Adam Spencer, CEO of AbleDocs, Discusses Motivation and the Importance of Accessibility
By Joey Claudio | Thrive Global, January 12, 2021
Adam Spencer is the CEO and founder of the Canadian company based out of Oakville, Ontario, AbleDocs. AbleDocs is a leading company in the realm of document accessibility and is helping thousands of people with disabilities view and interact with online documents.
Adam Spencer studied economics and politics during his time at university with the aspiration of becoming a lawyer. During his second year of university, he launched a company with his friends that installed wireless networking in student residences. This positive experience, coupled with the emerging technology, inspired Adam Spencer to get into software development that would ultimately lead to his success.
He began his career in accessibility in 2009, when his mother who was a banker requested a method to help her blind clients read important documents. Faced with this challenge, Spencer found an opportunity in creating software that would allow for electronic accessibility and created Accessibil-IT. After taking leave of that company, Adam Spencer started AbleDocs which has grown exponentially.
What do you love most about the industry you are in?
The people. There isn’t anyone who gets into accessibility for just a job. Everyone comes into this business with a story, an experience, a passion, and there’s a real sense of camaraderie even amongst competitors. We can sit down and break bread and think about all the possibilities to pursue. That collaborative spirit within accessibility is amazing.
At the end of the day, the underlying technology that we are developing and offering really has no limit. Until we find the replacement to digital content, the sky is the limit. In theory, just about every company of any size needs our products and services. At least a portion of what we offer. So there really is no upper limit to where we can go.
What keeps you motivated?
I want to make us obsolete. We want to have a great organization that does amazing things and we’re helping people every day to live an independent life. The pursuit of doing it better, faster and more sustainably will ultimately get us to a point where we’ve developed technologies that make us unnecessary. We’re an industry that exists in response to the barriers that exist in the world. If we’re doing our job right, and we bring the right teams together and continue to push the boundaries of what people think about accessibility, then we’ll get to the point where we won’t need to exist anymore. Instead of an industry focused on fixing things, our vision is to have an industry that doesn’t need anything to be fixed because accessibility is right there from the start. You won’t need us as a service because you’ve already got it in the software that you use every day. That’s what keeps me motivated.
How do you motivate others?
I have a real passion for what we do and the type of company that we’ve put together. I really care about the people on my team. I want to make sure that they are doing the best that they can and are treated amazingly well and feel respected. We’ve tried to create a company that is really human-centric, not just profit-centric, and I think that’s a big difference.
From an external standpoint, I have a tremendous commitment to our space, our industry, our standards, the upholding of those standards. We expect excellence across the board, and I think that comes through in my enthusiasm when I’m publicly speaking around the world or giving a webinar now because of COVID restrictions. I’m really enthusiastic about it and you can tell. That comes through and people really gravitate towards it.
How has your company grown from its early days to now?
We have exploded. We started the company with eight people sitting around my dining room table. We now have eight offices in five countries. We have the largest remediation team in the world, constantly fixing software that doesn’t meet standards of accessibility. We handle more content than anyone else. The volume of work that we’re doing has given us revenue in two years that most people didn’t even believe we’d be able to do. I think even those of us in the company are astonished. It’s amazing. This is the most successful company I have ever built. We’ve crossed milestones in 18 months that took seven years to cross in my last company.
Who has been a role model to you and why?
I do have a lot of amazing advisors around me, but I wouldn’t say there’s one person that has stuck out as a traditional role model figure. My family has been an amazing rock for me. They’ve been there at my highest of highs and lowest of lows. From a business perspective, I’m involved in an amazing CEO group known as TEC Canada. I get so much from my peers in that group. We’re a small group who really trust each other and help each other work through our challenges.
How do you maintain a solid work life balance?
When we were deciding to start AbleDocs there was a very serious conversation about what that work/life balance would look like. Up until COVID, my wife and I had a busy lifestyle where we would meet up in airports; we were fortunate enough with her work to be able to coordinate our business travel and end up in the same place – or close enough – where we might be able to spend a weekend together. Our lives are our work and it’s always a part of our thinking. We never turn it off. But we really push ourselves in our free time: We’re avid skiers, giant Formula One fans, we love racing and experiencing the world, so when we travel we really do try to disconnect and enjoy the moment that we’re in and experience all that life can throw at us. I would say during the week that achieving a good work/life balance is hard, but we always make sure that we at least cook a meal together. It’s a great passion of ours and we want to spend that time together.
What traits do you possess that makes a successful leader?
Listening. I used to run my companies with an iron fist. It was my way or no way. To be blunt, that is a horrendous way to run a company. The best thing you can do is listen to what is being successful, and also what is not being successful. Where are people struggling? Where are the pinch points or pain points in your company? The key to success is without a doubt listening to our clients.
What suggestions do you have for someone starting in your industry?
I teach a course on Entrepreneurship and Accessibility at a college. I won’t give away all my secrets, because you should really be taking my class! But here are a few suggestions: Never take yourself too seriously. What you’re doing is important, but it’s not the only thing in the world. Keep yourself grounded and maintain your sense of direction for your goal. When you come up with an idea for what you want to do with a company, you have to be solely focused on that. If you allow yourself to be distracted, if you don’t have a full commitment, you will not succeed. You can’t. Entrepreneurship is a lifestyle. Anytime someone says, “I want to go into business to be my own boss”, they reveal that they don’t know why they’re doing this. This is how I started my first company. I said, “Let’s start a business, make a million dollars and buy some Porsches and we’ll be great.” The advice is, you’re doing this because you have a passion for it, or you believe you can do something better, or that you can offer something someone else can’t. Don’t do it for the money. Money is a byproduct of your commitment and passion for what you’re doing, but don’t think for a second that it’s going to be easy. You’re going to be having to make decisions that will be among the hardest you’ll confront in your life. “Do we eat or make payroll?” And the answer is you make payroll.
What is your biggest accomplishment?
Concluding the merger that we did this summer was my biggest accomplishment. It helped us combine the strength of three people that all shared a vision and knew the direction that we needed to go. Now we’re seeing the success of that merger through increased growth, an increase in our products line, and a global reach that I always envisioned. We’ve been able to achieve it. It was something that I had wanted to do many years ago, and I knew it was going to be an integral part of our future success.
What is the biggest life lesson you have learned?
Never let your ego stand in the way of the success of your venture. Ultimately the company is not about you, it’s about the people and the mission and the product or service you’re selling. People who forget that will get in trouble and cause the company to fail. Keeping grounded in business is critical. I don’t like to make a habit of talking about the success of the company. Yes, it’s amazing what we’ve done but we still have a job to do. That pursuit is what keeps you going every day. We still have a lot of work to do and as proud of I am of everything that we’ve accomplished, there’s still a long way to go and that’s the exciting part. Not anything other than that; the pursuit of what’s next is the motivator.
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