Gavin Neate, CEO and Founder, Neatebox Limited
The truth is that disabled people aren’t going to wait to be included. They’re not waiting to be included. They are being included themselves.
Gavin's innovative inventions are changing the ways individuals control the accessibility and inclusion of their physical and social spaces.
Interview with Gavin Neate, CEO, Neatebox Limited
Transcript for Interview with Gavin Neate, CEO, Neatebox Limited
Webcast interview hosted by John Griffin, Publisher of Accessibility.com, featuring Gavin Neate, CEO of Neatebox. John and Gavin are in separate locations and the interview was conducted over video conferencing. The speaker is on screen at any given time.
[Introductory chime accompanies 'Accessibility MattersTM' animation on screen, briefly. Music accompanies 'Accessibility Matters, Episode 5' on screen, briefly.]
I want to start with something that I read in your self-description. “When we start off everyday interaction on the premise that everyone has something to add, we stand to gain so much more than we lose and perhaps we may even evolve our understanding of the benefit of true inclusion.” That’s pretty deep.
Yeah, where did that come from?
Well, it’s off of your LinkedIn self-description.
Yeah. Indeed, I wrote that. Yes, I did write that.
Where did this come from?
I would say it’s bricks that have been built one on top of the other that has led me to this point in my life. I’m 52 years old now and the bricks have just been planted on top of each other. But there was a very solid foundation. My mother is an incredibly moral lady. She believes in fairness, 100% 50/50 equality, exactly. Everybody is equal. And I guess that was never like, right, this is what I believe Gavin, you’re gonna live your life with these rules. But when you experienced that all the time, you can’t help but feel some of it. Now, interestingly enough, my brother and sister are different people from me. So, they didn’t follow the same route.
But I left school and I joined the military. I was a military policeman. I did that for 10 years. I was then based -- I was a police dog handler, I was based near a guide dog training school, seeing eye dog training school up in Scotland, and I would go along and do voluntary work. And I just thought, wouldn’t it be good if I could do something that felt socially good? And wouldn’t it be cool to put my skills with dog training to the use of actually training a dog to help somebody rather than bite somebody? And that just was another brick that was then layered on top and layered on top. The police thing was a brick that was layered on top. It was like this is the right thing to do. We need to be able to protect. We need to -- It was never because I wanted to get up in anybody’s face or anything. In fact, I don’t think I arrested anybody in the time that I was in the military, I just managed to calm things down. It was a natural skill, I guess.
And joining Guide Dogs, I was in a position where I was able to then build another brick. And I met so many people who were visually impaired as the key part of the world they lived in, blind or visually impaired, but they might have had other disabilities or conditions. And I would get to know them as people, not as clients or customers. I would get to know them as people and I’d go and walk into a shop or a room and I’d go, Why is somebody else not seeing you as a person? Why are they seeing you as a disability? Why are they not going, “Hi, John,’ or “Hi, Mr. Smith,” why have they sort of like stuttered or stammered or around how they were interacting with them? And I just felt that we aren’t different, we are all the same, we all have the same -- If you took us all and put us all in a room, put five people in a room together and they were all very, very different people you would look at them you’d go they’re all exactly the same.
I saw a brilliant thing actually just thinking about it. It was a group of people all in an X-ray. Five all were standing next to everybody in an X-ray. And you can’t tell -- you couldn’t even tell which you’re male or female. You certainly didn’t know which was black or white. You didn’t know which one. You might -- you could might be able to tell if somebody was in a wheelchair or something like this. But you certainly didn’t understand hidden disability and 80% of disabled people have a hidden disability, and you couldn’t tell the difference. And you just think we’re the same. Why treat people differently?
So, you went from guide dogs to technology to Neatebox.
