She was broke, alone, and physically devastated--and then she picked up on a little-remarked federal requirement called Section 508. With that, Anna Bradley had both a calling and a pioneering business.
Entrepreneurs create businesses for many reasons, under various circumstances, responding to all manner of marketplace insights and opportunities. Many start small, under their own roof. But nobody's got a story anything like Anna Bradley's.
Once a well-paid corporate executive specializing in information technology, she had fallen on the hardest of times. At age 35, out of work and suffering from the physical and emotional ravages of a third major health crisis in less than a decade, she'd done the unthinkable: moved back in with her parents, to the 1,100-square-foot Iowa ranch house she grew up in.
There, holed up for months in the 8-by-10 bedroom of her childhood, she spotted a bright opportunity in a few gray lines of governmentese. In late 2000, Bradley read that the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (now known as the Access Board), a federal agency devoted to accessibility for the disabled, had issued final standards for some recent congressional amendments to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the landmark law that changed the American landscape by fostering wheelchair ramps, curb cuts, handicapped parking spaces, and wheelchair-accessible public restrooms at federal offices. The new initiative, Bradley noted, required federal agencies and companies doing business with the federal government to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities.
That requirement, coupled with her determination to craft a second working life suited to her own disability, effectively sparked her business, which she named Criterion 508 Solutions, incorporating the number of the new section of the Rehabilitation Act. Bradley knew enough about government procurement contracts to feel the rumblings of a tectonic shift in commerce. The new regulations would go into effect soon, on June 21, 2001. Fortunes would be made by understanding and serving the soon-to-explode field of 508 compliance, the equivalent of building wheelchair ramps to technology.
"When God was handing out brains, common sense, and business acumen I was at the front of the line," says Bradley. "But when He was handing out good health, I must have been at a bar or a party somewhere because I certainly didn't get much."
Not quite true. Bradley enjoyed good health until she hit her mid-twenties. She excelled in the first female ice hockey league in Des Moines, then became a bantam-league hockey referee. Comfortable as an authority figure and rules enforcer, she hoped to follow her 1989 graduation from Iowa State University (where she majored in history) with a career in law enforcement. She made it through the Department of Public Safety boot camp, only to have the state patrol academy shuttered by budget cuts. While waiting for that situation to be resolved, Bradley took security work at a hospital and at one of Des Moines's biggest local employers, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a seed company now owned by DuPont. That led to a job in the Pioneer mailroom.
PCs were then just landing on desktops at Pioneer, befuddling many first-time users. Bradley purchased a computer for home and devoured the manual, eager to understand this new technological frontier. As she delivered mail on the floor at Pioneer, she started offering assistance to computer novices. Word quickly spread: "If you're having trouble with your PC, call the mail clerk in plant breeding."
One day, the call came from engineering. Bradley solved a print-driver problem in 15 minutes--and got offered the job of systems engineer. "Within a year of starting at Pioneer, literally in the mailroom," she says, "I was on the company private jet to Naples, Florida, doing a presentation to the board of directors on a computer-based training program I had developed."
But in 1992 Bradley's good fortune changed, soon after she gamely donned an inflatable sumo wrestler's suit for a bit of tomfoolery at a company picnic. Her spotter's attention wandered. Bradley fell over backwards, hitting her head on the concrete. "I saw stars for the first time in my life. I'd thought that was a figurative saying," she says. "But literally, all these white things clouded my field of vision." Bradley assumed the terrible headache that laid her up for more than a week would pass, but in fact her injury led to persistent headaches and chronic pain that radiated to her shoulders, back, and hips. Pain became a state of existence, something she learned to live with as she continued to work, to pursue a master's degree in adult education, training, and development, and to learn all she could about the next new thing to hit the hinterland, something called the Internet. She started moonlighting. She'd rent a hotel ballroom, place an ad in the paper, collect $75 a head from five dozen or six dozen attendees, and then speak about the wonders of the World Wide Web.
