Podcast Episode: Neatebox
What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.
MM - Michael McEwan
GN - Gavin Neate
MM Now on this podcast I went to find out about a company called Neatebox, where I spoke to the CEO of Neatebox, Gavin Neate. So, Gavin, why did you set up this company in the first place?
GN Hi, Michael. Yeah, so Neatebox was set up in 2011. I was working for Guide Dogs for the Blind at the time. I was a guide dog mobility instructor, so my job was training people how to use guide dogs, and one of the things that I had noticed in the early 2000s was that people were turning up to train with guide dogs and they had mobile phone technology, or they were using email more or they were using online social media, and I just realised that with the mobile phone, technology was going to be something that they were increasingly going to be able to use and it was going to become cheaper and cheaper the more people that have it. Then I just got really excited about how technology could be used alongside mobility aids or traditional mobility aids or mobility style training, and then just one thing occurred to me one day, which was, “I wonder if” - I think that’s the sentence there that really is the start of Neatebox - which was, “I wonder if the mobile phone could press the button at the pedestrian crossing”, and I just thought, “Well I wonder if the mobile phone could press the button, ‘cause if the mobile phone could press the button then that would make it easier for my clients to cross the road”, and then I thought, “Well if it could press the button for blind people, well it could press the button for somebody in a wheelchair or powerchair or somebody with a walking aid, or somebody who didn’t want to make physical contact with buttons.” That became something that I was just fixated on from 2009 until 2011 when amazingly, having put some of my own personal money, or all of my own personal money - I sold my house - putting my money into it while I was working for Guide Dog, I invented the world’s first smartphone-operated pedestrian crossing, and that was the start of my journey. Ultimately what happened then was I realised I could use technology to solve loads of the problems that I had seen my clients live with, or try and live with, and I just thought, “Wow, I could do this, that and the next thing”, and we’ll talk about the other things that I’m doing in a second.
MM Yeah, we’ll go back and speak about the Apps in a minute or two, but what was your mission to set up your company?
GN So the mission has always been to improve independent mobility, but it kind of changed. It didn’t change but it added extra things to it. I believe in empowerment. I believe in a person’s ability to choose what they want. A lot of people think independence is about giving somebody all the solutions they need to do it all themselves, but the truth is independence isn’t about doing everything yourself. Independence is about having the choice of what to do yourself. So when I go into Glasgow and I’m on the outskirts of Glasgow, if I go into Glasgow I choose to take a train or a bus or walk or cycle or drive. I make that choice, but when we say, “Oh yeah, everybody can use the bus now”, well what about the train, what about walking, what about cycling, whatever it might be? So I’ve always thought that provision of services so that people had choice and that they could be empowered to be independent or not independent - independently choose what they wanted - that was my mission, and then there was loads of missions that came from that. I stated making technology solutions but I had this mission that none of them would cost disabled people a penny, everything would be free, and that’s a really hard thing to start with because obviously you can’t make things and then make them for free, but I was thinking about business models and how I could actually make things so that people didn’t have to pay for them. So if it was a smartphone application, which is where we are working, then it was a free download, and then you start thinking, “Well if the disabled person’s not paying for the App, who does?” Then you think, “Well for the pedestrian crossing, well the council pay for it, but then the council get to save people’s lives and they get more people walking out on the street and they get more people spending money commercially, and then getting healthier and then meeting friends, and that’s good for the council. It’s certainly good for the country. It’s good for the NHS. It’s good for everybody around it. We want healthier people”, and with ‘Welcome’ - which is the customer service stuff, which we’ll talk about - it was, “Well if the business pays for it and somebody then comes into the business, well they’re getting to get more people spending money in their business. So if they’re paying a small fee, well that’s absolutely fine.” So yeah, everything we do, free. Everything we do leads to empowerment. Everything we do I hope leads to people having a choice as to the level of independence they want.
