I think it’s often surprising how many people have a mobility issue – more than 1 billion people in the world have some form of disability, which is around 15% of the world population. In the UK the estimate is around 10% of the population and 18% in the US. But this community is often ignored by entrenched industries.
This never made sense to me. Not only is working with disabled people the right thing to do, it’s a huge underserved market. Tourism -- the industry I work in, is a great example. Research by VisitEngland found the accessible tourism market in England alone was worth £12.4 billion including overnight visits and day trips. In the US, the US Open Doors Organization estimates adults with disabilities in the US spend $17.3 billion a year on travel.
As a disability advocate and self-confessed tech geek, I’ve always believed in the transformative power of technology to empower people from marginalised communities. As an entrepreneur, I’ve also seen the incredible business opportunity to tap into this market.
When I launched Accomable with my childhood friend, Martyn Sibley, we knew the accessible accommodation market had been massively underserved. Accomable was born out of a passion for travel but also a real frustration with how difficult it could be to find accommodation with the right adaptations to suit my needs. I would regularly book so-called accessible properties only to find steps to the front door. And I quickly discovered I wasn’t alone; there was a diverse community of disabled people who struggled to travel.
To address this social issue and tap into what we quickly saw was a major market opportunity, we decided to build a limited company. We knew from the start that building a business model that could make a profit would not only deliver positive social impact but would also demonstrate that serving disabled people can be financially sustainable. This would create a compelling investment proposition and, through investment, we would be able to grow quickly and deliver social impact at scale.
We were lucky to receive initial funding from the Skoll Centre based at Oxford University, where I studied, via an initiative to support ventures that deliver social impact. In 2016, we raised a further £300,000 in funding from angel investors. Raising capital is obviously hugely beneficial to any business looking to grow. But something that is often overlooked is the benefit you can gain from your investors’ expertise. We were incredibly fortunate to work with some fantastic investors, whose knowledge, influence and support in no doubt was one of the reasons for our success. One of our angel investors, Chris Hunter, a fellow Skoll Award recipient and experienced impact investor, offered hands-on guidance throughout our journey, which proved invaluable.
Together with our investors and an incredible team, we were able to scale up Accomable over two years to list accessible stays in more than 60 countries worldwide. We built a brand you could trust and we enabled disabled people around the world to travel for holidays, business and visiting family.
In November 2017 – a little over two years since its founding – Accomable was acquired by Airbnb. This made perfect sense: Airbnb’s mission is to create a world where anyone can truly belong anywhere and, by joining the Airbnb family, I am now able to share our knowledge and expertise to help bring this goal one step closer.
I am now the Accessibility Product and Program Manager at Airbnb based in San Francisco, where I am leading our efforts to improve accessibility across the platform. We recently released 21 new accessibility filters to help guests find homes which suit their needs. We also want to encourage more disabled entrepreneurs to share their homes and create unique, accessible experiences on our platform.
I feel incredibly energised about being a part of Airbnb: we have shared values and a common mission, which is one I am working to deliver on a global scale.
Looking ahead, I hope that as we keep making changes, more mainstream companies will follow Airbnb’s lead so that our innovations and values will continue to influence the entire sector.
Overall, I believe that Accomable’s and Airbnb’s paths demonstrate once again the value of innovative businesses which deliver social impact and how they can rapidly scale, creating a win-win situation for anyone wanting to invest their money in a positive, meaningful way.