What is accessibility? I could answer this question by doing a deep-dive into the WCAG guidelines and talk about the four pillars and 50 rules of accessibility, or I could say “Steven Hawking and Stevie Wonder need to be able to use your product.” I usually stick with the later, it immediately creates a mental image of what accessibility is about and why it is important.
Startups seem to have “feature blinders” on that is they can’t see anything other than what they think is the list of MVP features in front of them. But good product accessibility isn’t a feature. Good accessibility is a program and a state of mind that is almost universally ignored by startups.According to Entrepreneur Magazine, there are five major factors that investors are looking for in startups. And each one of them is improved by adding accessibility to the mix.
1. Dynamic Opportunity
Entrepreneur defines dynamic opportunity as “how big is the addressable market that your company is looking to serve”
It doesn’t get much bigger than the public sector. When you look at the “Jerry Maguire — show me the money” trickle down of federal grants that come with Section 508 accessibility requirements attached, that list includes the federal government itself (including the military), states, counties, cities / municipalities, services for ALL of those entities (police, fire, ambulance, teachers), K-12 schools + public universities, and hospitals. Furthermore, large companies such as Microsoft and Bank of America that are totally committed to inclusion have included accessibility as a priority in their private procurement, voluntarily adopting Section 508. In short, to be guaranteed to be able to sell to these organizations, you have to be accessible.
2. Team’s execution capability
Collaboration is a capability that is no longer an emotive, optional corporate concept. It is absolutely mandatory for growth and success.
Collaboration is a business strategy — a way to improve the productivity of people and teams and accelerate the flow of information through the company — Josh Bernoff, “Digital Disruption: Unleashing the Next Wave of Innovation”
The importance of a collaborative model has been drastically increased by the new global business paradigm brought about by the Internet. If startup employees can create collaborative teams, team members can work together anywhere in the world at dramatically reduced costs, making a startup more competitive.
Some investors want companies with a few brilliant people. But there is a downside to focusing on this approach. Startups can be decimated if one or two of those people decide to leave for perceived greener pastures. Additionally, if one of the brilliant people leads a startup down the wrong path, that’s not a positive outcome either. Collaborative teams are much stronger. They bring out the best in each other, and hold each other accountable. Collaborative individuals are more likely to stay with a startup because when they leave, they aren’t just leaving a company, they are leaving a closely-knit team that they are integrated with.
Implementing a solid accessibility program requires incredibly high levels of collaboration. Rather than relying on a single group or technical solution, being fully accessible requires members of the following teams all rhythmically rowing in the same accessible direction:
- Design — to design products that are accessible
- Development — to develop products that are accessible
- Testing — to confirm the products that were hypothetically designed and developed to be accessible, are actually accessible
- Marketing — to make sure potential customers know that the products are accessible, and also to make sure marketing collateral and websites are accessible
- Procurement — to focus on procuring accessible tools
- Customer Support — to provide accessible support
- Training — internally to make sure startup employees know the accessibility guidelines and how they fit into their day-to-day jobs, and externally, to make sure training provided to customers is accessible
In short, startups with a good accessibility program have high levels of execution capability, especially in collaboration, which is something that investors value.
3. Commercial traction
In a different Entrepreneur article, traction is defined as “ evidence that your product or service has started that ‘hockey- stick’ adoption rate which implies a large market, a valid business model and sustainable growth.”
Currently, accessibility is a differentiator. There are a number of cloud-based customer service systems, for example, but few of them are accessible (I personally only know of two). Imagine you are a startup announcing a fully accessible cloud-based customer service system? Accessibility is a HUGE bonus, especially for industries that have gotten hammered by accessibility lawsuits over the years (retail, universities). These organizations sensitivity to the needs to people with disabilities has been increased by the amount of time, money, and energy they’ve spent defending these lawsuits. In some cases, organizations have agreed not to procure inaccessible software in settlement agreements.
An accessible customer service system would have a better chance at “hockey stick growth” than yet another generic customer service system with a couple of different features than the inaccessible competitors. There is even one ubiquitous cloud based software system I know of where every time it is discussed people talk about how much they hate it followed by “but, it’s accessible”. Accessibility is clearly at least in part responsible for that organization’s hockey stick growth.
4. Investor relevance and 5. The X Factor
The X factor here, is diversity and inclusion. Crafting accessible products requires explicit consideration to at least one element of diversity and inclusion — people with disabilities. To be accessible, you have to think about “how are we going to make this work equally for everyone?” All of the teams listed above in the “team’s execution capability” section have think about the people they are serving in terms of equality.
Startups are notorious for lack of diversity. So much so that dedicated startup incubators such ask Berkeley’s SkyDeck specifically focus on diversity in deciding which teams to accept into their programs. Another recent Entrepreneur article noted that:
The best way to stay competitive is to open up to the power of true diversity.
There have been demonstrated strong links between diversity and profitability. Diverse teams have a higher level of performance than homogeneous ones, and can innovate and pivot because of the diversity of thought and opinion that is inherent with diversity. And there are investment funds that are specifically targeting diverse and underrepresented organizations. You will not “fit” into their investment criteria if you are not diverse. And accessibility is one way of demonstrating diversity.
Want to make your startup more attractive to an acquisition event? Make your product accessible. The American’s with Disabilities Act and Section 508 may not apply to you while you are in startup mode. However, they will definitely apply if you get acquired by a larger organization. By being accessible prior to acquisition you are making your company more valuable
- because of all the reasons cited above, and
- because the acquiring company will need to invest less time and money into your product to get it product up to the level of laws they need to follow.
Not only does that make you more appealing as an acquisition target, it boosts your value. Which is something every startup founder and entrepreneur should appreciate.