Episode 13: The InclusionHub Podcast Founding Partner Spotlight — Be My Eyes

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Episode 13: The InclusionHub Podcast Founding Partner Spotlight — Be My Eyes

In this episode of our Founding Partner Series, Morey Creative’s Jeffrey Howard talks inclusion, accessibility, community, and much more with Hans Wiberg, founder of Be My Eyes.

Jeffrey Howard  00:01 | Hello, everyone. This is Jeffrey Howard at HubSpot diamond partner agency Morey Creative Studios, and I want to welcome you to yet another extraordinary bonus episode of The InclusionHub Podcast. In these episodes, we've been highlighting some of the incredible people and spectacular work of InclusionHub's Founding Partners.

Jeffrey Howard 00:23 | In the inaugural episode of this miniseries, I had a chance to speak with Alwar Pillai and Abid Virani who are the CEO and COO of Fable, which is a leading accessibility testing platform powered by people with disabilities. In the second installment of the minister I had the chance to speak with Hans Wiberg, who is the founder of Be My Eyes, which is a free app that connects blind and low-vision people with sighted volunteers. I've actually volunteered a few times myself; it's a really seamless user experience, and it's a great way to help out many of our friends across the globe. It's an amazing service. You've probably also heard about it from longtime host of The InclusionHub Podcast Sam Proulx. He raves about it, he loves it, he uses it himself. 

Jeffrey Howard 00:46 | As you'll learn Be My Eyes has a remarkable origin story. And it begins back in Denmark in 2012 with Hans, and part of what's so profound about the story is that so much of the interface is informed by Hans' own experiences as somebody who is visually impaired. And I really think that's been a big part of the dramatic growth Be My Eyes has seen in the decade-plus since it launched. Right now there's roughly 6 million volunteers and that's only going to grow. I also really appreciate that Be My Eyes' chief goal is making the world much more accessible for people who are blind, and low-vision. And at the podcast, we couldn't be happier or prouder to be partnering with them. 

Jeffrey Howard 01:12 | In this episode, besides discussing Be My Eyes' dramatic growth and their origins, [we] talked about some of the inherent challenges that Hans and his crew have had in building out this community. But also, one of the greatest gifts of the app is that it enables users to ask for help without really asking for help. And you'll understand in a moment what I mean by that. Now, before we jump into this conversation, I have one way for you to help advance the cause of greater inclusion and accessibility, and that's to rate, review, and subscribe to The InclusionHub Podcast. It really may seem like a small thing, but it adds up to really help us grow this community and to increase awareness about issues related to accessibility and inclusion. And as always, thank you for tuning in. Here's my conversation with Hans Wiberg of Be My Eyes. Enjoy. 

Jeffrey Howard 02:57 | Hans, welcome to the show.

Hans Wiberg 02:59 | Thank you.

Jeffrey Howard 03:00 | I would love to start at the beginning of Be My Eyes: Where it began? Where did you get the idea for Be My Eyes?

Hans Wiberg 03:09 | Well, I'm visually impaired, myself. And I was working for the Danish Blind Association, and in that period I got to know a lot of blind and low-vision people. Some of them were pretty tech-savvy, we're back in 2012. And some of them were using iPhones to call friends and family when they needed a pair of eyes. And then one of them said to me, but I always have to call someone. And I was thinking, 'Oh, we can make a group you can call, that can't be that difficult.' I had no idea what I was talking about really, or how to make an app or anything, but this idea kind of stuck with me, and then I got back home to my wife and daughters. And we simply made a FaceTime call. And one of my daughters guided me all the way around my house. And with my eyes closed and that worked just perfectly fine. I thought, 'Oh, this is actually pretty good.' And then yeah, that's how it started. And then of course had to find some people and raise some money and all that. But that's kind of a long story.

Jeffrey Howard 04:20 | Yeah, well, and that's the story I want to get into. Because as you mentioned, you didn't have much experience building apps. You're coming from a slightly different background. So what are a couple of those biggest challenges that went from 'Here's this really cool idea to, okay, how do we actually implement this on a larger scale?' Because it was a few years later that you launched Be My Eyes?

