While doing computer network consulting work, Scott Burton met an employee of one of his clients who was extremely adept with computers.
"She intuitively understood the computer and was able to quickly resolve computer problems without my even having to go on the site," Mr. Burton says.
She also happened to have a physical disability that limited her mobility. That person, along with other people with disabilities, became an inspiration for Dolphin Digital Technologies, a Kitchener company started by Scott and his wife Jamie Burton in 2006.
Dolphin recently won a Canadian innovator of the year award at the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters national forum in Ottawa, recognizing its virtual technology support service that employs people with disabilities.
The Burtons employ eight virtual tech support people who are paid at or above the industry standard. Almost all of them have physical disabilities, ranging from being in wheelchairs to neurological conditions. They are putting their technology expertise to use from their homes in Kitchener and Waterloo, Cambridge, the Hamilton and Niagara area, as well as Barrie.
Dolphin provides services to businesses and not-for-profit organizations that need help in designing, developing and supporting computer networks, particularly if they have multiple office locations or people on the road who need to connect to their office computers.
The services are attractive to organizations that either don't have an information technology "help desk" on site, or need extra IT support.
When someone working for a Dolphin client has a computer problem - if a file in a computer seems to be missing, for example - they click on the dolphin icon, and a chat box comes up, providing immediate access to a technology support person who is remotely connected to that computer. The Dolphin agent works with the individual to solve the problem. After the issue is solved, the connection gets closed off, so everything is secure.
Many clients like this outsourced model because they only pay for the tech support they use, Mr. Burton says. Furthermore, the Burtons can run the business using staff who work from home.
"We are designed so we don't need to have a physical footprint," Ms. Burton says. "We do have a computer lab, which is in fact in our home and it has servers and everything else. But our employees come to work every day via the Internet. When we need to get together, we can get together at a restaurant or however we want to get together."
Scott says he began thinking about virtual tech support when a friend asked him for help in solving a computer problem. His friend joked that everyone should keep a tech support person in their closet, to pull out as needed. Burton thought, "That is a great idea!"
At the time, Mr. Burton was doing computer consulting work but also had a job doing research and analysis for the Social Planning Council of Cambridge and North Dumfries.
In 2006, he got a sizable computer consulting contract - big enough that he felt he could quit his job. Scott phoned Jamie and she agreed, even though they had four small children at home.
"As anyone who does a business startup knows, you free fall for about two years," he says. "It wasn't until about year three that we would exhale and say that it really looked like it would survive."
The Dolphin name comes from the fact that dolphins are intelligent communicators. In fact, dolphin chatter can sound like Morse code being transmitted, Scott says.
Scott was inspired by the people he met with disabilities while providing services to organizations such as the Ontario March of Dimes. They were talented people facing barriers to employment just because they had trouble getting to an office or couldn't cope in an office. "There are brilliant minds being discriminated against," he says.
So the Burtons began hiring disabled people with great computer skills. It worked so well that they kept doing it. They emphasize that strong computer skills are the priority. Microsoft certification is an asset. All prospective employees, regardless of education, pass a test to demonstrate they can solve computer problems remotely.
"We cannot hire someone who can't do the job," Mr. Burton says. The service has to be able to attract and keep clients in order to pay the employees, he adds.
The Burtons admit they almost failed when they initially tried to attract clients to their service based on the fact that it provided jobs for disabled persons. That pitch fell flat. "We actually had to lay off a couple of people we had hired, so that was our darkest time," Jamie says.
But they believed in the concept, so they asked staff what they thought the problem was. The shocking answer was, "We think we are the problem because people don't think we have validity and they have never given us a chance."
Based on their advice, the Burtons shifted to marketing services they provided, rather than trying to target clients who might appreciate that they were hiring people with disabilities. The business grew. "They were right," Scott says.
Today Dolphin is a successful business that also provides barrier-free employment, proving it is possible to run a for-profit business while having a social impact.
"It is a great business and an essential service," Ms. Burton says. "But we can also be models for our children, be models in our community, and be proud of the business we have developed as a team."