What is it like to be the first startup in your industry? The first to disrupt? The first to see the problem and know that you can fix it? I’ll Go First, a podcast from The Globe and Mail, takes us on a journey to find out.
Maayan: Why does accessibility matter to a business? Is there any kind of economic argument for accessibility in the first place? 21 per cent of total consumer spending, people have no idea that that’s a thing.
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TS: From the Globe and Mail, this is I’ll Go First.
I’m Takara Small, welcome to the show where we find out what it takes to be the first one to see a problem with the world and know that you can fix it.
More than one in five Canadians live with some kind of disability. That’s 22 per cent of those over 15 years of age who have to think about where they’re going, and whether they can be accommodated.
If you, or someone you know, uses a wheelchair then you know all too well how obstacles that most people don’t even see, can stop you from entering a business. For instance, there might be a ramp into that sushi place you absolutely love, but if the washroom is downstairs you can forget about it.
And lots of owners don’t like it when they’re asked why their business isn’t accessible.
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It’s an awkward question, but the answer often boils down to this:
Accessibility isn’t a business priority. Making a profit is.
And our guest today is changing all of that.
MZ: Hi, my name is Maayan Ziv. I’m the founder and CEO of AccessNow and we are empowering people of all abilities to get out, do the things they want and find the information about the accessible places they want to go to.
TS: Maayan Ziv has always been a pretty unconventional thinker, and that’s because the world is pretty poor at accommodating wheelchair users. It’s not uncommon for her to fashion a makeshift ramp when she needs to get somewhere.
Living with a disability has made her a great problem solver, so when she got tired of not knowing if she could get into bars and restaurants with her friends, she decided to solve the problem.
Maayan created AccessNow, an app which allows users to rate businesses based on their accessibility - kind of like a TripAdvisor for people with disabilities.
And like many of our guests, she strongly believes in the power of profit, but with a purpose. AccessNow is a for-profit company that unlocks the spending power of people with disabilities.
Commercial: This episode of I’ll Go First is brought to you by National Car Rental, where you can skip the counter and choose any car in the aisle. Keep listening to learn even more ways to stay in the driver’s seat while you’re travelling for business
TS: Why did you decide to start AccessNow?
MZ: I was studying my masters in digital media at Ryerson, and I definitely never thought about launching a tech company and didn’t really see myself in that space at all. But I knew that I had this real problem in my life. I’ve used a wheelchair throughout my life, gone so many places, not known if they’ve been accessible until I get there. You speak to anyone who has a disability and they’ll tell you a similar thing, where like I went to New York City, booked a stay in a hotel, show up at that hotel with my luggages and the entrance to the hotel is like five steps. And then I’m there in the middle of the city scrambling to find a place to stay. And those kinds of examples of like showing up somewhere, it’s like negative 40, i’m dressed ready for this party and I can’t get in.
TS: Uh hmm.
MZ: You know, those kinds of examples are so frustrating and so unfair. I was just really motivated to solve my own problem initially and thought that there’s just gotta be a better way than every single person out for themselves stuck in the middle of the street trying to figure out how to do life.
TS: Do you ever feel frustrated that some businesses or organizations don’t feel that people living with disabilities have the right to access every space?
MZ: A lot of people don’t actually encounter the need to think about accessibility. And so, I think it’s very much just about ignorance. Definitely there are days when I’m super angry or super frustrated because it feels horrible to show up somewhere and feel like you were an afterthought or you didn’t matter enough for that business to address. But stepping back and looking at it as, OK, well, this business owner or this organization or this specific place just hasn’t had the opportunity to learn about accessibility or learn about why it matters. Accessibility can be really scary if you don’t know anything about it. And that often tends to push people out of a conversation rather than bring them in.
TS: Interesting. Can you share a little more detail about that? When you mean, push people out of the conversation. What have you experienced?.
MZ: We have tons of businesses that have been rated poorly on AccessNow. So places that people have showed up at and go on the AccessNow app and actually rate them as not accessible, which on our app shows as like a pin that’s red with a thumbs down. And there’s a lot of social media that’s involved in our platform so people can actually share those kinds of tags. And so sometimes we get responses from businesses that have been rated poorly. And, you know, there’s two ways that those conversations can go. The ones that are aware and want to create change are usually receptive and ask for more information or are interested in finding out how they can create change to be more accessible. But more often than not, we also get messages from businesses that are defensive about being rated poorly because no one likes to be called out on doing a bad job. And so I think that when they’re called out or, you know, this has kind of brought to light, there is this kind of, it’s not my fault. I don’t have any responsibility here. There’s nothing I can do about it or this kind of just aggravation that this is like one more thing now that they have to deal with.