Hans Wiberg 04:44 | Yes. I mean, in 2012—I mean, the iPhone came out in 2007, I think. And in the beginning, it was a nightmare for blind people, but suddenly iPhones turned into something that blind people could actually use. And so that was kind of the starting point that it was at all possible for blind people to do this. And then when I got this idea, as I said before, I had no idea how to do it. So I went to a startup weekend where I met some amazing people that also thought this idea was good. And then we started to have weekly meetings, online meetings. And we started to write applications to some of the biggest foundations in Denmark. And we also tried some crowdfunding, that didn't really work out, but it was kind of fun to do. But then suddenly, we got a reply back from one of these foundations that we have gotten $300,000. Then it was suddenly a serious business, that we could start hiring developers. But we also had to find some developers who knew anything about video conferencing and also were into making an app for blind people. There was not that many apps for blind people back in 2012. So that's why it took almost two years from [when] I got this idea till we raised the money, and we had to develop this app because nobody had done anything like this before. So there was nobody else we could kind of copy-paste. And so that was a super interesting and stressful situation that we were in there.

Jeffrey Howard 06:40 | It's been incredible watching the growth of Be My Eyes. I think in October 2018 you had achieved around 100,000 signups from people who are blind and low-vision. How big is that figure today? How many volunteers, as well as people who are blind or low-vision are using Be My Eyes in 2022?

Hans Wiberg 07:02 | Well, we have 430,000 blind and low-vision people signed up globally. And I'm very proud to say that we can support people in 185 different languages, which I think is pretty amazing, [Jeffrey interjection: Incredible] and now we have 6.1 million volunteers. And that is of course, why we have so many different languages because you can sign up in more than one language. And when you have so many people, you also have many who speak many different languages. So that is where we are today. And that is coming from Denmark, which we have 5.9 million citizens. So being more than the whole country of Denmark is for me, I know this is not important to anybody else, is a pretty big deal. 

Jeffrey Howard 07:56 | And I have to admit, using the Be My Eyes is so incredibly easy. Download the app and hop in and you have a quick video explaining how it works. And it's just a really seamless experience. For those who are listening who have not used Be My Eyes, could you explain a little bit of what that experience is like? What are some of the tasks volunteers help people out with?

Hans Wiberg 08:20 | Well, I'm very happy that you find it easy to use, because that is what we have really, really tried to do. Basically, you have two options when you are a blind person, and you have signed up. Of course, you need to download the app and sign in with your email and your name. And that's it. And then you're good to go. And then you will have two options. One where you can call a volunteer. And the second option is where you can call a company. And if you press 'call first available volunteer,' then we will send out a notification to 20 volunteers speaking the same language as you, and the first one of those 20 volunteers who accept will get the call and we make the video connection, and those two people can talk to each other. It's one-way video, and two-way audio. And this is a super simple and easy way to do it. And most calls are answered within 10 to 20 seconds. So no matter where in the world you are and no matter what language you speak, at least [inaudible], you will have a sighted person for you personally within 10 to 20 seconds, and that's that's pretty amazing. And even if you wake up in the middle of the night and you need to see something, then you can just press the button and we will find a volunteer for you, not your neighbor because that's also in the middle of night. But we will find someone in London or Australia or whatever where it is daytime. So in that way, we can help 24/7 without disturbing 24/7. And that's the power of having so many volunteers globally.

Jeffrey Howard 10:12 | I love how—I don't want to say like low-stakes, but like, I think the culture that your features enable, where if I'm just making dinner, and I could step away from making dinner to respond to someone's call, I can take it. But if I'm driving, and it comes in, I don't have to feel bad about not picking it up because as you said, a notification goes out to a couple dozen people. And someone's going to be there to help someone else. So it's not another avenue for me to feel guilty if I can't be there right away. And I love that.

Hans Wiberg 10:45 | And speaking of cooking dinner, you ask what people are using this for? And that is, I think, the most common call you will get from somebody in the kitchen, having some food ingredients, or can you read how many minutes does this need to be in the microwave? Or can you tell me how many degrees is my oven set at? Or turning on a washing machine. Or your air condition—I want to crank it up a few degrees, can you help me do that? Or maybe more likely down because of the energy prices these days. But that's how people are using Be My Eyes. 

