By the Serotek Team
The vision was born out of a desire to make blind people more than just an afterthought. The heart that gave birth to the passion was one never known to cringe from an impending challenge, and the voices that have rallied around the call to action are united in their commitment to see this dream continue to become reality. It is Serotek. We are its team, and at ten years old, this is our story.
If Serotek’s history were synonymous to the American Revolution, the company’s first shot heard ’round the world would be the release of the Radio Webcaster in 1998. It was a tool that allowed people to control their computers using radio frequencies to tap into this thing called the Internet and hear responses through an FM radio. The product was introduced during an age when America Online was leading the stampede to the new virtual frontiers of the Internet, but as usual, it became someone else’s job to try to pave a ramp onto the information super highway for the world’s blind population.
At the time there was no Serotek. However, the person who would go on to become the company’s president and CEO, Mike Calvo, had some ideas and stepped up to the challenge. In retrospect, it was the first of many moves to redefine the adaptive technology industry.
Working first with a team of Russian developers, Calvo used his knowledge of technology to guide his original concept into what would become FreedomBox. At its simplest, FreedomBox was an Internet appliance that facilitated communication between a blind consumer and the World Wide Web. A person could speak to the preprogrammed device using natural language to listen to music in various genres and eventually make purchases from Amazon.com. Perhaps no one, not even Calvo himself, could have anticipated the trajectory FreedomBox would set for his then fledgling operation.
A large part of the product’s successful evolution is owed to Matt Campbell, who took over the FreedomBox project after Calvo decided to move the system to the United States. “Matt is my development partner,” Calvo says. “I’ve worked with a lot of developers in my life; I always keep coming back to Matt… We’re like an old married couple where we finish each other’s sentences and thoughts.” The results spoke for themselves.
“At least based on progress to date,” said Jonathan Mosen for ACB Radio in early 2002, “I think this product has a very promising future.”
But gaining traction would not be easy. In Serotek’s early years it was common for the competition to turn its nose up at the struggling new company that initially ran more off of inspiration than finances. The original FreedomBox was almost the size of a microwave oven, but through careful research and development the FreedomBox software was reduced to a thumb drive, giving voice to a new motto of Accessibility Anywhere. When Serotek released System Access in 2004 the chuckling gave way to cautious attention. The establishment began recognizing that the new kid on the block was not just touting Internet access but offering a complete accessibility experience through a new screen reader. The stage was set for the tide to begin turning.
Breaking From the Pack
“The reason that more blind people don’t have technology is because of the cost and the cost of training,” says Calvo, who has always strived to make affordability a centerpiece of his business model.
Future generations will not understand how at one point in history there were no mainstream alternatives. People were relegated to what Serotek dubs “blind ghetto products,” and in addition to astronomical price points, the products were very large and cumbersome to carry. Even by today’s standards Serotek is appalled at the cost/benefit analysis of products priced well into the thousands with feature sets so minimal as to be offensive, but by the time Serotek entered the picture the adaptive technology industry had grown comfortable with using a few well-chosen marketing strategies to excite their government base. Companies like Serotek were small fish in a pond of larger sharks.
When screen readers were introduced in the early 80’s they were essential tools to make an electronic environment accessible. Screen readers were, and still are, a necessary evil. Unfortunately, most companies did not adopt to rapid developments. While mainstream applications evolved, screen readers lagged behind. Rather than leveling the playing field, they tended to add extra cost and training while restricting access to the most advanced mainstream software features used in schools and in the workplace. The difference between Serotek and the other companies is that Serotek has kept pace with popular applications that blind people find themselves using on a daily basis.
The establishment continues following traditional practices to maximize its bottom line. By contrast, from its early days it has been Serotek’s mission to explore new ways to make their products attainable. Other companies have insisted on charging for licenses per computer. Serotek told customers to store the application to a credit card size CD and plug it in where ever they needed, and the company received confirmation that its strategy was working when people began reporting examples of how they were using the product everywhere from public libraries to cruise ships without cumbersome authorization licenses. Later the product evolved into software that can conveniently be launched on a U3-enabled flash drive.
For people who have closely watched Serotek’s development, none of the above came as a surprise. After all, Serotek broke from the traditional pack by setting new benchmarks as opposed to living up to old ones.
- Serotek was the first to offer screen reading and Braille reading technology without need for Administrator Rights.