TS: You mentioned that you started AccessNow while you were at university. How has the company changed or has it at all since you launched it?
MZ: Oh, yeah, it’s changing all the time. It really began as a research project. So it was my need to solve my own problem that led me to want to learn more about it, beyond my own personal experience. And then also looking at the business lens for accessibility. So why does accessibility matter to a business? Is there any kind of economic argument for accessibility in the first place? Those things kind of produced my aha moment for OK, for sure, this is a need. So by the time I graduated from Ryerson, I launched a somewhat embarrassing version of AccessNow.
TS: Oh what was the first version like?
MZ: Well, the first version was actually just a Google map, which let people go onto a layer and like add their own pins or text me information. I like, sent it out to a couple people that I knew and said, hey, would you share information about places, you know, there are or are not accessible? I just wanted to see if it would work and what it would look like. That actually did help me kind of understand what was working, what was not. And I took all that information and launched as a website where people could go and like look around on the map. There was probably like. I don’t know, maybe two hundred places in Toronto at the time. And since then, you know, it’s really kind of exploded.
TS: Is it ever tiring that you always have to educate individuals at the same time as well as being an entrepreneur?
MZ: I think it’s part of my job. In some ways, I think there is a really amazing opportunity for any entrepreneur to come into the room and be the expert and be able to talk about things that other people have no idea about. I’m used to being the advocate and I’m used to being the educator in my own life. Everywhere I go, I’m constantly needing to adapt to the environment or bring people into my world and explain how things can be different, because it’s really about building allyship and bringing people into a conversation so that they get on board and that they’re motivated to create change and be part of that impact. I wouldn’t say that it’s difficult or frustrating, but I would say that sometimes I might be pigeonholed into being the person, you know, well, like, “oh, you have a physical disability. Obviously, it makes sense for you to launch an app about disability” and that’s a very narrow-minded way of looking at what it is that we’re doing and also a pretty one-dimensional view of who I am as a person.
TS: And for individuals who are who do want to be an ally. What would you suggest?
MZ: You know, I think I did this talk a couple of days ago and I didn’t really know that I was gonna say this when I was in the middle of my keynote, but it just kind of slipped out where I said, you know, I think the number one reason that people don’t engage beyond ignorance is fear. I think people are really afraid of what they don’t know and because accessibility isn’t kind of this mainstream thing that we talk about everywhere and are so familiar with. I think people are very often just trying to avoid it because they don’t know what to do. And so I would say, you know, if you’re curious, or interested, being comfortable with not knowing and engaging anyway and being honest and authentic and saying “hey, you know, like, I don’t really know much about this space, but I’d love to learn.” There’s tons of resources online. There’s amazing YouTubers with disabilities who share their own personal experiences and make it more normalized. And not like this weird like superhero or sad victim story. And I think that’s a really great place to start. But asking questions and being okay with making mistakes along the way, I think is a good place to start.
TS: And you talked about the one-dimensional aspect or being pigeonholed? How do you fight back against that?
MZ: I do that I think by just showing up and being myself. After a few words with me, it’s pretty obvious that there’s a whole world here. And I’m not just like this person with a disability.
TS: Mm hmm.
MZ: Even when I see sometimes articles that are written about me and the headline starts with something like disabled entrepreneur, I’m like, well, actually, I’m an entrepreneur first. And yeah disability is part of my life but, you know, I’m also a photographer. I’m also an activist. You know, there are so many other things about me that are part of defining who I am. And disability is just one aspect.
TS: Speaking of photography, you’re a photographer-
TS: An accomplished one.
MZ: Yeah. Photography was really what I thought my whole life was going to be about forever.
TS: You thought you’d be a photographer full time?
MZ: Yeah. And I was for several years. I worked kind of in the portrait and fashion world and had an opportunity to photograph celebrities and actors and models as well as humanitarians who were just doing great things in the world. And I found that rather than like a specific person, the people who I could have a genuine conversation with, I found those to be the most rewarding experiences. People who really cared about what they were doing or had like a really great craft were so inspiring to work with because they were just so, so good at what they did and I was often intimidated, but so open about sharing and it was just really fun to be able to be in those situations.