Hans Wiberg 11:26 | But also when they are out and about. If they have this route, they walk every day, but suddenly, there's some construction going on and they need to know, do I need to cross the street to get past this or can I kind of get by? The other button in the app is called specialized help, where you can call a company—you can make a Be My Eyes call directly to Microsoft if you have an issue with one of Microsoft's products, then you can call this guy who was working at Microsoft. And because you're using Be My Eyes, we can route the calls directly to those—I mean, Microsoft, they might have 1,000 people answering calls, but they only have like 10 people who know about what issues blind people have. But we can make sure that all those calls go to the same 10 people. So it's way better for the companies because they don't get frustrated about all these blind people calling in. And it's also way better for the blind people because they get way better support because they actually speak to someone who has had the same question maybe 100 times—it's really a win-win. And Microsoft is paying Be My Eyes to be on our platform, and that's how we can keep Be My Eyes as a totally free service for every blind person globally, which is part of our mission. Because we know that blind people in most countries are low income, or maybe don't have any income at all. So we didn't want to kind of have a service where you had to pay $10 a month or anything. We wanted to have this as a free service also because we believe that sight should be free. And if we can find the volunteers who are willing to do it, then we are basically just the middleman making the connections. So we find this as the right thing to do.

Jeffrey Howard 13:31 | The impact of this is huge. And you'll have to remind me, people who are low-vision or blind there's around 300 million globally...

Hans Wiberg 13:40 | Well, depends on who you ask, so to speak, but [the] UN says, I think, it's 285 [million] that are blind and low-vision. And out of those 285, it's about 35 million who are totally blind. And reminding me of that. We are super proud of our numbers. But basically, we have just gone a little bit of the way, we have a long way to go before we really reach the majority of blind people in the world. So we have a lot of work ahead of us reaching all these people.

Jeffrey Howard 14:15 | Be My Eyes, as you mentioned, helps people with a lot of pretty regular daily tasks that can actually really give them a lot more autonomy, helping make dinner, etc. What is perhaps one of the most unusual tasks you've had a volunteer help someone out with?

Hans Wiberg 14:33 | Well, I would like to tell a little story where it kind of went both ways because we had an older guy who was blind and he made a Be My Eyes call and he got that sorted out and then the volunteer kind of frustrated said, 'Oh, I hope you could help me a little as well.' And then the blind guy said. 'Okay, well what's what's your issue?' ‘Yeah, my car is not working.' 'Well, I happen to be a retired mechanic, what's the matter with the car?' And they actually got the car working again, which was—that's why she was very excited and sent email about this. This is, of course, very unusual, but it's kind of when two people talk together, you cannot kind of assume that the other person, even this person is asking for help, maybe this person can also help you. And I think that was kind of a fun way that it turned out to be a win-win for both of them.

Jeffrey Howard 15:36 | That's beautiful. I think part of why that's so beautiful is because of when you live with a disability, it can sometimes feel very, very alienating when you don't have as many opportunities to contribute to other people's lives. And, and that's what all of us really want to have, those opportunities. So I love that it can be a two-way thing sometimes.

Hans Wiberg 15:55 | And that is also kind of when I talk about Be My Eyes, I always tell about this. I mean, I have a wonderful wife, and kids, and a wonderful neighbor. And they also—all of them really want to help me. But I don't want to ask them all the time. And that is the kind of the real power of Be My Eyes, that you can ask for help, without really asking. It doesn't feel that way, you just press a button and someone has volunteered to do that. And you know that, you don't disturb them because they answered. And you can make 100 calls a day if you want to, and you will never get the same volunteer. And if you are in some troublesome situation, but you need a lot of help, you cannot kind of call your sister all the time. So it's really a powerful thing that we have so many volunteers who are stepping up and making it so easy to request this help. And many—I think 90% of our calls are less than three minutes. And it's pretty amazing: Have I set my oven to 200 degrees? Yes, you have. Thank you so much. And that's it. And sometimes the volunteers get disappointed because, 'Oh, was that it?' Yes. But it was super important to do this. Because now like anybody else, this blind person can kind of make sure that she or he did what she thought did it. And like anybody else we forget—oh and then you go back and look at the stove, and then you go on again. So now you can also do that as a blind person.