- When other companies felt that blind people would never have need to use 64-bit Windows, Serotek disagreed and was the first to provide this functionality. Serotek was also the first to offer a fully functional screen reader when Windows Vista was released.
- Serotek was also the first to introduce support for Braille displays that complied with the Human Interface Device standard.
- Today, Serotek continues to be the only vendor that offers a fully functional web-based screen and Braille reading alternative via SAToGo.
- Serotek was the first to adopt a community approach to product development. Community Supported Accessible Web allowed customers to share web information to make hyperlink navigation smoother. Serotek has been the only known company in the adaptive technology industry to offer to share the protocol with its competitors for the benefit of all blind consumers.
- Other companies spoke of how they prepared blind professionals for the job market. Serotek suited action to words by being the first to offer Remote Access Manager and Remote Incident Manager to open new career opportunities in network administration and help desk support, two key positions in the IT world.
- While other companies still charge for software maintenance agreements, Serotek put that practice to rest in 2009 and has never looked back. To date, it is the only company that has done so.
The Business of People
Serotek began with the intent to serve older computer users and computer novices. Its products were built to help people who did not want to learn complicated systems to achieve simple tasks. As the company evolved, Serotek discovered its easy-to-use interface had an appeal for an even larger audience. The problem was that novice users and experts alike had fallen into the mindset that their future productivity was contingent on the next screen reader or Braille notetaker upgrade, and even these costly options did not place them on completely equal footing with sighted peers.
Lynda Canaday of Kansas is a stark example of the kind of tangible difference Serotek has made in people’s lives. “In 2004 I was very depressed,” says Canaday. “I was ready to check out of life altogether… A friend who is a psychologist wanted me to have a FreedomBox. I was able to get back into doing some things I enjoyed doing… I guess that’s what I’m really trying to say is that Serotek opened up a doorway to a support system using their equipment and devices.” Ms. Canaday has since gone on to college and is still using Serotek products and services.
Calvo understood that to succeed, Serotek would have to treat its customers as people and not just as byproducts of government contracts. He took time to understand what people expected out of adaptive products, and while some might credit this to good entrepreneurship; it is more accurate to attribute it to a sincere interest in what blind users seek.
“I’ll never forget the joy of a newly blind lady in her sixties who had never in her life used a computer when, with just her voice, she got on line using our product and made a purchase,” recounts Calvo, looking back at the early years of the company. “She was so excited. Our little product had opened a door she never thought she would go through.”
Jonathan Mosen says, “I did discover one or two small problems with the screen reader. I immediately reported those to Serotek, and I would say overnight those issues were fixed. When I woke up in the morning there was an update available for me to download.”
Placing such a high priority on customer care did not go unnoticed. In 2007 Serotek came under legal attack from a competitor over intellectual property. The community rose in defense of the smaller company. For years Calvo had spoken of the importance of using the community’s collective voice to make differences. The community heard and acted and took to blogs, petitions and other public online forums to voice their disapproval of the lawsuit.
“To see the community rise up on our behalf as they did during that very tumultuous time,” says Calvo, “for me emotionally, for us financially, for the company in general is something for which I will forever be thankful.”
The experience laid the groundwork for a strengthening bond between Serotek and its customer base. In the past several years Serotek has evolved into more than just another technology vendor. In an effort to really get to know the people it serves, Serotek has designed a multimedia arm that allows Serotek to render content to its customer base while simultaneously allowing customers to communicate with it and each other. iBlink Radio, for example, is a free iOS and Android app that offers radio stations, podcasts and reading services of special interest, and as comprehensive as that may sound, it does not begin to scratch the surface of the more elaborate System Access Mobile Network.
“We place great emphasis on the accessible digital lifestyle,” remarks Matt Campbell after Serotek helped customers transfer the multimedia content to their portable devices. “Bear in mind,” he adds, “this was even some months before the release of iTunes 8.” Indeed, Serotek had gone out of its way to help its customers embrace and integrate with mobile technology even before the mainstream made it a priority.
Evidence of the appreciation of the company’s innovative strategies is best exhibited in its customer testimonials. “Serotek is an involved company,” says J. Schmidt, a recent adopter of Serotek products and services. “I’ve never known any company, adaptive technology or otherwise, where customers frequently hear from the chief executive officer himself. I’d be surprised if anyone could even tell you who the executive officers are at the other adaptive technology companies. The idea that Serotek actually holds town halls to address pressing current events makes me feel valued as a customer and, more importantly, as a person.”
