John Mulvey is the founder of Digital Echo, a Charleston-based firm that helps organizations make the digital world accessible for individuals with disabilities.
This series is brought to you by Charleston County Economic Development.
Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed many professionals to depend on technology more than ever, just to make it through a workday.
But even before the pandemic, John Mulvey saw how tech-dependent the business world was becoming – and recognized the need to ensure access for people with disabilities.
Mulvey founded Digital Echo in 2019 to help clients make their digital properties available to people with visual impairments, motor-skill impairments and other disabilities.
"Technology empowers people," Mulvey said. "It allows those with disabilities to communicate with the rest of the world. No one knows who's behind the computer, but then again, everything has to be set up properly so it can be accessed. It's just like the ramps and rails of a building."
What does Digital Echo do, and what was the inspiration for starting this company?
We're very niche right now. We make PDF documents, or digital documents, accessible to people with disabilities, including blindness, visual impairments, and motor skill impairments. We set up documents so they can be read by screen readers and other assistive tools to give everyone access to the same types of content.
Separate but equal doesn't count with digital access, and it never has. What we do qualifies as a compliance issue under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, along with similar things like that around the world. It fits in the diversity and inclusion space. Those with disabilities are a protected class, and in order for an organization to be truly inclusive, they have to be accessible to everybody.
Has accessibility for individuals with disabilities always been a topic of conversation?
According to the courts, there are no set laws stating that PDF documents or websites have to be accessible. However, they've realized if websites and all things digital had been as prevalent when the Americans with Disabilities Act was created, this totally would have been included in the law.
As the world continues to conduct more business digitally, it's necessary for everybody to have access to different software packages, websites and content. It just levels the playing field. Companies used to do it for a compliance reason. Now, organizations we work with do it because it's the right thing, and they see it as an opportunity to address a market that's been a bit disregarded.
How did COVID-19 impact your business in 2020?
2019 was all about survival and planting seeds for Digital Echo. When 2020 came, it was time to harvest. Looking at my pipeline, things were great, or so I thought. By the third week of March 2020, everything had shut down. It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that my pipeline was toast because it was composed of hospitals, healthcare organizations and city governments.
Luckily, we were doing some PDF work before. We realized we were really good at PDF work, and we enjoyed it. Getting federal money through the Payroll Protection Plan (PPP) was instrumental because it kept our eyes on the prize. It was a tough time, but we had a great year on the business side. It really defined where we needed to focus our energy, and we were able to pick up a lot of great clients.
You source talent nationally and globally. Why did you go this route?
We're definitely in a gig-type of economy, and COVID-19 has only amplified that. The type of work we do with PDF remediation lends itself directly to hiring 1099 employees, or contract employees. It's a very tedious and manual process right now, but we're working to implement more automation in the future. Our team is currently composed of employees both in the United States and offshore.
We take on projects and ramp up by using contract employees. We pay per page, so our employees can amplify their earnings by doing better work. PDFs are pretty cut and dry. They're either done right or wrong. We're able to assess talent by checking in on how new hires perform, how reliable they are, and by measuring their speed and quality of work.
What brought you to Charleston?
I was born in New York. We vacationed in Charleston quite often until my family eventually decided to move here. I was 16 at the time. I went to Bishop England for high school and Clemson for college.
Following graduation, I came back to Charleston for a job in the software industry. I traveled a lot doing that and saw the rest of the country. I have 44 states under my belt, and it really doesn't get better than here. So, I came back and stayed.
I graduated from Clemson in 1993 with a degree in finance at the tail end of the recession. Finding a job was tough, but I landed a position at a company called the Halcyon Group, a locally based company that provided financial analysis software for banks and other commercial lenders.
How does someone in finance and accounting get into tech?
It was mostly taking advantage of the opportunity. When you graduate from school, you have to accept an opportunity and thrive where you land. Bloom where you're planted. And you do the very best you can to master it before moving on. I never thought I'd be a sales guy, and 25 years later, I'm still in sales.
What do you look for in hires, and what advice would you give a college graduate?
I look first at how someone treats others. That sounds simple, but it matters. Manners matter, too. I check if the person pushes in their chair after they get up. I think that says a lot about somebody and how they're going to leave a situation. Are they going to leave things better than they found them?
Workwise, I look for trustworthiness and reliability. Customer service and work ethic are key. Our top priority at Digital Echo is "Relentless Customer Service." You only have one reputation, so you have to make sure you live up to that every day.
Who has been the most influential figure in your life from a business standpoint?
That's easy. It was my first boss, Bob Brinson. Bob gave me my first opportunity after graduation and taught me more about running a small business than anything I'd learned in school. I learned about managing inventory, cashflow, accounts receivable, accounts payable, the whole nine yards on that, just by watching him.
He was a great manager, and that's rare these days. The art of being a great manager has somewhat disappeared. It's not a matter of getting everything out of somebody; it's about making them better, too.
What do you do outside of work?
I have two daughters, so the answer to that question used to be whatever 4- and 5-, or 6- and 7-, or 10- and 11-year-old little girls did. They're 13 and 15 now and very independent. In the last year, I've gotten back into fishing, and I have a '99 Wrangler Jeep, which is basically a big Lego set I work on.