MM Okay, so let’s move onto the Apps now. I suppose that when I got in touch with you a while ago you actually just designed an App to help people with going into shops during the coronavirus, and I had a look at the App, the way it works and all that, and I thought, “Wow, this is brilliant.” So just explain to the listeners why you decided to do this kind of like App in the first place, and then also tell people, you know, like what it does and all that.
GN Yeah. So ‘Button’ was the first App that I came up with, which was the one that presses the button at pedestrian crossings, and I then realised that if I could press buttons at crossings I could press buttons at doors, and then because I’d seen my clients coming up to doors and them having to try and find the button to open up a disability access door, I was like, “Oh wow, my phone could do that.” Then it got my thinking about something that had been a massive issue for my clients, which was, “When you go into a shop, when you’ve managed to get your way through the door - whether there’s an accessibility door or not - when they’ve gone into the shop, how well does the person in the shop interact with them?”, and the truth is that it’s so inconsistent. So one person could go into the same shop and meet a different member of staff each time, and the level of interaction they get is based on the staff member’s awareness of how to interact with that person. It’s not about how well do Tesco or Morrisons train all of their staff. It’s about how well that one individual member of staff interacts with you, and I just thought about why that was and I thought, “Well traditional staff training doesn’t necessarily make sure there’s strength in depth or strength in consistency across an entire organisation.” So I just thought, “Well why is that?”, and it’s because people are trained - or they might be employed because they have empathy maybe, if we’re lucky - but they’re trained on very simple levels. They’re trained on what is a guide dog, maybe - luckily if they are - or how do you interact with somebody in a wheelchair, or how do you interact with somebody in a wheelchair who’s with somebody else who’s with them. Do you talk to the person in the wheelchair? Do you talk to the person they’re with? They may get that training but let’s face it, many of them don’t, and I thought, “Well how could we utilise the mobile phone to actually train people before somebody walks through the door?”, and the best way to think of that is if you order a taxi, five minutes before the taxi gets to you, you get a message to say your taxi’s five minutes away. So if we switch that around and I’m a disabled person wanting to go to Tesco say, when I’m five minutes away from Tesco my phone could automatically send a message to say, “Gavin is just about to walk through the door. Gavin has autism”, or, “Gavin is autistic”, or, “an autistic person, and here’s Gavin’s shopping list and here’s some stuff that Gavin needs you to be aware of prior to him walking through the door.” So Gavin walks through the door or gets close to the building and they automatically get a message to say, “Gavin’s just about to walk through the door and this is how best to help him.” In 2018 we launched that solution and it was called ‘Welcome’, and it was spelled W-E-L-C-O-M-E, but the ‘M’ and the ‘E’ of ‘Welcome’ is in a different font, ‘cause it’s all about ‘Welcome Me’.
GN The ‘me’ in ‘Welcome’ we’re looking at is how do you serve me when I walk through the door, not how do you serve somebody you were taught you might have to serve two years ago. This is about me, and of course with 75% of people with hidden disabilities, you’d have to actually tell somebody you were living with schizophrenia or epilepsy or autism or a hearing impairment or acquired brain injury or whatever it might be, when you actually meet them, and there’s a very good chance that when you meet them they’re not going to have a clue how they should interact. Can you imagine if somebody came up and said, “Hi there” - you’re in Starbucks and you walk up and you go, “Hi there. My name’s Gavin and I have schizophrenia”?
MM Hmm. Yeah.
GN How would you expect the 19-year-old barista to interact with you? They certainly haven’t been trained on how to interact with somebody with schizophrenia. You might have a lanyard on, and that’s good, but 75% of disabled people have hidden disabilities, and that’s nine and a half million people in the UK.
GN And what we’re basically saying is, “I’ve got something wrong with me that I want you to know about, but I don’t want you to know what it is, and you just have to treat me like I’m different.” I don’t like that. I like the idea of me being able to train somebody before I walk through the door in how best to interact with me, rather than when I’m standing in front of them, and that was ‘Welcome’, and then of course we launched that and then it just went a bit crazy because this is a solution that everybody wants right now, and it’s a solution that there are many, many disabled people out there that go, “Yeah, I would like to use that.”