Jeffrey Howard 17:39 | My Eyes is very important to us at InclusionHub Podcast because you're one of the Founding Partners of InclusionHub, back in December of 2020. What does it mean for Be My Eyes to be such an important part of InclusionHub?

Hans Wiberg 17:56 | Well, I am very happy that we are because you have this site where you can go in and look at not only Be My Eyes, but all kinds of services and apps where you can get assistance and you can find something that you didn't know about, but that can help you in your daily life. And the more we can spread the word about this and get more and more people involved—going back to Be My eyes, one of the things that I'm really, really proud about is that we have many of our volunteers who has their first real interaction with a blind person, but because they suddenly have this experience, they start talking about it to other people. And I'm pretty sure that people that go into your website and see some of these apps as 'Oh, did you know that you can actually do this, and then they tell their neighbor about it.' And that is how we can kind of spread awareness of this and make it a normal thing to use different kinds of apps and so on. I think that's super, super important. And we are proud to be part of that.

Jeffrey Howard 19:07 | We are happy to be a part of it as well. What are some new developments that are happening to Be My Eyes that maybe we can hear a little bit about? What's coming down the road?

Hans Wiberg 19:19 | Well, from experience, I have learned not to reveal anything because I think it's coming next week and then it's really three months. So I'm not going to tell you anything, but I'd like to say that—and this might not come anytime soon—but but I would love to, we have this amazing community of blind people and volunteers. And of course, the volunteers are helping blind people. But I think that we can make a real community where blind people can help each other and I would so much love to see that. I'm not quite sure how we're going to do that. But I'm pretty sure that when we have the resources, I would love us to go in and see if we can kind of connect blind people and they can teach each other some tricks and so on. And that would be, that would be an amazing thing for me to do, because I live here in Denmark, and we have a pretty solid system of educators and mobility training and all that. But that's not the case all over the world. But I'm pretty sure that blind people in some countries can teach other blind people in other countries some blind skills, and encourage people and get inspired from other people and so on. So I hope to see that. It's not something that is really on the drawing board. But that's kind of my dream of Be My Eyes, that we can make it into more cross-connection communities. 

Jeffrey Howard  21:03 | And what do you find is one of the biggest barriers, or one of the most frequent challenges you face in trying to achieve your mission at Be My Eyes?

Hans Wiberg 21:16 | Well, this is a real startup answer, but finding the money to hire the right people is a challenge. Also, because when you are running an app that you insist on being a free service, then you have to find the money somewhere else. I have a great team of sales people and so on. But it's a long way to convince huge companies to deal with a small app for blind people. But it's an amazing journey. But the financials are, of course, important. And one of the other things is that it's actually pretty difficult to reach out to blind people. And I mean, you cannot just run ads on Facebook, and so on. Because many people are not using Facebook that much. And many of our users are also elderly people, where you kind of have to go through the kids or relatives or whatever, to reach them. And especially when you are, I mean, we try to reach people in 180 different languages, and we only speak four of those languages. So it's kind of a challenge to really spread the word. We are very happy that many of our volunteers, as I mentioned before, they are telling their neighbors and friends about their Be My Eyes experience. And that's really how we have gotten from zero to 6 million volunteers. So in that sense, we [inaudible] but it's not something that we can really push that much, we kind of have to wait till it happens by itself, so to speak.

Jeffrey Howard 23:00 | On InclusionHub, we write a lot for professional settings, we're trying to help businesses and organizations to foster cultures that are more accessible and inclusive. I would love to hear maybe a few anecdotes or stories about professionals who are blind or live with low-vision, how they use the Be My Eyes in professional settings.