Word got around. The Principal Financial Group (NYSE:PFG), a Des Moines stalwart, lured her away in 1996 to help get the company's Internet and intranet operations up to speed. When she moved to another company it was for a six-figure salary; she lived, she says, "the high life." She traveled freely. Selected the Eddie Bauer edition when she purchased a Ford (NYSE:F) Explorer. But before the year was out, a new array of internal pain she'd endured for months was finally diagnosed as cancer. Bradley underwent a radical hysterectomy. Her change of life hit her like a speeding train. "I went through menopause in 48 hours," she says. "I felt like an addict coming off heroin. I used to walk around with a towel around my neck. I was dripping wet. It was like somebody turned a hose on me." Within a year, her hormone-crazed body piled on an additional 120 pounds. To dull the pain as she continued to work and pursue a Ph.D., Bradley popped Vicodin like breath mints. "You just get used to it," she says. "Personally, I don't consider myself disabled. That's my mindset. I've got problems, but everybody's got problems."
Her tale gets worse before it gets better. In 2000, while working for Florida Light & Power, Bradley contracted a bacterial infection, likely during a routine root canal. The infection settled around her heart, triggering a four-day episode of tachycardia. This third health strike really laid her low. Bedridden for months, unable to work, Bradley first depleted what little savings she had, then sold both the home she'd bought in Iowa and her second home in Stuart, Florida. "I went bust. I lost everything I'd ever worked for," she says. "At 35, moving back into my parents' home was the hardest thing I ever had to do, but I had no choice."
Now that she had touched bottom, she discovered that she had acquaintances, not friends. No one offered to take her in. So Bradley retreated, ailing and humiliated, to the confines of her former bedroom, a narrow, cell-like enclosure with a twin bed, a small desk, and a litter box for her cat--a most unusual business incubator indeed. Armed with a cell phone and a five-year-old HP (NYSE:HPQ) computer with a pokey 56k modem, she set about creating a business that would suit the life that now seemed hers, one of good days and bad days.
Bradley had joined the ranks of America's disabled, a much misunderstood portion of the nation's population. One unintended consequence of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, which expanded equal access regulations to state and local governments and private employers, has been the skewing of the public's perception of disability. For many people, disability equals wheelchair. "Every time we park our car we see that handicapped parking place, and every time we go to the bathroom we see that symbol," says Daniel Goldstein, a lawyer with the firm Brown, Goldstein & Levy and counsel for the National Federation of the Blind. The blind, continues Goldstein, are part of "a fairly invisible minority." Indeed, 9.3 million Americans are blind, hearing impaired, or both, according to the most recent U.S. Census data. Overall, the 2000 Census identified 49.7 million respondents with some kind of lasting physical, mental, or emotional disability. That's nearly one in five Americans.
To see Bradley, now 41, behind the wheel of her now 10-year-old Explorer you'd never know the pain she endures, or that the Small Business Administration has certified her company as an 8(a), or disadvantaged, firm. But watch her closely, and you'll notice that her spunk outstrips her gait, which sometimes borders on unsteady.
A good chunk of the counter in the bathroom off her bedroom is taken up by a phalanx of pharmaceutical vials--painkillers, heart medicine, and more. Bradley is also prediabetic and suffers from asthmalike symptoms. She goes in for periodic injections in the back of her head to manage her chronic migraines. Her hormone replacement therapy takes the form of creams and pills. Frankly, she's the Physicians' Desk Reference incarnate. "Most mornings when I get up I feel like I scrimmaged with the Green Bay Packers the day before," she says. Her mobility generally improves as the day progresses, but some days she barely makes it to the living room couch, and she's gone a week or more without leaving the house. She'll answer the phone if it rings, but may not turn on her computer. Keeping her company are her lap-size Italian greyhound, Paco, and her two cats, Fred and Mr. Big, who's gone blind. "That's my family," she says. "I take incredible care of my animals. When I travel, Paco goes to a pet resort where he has his own room with a TV set and they baby him something terrible."