MM Just going back to the App that you designed specifically for people going into shops, I’m thinking about people with autism or on the spectrum. How did you come up with that idea to design the App for people to go into shops at certain times? Just tell us a bit about that.
GN Yeah. So the basics of the App were customer service teams need better training. People who are disabled don’t want things to be done to them. They want people to interact with them. If you can train somebody how to interact, if you can give them just a few top tips before somebody walks through the door, then that could be useful, and if you make it so that the disabled person is in charge of that, then that means they are empowered and that goes back to what I was talking about before. When it comes to designing the App, well my word, that’s when somebody like me takes a step back. I say to a developer, “This is what I want it to do.” The developer then says, “Right, okay. We can then do that by utilising the phone’s location awareness, its proximity awareness. We can use the systems that are on the phone already in order to trigger when somebody is getting close to a building”, and then it’s about what does the App look like? How easy is it to use? How well is it designed? How many people can you connect with? Then of course you’ve got the biggest problem of all, because I guarantee you 99% of the people who are listening to your podcast won’t have heard of ‘Welcome’. The biggest problem of all is letting them know it exists. Now everybody that is listening to your podcast now knows this exists, and they could go out if they’ve got a mobile phone and they can download it for free. Now that’s what we want and that is our biggest challenge, is getting people to go, “I’m downloading that App and I’m going to be the one who influences businesses to give me better service.”
MM Are you open to anyone to come to you with an idea for an App or not really?
GN So we’re not developers of other people’s Apps. What we could do is if somebody said for instance, “I have a condition. It’s called Fibromyalgia. Could you add it to your App?”, that’s something we could do. If somebody said, “I’ve had a shot of your App and I think it would be great to add in messaging so that I could have a conversation with the customer service team”, then that’s things that we could do within our App. I can give people - if somebody came to me and said, “I’ve got an idea for an App”, I would give them a few minutes of my time and say, “Right, this is the best way to take that forward”, but it’s not something that I can do. I could potentially give them some advice and I could tell them how challenging it can be to take an App forward. I mean, you imagine somebody saying, “I’ve got an idea for a movie or a book”, and then within thirty seconds they’ve told you the idea for the book and you go, “Well yeah, you’ve told me the idea for the book but now you’ve got to go and write the book.” The idea for the App or the book or the film is only a tiny, tiny fraction. It’s a big part of it ‘cause without the idea you’re nothing, but it is a tiny part of bringing an App into the world. Believe me, when I started out I didn’t have that advice. I didn’t know that this was going to cost me easily £100,000 of my own money. I had no idea it was going to cost me easily that and more of my money. I did not know I was going to have to resign from my job with Guide Dogs for the Blind. I did not know I was going to have five years where I got paid no money at all. I did not know that I was going to have sleepless nights trying to tell people this existed. I did not know that I needed to have lawyers and accountants and developers and hardware engineers, software engineers, and an understanding of how a business works and a board and then advice. I understood none of that. It does not mean that you shouldn’t have the idea, but the idea is just the bit that starts you. There is so much to it and it is hard, hard work, and if you want to take an App all the way you either need to have amazing people around you who are just prepared to put the money into it at the very start and help you, or you need to have a total understanding that it’s going to take a long time and be hard work and probably cost ten times as much as you think it’s going to cost.
MM All the Apps that you’ve did so far, Gavin, what has the feedback been like from your customers that use the Apps?
