, you’re going to have to change all of your plans, and we’re going to have to tackle these next few years differently.’”
It was in that period where she had her son, went back to training and went back to competition, winning the World Championships in 2015 and getting a silver at the Rio Olympics in 2016. “I actually learned the most about myself as an athlete, but also myself as a woman and how my physiology was so different to male physiology, and also to the physiology that I had once thought of.
“Thankfully, I had a great network of people around me – I had a fantastic physio, physiologist, psychologist, nutritionists – all these people who really educated me and really guided me through understanding how my body had changed, how I needed to address movement again, to get back to competition and the process that I had to follow.”
After that, Ennis Hill realised that there were so many people around her who were pregnant and coming back postnatally without having the education and support around what was happening to their body and their hormones to know what to do next. “That led me on the journey to create Jennis, a platform to help women understand about their physiology and their makeup in more detail.”
Representation within the team
“We are definitely a female-dominated team,” Ennis Hill said. “I think it’s hugely important to have women from different backgrounds, different experiences, to share their experience of their physiology and their hormones. We have a fantastic physiologist who works with us as well.”
Jennis has some male support staff within within the team. “I think it’s really important to have a male perspective as well, because I think it helps us to grow and not get too fixed in a way of thinking. It takes us out of our own heads sometimes.”
Bringing investors in and raising funds
Jennis started off with Ennis Hill as the sole investor. Two more investors have since come on board – one from the start and another last year. “I think one thing we’ve learned as a company is that those initial investors are so key to how your product evolves. We’re constantly speaking to them to get feedback before we change and present to the world, so we can evolve our product in the best way. They want us to be successful and they’ve been hugely supportive.”
Though she’s aware that she started from an elevated point. “I think it’s been helpful that I’ve already created a brand myself. I’m in a fortunate position where I have a platform to speak from. That was one thing that I wanted to take advantage of, making sure that I was there to elevate my voice a little bit louder. It’s still incredibly difficult, like everyone knows, to get funding and investment because there are so many amazing start-ups out there. We’re in something quite unusual, trying to educate and explain why products like these are so valuable. It has been challenging at times.”
The firm is about to go into a seed round investment.
Jennis being seen as more of a fitness product than a femtech product
“I think that’s something that we definitely struggled with initially, because I’m at the forefront of Jennis,” she said. “We did pivot slightly into the fitness arena during the pandemic, but actually, yeah, it was communication education around what we’re doing. We’re very focused on movement.
“There are so many other lifestyle interventions that we’re constantly adding into the app – breathwork, nutrition, all these areas that interplay with movements have a positive effect on how we see our bodies.”
Raising funds for a pivoting product
When asked about difficulties of raising funds for a pivoting product, Ennis Hill said, “I would say don’t be scared to change your product, don’t be wedded to the way you’re doing something, look at it from a different standpoint, and making a change in a pivot is sometimes a really positive thing to do.”
“I think I am a very determined person and I give everything I’ve got to whatever I’m focusing on. But, of course, this [Jennis] is a scary one. It’s completely out of my comfort zone. Every morning I’m like, ‘Gosh, what challenge are we going to have today?’ How the product is going to evolve or we’re going to get some more funding and all these different thoughts.”
She believes fear and adrenaline help feed into what you’re doing. “As an athlete, I would always be filled with adrenaline and nerves. Every time I competed, whether it was a small competition or the Olympics, I would be over-consumed with nerves. But actually, those nerves and those fears are the things that bring out the best in your performance. If you can balance them and if you can keep them under control, then they’re amazing feelings to have to create good change.”
Motivating herself post-athletics
“I think that one thing that I’ve massively learned through my career was patience,” she reflected. “Something that is often quite hard when you’re a young athlete, you want to be the best you can be. You can’t be Olympic champion straightaway. Things don’t happen overnight. You can have an expectation, but you have to have a realistic expectation.
“It’s a huge learning curve,” she said of Jennis. “It’s been incredible to be in one world and then to push yourself completely out of your comfort zone into a completely different world.”
However, the pressure of business can’t compare to athletics. “I was very fortunate to compete and to live the life I did as an athlete, but now being able to just exercise with how I feel and in tune with my own body, not having strict deadlines and the pressure of competition, is actually quite nice.
“I think my motivation as an athlete is always there. I always feel a level of motivation to move my body in the right way. And that will always be with me, but it’s in a less intense way now.”
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