Adam Spencer is the CEO of AbleDocs, a Canadian company out of Oakville, Ontario, that has transformed the industry of creating document accessibility on the internet for people with disabilities. He went to university to study economics and politics with plans to become a lawyer. In his second year of his schooling, Spencer started a company with some friends to install wireless networking in student housing. It was a positive experience, and combined with the burgeoning field of computer technology, it lit an interest in software development that would define Spencer’s career journey.
His entry into the world of accessibility began in 2009, when his mother, a banker, requested his help in developing software that would help her staff that were blind to read their documents. He soon saw great opportunity in developing even more software to help in this goal, and co-founded the company Accessibil-IT. It was a huge success, but after departing in 2018, Spencer started AbleDocs and has rapidly grown his new company to an extent that has surprised everyone involved.
Where did the idea for AbleDocs come from?
AbleDocs was a response to what I had been seeing in the industry in the years prior to launching. There were a lot of little mom and pop consultants that were popping up and offering a lot, but the reality was they weren’t doing a good job. In my opinion, there were a lot of complimentary pieces of software or approaches that would make us that much stronger as a company to deliver more accessible content faster and more cost-effectively than the traditional model. Given the connections that I had in the industry, I’d had a number of conversations with people and my vision was to consolidate the industry by bringing the best of the best under one roof. And that’s what we did.
When we founded, we had acquired a company out of Denmark with a dear friend of mine who has been instrumental in the first years of AbleDocs. We’ve had three acquisitions and mergers since then, all helping us bring the best technology under one roof with our sales, branding and marketing. We’ve really been able to deliver the most cost effective and strategically appropriate direction for document accessibility. Every company in North America and Europe has to adhere to these laws and worry about potential lawsuits. We wanted to be the ultimate solution. Our long-term goal is to make ourselves obsolete and deliver technology that no longer needs services like this.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
My typical day starts at about 6am with a cup of tea. I go through the emails that have come in from our European offices and clients. Under COVID, I work from home on a headset connected to my Outlook Calendar and Microsoft Teams until around 7pm with various client engagements, sales meetings, and strategy sessions with our other teams around the world.
I live my life through my Outlook Calendar. If it’s not in Outlook, it doesn’t exist, including my personal life with my wife. She’s very much the same. During the pandemic we have been “commuting” together. We’re basically the only ones here so it has been really nice to not be living on a plane. Pre-COVID, I basically lived on a plane going between conferences and offices and clients. This year, not so much. Our life is normally a whirlwind where we’re meeting each other in a far-off place rather than at the dinner table here, so to be able to spend so much time with my wife has been a nice change.
How do you bring ideas to life?
A lot of it is based on what other really smart people can do. I say that because I give full credit to the team around me. When we started this company, I had no idea whether it was going to be successful, but we have repeatedly proven time and time again that it works. We’ve done it. I spent a lot of time listening to my clients say, we need software that can do a certain thing, and I take that back and think about it and say, yes, we can do something about that. I know the technology that can do it, and if we don’t have it, I’m really big on collaboration with others who can help make it happen. My philosophy has always been if we’re working collaboratively and not working competitively, we actually generate a much better solution. Rather than rushing towards a bad solution, we can collaborate on finding the best solution. That’s typically how we bring those ideas forward.
What’s one trend that excites you?
Without sounding too cliché, artificial intelligence is taking us in a really exciting direction with what we’re doing. It allows us to be more predictive with our approach to accessibility and creates a completely barrier free world from a digital content perspective. That’s probably the biggest shift in our space that I’ve seen since I’ve been in it.
The other piece is that companies and governments are recognizing that accessibility is a fundamental requirement. The most important part of the term “people with disabilities” is that they’re people. They have the right to access information and live an independent life. We’re seeing now, with legislation that was originally pioneered 30 years ago in Ontario and with the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), that people now recognize that we really need to do this. We need to make sure that our content is accessible. It’s not just ramps and elevators. It’s everything we do. I think COVID has shown the importance of digital accessibility because we’re all working from home now and those former accommodations don’t fit in the new model.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
The ability to work on little sleep. My life has been defined by my identity as a serial entrepreneur. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go into a startup again, because I know the lifestyle commitment that it takes. People often think that they get into business for themselves so that they can call their own shots and pick their own hours, but the reality is that my success has come from listening to my clients and being there for them and giving them exactly what they need when they need it, and probably to my own personal detriment from a health and well-being standpoint. The most important things to me my team and my clients and making sure that they are all taken care of. That is my driving force and I think that’s what helped me be successful.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Don’t blindly trust anyone. This sounds cynical but people are typically in it for themselves and really don’t care about you. And when you hear something that sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Do not get caught up in your own hype.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
I think it’s that I’m not the person most people think I am. It truly is the simple things in life that matter the most to me. It’s not what people perceive of me, that I’m this jet-setting high-flyer who only expects the best in life and can’t be happy sitting at home watching something on TV on the couch with my wife and our dog. But that’s actually the happiest I could ever be. It’s not the stuff or the status; it’s what I’ve got at home.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Schedule your day and live by it. You can’t stay on top of things if you’re not meticulous with your calendar. It is critical. I don’t know how people don’t live by a calendar.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Reinvestment. Rather than profiteering, it has been the hard decisions to push through and reinvest revenue into human capital that have helped us to grow. Bring in the best people you can and even if it’s going to be tight financially for a short period. You’re investing in this person because you believe that they’re going to drive future value to you as a company and your clients.
When we started the company two years ago, I obviously had a great sense of what the industry looked like, what was possible and where it was going, and we brought in some amazing talent from around the world and put them all under one roof. In so doing, we may have hired some people prematurely, but it turned out to be the best strategy possible because everyone ended up learning from these people, and we were able to deliver things much faster and much further under budget. We ultimately brought better products to market, rather than trying to struggle along making sure that our profit margins maintained a certain level. You can’t do that in startups. Startups are the Wild West. You have to see the vision and stay true to it, but ultimately you have to execute on it, and people are the most important part of that equation.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
I’ve had a number of companies that were successful and a number that were failures. The biggest failure by far is thinking that you can’t fail. You must recognize that once you have failed, it’s okay. Certainly, failure is not ideal. In the moment, it’s the single worst experience you could ever go through. But when you hit that bottom and you’ve lost everything and you wake up the next morning and you say, you know what? The sun still rose, you still know what you’re doing, you just need to take a different approach. It’s a learning experience you can turn into a success. I credit my wife with giving me the strength to dust myself off and say let’s do this better.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
I think a great idea is a car sharing service that’s built to cater to a specific market: I will call them car enthusiasts. I consider myself one. I love cars. But one of the challenges is that you can’t always drive a high-performance car. My favorite car is a Porsche, but I’d also love to drive a Ferrari for a period of time and see what that’s like. We car enthusiasts have these dreams of driving exotic cars, but we never get to try them because money stands in the way. Most of us don’t have unlimited spending capabilities.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
The last $100 I spent was actually to give to the Salvation Army. They helped me when I was in need and I try to do what I can to give back.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
Microsoft OneNote. It’s the single greatest application that Microsoft has ever created. I don’t know how people live without it.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Howard Stern Comes Again by Howard Stern. It’s an excellent book with amazing interviews and in-depth insight. I read to clear my head; it’s an escape.
What is your favorite quote?
“Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” – John Lennon
• As an entrepreneur, your lowest low is your next starting point.
• When you think you’ve figured it all out, you haven’t even started trying.
• Driven in the pursuit of success in a great company with great people that make a great product for people who need it.