GN So we’ve got two customers really. We’ve got the user of the App and we’ve got the partner, who is the venue that pays for the App. So the partner pays a monthly subscription to have the App put into their venue, and some of the venues we’ve got on here - so we cover all of the Northlink Ferry terminals, we’ve got fifteen Royal Bank of Scotland branches and NatWest branches, we’ve got Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh Airport, Falkirk Wheel. Lots of charities like Guide Dogs and RNIB have been involved and got it installed in some of their offices. We’ve also got places like Doubletree Hilton, the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Government. We’re installed with Irish Rail. We’ve got charities in Ireland. We’ve got some optometrists, one in Newbury, one in Durham. We’ve got growing lists of partners but of course the users are the ones who use it and then give us feedback. Well we’re getting feedback from the partners and the users. So if I look at the user for a second, the user turns up at a particular venue and they’re met at the door by somebody who already knows their name and then invites them into the venue. They maybe give them some hand sanitiser. They maybe take them by the arm or whatever it might be, or they guide them if they’re blind, whatever, and then they take them to an area that’s already set up, and the person who’s using the App says, “I love it”, and we’ll maybe provide some links to some of the videos that the users are putting out there. So the users we’ve found have given us great feedback and have told us how to improve it, but when it’s worked really, really well, they just can’t see a world where they wouldn’t want it. The partners are slightly different. They’re saying things like, “My staff are now better prepared. My staff feel more confident. My staff now know how to interact with somebody. My staff now are not as embarrassed or nervous or they don’t feel as awkward as they felt before when they met somebody who’s in a wheelchair. They don’t talk to the person that’s with them anymore. They talk to the person in the wheelchair. Even if the wheelchair user can’t talk back, they will still talk to the wheelchair user.” So we’re finding that the partners and the customer service teams enjoy using it, and the users feel liberated by its use, because when they walk through the door it’s them that’s going to get the customer service.
MM So are you working on any kind of new Apps at the moment, Gavin?
GN So what we’re doing right now, Michael, is we’re adding things to the Apps that we’ve got. So improving customer service in train stations, airports, swimming pools, health centres, hospitals, GP surgeries, coffee shops, cinemas, restaurants, that’s enough. That’s big. So I would be crazy to try and add more to that. That’s already there. We’re the only people in the world doing it so adding up more Apps would be a real challenge. The ‘Button’ App, which is the pedestrian crossing one, we’ve just installed it and it’s been launched in Irvine. So all of the crossings in Irvine are now operated by smartphones. Now there are 200,000 crossings in the UK and we’re only in less than 100. So we’ve got a lot of crossings to do. So my job isn’t now to come up with loads of new Apps. It’s to improve the Apps that I’ve got. The truth is that if these Apps were everywhere, they would dramatically change people’s lives, and obviously I can’t then go off and look at other things just now. These are the ones that are massively important to me, and that’s the way I’m going to change the world.
MM So finally, Gavin, can you just tell us how people can get a hold of your App?
GN Yeah, sure. So two Apps. One is called ‘Button by Neatebox’. Button, B-U-T-T-O-N, by, B-Y, Neatebox, N-E-A-T-E-B-O-X. Notice the wee ‘E’ in the middle there. That’s based on my surname, Gavin Neate.
GN And ‘Welcome by Neatebox’, which is W-E-L-C-O-M-E, B-Y, N-E-A-T-E-B-O-X. So ‘Welcome by Neatebox’ and ‘Button by Neatebox’, but people can also go to the website, which is neatebox.com, N-E-A-T-E-B-O-X.com, and they can see all the stuff that’s on there. People can also write to us on social media at firstname.lastname@example.org or they can follow us on Twitter, which is @Neatebox, or they can go on Facebook or indeed they can connect with me on LinkedIn under Gavin Neate, or indeed Neatebox. So yeah, or you can go on YouTube. If you put in N-E-A-T-E-B-O-X on Google, you’re going to find a way to get a hold of us, but download the App and also tell us where you want it next. We want to be all over the country. Scotland’s the middle of the centre of the world for this right now but we want to be all over Ireland and America and England and Europe and everywhere.
MM Okay. Thanks, Gavin.
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