The Digital Accessibility industry is growing. People care at best or at least fear being sued and they’re turning to Accessibility Engineers to finally ask the question “Is my web product accessible to people with disabilities?” So like, yay! Right?
In some ways, absolutely! The industry is growing, wages for specialists (most of whom are people with disabilities themselves) are on the rise, more and more product makers are learning to make better more accessible products, and even brand-new devs are hearing about accessibility and wanting more. But with success in the air, so too is money. With all the yum yum bucks to be made Digital Accessibility, like any industry in a moment of rapid growth, is attracting some folks who aren’t there for the mission so much as they are there for the opportunity for profit. In strolls venture capital (VC), on queue.
You’ve got the business, we’ve got the cash! Let’s make it rain! Companies ready to grow and that need to grow fast due to rising demands need capital and VCs are folks with the dough; match made in heaven? Maybe.
I don’t want to in any way discount that the right VCs stand to be a huge value add for the industry. Growth is good. More accessibility is good. Besides, I’m not anti-profit here. I pay my bills with cash money just like everyone else.
However (yeah, you knew that was coming I know), there are a few things to consider when VC gets in bed with mission-driven industries like ours.
- Priorities: Accessibility has a few top priorities inherently baked in. They are increasing accessibility for people with disabilities, creating inclusive employment for people with disabilities, and profit (we’re still businesses after all). VC has one priority, profit growth. So long as the missions of Accessibility are in line with profit growth, all is peachy. But what happens when profit growth strategy contradicts the mission?
- People: Accessibility is about people and our audience is people with disabilities and people who want people with disabilities as their customers and coworkers. For VC the people that matter are the stakeholders (the investors). What does it mean for our industry when people with disabilities are no longer the people that matter most?
Let’s look at a fictional example:
Accessibility company a11yCompany is ready to grow. More people want their services than they can handle and it’s time to find capital. a11yCompany is successful because it spent years cultivating a brand that means something. People with disabilities are served as the #1 priority for their work and most of their workers are well-paid people with disabilities themselves. Because most of the staff have disabilities, the company has prioritized inclusion, high-quality benefits, flexible remote work, accommodation granting, and a healthy work-life balance. To maintain the environment, some years a11yCompany sacrificed growth or profit for its mission. Enter VCMoney, a venture capital firm ready to invest and help a11yCompany grow.
All is well for a time. Everyone is winning. More people with disabilities have access, more well-paying jobs for people with disabilities are created, the environment at a11yCompany continues to be healthy and happy and each year, more money is made than the last, so the investors are taking home profits.
Then one day the growth stalls. Normal market ebs, lack of skilled labor available to take on more work, whatever the issue and it’s looking like next year won’t be better than this year. Mind you, next year still looks amazing, but remember VCMoney needs growth. Because it is the VCs job, literally it is their fiduciary responsibility to make their investors the most money possible, this lag in growth can not be tolerated.
Suddenly a11yCompany finds that its mission is at odds with VCMoney’s priorities. Executives at the very top of a11yCompany who push back are replaced by VC-picked growth experts. These new players are not accessibility professionals. They probably aren’t people with disabilities. Their mission is not accessibility, it’s profit growth. These new execs get to work. Metrics are pulled and slower performers along with personalities likely to set boundaries or stand up for others are bullied until they quit to avoid paying unemployment or risking ADA lawsuit (an illegal but totally common practice), prices are raised on products, once free tools are monetized, quality is sacrificed for quantity, and the remaining staff is squeezed for ever-increasing demands on productivity while their benefits decrease in value and their wages stagnate. Some of the jobs are sent overseas and the priority of creating jobs for people with disabilities is abandoned entirely.
Eventually, a11yCompany is squeezed beyond stability, people with disabilities have nothing to do with it because it’s not a safe place for them to work anymore, clients are lost after receiving subpar products and services, free tools that used to help devs make their products accessible are gone so gains are lost in the % of products that are created accessible from day 1, then having gotten all the growth they can, VCMoney sells a11yCompany off in pieces while it focuses its attention to the acquisition of some other company poised for record growth.
So, is venture capital compatible with Accessibility, or any mission-driven industry for that matter? You probably can tell where I’m leaning on this, but I’d like to hear what you think because this is all genuinely new to me. While I know what I’ve seen so far gives me pause, I’m curious as to what else might be out there to add insight to this query.
Are you in the a11y professional and have experience with venture capital influence? What is your experience? Are you a VC and have some insight to share from where you sit? All are welcome and encouraged to share.