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22 August 2017

From barrier to business opportunity: a spotlight on 121 Captions

Being an entrepreneur with a disability can come with its challenges but has also brought great opportunities for our Innovating for Growth alumnus, Tina Lannin. Here, Tina shares her story about how an urgent need in live-captioning services inspired her to found 121 Captions. The company has gone from strength to strength, expanding to serve new markets at home and abroad; while also picking up some Stelios and diversity awards along the way.

What was your background before starting 121 Captions, and where did the idea for your business come from?

While freelancing as a forensic lip reader I also worked as a financial controller for the charity Hearing Link, who ITN would often call on for help as our offices were across the street. I took part in their coverage of high profile events such royal weddings and christenings, interviews with tennis players and coaches at Wimbledon, as well as footballers the World Cup for their real-time Twitter feed – all good fun. The captioning side of the business came later on, which I saw as simply adding another string to my bow.

It was at Hearing Link that I met speech to text reporters (stenographers and palantypists) who would join our meetings and write what they heard in shorthand, their laptops then translating the shorthand into English, so the deaf staff could read the live captioning and follow what was being said.

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The pool of speech to text reporters in the UK is tiny; there are fewer than 30 available for 14 million deaf and hard of hearing people. Can you imagine that? There is such a huge need for this service but not enough service providers are available. Around 2008, I saw this service being delivered remotely in Australia and could see this was needed in the UK and Europe. There are different ways to deliver this service and I focused on quality, speed, hardware and software reliability, and deaf awareness – all aspects which are vital to the deaf viewer. As a deaf person myself, I am very keen that the deaf client gets the best service possible so that they really do have equal access in the work or learning environment. And it was this motivation that inspired me to begin 121 Captions and getting help to scale it was how I came across Innovating for Growth.

What challenges has the business faced along the way?

Our current challenges are growing the business effectively without losing our personal touch, and managing the ever-changing world of technology! Technology moves so fast these days and we have to move with it, and make sure our service continues to work well and to work within the client’s environment. To that end, we now provide captioning services from a UK server which, with our enhanced security features, meets the security requirements of our government and corporate clients in the UK.

Other key challenges have been to ensure we are able to meet the demands of our clients by providing them with a high quality service whilst managing their expectations; we do this by being transparent and clear on how we expect clients to work with us. We do not really advertise: our business comes to us by word of mouth.

We then have to manage the supply of service providers, and ensure they meet our requirements. It has helped that I have a good knowledge of the industry and I am a client myself, so I know a lot of the service providers already and have good relationships with them. To me, my business is not just a service: it’s all about the clients and the service providers. They are the heart of the business.

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What has been the businesses biggest achievement so far?

We were the first to bring remote steno captioning to the UK, the Middle East, and South Africa. We are building the business in the Middle East and gaining respect for the work we do in that region, which is fantastic as there is nothing available for deaf people and my deaf friends out there.

We have some great partnerships and clients such as Twitter, Google and Sky. Our clients range from corporates and city banks to universities – yet we also provide service to the deaf individual who claims Access to Work funding for interviews. I get a lot of job satisfaction when I am able to help a deaf person to develop their career through advocating for their access needs, using my career counselling skills to advise them, and finally providing them with a captioning service to give them equal access at work.

I love that my work has a positive effect on the lives of other deaf people and benefits them so much; this is what I see as my biggest achievement.

 Do you think it’s more difficult for a disability-led business or are the challenges just different?

The challenges are different and also more difficult. It’s more costly as I have to rely on (hearing) staff to help with phone calls, as I can’t hear on the phone at all. I rely on email more than a hearing person would and have to wait for people to respond, rather than have instant answers. The access issues are time-consuming and expensive to implement.

 But in a way, we have it a bit easier with marketing and sales. Being deaf myself, I live the business and I am the business. I know so much about captioning services as I have used them every day for years. I have a real passion for captioning to be available to everyone and to work as well as it should. Everyone should have equal access to information without asking for it or fighting for it to be made available. When it is available, it should be of the best quality. I know all the ins and outs, what makes captioning work well and what can cause captioning to fail. This is much more persuasive to a client than someone who is just in this business for a profit. Tina shares her ‘7 keys to entrepreneurial success as a deaf or hard of hearing entrepreneur’ on her website.

 You grew the business with the help of our Innovating for Growth programme. What did the programme help you achieve?

I achieved a lot of great and very helpful one-to-one guidance on how to run the business more effectively. I gained clarity on the purpose of my business and how to set goals, making it a much sexier organisation to work for. We have a more professional image and service, which in turn has helped us to bring in more clients and hire more staff.

The team at Innovating for Growth offer a very supportive environment and I would not have been able to access such expertise elsewhere.

Are you an ambitious business owner looking to scale up, like Tina? Innovating for Growth is a free three-month programme to help you turn your growth idea into a reality. Find out more and apply before Wednesday 6 September to be in the next cohort.