Not intentionally by any stretch of the imagination. In 1996, I joined Guide Dogs. By 1999, I had my first PC. By 2003, I was talking to people about GPS because GPS was starting to be used at that point, very badly, I guess. And then 2006 people were turning up to train with guide dogs and they had Nokia N95s which was the last decent slide phone I think from Nokia, but it had speech on it. And then iPhone 2S came along and it had VoiceOver. And then my clients were turning up and they were showing me technology. So, it kind of just -- they just melded together. I just thought, “Well, wouldn’t it be good if you could use technology in ways that was actually useful to people?” And it was that. "I wonder" if was the thing that went on in my head. I didn’t think for a second I would have a company.
But by 2011 I had invented the world’s first pedestrian crossing operated by smartphones, purely because it was “I wonder if the phone could press the button at a pedestrian crossing rather than having to go and find a button.” And that was the snowball at the top of the hill that was kicked down the hill by a friend of mine who was entrepreneurial who said, “Gavin, you can’t just talk about a solution, you actually have to follow it through.” And Neatebox came from that, not because I wanted a company, was quite happy in Guide Dogs, but I wanted to find a solution to something I’d seen as a problem.
So, did you run into organizational barriers? Did you run into -- as you were bringing Neatebox forward, you know, what were the fences that you had to climb?
I was climbing a lot of fences and breaking through a lot of walls. But I think probably -- and there are barriers everywhere. There are barriers to doing something innovative. However, the greatest barrier for me was internal. I didn’t believe that I was a person that could have a business. I didn’t believe that my idea -- I thought the world of business because I’d left school with few qualifications, joined the military, joined Guide Dogs, few qualifications all the way through. Never got involved in business at all.
I wasn’t the sort of person who thought, “Yeah, I can have a business.” But once I started climbing over the barrier of my own, not doubt but feelings that I couldn’t possibly know what other people knew, then I was able to actually address the other barriers. And the truth is that the longer you do something and the more that you do it with stamina and fortitude, and narrow-minded, goal-driven procedure, you just -- everything else falls by the wayside. You have to find ways around and over and under barriers. But the truth is that if you just maintain, if you stay the course, you’re going to be there at the end, if you can do it financially.
Your recent accomplishment finds Neatebox as global champions for inclusion and empowerment at the UN World Summit awards for -- you want to name it?
So, WelcoMe is the -- Yeah, WelcoMe. Well, WelcoMe. This is actually interesting. So, I was -- It’s a customer service system that helps disabled people get better customer service. And we can talk about why that’s important in a second. But the word WelcoMe is written above every door of every shop you’ve ever been into. You go either shopping centers, and you go malls and things you go it says "Welcome." But you don’t necessarily feel welcome, you know that they wrote above the door. But I looked at it one day, and I went, “Well, the important thing is that the individual feels welcome.” And right at the end of the word welcome are two letters, M and E. And that was an epiphany. I went, “There’s a me in welcome.”
But when I turn up and I’m a disabled person, well, everybody should feel welcome in customer service. But when you’re a disabled person, you very seldom feel as if you are being welcomed in the same way as everybody else. You’ve got physical barriers, you’ve got social barriers, you’ve got emotional barriers to get through, even to get through the door, let alone get served. And I just WelcoMe was a way of saying, I want to put the disabled person, I want them to be aware that they are equally as valuable and me as everybody else. In fact, they knew that, but I wanted other people to see them as valuable because they are. Their money is exactly the same as everybody else’s money. And I was just really keen to make sure that business knew that at the same time as disabled people took -- were empowered by being able to ask for what they wanted for a change.
So, how does it work?
That’s a good question. And it’s so simple. So, pedestrian crossing operated by a smartphone. You stand next to pedestrian crossing, your phone presses the button for you. Your phone runs an application that somebody downloads onto their phone, it uses BLE, Bluetooth Low Energy. I was thinking at the time, right, if I woke up to a pedestrian crossing box and my phone presses the button, wow, that’s kind of cool. What other buttons could I press? Well, I could press the button at a door. So, a disability access door. I could walk up towards that door and instead of finding the button with the wheelchair on it -- symbol, my phone would press the button.
