The next time you complain about a hotel room not having strong enough Wi-Fi or a soft enough bed, imagine you use a wheelchair and arrive at a place that was advertised as accessible, and there is a flight of stairs to the front door.
Srin Madipalli led one of the most interesting acquisitions of the last year. His company, Accomable, sold to Airbnb for an (undisclosed) amount in November 2017, with full integration of the companies happening as we speak. Accomable was an accessible travel startup that helped disabled people find and book adapted holiday accommodation worldwide online. Madipalli founded it with his best friend Martyn Sibley. Both founders have spinal muscular atrophy.
If you look at Madipalli's Twitter feed, you will see him scuba diving, carrying the Olympic torch, on safaris in Africa, and most of all, being an inspiration to all founders. He is a powerchair user, since he has no use of his legs and little use of his arms. He also has full-time support from a caregiver. Clearly, that has not stopped him from anything in life--in fact, he says it gave him a clear business advantage.
I was introduced to Madipalli because we are running a campaign on HelloAlice.com supporting entrepreneurs with disabilities and ensuring these founders have the tools they need to succeed. I was so blown away by his story, I felt it had to be told to all of you so you can apply lessons from him to your own business. Here are a few of those lessons.
1. Find out what matters to your customers, and address it.
After graduating from Kings College London and BPP Law, Madipalli became a successful commercial lawyer and took time off to travel the world. He was shocked by the number of hotels and tourist attractions that were advertised as accessible but in reality were not. He returned to get his MBA from Oxford, then taught himself to code and became a developer. (Do you feel like a slacker yet?)
While doing freelance development, Madipalli and some of his friends started a travel blog highlighting places in the world that were indeed accommodating. It quickly gained traction, so he coded a prototype of a website wherein groups could not just highlight accessible environments but also get into the specifics about the levels of support. He stresses the importance of knowing details around accessibility. There are critical basics such as wheelchair accessibility and roll-in showers, he said, but other accommodations, such as medical equipment, specific lifts, railings in rooms, and power supplies, are also important.
To build trust in his user base, Madipalli and his co-founders personally went to over a thousand locations to ensure there was indeed confirmed accessibility, and took photos and reviews of the locations.
2. Create a solution to a problem within an existing product.
After achieving an obvious product market fit, Madipalli raised $500,000 from angel investors and won pitch competitions such as the Skoll Center for Social Enterprise Award. (We both agreed that raising money is very, very hard, no matter the industry.)
The company grew to an eight-person team (most of whom, by the way, are entrepreneurs with disabilities). Accomable got to the point in the summer of 2017 that the site and the platform were growing faster than they could. Madipalli opened a Series A and an advisor introduced him to Airbnb. The people he pitched saw a hole in the Airbnb model that needed to be plugged, and quickly told him the best way for them to partner would be through acquisition. Madipalli realized that the best way to scale his team's work and truly make travel more accessible on a global scale would be by joining Airbnb. Your company will have a unique advantage with enterprise partners if you can offer unique expertise, and share their values.
3. Sometimes, the best way to achieve your company's mission is through acquisition.
The deal took four months to complete. Airbnb moved Madipalli and six of his employees to San Francisco upon acquiring the technology. Madipalli is now Accessibility Product and Program Manager at Airbnb, with a goal of ensuring confirmation of accessibility across all Airbnb initiatives including rooms, travel, and--his favorite--experiences.
There are 56.7 million Americans living with a disability. Business ownership can provide a path to economic independence. This week we are honoring these incredible entrepreneurs for the "Seasons of Small Biz" campaign. Please pass along these resources to any entrepreneurs with disabilities looking to start their own company. It is critical that we follow Madipalli's lead and we ensure innovation within the disability community to achieve his dream to "enable all people to belong anywhere!"