Since 2015, when the Denmark-based platform Be My Eyes launched, more than 2 million volunteers have signed up to assist some 120,000 blind and low-vision users, according to the company.
That rapid expansion has forced the startup, which has until now been subsisting on grants and private investment, to figure out how to pay for the infrastructure to maintain the increasing volume of video-call traffic.
CEO Christian Erfurt said he never wanted to resort to the kind of advertising based on user data that has become standard in the tech world.
“In the first two years it was challenging, because we had advisers and mentors around us and people who were critical that we didn’t monetize faster,” Erfurt said.
BME has access to all call content, but says it’s used only to remove inappropriate content on the platform.
Erfurt said to get a better idea of what exactly people were using the app to identify, they started asking users and volunteers for feedback. They discovered that many queries were about specific products that visually impaired people had trouble using — everything from computers to kitchen appliances.
“We realized that many of our volunteers were actually doing tech support,” Erfurt said. These calls, his team learned, would be valuable to companies looking for insights on how to make their products more accessible.
To capitalize on the valuable information in these calls, BME is now working with several big tech companies, like Google and Microsoft, that pay for referrals. If a blind person, for instance, is struggling to use Gmail, the BME app will offer to connect them with Google’s accessibility support team.
Erfurt said the company is currently looking for other companies to partner with.
But this all raises a big question. Will directing callers to companies disrupt the spontaneous, feel-good experience of this social network? Erfurt thinks it won’t, but he admits the future of the app is unclear.