Saturday 19 January 2019

Access all areas: trip advice app for disabled travellers has global vision

Maynooth-based social entrepreneur was looking at the big picture from the start

Entrepreneur Matt McCann, from Celbridge, Co Kildare, got the idea to start the firm after a frustrating experience at a hotel in London. Photo: Frank McGrath
Entrepreneur Matt McCann, from Celbridge, Co Kildare, got the idea to start the firm after a frustrating experience at a hotel in London. Photo: Frank McGrath

John Cradden

It's easy to see how the likes of Tripadvisor and other travel review websites and apps have revolutionised the travel market, but given the special requirements of travellers with disabilities, it was only a matter of time before a tailored service popped up.

There are already a few, but Maynooth-based Access Earth has blazed a trail by starting out with a global rather than just a local focus.

It provides users with information about the accessibility of hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions the world over based on ratings given by other users with disabilities. It generates its income mainly via affiliate fees from bookings made to accessible hotels and restaurants that its users decide to purchase.

"We couldn't really be local with a name like Access Earth," says Matt McCann, who hails from Celbridge, Co Kildare.

"What we found when I was looking around to see what other people were trying in the area, was that it was difficult for them to maybe get out of their own local area.

"With Access Earth we'd came up with this immediate global focus and decided to go straight for it and just see what we can do.

"So far than it's been received really well we've gotten good traction in the US and got good contacts from in Scandinavia and Australia. So it is living up to its name."

The company now has 5,000 registered users who together have rated over 80,000 places globally. It has partnered with the two largest veteran associations in the US, and was selected as one of the Top 40 Accessibility Practices at the United Nations Zero Project earlier this year.

Matt also reached the grand final of the Best Young Entrepreneur competition, where he won the Google Award and, with that, a spot on Google's Adopt a Startup Programme for this coming August.

But the other key to the success of Access Earth may well be down to its status as a social enterprise.

There are a lot of misconceptions about what constitutes a social enterprise, but the broadest definition is a business that trades in order to provide essential services or tackle specific problems in society or environmental issues.

But the main question for founders like Matt starting out is whether they should structure them like charities or like regular businesses.

The answer depends on each social enterprise; some are set up as charities or not-for-profits, while others are for-profits but any surpluses are usually reinvested back in pursuit of the social objectives of the enterprise rather than paid as dividends to individual shareholders.

For Matt, who has cerebral palsy, the idea to start the firm came after a frustrating experience in London where he had booked a hotel online that was ostensibly accessible only to find on his arrival that there were steps up to the entrance, which mean that he couldn't get his rollator into the room.

This was during his time at Maynooth University doing an IT conversion Hdip (after getting a degree in Computer Science from TCD). "After that I went on to do a Masters in software engineering, and once I graduated I set up Access Earth because I knew if I went and got a job somewhere else I would regret not giving Access Earth a go."

But setting Access Earth as a for-profit made more sense to him than as a charity in order to make it a sustainable, enduring business.

"Starting out I had that choice, to make it a not-for-profit or a what we now term as 'profit with purpose' and I found that was the profit for purpose approach was an easier option for me because it opened up better funding opportunities.

"Initially, I just wanted to get more information out there and then the second step was to ask, how can I make this sustainable? Because that's the key really, isn't it? We wanted to be there for people and not just to go away after a couple of years."

He adds that many people assume that the firm is a not-for-profit, "but in a way that's an advantage in that we do get an immediate buy-in".

"They see what we're doing and the reason why we're doing it, and then we clarify that we want this to be a sustainable business and are we're keen to set up partnerships and all that kind of thing."

Getting initial funding was still a challenge, however. "I'm from a computer science background. It took a while for me to kind of get my head around the business management side and what constituted a sustainable revenue model.

"That was the biggest challenge we had initially to get that down on paper so that we could get the buy in, and then to get people to see this was a commercial opportunity behind us as well.

"I think we've struck a nice balance now I think at this stage, but in the beginning ... we were chopping and changing with different revenue streams.

"The biggest challenge we had was telling that story from a commercial angle."

The company, which currently employs two part-timers alongside Matt, but hopes to expand the team to five by the end of the year, is currently in receipt of both Local Enterprise Office and Enterprise Ireland Competitive Start Fund funding. It is also working to complete a seed investment round by the end of the year where it is looking to raise in the region of €550,000.

Although the app and website depends mainly on its users providing accessibility insights from their travels, Access Earth is looking at supplementing that with artificial intelligence and machine learning help to verify this information.

In addition, it is partnering with local organisations "where we would get representatives from these organisations to go out and map areas of their city that they feel need more information, and from that we're able to get some good business buy-in as well".

It is also working on linking up with global sporting events such as the Paralympics.

"I can't reveal a lot at this stage but we're currently in negotiations with some of the highest-profile competitions in the world," he says.

On a day-to-day level, Matt most enjoys talking to people about Access Earth.

He admits that networking didn't come naturally to him, but it's much easier now that he has a compelling story to tell.

"It was something that I felt I had to learn quite quickly, but I realised that you know once you have a story to tell and that you have that passion for what you do, then it will come across when you're talking to people and reflect well on you."

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