And then I thought to myself, well, wait a second, if I’m walking through that door, what’s the next big barrier I come up against? And it’s how I interact with the person or how the person interacts with me. And I thought well, if I’m going through a door, at that moment, the building knows I’ve arrived. And if the building knows I’ve arrived, the people inside the building know I’ve arrived. If they know I’ve arrived or could know I’ve arrived, I potentially could tell them how best they could serve my needs. And if I could do that using an application, then I could tell them by filling out a profile three months before.
Whenever I say I want help I can get the help that I want if I just say I’m going to a particular venue. And that’s what WelcoMe is. It provides customer service teams with information the person wants them to know about how best to interact with them. And of course, the beauty of it is, a guide dog owner goes into a shop, the person interacts with that guide dog owner in a way that has been set up by our system. The next five, 10, 15, 20 guide dog owners who walk through that door will all get better service because that one person used the app.
We don’t train somebody in customer service and then think that it only works for one person. It works for as many people as they can remember, as long as they’re getting it right. Well, what WelcoMe does is it makes sure every time somebody uses the app they get it right. That could happen a hundred times in a year. That staff training a hundred times in a year, for whoever is walking through the door with whatever disability they have, or would like somebody to know about if they feel they want somebody to know about it. It might be they don’t. It might be that they just say please ignore me when I come in. I have epilepsy. It’d be great if you knew I had epilepsy so that if I did have a seizure, at some point, you would know how to interact with me while I was laying on the ground. So, this is empowering the disabled person to choose the level of service they get before they walk through the door.
How do companies react to this?
There are lots of reasons to react positively. There are lots of reasons initially to react negatively. The first one would be but we already give good customer service. Because everybody thinks they do.
It’s a bit like saying are you a good driver. Most people will say, “Yeah, I’m a good driver." They’ll not say, “I’m bloody dangerous. I’m worried about crashing all the time.” Nobody ever says that. They think they’re good drivers.
People think they’re good at customer service. The stats do not back that up. In the UK, certainly, 75% of disabled people have said they’ve had poor customer service. 51% have said that they would go somewhere else if they had an alternative. So, customer service isn’t working. So, this was the challenge. It was how can I let people know. Now it’s very easy to let somebody know that they don’t go do potentially good customer service. Person is wearing a name badge, let’s say they’re in Target. Okay. They’re wearing a name badge in Target and the person walks up to them and says, “Oh, hello, Matthew. I’d like to get a new lawnmower.” Brilliant. Matthew goes, “Yeah, fantastic. You got my name badge.” Unless Matthew tells the blind person he’s called Matthew, he’s given a different level of customer service than the person who came in to buy the lawnmower.
So, you have to work out what is good customer service. It’s not just being nice. So, what we wanted to do is we wanted to not only support the business to give better customer service. We wanted the customer service representative to feel damn good about their job because nothing makes you feel better than giving a good service to somebody who’s disabled who goes, “Yeah, I love it. You guys are brilliant.” And we wanted the disabled person to want to spend more money in the shop or business or wherever. It wasn’t necessarily about money. It might be National Health Service in the UK, it just makes it more efficient.
We wanted to help them travel more. We wanted to do all these things. We wanted to, and this is key, we wanted our investors to make money out of a growing successful sustainable, high-growth company. And if we could do that, we can prove that social good can also be a way of giving capitalism a way out. Capitalism is a dirty word. Whereas if you do social capitalism, you’re actually in an area where you’re doing something good and making money out of it. I don’t have many examples of that.
So, they have to participate willingly in it. And if they do, or what you’re saying then is social capitalism takes over from there. They see the benefit based upon what is commonly referred to as the purple pound.
Yeah. In the UK, the purple pound every year is reckoned to be around about 274 billion pounds a year. That’s the spending power of disabled people. I think it’s something like 20 billion in retail. This is a lot of money to be saying we don’t need to put in a ramp or my staff don’t need to understand autism. Or no guide -- we don’t really allow dogs in here, whether they’re a guide dog or not they’re not allowed in.
If we turn around and say we’re doing that at a time when we’re really pinched, people are pinched now. It’s like how do we get people back into our shops. Well, encourage them by saying we’ve got a service that means that when you turn up we’re going to know not just what you want, but how to sell it to you and how to upsell. And this is how capitalism works. It’s how do I sell stuff?