I actually started playing around with a camera on a trip to New York City where my wheelchair broke down. I have a lot of horror stories in New York. I don’t know why, specifically New York. I was there with a chair that didn’t work and so all my plans to like go to all these specific places and this high paced impact kind of schedule like just, went out the window, there’s no way I was gonna do it. So I got this like loaner granny chair from the airport and (laughs) really slowly crawled along the streets kind of around the neighborhood that I was staying in and started taking some photos because I had a lot of time and it was in that process that I kind of learned about storytelling with a camera and that was a really inspiring moment for me. So it started then and I just kept taking photos and started taking photos of my friends. And then by the time I graduated, was working full time. And it was through that kind of world that I actually learned about myself as an advocate, too because I was working in fashion and portraiture and there weren’t really other photographers who I’d met yet who looked like me. I was like 19. I was female and I was sitting on a wheelchair and like, I didn’t know any other version of, of that, that was a successful photographer. And so I learned that I really enjoyed carving out that space for myself and convincing people who didn’t know that I could do things, that I was really good at doing things. I loved being able to educate people through what I was doing. And that’s actually what ended up probably leading me to build AccessNow.
TS: I’m curious, has photography influenced your entrepreneurial career? Because it just seems like you’ve always been an advocate for yourself in creating space to ensure that you are able to do the work you want to do.
MZ: Definitely. I don’t think I ever woke up one day and said, oh, I want to be an entrepreneur, but I’ve always needed to do things my own way or create new ways of doing things so that I could show up or convince people to do things differently so that I could get to where I want to go. And all of those kinds of processes of being resilient and creative and adapting, have followed me throughout my life. And so I think, you know, it’s not so much that I woke up one day and said, yeah, I want to be an entrepreneur, but I’ve kind of been entrepreneurial throughout my life and never really had like a normal job.
TS: I want to talk a little bit more about your business. You started in Toronto, now AccessNow is available in six continents around the world. You have millions of users. Did you see the business growing to what it is now?
MZ: I always saw the potential and it fit all those kinds of boxes that when you start a new business, you look for. Like a growing market and a really high unmet need. And honestly, like no great solutions. So this was like a really exciting opportunity and I had all this domain knowledge that I knew I could apply but definitely, you know, when I started, people were inspired by the idea and there weren’t really people who I met who told me, you know, this is a bad idea. But there were definitely people who told me that they didn’t think it was a business and suggested maybe, maybe this should be a charity or a not for profit, or maybe this is just like a really exciting passion project. There were two reasons why I kind of held my ground on those and said, no, absolutely AccessNow is a business. The first one was me as an advocate. I think there’s an assumption that when you talk about accessibility or you address the needs of people with disabilities, which AccessNow actually addresses the needs of way more people than just people with disabilities but definitely it started with people with disabilities. I didn’t want to fall into the assumed bucket of “well, because it’s for disabilities obviously, it should be a charity. Obviously, you need to fundraise and you need handouts because people with disabilities need that kind of support.” I wanted to prove that I could build a profitable business just like any other that would focus on creating purpose and profit at the same time and I really felt that that was possible.
TS: How did you feel when people were trying to categorize your business by placing it in these buckets that didn’t relate to what you saw the business being?
MZ: It didn’t really faze me. I knew that I had to work hard and often when people tell me no I love that because it makes me work even harder. And I wanted to prove all those people wrong. And I still do that. There are significant shifts in the accessibility market. If you look at like some of my early talks when I just kind of started AccessNow as a business, I talked about the need for companies to show leadership and that we would start to see evidence of that in the market. We would start to see more companies recognizing accessibility as a competitive advantage. And now we do have that.
TS: Why do you think there’s been a shift in companies seeing that, as you mentioned, there is a business and competitive advantage for offering products like this?
MZ: One thing that really works to our advantage right now is that there’s this massive community of people who are acquiring disabilities. With this ageing population, there’s this massive category of people who are now needing additional support, but then when you connect the dots of people with disabilities and family and friends and caregivers and young parents with strollers and delivery services, we actually all benefit from accessibility. But if you want to try and capture that audience, we’re talking about 63 percent of people. And I actually think that that’s an even larger number, because every single person is engaging with some form of accessibility every day and not recognizing that that’s what’s happened. And so I think that’s awesome because we’ve designed aspects of our life from the perspective of accessibility first, even though we’re not aware of it, and that kind of seamless integration is the best. But what happens is that because of that, we’re kind of glossing over how intentional those things were. And so people aren’t recognizing that every time you come through a door that opens for you and you’re carrying your groceries and your laptop and your phone and your newborn, the fact that that door just opened for you is a great advantage for your life, but was not initially designed for your use case. So some of the best inclusive designs started from the needs of people with disabilities.
TS: It brings me to a section of our interview. It’s called Rapid Fire. I’m going to ask you a bunch of questions. Just answer as fast as you possibly can. They’re fun, they’re easy. You’ve nothing to worry about.
TS: What do you do for fun?
TS: I love it. What motivates you?
MZ: Uh… A good challenge.