Hans Wiberg 23:29 | Well, that's one of the other things that we have. We have a service called Be My Eyes For Work, where if you are a blind person working in a business, and you run into where you need a pair of eyes, then you can maybe ask your colleague, but you don't really want to do that all the time, but you cannot really call a random stranger and show them anything company-related, and that's why we have made this system where you can have maybe 10 or 20 or 30 of your colleagues as your volunteers. So you're not calling someone outside the company. So anything company secrets, whatever, stays within the company. But you don't have to ask the same volunteer all the time. And this is our way of helping blind people be more independent also in a work situation. And we really hope that we can spread that one all over the place because it can be very difficult to at all get a job if you're blind, but it can also be kind of troublesome to be in the workplace and also in COVID time where everybody is working home, and now we don't want to go back to work, we still want to work home, and if you are blind person working at home and you run into some issues then you have to call someone. And so if we can make that a super easy thing to do in that way and help blind people choose to stay in jobs, and maybe even get jobs in this way because they have this tool that they can tell their employer about.

Jeffrey Howard 25:19 | And so I want to end on a note around allyship. Be My Eyes, you demonstrate a lot of ways it can be helpful for people as professionals. For those who are looking to be allies to the blind, low-vision community, in addition to volunteering for Be My Eyes, what are a few bits of advice or wisdom you would share for how they can—other people can better support their colleagues and friends who are blind or low vision?

Hans Wiberg  25:49 | Well, I think it's super important that you, of course, are friendly and all that, but also that you take that little extra step and say, 'Would you like to go down to lunch with me?' Because it can be really awkward and troublesome, if you don't really know the environment, or, and I mean, finding someone to sit next to and all that, so make sure that you make your blind colleague comfortable in these situations that are not only work-related, walking from the building to the bus stop, don't just walk by, but, 'Would you like to go together with me?' Or 'It would be an honor if you walk together with me.' Something like that. These small things that doesn't cost you anything, you spend maybe 20 seconds doing something, but it makes a lot of difference to this other person. So I think that simple and basic, being a good human being is what it takes, and not a whole lot. 

Jeffrey Howard 27:00 | Well, folks, download the app. It's a wonderful experience to be able to connect with other people to provide a few minutes of the day to help them out. And Hans, thank you so much for coming on and telling us a little bit more about Be My Eyes. 

Hans Wiberg 27:13 | Thank you, [its] been a great honor. 

Jeffrey Howard 27:17 | Phenomenal stuff. Once again, this is Jeffrey Howard at Morey Creative Studios. On behalf of the entire podcast team. I want to extend a huge thank you to you for listening to this special episode with Hans Wiberg, founder of Be My Eyes. And also thank you to those who are reading along with this episode's transcript. I appreciate you being a part of this journey. And in doing so, I appreciate you helping to improve digital accessibility and inclusion for all. 

Jeffrey Howard  27:47 | Another tremendous shout-out to Hans and his entire team at Be My Eyes. They are literally changing the world, one user at a time. And I can't recommend enough for all of you listening and reading along to go check them out at BeMyEyes[dot]com. Download the app, use it, volunteer, help out all of our friends across the globe who are blind and low-vision. Honestly, it's usually just a few minutes a day and you would be amazed at how much help you can be to our friends. 

Jeffrey Howard 28:16 | I also have to thank all the podcast sponsors, in addition to Be My Eyes. That includes Salesforce, which is a leading customer relationship management software provider; Morey Creative Studios, where I work; and of course Fable, which is a leading accessibility testing platform powered by people with disabilities. You can learn more about each of these extraordinary businesses at InclusionHub[dot]com. Check out our directory, our blogs, and resources. We have a lot of stuff there to help explore and increase awareness around digital accessibility and inclusion. You can also subscribe, rate, and review The InclusionHub Podcast wherever you get your favorite shows. It really does help us to grow the community. And a final thank you to accessibility evangelist Sam Proulx from Fable, who is also, as you know, the longtime host of The InclusionHub Podcast. Thank you so much for metaphorically handing me the mic for these bonus episodes. Thanks, my friend. We'll wrap up once again with Sam's closing signature message and a worthwhile reminder for all of us that a more accessible and inclusive world is a better world.  

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