I used an example a while ago which was remember those or if you know the Monty Python sketch, the Dead Parrot sketch there’s a door that opens and the door opens and goes ding ding. In fact, the other one is Little House on the Prairie. I think Mr. Olson had a shop that there was a doorbell always ringing [JOHN: Right.] when the door opened. And you go, that doorbell signified for Mr. Olson to come out of the hardware store at the back and go, “Oh. Yeah. How nice to see you guys, Mr. Ingalls."
And he would come out and he would serve them. Well, what we’ve done is we’ve created a bell a hundred meters away from the shop. And not only do we know the bell’s ringing, but we know who’s walking through the door and how to sell them an item. But also how to give them such an amazing experience they’re going to want to come back again and again and again.
The Royal Bank of Scotland has gotten the message, haven’t they?
They did. Royal Bank of Scotland installed it in 15 branches initially. It was a trial and it’s not in the bank at this time. We hope one day they’ll take it back. We’ve got other banks that are interested. Coutts Bank which is one of the NatWest Groups banks have it installed.
So, we know that we have started to prove the point. I think the important thing here is that they are all catching up. They were brilliant at the very start. They said, “Look, we don’t necessarily understand what you guys are doing but we know it’s important and we’re going to support you and help you develop.” So, we were able to develop our platform to a stage where we are streets ahead where we were when we even started working with them.
But we’re in a situation now where we are much more street smart. We’re much more sophisticated. Our platform is much more sophisticated. We’re just about to launch it as a web-based platform so we can integrate into people’s systems. And that will make a massive difference. But some of the other companies Deloitte, Diageo, NorthLink Ferries, Irish Rail, Scottish Government, we’ve got National Health Service are just about to launch here.
You can imagine this in a hospital or a medical center, knowing -- I mean, the idea that you could triage before you even get there, this is stuff that’s all possible when you use proximity awareness, and somebody approaching a building as being your trigger for serving them.
But what really fuels the success of this is the shift of capitalism towards a recognition that there is purchase power and there’s a customer base to be had, and that the inaccessible prior world becomes much wealthier. If they make it accessible.
Yeah, we’re talking -- [crosstalk]
[inaudible 00:17:25] product as a functionality that that takes it into, basically into a status that they wouldn’t have if they didn’t have WelcoMe as a platform.
Well, John, what do we have now?
We have the very best. We have -- all of our staff have an induction where we talked to them about the importance of serving disabled people correctly. And that’s the depth of it. And we certainly don’t talk about epilepsy, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, autism, acquired brain injury, stammer, we don’t go into any depth. We rely on our employment processes to employ people in customer service, who can smile easily, who are nice and friendly, but it’s just not good enough anymore. 80% of disabled people have hidden conditions.
So, unless they self declare that they’re dyslexic at the moment that you’re saying, “Please fill in this form,” they’re gonna choose not to go somewhere where they’re gonna fill in a form as an example. But if the person knows they’re dyslexic before they actually hand them the form, they could sit down and say let’s go through the form together. They don’t even have to raise the fact that the person is dyslexic.
Knowing that somebody needs a signature guide who’s blind, the signature guide is already there, rather than the person going, “Have you got a signature guide?” And the person going, “Oh, no. We had one here somewhere.”
Having a hearing loop in a building, and the deaf person saying you’ve got hearing loop on your window, and the receptionist saying, “I’m sorry, I don’t know how to turn it on. I don’t even know where it is. What’s a hearing loop?” In this situation, we take away all of that. We let them know about it at minimum two hours before somebody walks through the door.
We provide them with links to the charities that gave us the overviews and the top tips in which they can use and the links can take them to further training. So, you can do Autism Awareness two days before an autistic person comes into your shop. That autistic person will never have had customer service like that.
