The global startup scene is at its peak, lively and bustling with different ideas and companies pursuing different niches, trying on different monetization plans for size, seeking commercial success. Prague-based Remote Assistant is no different – it is a startup looking to make it big, but its niche is helping others – the blind and visually impaired, to be precise. We talked to Tomas Stanik, the founder and CEO of Remote Assistant, to see what it’s like to be a socially engaged startup and how to make it in the competitive startup market if you are one.
What Remote Assistant app does, in short, is let the blind „use“ the eyes of their friends vicariously, with a little help from their smartphone features like camera, voice and real-time location. The app connects the blind person with friends, family members or a professional assistance service, who immediately get their location and a video stream from the camera phone, allowing them to help the blind person navigate from point A to point B, read a menu or catch the right bus – do regular everyday things we take for granted, which become increasingly difficult when you take the sight out of the equation.
From a school project to a business
This is not the first solution for the blind Stanik’s ever worked on. The whole story started when he was in graduate school, preparing for the Imagine Cup, one of the biggest student technology competitions. Together they decided that their project should contribute to the world in some way. As it happened, their mentor introduced the team to a blind student attending the same school and they started to work on a project that could help their colleague.
Their first attempt, named Mapz, consisted of GPS and indoor Wi-Fi navigation app, and in tow with the app was a special belt with 4 vibrating devices, which would inform the person wearing it of the obstacles around them, a sort of a wearable white cane.
Whereas it was a far cry from a bad system, when they asked their colleague what apps and devices were available to him and what helped the most, the answer was – a friend by his side. Stanik kept that in mind when he started working on the Remote Assistant:
There are many apps and programs aimed at helping the blind, but the AI is just not yet there, and if blind people can’t use or trust a computer, they prefer to ask a friend. We are just using the features of the phone to efficiently connect two people.
Failing is not necessary – but if you fail, fail early
It wasn’t just the main idea behind the app that distinguished Stanik’s previous project from Remote Assistant – whereas the first app was an enthusiastic and altruistic school project, the latter was a startup entering the Wayra acceleration process – in short, it was a business as well.
This is where Wayra helped the most, Stanik claims. As a developer, he originally believed that business development is something that could be done in a matter of days and that coding was the primary focus:
In Wayra I learned what it means to really run a business and that is what I think about when I think of Wayra – like of a really good, hands-on business experience.
When it was time to move to Prague to the accelerator, Stanik found himself a one-man team – the other participants of the former project opted to finish their studies or get a steady job rather than venture in the world of startups. Assembling the team anew was no easy chore, but Stanik thinks of it as of a formative experience:
There is a lot of talk about failure in the startup community and how you need to fail – I don’t think that is really necessary. However if you do fail, it is better if it happens early on – I am glad I failed at the very beginning because it changed my mindset. Now I understand the importance of a good team.
Since then, a strong team has gathered behind Remote Assistant, including a programmer who is himself visually impaired. He’s been invaluable in teaching the rest of the team about the community they are building the app for and on how blind people live, as well as doing some specific programming, like making the Remote Assistant page blind-friendly. When they all finally came together, they practically developed the first working version of the app from scratch in less than two months, reports Stanik.
The Remote Assistant Goes Live
When they started working on the app, they knew that connecting blind people with friends and family would be helpful, but on its own would fall short:
People we talked to about this told us they would ask a friend or their parents for help, but wouldn’t feel comfortable if they called them for help five or ten times a day. We knew that we would need an assistance service, and that we couldn’t manage it by ourselves.
Luckily, Prague is also the seat of Czech Blind United, an NGO that already had an assistance service and used a geolocating system that, however, required pricy standalone devices that had little other use. Using Remote Assitant’s product was a natural step forward for them, and as Remote Assistant needed an assistance service to back its app, partnership ensued.
This partnership not only enabled the startup to maximize the potential of their app, but it also gave them a business plan- they will focus on b2b, rather than b2c:
When you are a niche startup, like us, with a wide but limited number of possible users, you have to look for alternative solutions. B2b approach has some great advantages, because different specialized organizations can get grants and funding for services they need- like ours, and there are similar organizations in many countries.
Getting Creative to Monetize
As mentioned above, Remote Assistant is a business, a startup at that, and it needed a monetization plan, which at first seemed like a slim chance, but they are now covering 80 percent of their costs for 2014, a feat not many startups can achieve at the acceleration stage.
In the beginning nobody believed that we would make a penny. If you are a niche startup, you often can’t count on the most common monetization plans, like advertising. There are alternatives, but many people don’t see them and don’t know where their business is.
It is possible, Stanik claims, to be a socially engaged and a successful commercially viable startup, you just have to be creative about it and think real hard about your revenue streams.
Remote Assistant certainly seems to be making it, as they recently finished the acceleration process and is continuing its journey, full speed.