18th March 2019
Srin Madipalli is a Londoner, a former lawyer and a lifelong wheelchair user with a passion for travel, Star Wars and junk food. He is also the co-founder of Accomable, an accessible travel start-up that was acquired by Airbnb in 2017. Now based in San Francisco, Srin is Airbnb’s Accessibility Product Manager, and a member of UnLtd’s Access to Employment advisory group.
My friend Martyn and I are both wheelchair users due to a disability called Spinal Muscular Atrophy. We co-founded Accomable mostly out of frustration, sick of the bad experiences we kept having at hotels and tourist attractions that were advertised as accessible, but in reality were not. Versions of what ‘accessible’ meant differed widely from one place to the next. You’d show up and find you couldn’t get your chair into the bathroom, or sometimes even into the room. Not fun, not fair, and an expensive waste of time for people who come with wheels as a necessity.
Accomable started as a fun hobby when I was teaching myself to code. I then created a website literally out of my bedroom (fuelled by lots of coffee!) where people could highlight accessible places to stay and provide information about the support, from roll-in showers to medical equipment, lifts, hoists and power supplies. While I was doing my MBA at Oxford’s Saïd Business School, I applied for and received a £20k Venture Award from the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship. This gave us a much-needed initial boost.
Getting this early-stage validation was great for us. It gave us some cash, validated us and our idea and showed we had something investable. It meant something that a set of smart people had done some due diligence, kicked the tires a bit, and proved that we had more than just good intentions.
However, we soon needed further funding to build a team and grow our platform. Almost every social impact fund and organisation that we approached - those that are notionally set up and run with the specific aim of funding social impact led-ventures such as ours - rejected us. Often the rejections came after a protracted and complex due diligence process. As a lawyer, I appreciated and understood the necessity, but the process seemed overly lengthy, cautious and risk-averse. It was painful to be working so hard, getting strong customer traction and testimonials, just to get a ‘sorry, you’re just too early / risky for us’ message at every turn.
Just as I was ready to call time on the whole business, our angel investors came through with an investment of £300,000 that we needed to scale up and move forward confidently. We closed the deal in a few weeks with minimal fuss. Our investors took the view that the best way to help us solve a social problem was to empower us with funding as quickly and efficiently as possible. Within 18 months we were in talks with Airbnb, who then acquired Accomable in 2017, and we're scaling our social impact in exciting and game-changing ways.
So why was it easier for us, a social impact venture, to raise money in the for-profit world, rather than in the social impact world?
My belief is that the tolerance for early-stage risk from funders is far lower than it ought to be, and that the sector needs to take a look at itself and ask tough questions: why are so few early stage projects funded? Why the crazy-long process? Why stick with super-safe bets? And what’s at stake if risk avoidance continues to be the overriding guiding principle for social impact funders?
To this last question, I have a few answers. In my experience that lack of access to meaningful funding creates unnecessary and elitist barriers to entry. It means that you can only start a social venture if you already have access to cash. This not only cuts off some of the best ideas before they have a chance to get going, but also cuts off access to the talent pool: you’re not getting a full cross-spectrum of applicants when certain groups can’t afford to take no or low salaries indefinitely. So, here’s some advice:
1. Hire people who have ‘lived’ the problem you’re fixing
With Accomable, we actively worked on recruiting disabled people who understood and had experienced the problems we were trying to fix. We found an amazing pool of talented people who had been shut out of opportunities that non-disabled people had available to them, not just travel opportunities, but work opportunities too. This ‘access to employment’ issue desperately needs fixing. I feel passionately about it, and that’s one of the reasons that I’ve become a member of the UnLtd Access to Employment advisory board.
2. Find investors who are aligned with your purpose
If you’re as lucky as we were to find an angel investor willing to embrace risk, they’ll be doing it as much for purpose and impact as for the financial return they expect. Our lead investor’s son was a wheelchair user. He was fully aligned with our mission and goal. This for me is hugely important: your lead investors, and ideally all investors, have to ‘get’ your purpose and be aligned with it; regardless of whether or not they are technically 'social impact' investors.
3. Be ready - show you know your stuff
In terms of storytelling and positioning, my advice to social entrepreneurs is to always be ready to prove to any potential investor that you know how to execute, and that you have a robust and flexible plan. After we’d achieved our angel investment and built the business to a stage where we were attracting interest from bigger industry players, it felt right to accept the offer from Airbnb to be acquired. We believed this was the best way to really scale our impact and make travel truly accessible to everyone.
Follow Srin on Twitter: @SrinMadipalli
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