Adam Spencer, CEO of AbleDocs, Discusses Accessibility in a Digital Age

Based out of Oakville, Ontario, Adam Spencer, the Founder and President (GLOBAL) of AbleDocs, has dedicated his career to transforming online and digital documents into mediums that everyone can enjoy. He and his team of experts have paved the way in document accessibility by providing clients with various tools and guidance on how to ensure that online forms and documents can be understood by all their customers.

Adam Spencer has been in the accessibility field since 2009, when his mother, a banker at the time, needed a way to ensure that people with low vision or print-disabilities could access their electronic bank statements. Seeing the potential for a new field of software, Adam co-founded his first company in accessibility. After garnering success in the field, Adam left that company to pursue his current venture, AbleDocs.

What would you tell others looking to get into your industry?

What I would say is have a passion for it.  It’s a very clear line between the people that are doing this with a passion versus the people that are doing this because they see a financial opportunity.  That’s not to say the passionate people are solely being altruistic and doing this out of the goodness of their heart.  That’s not what I’m suggesting at all.  But the ability to see someone’s passion for accessibility and see how they’re changing someone else’s opportunity while building a great new product or service, that comes through.  Those are the people that really remain committed for a long time.

I look at the people who walked before me and still work in the industry but helped carve the path for those of us that came later.  The passion is still there with them versus the people who are like, “Yeah, I got a job in accessibility and it’s really cool and I think that I’m giving back to people.”  That type doesn’t last as long in this industry.  What our industry is doing is a seismic shift in the way that we deliver content to people, whether through documents or websites or any other medium.  We’re seeing a different way of providing barrier-free access to everyone, and once you’re in, you’re hooked, and if you’re not hooked, you should leave.  Don’t just use this as a job.  This is a life and it’s an amazing one.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned managing your business/team?

Probably the biggest lesson is to listen.  A team that is run by a dictator, and I would put my old self in that category, is a team run by an iron fist.  That doesn’t work.  You must prioritize collaboration, listening, and getting feedback to realize that you are only as strong as your team and your team is only as strong as you.  That’s kind of the motto that I live by.

We’re all in this together and for the company to be successful, we all need to be successful.  When we have someone on the team who’s hurting, it hurts the rest of the team and we need to fix that.  How do we help someone on the team that isn’t potentially operating at their best?  And the other thing I will say is, you can’t just put your lens on how to fix it.  You need to listen to people because what may work for you or another person may not work for the person that needs the help at that moment.  Building trust in the team is critical because you can’t afford to have the team break down.

If you could change 1 thing you did in the beginning of your career what would it be?

I would not put unconditional trust in people who you think are on your side.  Document everything.  Make sure that you have that independent advice, whether it be a lawyer, an accountant, or a third-party.  As a word of caution, we try to trust the people that are closest to us, our friends and family, but at the end of the day, they may not be the best people to provide you with that advice.  You’ve got to be very clear with who’s providing it.  I don’t mean to sound cynical but it’s you against the world.  Even though those people may be the reason why you are where you are now. I’ve been burned several times by people that I thought I could implicitly trust and unfortunately it just didn’t work out that way.

You think you’re doing the best you can with the circumstances that you’ve been given, but when communication and trust breaks down, it becomes toxic.  You can’t build a successful business like that.  You really need to be on high alert at all times, making sure that that you are able to deliver on your commitment to the company, your company’s commitment to your client, and your client’s commitment to their clients.  Without that, your reputation is at risk.

What has been the hardest obstacle you’ve overcome?

The hardest obstacle has definitely been losing everything I’ve built.  Without question, having to start over again is the hardest thing that I’ve ever had to do, and I’ve had to do it twice.  I definitely didn’t want to do it the second time and if it wasn’t for the support of my wife, I never would have done it again.  It worked.  I’m beyond proud of what we’ve done and humbled by the opportunity that everyone around me has given me, my team, and our clients.  It’s a very difficult decision to brush yourself off the next morning after losing everything you’ve built and saying, okay, let’s get back in the ring and do it again.

What is one piece of advice that you have never forgotten?

This is kind of a rough and personal one.  It wasn’t advice, but there was a comment that was relayed to me once.  My grandfather died the month after I was born, and my grandmother gave me his ring when I turned 21.  But there was as a moment where my mother sat me down and she took my grandfather’s ring off my finger.  She said that he would be tremendously disappointed with something I had done.  And it was from that point that everything I was doing going forward was to earn that ring back.  When she gave me the ring back it was it was like a new commitment. It never leaves my finger.

Outside of work, what defines you as a person?

There’s something outside of work?  Well, I would say that I love to laugh.  I love to look at the lighter side of life.  I live to ski.  I love my wife more than anything in the world and she’s what keeps me going every day.  So long as I’m doing something with her, that’s what I’m doing outside of work, and it’s the best

Where do you see you and your company in 5 years?

I’m not one to plan that far off only because I have no idea.  If you had asked me three years ago, my answer would have been very different than what it is today.  I think we’re continuing on this amazing journey of bringing the best and brightest in our field under the Abledocs umbrella, continuing our global reach, and I’m hoping that we are inching closer and closer towards making ourselves obsolete.  We want to be able to deliver software that doesn’t need us to fix things to be accessible.  We want them to be accessible from the word go.  That’s really the commitment that we’ve made to each other as a company, and now it’s just a matter of continuing that development path forward and reinvesting in our team and reinvesting in the next chapter of what we’re doing.  That’s where I see us in five years.  I joked when I first got into the industry that I thought we were going to be made obsolete in five years, and here we are coming on fifteen years later.  We’re still here.  I love how much we’ve pivoted in the last three years and the next five will only be that much more exciting for us.

Explain the proudest day of your professional life.

It was probably being able to address the entire team after completing year two and being able to see that we had truly exceeded every expectation that we could have put forward.  Everyone had doubted us.  Even some of the people that had said, “Yeah, yeah, you’ll get there,” we knew that they weren’t believing in us.  But we did it.  I’m not one to stop and take a lot of praise since I find it embarrassing,  But I couldn’t have done it without the team, and to be able to celebrate with the team and share that with them  was probably the proudest moment I’ve had.  My wife always mocks me for being a crier, but it is one of those times when I couldn’t have been prouder of what we’d done.  I see that change every single day.  Every day we set a new record or we set a new measure.  Those moments make me infinitely proud and that’s where the sky’s the limit, because if we can do it to this point, why can’t we do it tomorrow and the day after and the day after that?


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