All of which explains why Bradley's bedroom-hatched business plan for Criterion 508 Solutions called for a virtual business, one operated via the phone and Internet, employing just-in-time contract workers operating out of their homes, just like herself, many of them also afflicted with a serious disability. Attending an Entrepreneurs With Disabilities workshop held by the Iowa Department of Vocational Rehabilitation Services (mostly, Bradley admits, so she could qualify for a $20,000 grant to help launch her business) opened her eyes to the varying challenges and abilities of those with disabilities other than her own. Who better to help her snag a share of the nascent industry conducting audits and fixing software and websites to make information technology accessible to disabled users than tech analysts who are blind or suffer from cystic fibrosis or MS--the very users who increasingly rely on technology to keep them integrated with the rest of the world?
How can the blind surf the Internet, meaningfully visit various websites, and transact business online? The answer is, not easily, and often not at all, if the supporting source code and architecture of a website have not been specifically built or reconfigured to be accessible to the special software employed by the visually impaired. That's one of the key aims of the Section 508 provisions--to make government PDF documents and websites accessible to the now widely available screen access software, the so-called screen readers, which say aloud in synthesized speech what the sighted see on their computer screens. Section 508 also comes to the aid of the colorblind (a population that includes as many as one in 10 males, who may miss information and options coded only by color or against similarly hued backgrounds), those with failing vision, the deaf (for whom a webcast lacking synchronized subtitles will be meaningless), and those with severe physical disabilities who access their computers by blowing or tapping the keyboard with a mouth-held stick.
About half of the 30 people who work for Bradley have some serious disability. She supplements a core group of seven contract employees with another two dozen workers brought in on an as-needed basis. Some are blind. One has cerebral palsy. Another has returned to the work force after years of anxiety and depression caused by a serious case of undiagnosed sleep apnea. Other workers are not disabled but have young children and cherish their Criterion job because it allows them to work from home, typically at night after the kids have gone to bed. "I have disabled employees whose best previous job was working in a fast food restaurant who are now making $35 an hour, doing what they are capable of doing," Bradley says. Several of her employees have advanced degrees and earn as much as $75 an hour.
Bradley deflects an attempt to pin a crusader's button on the Criterion logo shirts she favors. "I'm a pragmatic person," she says. "This is business, pure and simple." But she's clearly happy with the how and the why and the who behind her company. "The vision isn't just to provide Section 508 services. The vision of Criterion is also to create golden-collar job opportunities for qualified disabled people to provide Section 508 services, because, guess what, they've got a skill set, which is their disability, which you can't go to college to learn."
Though the majority of her employees are Iowans, Bradley also mails checks to workers in Missouri and North Carolina, and Canada. All, except a childhood friend who lives a few blocks away, have been hired over the telephone (typically, after a qualifying phone interview with her chief technology officer, Patrick Shields, who lives in Toronto). "What I focus on," says Bradley, "is the inflection in their voice, how well they communicate, what excites them about Criterion."
"I really like working for Anna," says Karen McCall, who "met" Bradley at a Web seminar in 2005. "Number one, our business ethics are similar, which is important for any long-term relationship, and I like the fact that she's drawing on expertise rather than having a fixed staff in one place. And the instructions she gives are clear and concise, both on the phone or via e-mail."
McCall, who has been legally blind since the age of 14, lives near Toronto. She worked for years in offices, at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and three Canadian colleges and universities, until she tired of daily commuting. An expert in workplace accommodations for the blind, she's written a book on creating accessible PDF files. She currently squeezes in 10 to 20 hours a week for Criterion among projects of her own home-based businesses.
