StartUs Presents: UMOJA

Published on:

UMOJA aims to make accessibility accessible. What does that mean? Co-founder Ben Musgrave introduces the app that makes traveling more inclusive. Read more!

Describe UMOJA in 50 words or less.

UMOJA is an online travel portal connecting people with disabilities to find accessible hotels. We provide a free and easy to use app any hotel can download and create a comprehensive access profile within 90 mins that uploads onto our website, enabling people to easily search for the right accessible hotel.

Why did you decide to pursue your own dreams rather than someone else’s?

Both myself and my business partner, Yeshwant, wanted to set up something that could disrupt the travel industry and wake it up to both the needs and untapped potential of the accessible market segment. I had previously spent 7 years working on disability inclusion in both an NGO and government context, whereas Yeshwant had worked within both the hospitality and asset management industry.

Through his aunt’s experience as a wheelchair user trying to find accessible hotels, Yeshwant was also sensitised to many of the issues facing people with disabilities. Like many of the 1.1 billion people with disabilities globally, she would spend hours calling up hotels to see whether or not they have a ramp in the lobby or wide enough doorways to pass through. Very often, hotels wouldn’t know the answer or get it wrong, meaning when she turned up, they were not accessible for her at all. The more research we did, the more we realised how widespread this problem was, with statistics showing that 42% of people with disabilities find access-related information to be insufficient, unreliable or hard to find (EU, 2014). So we knocked our two heads together and UMOJA was born.

We firmly believe the joy of travel should be universally available, and by providing world class solutions to the Es100bn market for accessible travel, one can do well by doing good. We are convinced UMOJA will provide millions of people with the detailed and dependable information they need to travel with confidence!

7 years from now: How did your startup change the world?

Our vision is to make the process of organising a hotel stay as straightforward for people with disabilities globally as it is for people without disabilities. In practice, we see UMOJA changing the world through hotels in all corners embracing our technology, downloading our free and easy-to-use app and self-assessing their properties. To this end, an Android and Windows version of our app will be complete by early 2016 to accompany the iPad version and enable further scalability. As we build our brand, we also want to become a leading market place for goods and services centred around accessible travel, and so we will synergise with local and international accessible service providers to create this.

In short, by 2022 we want to have shown the hospitality industry that disability means business by having kickstarted a movement that sparks interest in accessibility from hotels and businesses across the world.

In what ways do you measure your success and how do you make sure you don’t lose track?

As a business that serves both other businesses (hotels) and a community (people with disabilities and their loved ones), our success is dependent on meeting both groups’ needs to ensure that we don’t lost track.

To this end, successfully meeting the needs of the community is measured through the numbers of:
a) New customers (bookings)/customer acquisition trends;
b) People with disabilities following us on social media;
c) Unique web visitors and online visitor interaction;
d) Customer satisfaction surveys.

Successfully meeting the needs of hotels is measured through the numbers of:
a) New hotels on platform through self-assessment;
b) New hotels on platform through expert assessment;
c) New hotels expressing firm interest in becoming part of UMOJA.

In the first quarter of 2016 we also want to further optimise our solution to prepare it to be even more scalable and efficient so that even more hotels around the world can get on the platform. This will include developing alternative versions of our app for Windows and Android and so we’ll keep a very close eye on what version of the app hotels are more inclined to use.

Describe your typical working day from coming to the office to leaving it.

It varies quite a bit depending on our project load and also the day of the week! With the AccessFest campaign that we’re currently running with Lonely Planet, for example, Monday is often a strategy day in which we reflect internally on progress and devise ways to create more buzz. Social media is a big factor in this, so we go through the types of messaging we want to get out during the week (e.g. If there’s a key disability/accessibility date coming up, we make sure that we contextualise our message around the date). Tuesdays to Thursdays are the big action days in which we reach out to hotels and the community with the messaging. Fridays are for partnership meet-ups (in Skype or in person) with either the Lonely Planet or disability activists to feedback on progress. In between all this we also have follow-ups with investors and our tech team. The only thing that is ever constant is that I start the day with 2 very strong cups of coffee.

With ferocious competition and a booming trend to build new companies: How do you make sure you don’t get lost in the shuffle?

By staying dynamic. Due to the nature of our work, keeping abreast of trends within both the hotel and accessibility sector is an essential part of not “getting lost in the shuffle”. To this end we’ve become members of great groups such as the European Network for Accessible Tourism which has opened doors to fantastic events including Destinations for All: first World Summit for accessible travel where we presented UMOJA.

We’ve also just commenced a great campaign (#AccessFest) with the support of the Lonely Planet’s Accessibility Department, to get hotels on board in the UK. With AccessFest, we’re creating comprehensive AccessGuides, centred around UMOJA’s detailed hotel profiles, for great festival destinations in 5 UK cities.

Above all, we work with people with disabilities wherever possible. In AccessFest, for example, we’ve teamed up with our friend & mentor Malini Chib, the chairperson of the ADAPT rights group, to prove to the hotel industry that focussing on accessibility is not only the right thing to do ethically but also the smart thing to do financially. Malini brings a huge amount of experience and energy to AccessFest and we could not do it without her. Our growth depends on synergy with others, recognising how what we are doing can both complement and be complemented by those around us.

What do you look for in team members?

Passion, hard work and open-mindedness are probably the 3 most important characteristics, everything else can be learned. We are a small but dynamic business, so our success depends on everyone pulling together. Open-mindedness is also a big deal for us, both in terms of learning new approaches to developing the business but also of showing respect and sensitivity in engaging with the community.

Why would a talent join your team?

3 reasons come to mind immediately: 1. Belief in the ethical justification of what we’re doing, 2. The value proposition of tapping into an underserved market, 3. The strength and nature of the team.

The concept of making better accessible information available so that a segment of society can enjoy access to the same quality of service as everyone else is pretty tough to argue against. The work that we do is certainly hard but it’s also great fun and ultimately rewarding when you realise the difference it makes to people’s lives. Add to this the huge financial potential of accessible travel (Es100bn), and you have the business potential to do well by doing good, which again is a pretty attractive value proposition.

Finally, the team itself. With the combination of Yeshwant’s experience in asset management and hospitality and mine in accessibility and disability rights, there’s a nice complimentary work dynamic. So as well as being hard-working and dedicated to improving accessible travel, we’re also nice guys to work with!

What was your most memorable moment so far?

We’ve had a few. Testing our product on 60 hotels in India was pretty memorable for one, as was signing our first global hotel partnership with the Taj group of hotels, or agreeing to do #AccessFest with Lonely Planet in the UK.

However, being invited to present UMOJA at Destinations For All in Montreal, in front of industry experts from the UN and disability/accessibility activists from around the world, has probably been the pinnacle. Getting the seal of approval from these groups in the summit gave us the validation and belief that not only is UMOJA a nice idea, it’s a viable business!

What advice would you give fellow founders for their startup?

Keep on moving and believing, don’t work alone and find synergy to become part of something bigger. If you don’t keep abreast of what is happening out there, you’ll be left behind. If you don’t believe in your business, no-one else will. If you don’t see how what you are doing can complement what others are doing, you will be isolated. Also, savour the successes but don’t get complacent, acknowledge the setbacks but don’t mull over them for too long, and most importantly, enjoy what you are doing.


Sharing is caring so please share this post. Thank you!