Do you see this having impact by industries? Have you got your eyes on transportation, for example, entertainment? You know, aside from the local retail stores, I mean, it’s such an obvious play for them. But for the massive, you know, the mass consumer suppliers and the large services, massive consumers suppliers have competition out there that they didn’t have 25 years ago and Amazon and the online world and if they, you know, they want to keep those storefronts, the lights on, they’ve got to find the new customers. Is that correct?
Yeah. Well, if you search for something on Facebook or on Amazon, it will pop up on your Facebook screen because somebody has got the data. Well, physical world can be like that. But we don’t use it. What we’re doing is yeah, facial recognition maybe when you walk into a shop, and then I could maybe find out what they had online. But that’s not a particularly human way of doing things.
But you mentioned there about sectors. Well, it was one of the things when I started I think probably my naivety going into business, I thought I could be -- I thought yeah, we’ll just do it in all sectors. So, in fact, it’s not even sector-specific by any stretch of imagination. It’s specific to, is it somebody’s job to meet or sell me something when I walk through the door? And I say sell loosely because it’d be -- it could be visiting a doctor, it could be taking a train, it could be -- it could be anything at all. It could be going for a job interview.
So, all we do is we say is it somewhere where somebody meets somebody, can that person have a better experience of meeting the person who’s walking through the door, and will the person who’s walking through the door feel more comfortable about walking through the door the next time or going anywhere where our system is in place?
So, we’re in NorthLink, we’re in ferries, trains, we’re in Edinburgh Airport with ABM, who are a large international organization. We’re in coffee shops, we’re in an optometrist. We’re just about to launch in a dental practice, in a council building, in a hospital, in a health center. We’re in museums, art galleries, libraries. It can be anywhere because customer service is everywhere.
It’s a bit too big, really. The truth is, it’s too big. Google couldn’t do this to the level that it needs to be done because this doesn’t exist in Australia, or South America, or North America, Canada, Europe, Spain, Israel. People don’t have this.
You line up against identity in this and one of the buzzwords that I find is you react to is the sense that there’s a charity need to participate in functions that bring accessibility to inaccessibility into an inaccessible world. You have anything responding to that?
So, I come from a charity background. I worked for Guide Dogs for the Blind for 18 years, loved it. I believe fully in charity model. The charity model has served us incredibly well. I think the success of the charity model can be detrimental to disabled people sometimes for a couple of main reasons. I think one is that a charity model relies on income.
And income increasingly, if you watch X Factor, or Britain’s Got Talent, or any of these programs, they will always put the most emotional story forward. Because the most emotional story will get the most emotive response from the audience. And I think charities sometimes can lean heavily on an emotional story. And I don’t know if that really reflects the life of the disabled person.
They might not want somebody to feel sorry for them, which is why they’ve given them money. They might want somebody to say I believe this person can and should be able to do so much more with their life, but they have too many barriers in the way. Now that could be money, it could be services, it could be better designed buildings, or infrastructure or streetscapes or anything. The charity model is evolving. It always is evolving. It’s not charity is this. It’s evolved from the very start and it’s constantly evolving. It’s very much a business.
I think the bigger problem with charity and I have to say I love charity. The bigger problem is that it is not Pan Disability, in general. In fact, what’s happened over the last 50 years is you’ve got more and more smaller charities working with more and more smaller demographics. So, where it might have been a charity just for visiting impaired people, you might now have macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa, diabetic retinopathy. Every single one of them will have a little -- a little off shoot.
The challenge we have there is when disabled people or disabled person or an advocate goes to an organization and says, “I would like service for my particular group.” Sometimes it’s at detriment to another group. Tactile paving around a pedestrian crossing is really useful for blind people, but not much fun if you’ve got hypersensitivity, and you’re in a power chair. In fact, it can be quite sore to stand on.
So, there is a compromise everywhere along the road here. Nobody ever said it was easy. There is a -- Universal design is the most important thing we’ve got. But we can only use universal design when we take everybody’s opinion right at the very start. It is not impossible. The very best buildings because it’s physical environment, you can design really well-designed buildings and implement them with doors and showers and light switches and counters and even coloring.
