Be My Eyes Helps The Visually Impaired To See

We recently hosted a webcast conversation between Marilyn and Hans about Be My Eyes, a startup that connects visually impaired people to sighted volunteers, for assistance with everyday tasks.

Don’t have time for the full webcast now? Catch the webcast highlights and tips from their conversation in our companion blog below.

If you’d like to read the full transcript of Marilyn Gorman’s conversation with Hans Jørgen Wiberg, you may download it.

Be My Eyes Helps The Visually Impaired to See

We recently hosted a webcast conversation between Lean Startup Co. Faculty Lead, Marilyn Gorman and Hans Jørgen Wiberg, founder of the Copenhagen-based startup Be My Eyes, which offers a free app connecting visually impaired people to sighted volunteers, for assistance with everyday tasks.

Hans came by his inspiration for the Be My Eyes app very personally–he is visually impaired, just like his users, and has been working with the Danish Blind Association for years, where he connects regularly with other visually impaired people. “One day [the idea for the app] was there and it wouldn’t go away. So I had to do something about it,” Hans explains.

He knew the app was possible, but as a self-proclaimed non-technical person, he didn’t feel he had the skills to pull it off alone. He took the idea to a startup weekend in Denmark, where presenters were allowed one minute to pitch their ideas. They loved his idea so much it won a “most innovative” prize.

What followed was a year of seeking funding and then another developing the app, which launched in January, 2015.

“One day the idea for the app was there and it wouldn’t go away. So I had to do something about it.” Click To Tweet

When You are Your Own Customer

Marilyn wonders if Hans found himself in the unusual position of being his own customer, and if that is a problem.

“I was kind of the customer,” Hans admits, but he says it is more of a help than a hindrance, as it allows him to understand very personally what his customers need and want.

For example, he knew it was time to harness the technology of apps like Skype and FaceTime, which have the power to give visual assistance to the visually impaired.

“Be My Eyes is just a simple app that basically makes a video call between two persons,” Hans says.

A crucial difference between the app and the usual method of calling a friend or family member to ask for assistance, he says, “is that “we have volunteers who sign up and say ‘Yes, I am available to help a blind person see something.’”

The volunteer presence adds an extra layer of independence to the visually impaired person’s life, rather than worrying that they are interrupting or imposing on someone.

How it Works

Marilyn was curious how the process works. Hans explains, “The majority of calls that blind people make in Be My Eyes [are] from the kitchen.”

So, say a blind person is cooking a meal and pulls out an ingredient from the fridge, and they’re not confident what it is. Before they add something unexpected to their soup, they can call Be My Eyes, and a volunteer can help them tell the difference between ketchup and mustard, say, or let them know the temperature of their oven.

When the customer sends out the request, the notification goes out to multiple volunteers at once, to maximize the possibilities of a response.

They also attempt to pair important details like time zones and languages. Hans explains, “If you’re a person living in Texas and you want help at four in the a.m., we don’t call anyone in Texas.”

Hans feels fortunate that they have numerous volunteers speaking a multitude of languages, though they are always trying to recruit more. While he’s thrilled with the number of volunteers, they are always struggling to get enough of them in all the languages their users speak. “We have decided that English is our main language, but we have many users we can’t communicate with, so it’s one of the challenges,” Hans says.

“The majority of calls that blind people make in Be My Eyes are from the kitchen.” Click To Tweet

When Failure is Success

Marilyn asked Hans to discuss any failures that might have yielded from his experiments while developing the app.

Hans shared that the only real failure he feels they had was an overly long list of features they wanted to put into the app in the beginning, but which lack of funds prevented.

“And then it ended up…as simple as possible, so you can say it was a failure to have that many ideas in the beginning, because we ended up making it as simple as possible.”

The app is literally just one button. They settled on this design with the awareness that many of the blind people most likely to use their app would probably be in their 60s, 70s or even older.

“We didn’t want to scare them away with ten different options,” Hans says.

Marilyn agreed that entrepreneurs often have a tendency to over-engineer new products in the beginning but that ultimately it’s important to “strip out anything that’s not necessary that doesn’t add value.”

And as it turns out, Be My Eyes hasn’t had many requests for all the “brilliant ideas” they had in the beginning, he shares. “So maybe it was a really good thing we didn’t overload the app.”

Volunteer Powered

Very few existing apps run on volunteer power, so Hans was concerned in the beginning that they would have a difficult time finding volunteers. In order to attract them, they created a “gamification element,” where volunteers could gain points when they helped someone. This proved unnecessary. “It turned out we were overrun by volunteers.” Today they have more than 1.5 million volunteers who speak in 182 different languages. They quickly removed the point system.

Awareness of the app spreads largely through word of mouth, Facebook and Twitter, Hans says.

A Question of Sustainability

Marilyn asked the logical next question—how does a volunteer-driven organization equal a sustainable business?

Hans first explained his reasons for making the app free. “When we look at the map we can see that 90% of the blind people in the world live in low-income settings—such as India and Africa.” They didn’t feel they could charge these people $10/ month. Additionally, they didn’t expect the volunteers to pay for their own efforts, so they sought funding elsewhere.

One of their team-members came up with the idea to connect with Microsoft, to offer blind and visually impaired Microsoft users technical support directly through Be My Eyes. Microsoft then pays Be My Eyes a monthly fee.

“They can just show the screen with their phone, and it’s way easier for Microsoft’s support desk to help their blind customers,” Hans says.

They continue to pursue a similar funding model with other companies that need to better support their blind customers.

“We hope to make the whole world more accessible to blind people.”

“When we look at the map we can see that 90% of the blind people in the world live in low-income settings, such as India and Africa.” Click To Tweet

Do-overs

Marilyn asked Hans to reflect upon what he’s learned since 2012, asking if he had to start the project from scratch, would there be anything he’d do differently?

Hans did not find many things to change “on the big scale” only “lots of small things, admitting that everything took way longer than he thought, when it came to development.

However, he’s gained a great deal of personal satisfaction from the many positive emails he receives from the blind users and the volunteers.

“Be My Eyes is not saving anybody’s life but it does make blind people’s lives a little bit easier,” Hans says.

Thanks to Jordan Rosenfeld for contributing this piece. If you seek to bring the entrepreneurial spirit to your organization, Lean Startup Co. can help.

If you are interested in volunteering with Be My Eyes, or know someone who could use their free services, please reach out through www.bemyeyes.com.


Also published on Medium.