Yet serving customers is only half the equation. Calvo understood that to stay on the cutting edge of innovation, he would need to attract and retain solid talent. To do so, he needed to provide a working environment that allowed people to feed their natural passion for technology. Serotek started as a virtual employer in an age where telecommuting has only recently begun gaining popularity. The forward thinking approach has led to the introduction of many beloved voices now very familiar to Serotek’s customer base.
Ricky Enger, known best for her roles in the SeroTalk Podcast and End of Line, started at Serotek in the late summer of 2007. She now recalls it was over Labor Day weekend that she had the opportunity to speak with Calvo via telephone. “I just picked up the phone,” recalls Enger, “and from the moment Mike and I began to talk, I was so impressed by the company’s mission and his vision and his enthusiasm was just infectious. I remember thinking I really wanted to be a part of what this company was doing.”
Serotek is a dynamic working environment. The fact that the team is scattered around the globe does nothing to detract from the company’s strong sense of camaraderie or its collective desire to disrupt the adaptive technology market with products that redefine how customers lead their digital lives.
“As much as I loved helping Blind folks find the right product to fit their needs for their job,” said Joe Steinkamp when he came aboard in July 2010, “I longed for the ability to delve into specific technologies and subjects outside my four walls… I was offered the opportunity to participate in the company’s vision and I readily jumped at the chance to share in that grand adventure.”
The Ultimatum No move in the adaptive technology market has ever caused such a stir as Serotek’s now famous call to arms. On March 1, 2010 Serotek declared war on the traditional adaptive technology industry. If the introduction of FreedomBox was the first shot fired, Serotek’s public ultimatum was a trumpet blast to rally the blindness community around a campaign to throw off the constraints of tyranny.
“For the past two decades the technologies originally conceived to give us freedom have been our shackles,” wrote Calvo in an adamant post. “They have kept us tied down to underperforming, obscenely expensive approaches that only a small percentage of blind people can afford or master.”
News of the post was blasted across many public forums. The call was heard, and while some reactions were cautious in their optimism, the vast majority of blind computer users were swept up in the battle cry for something more than the usual attempt to mimic innovation.
“Even we who have done it right are on a path to obsolescence,” went on Calvo. “The universal accessibility principles we see Apple, Microsoft, Olympus, and others putting in place are going to eliminate the need for these specialty products in a matter of just a very few years.”
And it is perhaps this sentiment that truly defines the worth of Serotek. No other company has ever sought its own demise. There is absolutely no one else in the adaptive technology industry who has ever advocated for a world that would mean the end of its services. Such an idealistic position is typically reserved for the nonprofit sector, and even in that arena one would be pressed to find an organization that would not cringe at speaking of its own closing. For companies that seek to compete against the trend that is Serotek, therein lies the true ultimatum.
The Road Ahead There are far more achievements, large and small, that pepper the life of Serotek at ten years old that could not be covered with adequate justice. What this proves to the team working hard day in and day out is that the future is full of enormous possibilities. Regardless of the form Serotek will take in the next decade, there is a special kind of fuel among the company’s representatives. It’s the kind of energy that compels people to think outside the box and consistently deliver products that help the blind compete on equal footing.
The team at Serotek understands that in general, the mainstream marketplace does not consider blind customers as viable consumers. The millions of dollars spent on learning about customer habits from year to year generally do not encompass blind people, because even at the outset of the 21st century blind people are seen as a special class of consumers who cannot possibly want access to mainstream products or know what to do with the products even if they had the access. While Calvo has relished the ability to give blind people a means to tap into popular commercial services through innovations like System Access, Accessible Event, and DocuScan Plus, the vision that has propelled Serotek from its infancy is one of universal access without class systems. Until such a reality becomes more of the norm than the exception, Serotek remains committed to providing equal access in a way that is attainable for all.
That, in a nut shell, is our story so far. We are proud of what we have been able to do for you over the first ten years of our life, and we are even more excited about our relationship with you in the next decade. We are more than just a vendor. As we teeter on the edge of a new chapter in technological developments, we are turning to you to help us write a narrative of huge achievements in universal access that make blind people just another segment of the population. Together, we are a catalyst for change. By uniting our strengths we can inspire change on the critical issues that matter to us all as consumers. We at Serotek will continue doing our part to see those needed changes come about. The evolution of technology is such that there is no telling what next week, next month or next year will hold, but of this we are certain: The best is yet to come…