Brian Walker, a Des Moines resident and a full-time technology analyst for the Iowa Department for the Blind, also moonlights for Bradley, taking on audits and serving as a go-to person for new Criterion hires for insight on how someone using a screen reader will approach certain challenges in webpage navigation. Walker, who has been legally blind for half his 40 years, was one of the first blind tech people hired by the maker of JAWS for Windows, one of the most popular screen access programs. An expert JAWS user, he surfs the Internet with his speech reader turned up so fast the rush of words is unintelligible to an inexperienced listener. Walker knows how to move across a webpage looking for helpful headings. How to employ keywords to focus his searches. How to (sometimes) discern a Web designer's intent even when it's not clear from the words vocalized by his screen reader. But even Walker is left frustrated, like a rat in a maze, by inaccessible websites that subvert his screen reader's attempt to interpret their pages. What sighted customers take for granted--products for sale and prices and purchasing instructions--often assaults Walker like an acid trip of onrushing underlying HTML code: "Slash slash apostrophe comma graphic backslash underline apostrophe comma…"
Like all the people who work for Bradley, Walker and McCall serve as contract employees, receiving their auditing assignments after Bradley rustles up the business. "I don't have any overhead if we don't have any projects, which is the best way for a small business to survive," Bradley says. She does some rainmaking at conferences, but most jobs come via Internet-spawned inquiries or by referrals. Clients have ranged from FEMA, the IRS, and the National Institutes of Health to a handful of state universities to the states of Nebraska, Louisiana, Florida, and Iowa. Then there's a range of private sector clients, including Citibank (NYSE:C), Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ), and a number of health insurance plans.
In effect, Bradley has created an iceberg, a company with very little visible but all kinds of support hidden from view, notably a comprehensive suite of e-learning courses she created herself. Bradley trained her initial employees in a series of extended phone calls. Now new hires prepare for their first assignments by logging on to Criterion's proprietary training programs. Training also includes a virtual field trip to a website called EnableMart.com, which specializes in assistive technology and devices. "Look at all you're trying to accommodate," she instructs her employees, "not only the blind, but people like Christopher Reeve." Before soloing on a project, everybody first works a job or two with an experienced Criterion auditor. When Bradley needs to put several heads together, she and her employees convene online, at www.gotomeeting.com.
Criterion's jobs run from $12,000 to well over $100,000. A job begins with an audit, after which Criterion 508's techs train the client's techs to fix the client's website and keep it in compliance. Last year, partly on the strength of companies seeking her out because of spreading knowledge of the issues behind a class-action lawsuit filed against the retailer Target (NYSE:TGT) (see "Welcome! No, Not You," previous page), Criterion doubled its client base and had its first million-dollar year. In keeping with the virtual nature of her business, Bradley has met only about 5 percent of those she consults with. "Most people," she says, "picture Criterion in some four-story office complex with a receptionist." Not without a bit of a helping hand from her. Bradley indulges in the standard home business ruse of adding a bogus suite number to her address, which happens to be a charming one-story house on a cul-de-sac in a new development in Johnston, Iowa. Custom-built by her brother, the home is accessible to the handicapped.
Until last summer, when Bradley hosted a company picnic at her house, only two of her workers had visited the office of their employer. One of the two is a childhood friend named Gabriel Ruggieri, who lives a few blocks away. "Anna always had dreams bigger than the rest of us," he says. "When I was worried about money for a date on Friday night, she was planning a career. Back then, she had dreams of owning a deep-sea charter business. She had her boat picked out, she knew where she was going to keep it, what it would cost, how much she had to charge to make a living at it."
Two decades later, Bradley is piloting a very different vessel, a small, pioneering business in a burgeoning industry. Early this year, she expects, she'll need to ramp up hiring. She anticipates easily doubling or tripling the size of Criterion, should two companies that have slotted her for 508 compliance work be among the primes awarded two long-term government contracts, one for $10 billion, the other for $20 billion.
Such an upturn in business, she says, might require a dozen new hires, many full-time, auguring an eventual change in her business model. "Once corporate America gets onboard [the technology accessibility bandwagon], then we would need the resources to go after group health plans and other opportunities," she says. "We could conceivably be in that four-story office."
Were that to happen, Bradley imagines she might stop in "every other day or so for an hour to check with people" and continue to run Criterion remotely. She's at peace, challenged, and as comfortable as possible, working from her home office in a hinterland cul-de-sac. For her it is no dead end.
John Grossmann, a longtime writer for Inc., wrote the January cover story, "Is Dave Insane? Inside a Brand Makeover."