TS: How many hours do you sleep a night on average?
MZ: Oh, um 7.
TS: What’s your greatest fear?
TS: What’s one word your friends would use to describe you?
TS: Go to activity to destress.
MZ: Really good food. I love to eat.
TS: Oh. Favourite food.
MZ: Oh I can’t pick one.
TS: I know.
MZ: Um, I love cheese.
TS: Oh cheese and carbs are good with everything. Favourite hobby.
MZ: I love to scout abandoned buildings.
TS: We’re gonna go back to that one. Favourite fictional superhero.
MZ: Oh, my God. It’s gonna be so cheesy. I don’t know where this answer came from. Um, the little train that could.
TS: (laughs) Ok. I love that.
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TS: So let’s go back to the fact that you like to investigate abandoned warehouses.
MZ: All right.
TS: Where did this love come from?
MZ: So, I started getting into abandoned places in university because I was looking for cool sites to take photos. Sometimes for backdrops for photoshoots that I was planning, and eventually that just became that I just wanted to go see these places because they were so cool. So I started creating and compiling this Bible almost of like all these places that were abandoned over the years. And I was really like arts and craftsy about it. Like I’d find stuff online, and then I would do like a Google Street view and then I would like print things out, put them all in this like really cool little scrappy binder. So then every time that I’d go to one I could like check it off and be like I went to that place and then sometimes they’d get demolished. And a lot of my favourite places no longer exist. Definitely in Toronto, the majority of the cool ones are gone. You know the entire kind of distillery area doesn’t really count anymore. Like that’s all been renovated. There’s tons of condos there now, and there are many of those. There are like these little secret gems that kind of don’t exist. So being able to scout them and see them before they disappear was kind of like something I love to do.
TS: And was it challenging at all though,
MZ: Oh yeah.
TS: For you to physically get to and enter?
MZ: Yeah, I remember actually there was this one specific place. I went to scout the old Kodak factory and at the time, like it was abandoned and fenced off and you’re not allowed to go there.
TS: Yes, I love your approach to this. I think It could be deemed trespassing.
MZ: Yeah, it’s fully trespassing, but it’s like harmless trespassing. I’m not you know, I’m not there to, like, do anything.
TS: To loot or -
MZ: Yeah, I’m not trying to like tag up the place. You know, I’m not like trading anything illegal. I’m just there to, like, look at it, take some photos, go home. So there’s this fence that - and by the way, this is a massive community of people. It’s not just like me. Like scouring all these abandoned places. And actually if you look on Instagram now, it’s like exploded but anyway. So the Kodak factory, there was like one building left fenced up. But the fence had been like smushed down in a certain part, I feel like this is totally illegal.
TS: No, it’s not.
TS: It stays with us.
MZ: And so I was like, OK, guys, like, I was with my sister and a friend of ours and we had decided that we were gonna go and check out this place. A lot of the times these places are like the most inaccessible places and so it’s really about like being creative and figuring out like how we’re gonna turn this non-accessible place into an accessible place. But we had to... I had to like hop a fence in like my 350 pound wheelchair and like, that was a really big challenge.
TS: How did you do that?
MZ: We found a plywood, like a big piece of plywood from the site because it’s like kind of what happens. These places are like boarded up and stuff. So we like made a plywood bridge, like over the fence, it’s like a chain-link fence. And it worked but it also didn’t because getting in was fine but getting out, there’s like a screw on the bottom of my chair that had gotten stuck in the fence and I basically thought that that was it, like I was just going to live there forever. It took like a good half an hour to like figure out how to get me out, but it was fun.
TS: OK. So the next part is called the Big Three.
TS: I’m going to ask you a bunch of questions and there is no time limit on these so you can take as much time as you want.
TS: The first one. What is one mistake that you made in your career that you thought was incredibly damaging or harmful or embarrassing, but ended up being really great in the end?
MZ: OK. Early on, I really needed to convince people, but I had no money, no resources, no credibility and had to like convince people to help me or convince people who believed enough to like contribute. And so, you know, there were a lot of times that I worked with people or tried to work with people and things would come up and immediately, like in my gut, I knew something was wrong. But I would like ignore it or I would be like “oh, no, no, like, that’s just in this one tiny little instance. Like, it’s gonna be fine.” Like showing up at a place that wasn’t accessible and I’d be incredibly frustrated with someone who I just convinced to help work with me for a little time on something specific and they would explain to me why the business wasn’t at fault and why I was in the wrong. And I was like “Oh, that’s OK. Like this person just doesn’t know yet.” That was a red flag, the first day that we engaged. And I was like completely ignoring that fact and trying to just be like “You know this person’s contributing their time and their goodwill and like, I’m grateful for that.” And I made a lot of sacrifices early on, kind of just doing that, ignoring my gut for what could happen or what - I was constantly hoping that it would be better. Now, you know, the second that I feel like something’s off I try and address it right away because it’s such a waste of time but I don’t regret going through that process because I learned a lot about trusting myself and recognizing how powerful self-doubt can be.