And it can be done in such a way where there is compromise but nobody suffers. But if one person goes in and says I demand this, sometimes it will be a detriment to somebody else. And I think that can be the challenge for charity is bringing things together under the same roof so that we’re saying, look, there’s 1.3 billion people, or there’s lots of groups of a hundred.
You get a sense that the concept of finally moving towards an accessible world is not viewed in 2021 the way it was in 2021 -- 2001. It’s just not the same. You know, the consciousness is rising and the public awareness seems to be very much disposed to whatever needs to get done should get done.
Yeah. World Economic Forum in Davos for the last three years, one of the keynote speakers has been Caroline Casey of The Valuable 500. And she’s managed to get nearly 500 companies from Coca-Cola to Microsoft and Virgin and all these guys, they’ve all signed on to this agreement to say we will care more about our employees and the people that use our services. And that’s massive change, the idea that we’ve been talking about that at World Economic Forum, which is money, money, money.
The fact that the world is now talking about that, I think, where we’re actually -- because the CEOs get it because of the work that The Valuable 500 and so many other advocates do. But I think the person on the street doesn’t get it yet. I think they’re the people I can help the most with WelcoMe. The 19-year-old who’s working in Starbucks who has just come straight out of college or is just trying to pay her way through college has never met a person in a wheelchair, potentially has never met somebody who’s autistic, they don’t get the story.
The CEO hasn’t spoken to them. They don’t know. They’re just trying to deal with the next customer who comes through the door. Those are the people we need to help. That’s the next step.
We need to help the 45-year-old who’s been working in hospitality who has always felt they’ve done a brilliant job, and in so many ways has, but just could do with knowing that if a deaf person is standing in front of you, you change your position so the light source isn’t behind you so that if they’re lip-reading, they can read your lips. There are so few people that put that into practice. And we can put that into practice before somebody walks through the door.
So, the world can be more accessible. But it’s not just going to be out of feeling sorry for people and wanting to include them. The truth is that disabled people aren’t going to wait to be included. They’re not waiting to be included. They are being included themselves. They are going out there and you have amazing guests on your shows who have proved that they are the ones who’ve dictated the world that they live in.
And now with social media, it just takes one person going into a supermarket and having a bad experience, going on social media -- Well, the best example, a lady in New York the other day who I think she got $1.4 million from Uber who, because she had been refused access 14 times or something.
And she went boom -- and because she was prepared to take it to court, wow. That’s not a mistake Uber want to be doing every two weeks.
So, disabled people are much more powerful there. They are like the tortoise from the hare and the tortoise. But the tortoise is not just going slow and steady, they’re strapping rocket packs onto their shell. And they’re going to overtake the hare whether the hare is awake the whole time or not. And that’s going to lead to a world where we’re all included whether we want to encourage people into our group.
They’re going to be saying, “No, we’re part of that group.” People like me and other people, they need people to talk about what’s going on.
And I would say that when it comes to disability, and when it comes to any diversity, embrace the people that are part of that diverse group. Bring them into your group. Have a look around you. We looked at CEO, board members, like 10 years ago, five years ago to be like white 45-year-old guys. You look at boards now and there’ll be like a lot more women in them, maybe of different ethnic minorities, but there’s still not enough disabled people out there who are at that level. We work their agenda and it’s improved. But disability is not -- it’s not reached there yet.
And it should do because there’s absolutely no reason why if somebody had a -- if somebody is a software developer, and they’re an expert in their field, and they suddenly have a car crash, and their legs don’t work anymore, doesn’t stop them from being a fantastic software developer. They should be employed just the same as everybody else. It’s just bring them in, create diversity within our organizations. I think that’s the key message I have here. And of course, use WelcoMe. Get WelcoMe in the United States because it’s not there yet.
I’ve got to congratulate you on your innovation as well as its remarkable success and its brilliant future. If you keep traveling along this path, I’m sure we’re going to see you and hear from you in a lot a lot of ways.
[On screen, scrolling: Accessibility Matters, Host: John M Griffin, Guest: Gavin Neate.]