How to build a sustainable accessibility-led business

Tobii and Be My Eyes shared learnings on sustainable business at TechShare Pro 2020, including:

A picture of the three panellists together on-screenAccessibility or purpose? Starting out

Tobii is a world-leader in eye-tracking technology that made £1.5 million in revenue in 2019>, but although it's tech is transforming the lives of disabled people it launched in 2001 with a focus on technology rather than accessibility.

“We actually didn't start with accessibility," said Henrik Eskilsson, Tobii’s CEO & Co-Founder, speaking at TechShare Pro 2020.

Eskilsson added; "We provide eye-tracking technology and we do that for a lot of different fields, and then, we were early on, approached by, some experts in the field of accessibility who saw our technology and recognize that there are some fantastic use cases for our technology in this field.” 

“Today, accessibility is the largest part of our business, and it is a truly amazing opportunity to build products that have a positive impact."

Be My Eyes: Driven by Purpose

Conversely, social purpose was the driving force behind
Be My Eyes, the app that connects blind and low-vision individuals with sighted volunteers. 

“We started out with accessibility as the core of what we're doing," said Alexander Hauerslev Jensen, Chief Commercial Officer for Be My Eyes.

He added, "The purpose was at the core to offer this free service that allows people who are blind or low vision to lead more independent lives by connecting them to volunteers, and with companies,”

Be My Eyes used is status as an AbilityNet Tech4Good Award winner to drive growth

The two leaders were speaking to Emma Lawton, Co-Founder, of start-up More Human, a platform designed to help build digital communities. 

“As someone who’s building a start-up with social good at the heart of it, and with massive commercial potential we're finding it difficult to balance the commercial and the sort of the good it will do for people, and how-to get it out into the market,” said Lawton who has Parkinson’s Disease. 

How to Turn Purpose into Profit

The app Be My Eyes brings connects low-vision and blind users to over 4 million volunteers, in 180 languages. The large reach is key to the company's purpose, but it faced a challenge in turning that purpose into a sustainable business model. 

“When we started, we had no idea how to make BeMyEyes into a sustainable thing," said Hauerslev Jensen.

"We launched this, mobile app connecting blind users with volunteers. We don't want to put up any barriers to using the application. It has to be free, and it's our responsibility to figure out how to make it sustainable?”  

“There was such a difference between purpose and profit, and we wanted to change that perspective to make it about the ‘interplay’ between purpose and profit; factors that accelerate each other and not slow each other down.” 

How Be My Eyes monetised its service

The solution Be My Eyes developed was what it calls 'specialised help', a service that allows companies and organisations to talk to “connect to the low vision community.”

“It's like accessible customer support through live video,” said Hauerslev Jensen. 

Microsoft was the first company to join, followed by Google, Proctor & Gamble and a variety of banks. These companies pay to provide the service to the community allowing Be My Eyes to continue offering the app and the service free to its users. 

“We're really excited about that because it really follows our mantra that no one is losing here; the user is able to get the support that they need; the companies are able to provide accessible support to this community of millions and millions of people. And we're able to provide as a free service and build a sustainable business. So that's kind of how we have gotten to monetisation,” said Hauerslev Jensen. 

A more human approach to sustainable business

A picture of Tobii's eye glassesTobii’s Eskilsson says business is increasingly recognising that purpose is a solid foundation for a sustainable business.

“The line-up of this year’s TechShare Pro [2020] with industry leaders from huge companies where accessibility is such a high priority shows that accessibility, purpose, and doing the right thing goes hand-in-hand with creating a sustainable big business,” he said. 

Technology has a role to play, but only by serving people, reflected Lawton.  

“Something we have in common between our three businesses is that humans are at the heart, and technology is in supporting role,” she said. “More Human is using technology to bring groups of people; Tobii is about humans having the basic world of communication with other humans by using technology, Be My Eyes is humans helping humans through technology.

So, there's an interesting balance between what role the human takes and what role the technology takes in any relationship.”

An inclusive design approach runs throughout AbilityNet's accessibility products

Eskilsson agrees that successful businesses will be the ones where technology bends to people and not vice versa.

“If you go back 20, 30 years technology was kind of clunky and it was expected that we human beings figured out how to use the technology, and if we couldn't do it right, we were kind of stupid or something.

“Today when you're in big corporations that provide products or services based on technology the one who's winning is actually the one who can develop the best user experience and the most human user experience.”

A user-focussed approach

Designing inclusively, means listening to all your customers. 

“I'm the perfect user test because I have so many symptoms that I can kind of test for many things and be quite useful in that sense,” said Lawton. She added “Businesses have realized if you're not designing for the people with the biggest challenges, you're not really designing for a massive group, which is great,”. 

Hauerslev Jensen agrees: “We will all need these technologies at some point. Even if we strip away all of the compassionate arguments for investing in accessibility, if it's only like a super selfish decision, I don't see why that's not the easiest decision to make, to make it accessible and inclusive.”

“If I was an investor, I would go for the companies that invest in building technologies and solutions for the future. And that's why I think accessibility is becoming more than the right thing to do. It's the right thing to do also for, from a business standpoint.”

How AbilityNet can help (accessibility services)