TS: And where do you see AccessNow in five years?
MZ: You know, I think in the long term if we’re successful, AccessNow won’t be necessary. We’ll have like put ourselves out of a job because the world will be fully accessible and everyone will know everything about accessibility everywhere. So you won’t need an app that helps you specifically find accessible places. So that’s like the very large long term vision or dream. Realistically, in five years, I think we’re in a place where we’ve come a long way. Businesses understand that accessibility is a competitive advantage. There’s a fruitful market that already exists. You know, 21 per cent of total consumer spending. People have no idea that that’s a thing. But I think that that’s alive and thriving and we’ll spend less time having to convince people that that’s the case.
There will always be a need to educate and create awareness about accessibility because it’s not really a destination. There are always things that we can do to improve how people engage with spaces and how inclusive things really are. Successfully in five years, we’ll be in a place where we can spend less time educating, less time advocating for the need for access and more time building and actually supporting businesses that are doing the right thing and want to engage with a community that actually is excited about accessibility or ready to, to engage with, you know, the world in the most accessible and inclusive way.
TS: I’m wondering what was your childhood like? Were you always this confident and determined, and sure of yourself?
MZ: I think I’ve been stubborn since I was born.
TS: Stubborn - I’m gonna say determined.
MZ: Sure. Yeah. And I think that there is a bit of both in there right? I was always headstrong and I always knew what I wanted, which was sometimes a little bit alarming when you’re like 6 years old and you’re so like, “this is how it should be!” But, I grew up in a family that didn’t really look at disability as like a thing. I went to a school where I was the only person with a disability. I was almost often like not even aware of the fact that I was different. I don’t wake up in the morning and think “oh, yeah, I have a disability today.” You know, it’s just like part of who I am. So I’ve always addressed the world as just like ready to go. But I can say definitely when I started building my photography business, there was a pretty significant shift in how I went about marketing myself. You know, initially, I put up a website of my work and I didn’t really talk about myself and I didn’t really show photos of myself in a wheelchair because I was afraid that people would see those pictures of me and think “oh, she doesn’t seem like the type of person we can hire for this job. It’s probably too physically demanding” or they’d make all these assumptions. And I thought if I could just get to the interview, they’d meet me and know that that’s not true. So how about I don’t tell anyone that I have a disability and show up at all these interviews and then be like “surprise. This is me” and I actually did do that often in the beginning.
Eventually what I realized was that that was a real waste of time, because once I started embracing myself with an online identity, and just being more honest about who I was, I started actually standing out. Like I started getting different opportunities for sure, but greater marketing opportunities where people wanted to tell my story because I was different. And that was interesting to them. Or they wanted to work with me because they'd seen this body of work and wanted to learn how it was possible that I was taking these photos because there was like a disconnect for them in their own mind and now was an opportunity to learn. So I worked with clients that were willing to take that chance and that were comfortable with being a little bit uncertain or some that just didn't see it as a thing. Those were the best, obviously. But I think it's been a process. And I'd say that that happened maybe when I was like 16 and I think I had to do that earlier than most people do, where you get really comfortable with who you are because I show up in the room every day and I am someone who sits on a wheelchair. So it is a physical thing in people's faces. I couldn't hide it or pretend that that wasn't true and the faster that I could learn to embrace that about me, the happier or the more opportunities opened up for me and I think that that's actually been a really interesting kind of evolution. And I think there's still things about me that I, I'm learning, but I'm feeling pretty comfortable with who I am.
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TS: That was Maayan Ziv, thanks to her for sharing her story.
We’re going to be back each week with a new episode from another person who is changing the way our world works.
Shyra: There’s some really amazing indigenous entrepreneurs out there making a difference. How can we get these positive stories out because we’re not seeing them in the news, and how do we create more opportunities?
TS: If you are enjoying the show then leave us a review on apple podcasts. It really helps people find us, so please do it friends!
We also want to hear your story. You can reach me online @TakaraSmall on Twitter and Instagram or you can email the show at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ll Go First is a Vocal Fry Studios production. Our producer is Jay Cockburn, with research by Cecilia Keating. Our executive producers are Kiran Rana and Katie Jensen.
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I’m Takara Small, this has been I’ll Go First. Subscribe now so you don’t miss the next episode.