Texthelp – making the world more accessible through helping everyone to understand and be understood

Texthelp is a world leading inclusive technology company that helps all people to understand and be understood, which makes learning and working more engaging, and offers more choice to everyone in the way that they learn and work. Texthelp now operates in the UK, USA, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Australia and to date has helped over 200 million people with their tools and technology.

CEO Martin McKay has an amazing origin story about how he started and grew the company into what it is today. I interviewed Martin to find out more:

  1. What is Texthelp’s origin story? How did the company begin and how do you advocate for people with disabilities such as dyslexia?

I grew up on a farm in a small community in rural Northern Ireland with my parents and three siblings. My parents instilled a strong work ethic in me at a young age – when you live on a farm there is always plenty to do. 

Things changed for our whole family when I was eleven – in 1981.  My father had a serious stroke, and lost the ability to speak. He also found it difficult to read and communicate.  He still does.  He also lost the use of his right arm and leg.  I got my first real exposure to serious cognitive and physical impairment when that happened.

As you can imagine, at that formative age, it impacted us all deeply. But it also led to a lot of personal growth. That is when I learned first hand about some of the barriers that can exist in the world for people with different sets of abilities.

At that time assistive technology was not broadly available.  Most people were unaware that assistive technology even existed at all.  In those days most written communication was on paper. My dad couldn’t communicate or access information or services without help. Until then he was a very driven and independent man.  He remained driven, but lost a lot of independence.  I know he did not enjoy having to depend on others for communication, and often people were making assumptions about what he wanted to say. I believe that we all deserve to live and communicate with as much independence as possible.  I decided to work hard to make a change, and I knew that technology held a possible answer.

On my journey, I met a woman in Scotland who worked at the Glasgow College of Art. I had been developing software to help people with cerebral palsy at the time; the woman told me that she had only one student with cerebral palsy but 200 with dyslexia. I pivoted the focus of my work to helping dyslexic people because I thought, if I could do something for dyslexic students, I could reach a lot more people. It was a learning experience. At that time, I didn’t know what dyslexia was or who it affected.

Seeing the impact our technology has on people every day is the best part about the work that we do. Dyslexia impacts at least 10 percent or 450,000 of Irish people – my own daughter is among that group. In the USA, 14% of students are in special education, 15% of kids at school are learning their 2nd language. In the UK, 16% of adults are functionally illiterate. 16 million adults – nearly half of the workforce – are holding down jobs despite having the reading and writing skills expected of children leaving primary school. Typically, the average reading age is 9-10 years old. All these people find it difficult to understand text. Writing is not their favourite thing to do. That holds them back. When I take my glasses off, I can’t read. At all. I can’t write or perform my job without them. It’s not an intelligence thing, it’s a vision thing. Dyslexia is very similar to that.

  1. What services do you provide now? How has this grown since the beginning of the company?

Today, Texthelp is a world leading inclusive technology company that helps all people to understand and be understood. While many of our product users have dyslexia, our tools are designed with Universal Design in mind – making learning and working more engaging, and offering more choice to everyone in the way that they learn and work.

We’re big advocates for inclusion – in both education and the workplace. Our products support learners of all abilities to improve their reading, writing and maths skills, in schools, colleges and universities.

Our tools help people at work achieve more by making it easier to understand and communicate in a digital environment. Our software helps organisations to embrace inclusive communication both inside and outside the office.

Our product portfolio has grown substantially in recent years, after acquiring Sweden-based assistive tech group Oribi in October last year; the ed-tech division of Don Johnston, a US-based assistive technology company, in January 2022; and Danish firm Wizkids in July 2021. All of this has been made possible by our investors, most recently from Five Arrows Capital, the private equity arm of Rothschild & Co.

  1. How did you begin to expand into other markets, what are the main countries you work with?

 When I started Texthelp in 1996, I was making software for people who had strokes, cerebral palsy, motor neurone disease – more profound motion and dexterity and communication disabilities. Now we have 360 people across the world providing assistive technology for students and employees with dyslexia, disabilities and other neurodiverse conditions.  We operate in the UK, USA, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Australia and to date, have helped over 200 million people with our tools and technology.

Texthelp is a pretty exciting place to be working in at the moment.  I see huge potential for the business – we can achieve huge growth in the markets that we currently operate in.  I think I am most excited about our workplace market.  We released a workplace version of our core product and it is great to see the impact it is having for both employers and their employees.  There is a much higher awareness of dyslexia now, and there is finally an understanding that dyslexia is not an intelligence issue.  Employers are really starting to value their neurodiverse employees and give them the support they need to really thrive and show their strengths.  Our acquisitions have given us access to more technology and we plan to roll some great new features across the product range as a result.

We have ambitious plans to positively impact the literacy and understanding of a billion people by 2030.  That is going to mean moving beyond the markets that we currently operate and looking east, making an impact in Asia and Africa.

  1. What companies do you partner with in order to grow your mission? If someone reading this was interested in partnering with Texthelp what should they do?

We want our software to benefit as many people as possible, and to contribute to a more inclusive world. In fact, by 2030 we want to have advanced the literacy and understanding of 1 billion people. With a goal as big as ours, it’s important to have a sense of business community. To make an impact for inclusion is not something we can do alone.

To make sure our software is compatible and effective across all platforms, we work with Google and Microsoft as partners. Our literacy and numeracy products work seamlessly with Google Classroom, Google Workspace, Microsoft Office 365, Canvas, Schoology, Infinite Campus, and Brightspace D2L.

To ensure our software is beneficial for all people, we follow guidance from CAST on the principles of Universal Design. We are also members of the Business Disability Forum and IAAP, and partners with Disability:IN and Neurodiversity in Business.

At Texthelp, our customers are also much more to us than someone we serve. They’re partners. As individual organisations we’re setting our sights towards the same goal. Together, we know we can make a bigger impact. That’s why we often partner with our customers, like EY, PwC and KPMG, to drive education and awareness around diversity and inclusion.

Our users also form an important part of the growth in our mission. After all, our products are created to serve them. Everything we do is driven by meeting the needs of our product users, and challenges of our customers. We continuously listen, learn, and take action to improve our products, onboarding processes, training, and support. We always have an eye on the future, looking for new ways we can support people to achieve more.

We’re always happy to welcome more organisations into our network and we’re ready to help millions more to achieve success and reach their goals. For anyone that would like to discover more about us, or our products, please reach out by visiting our website at: https://www.texthelp.com/contact 

  1. How impactful has the products and services been to people with dyslexia in education or the workforce?

At Texthelp, we value diversity and inclusion. For 25 years, we’ve been supporting neurodivergent individuals from education right through to the workplace.

In most education systems now, students learn side by side, while receiving support for their individual needs. This includes students with dyslexia and various other neurodiverse conditions. Early intervention is key to getting them the help that they need to succeed. When they leave school, we need to make sure they’re entering a world of work that’s inclusive too. We want to see major employers supporting neurodivergent employees, and celebrating the strengths of different thinking.

These individuals understand, think, and learn in ways that are truly unique – and with that comes many strengths. However, 76% don’t share their neurodivergence at work. 

Often, they enter work environments that aren’t inclusive of different ways of working and communicating. I believe that inclusive technology is a powerful tool for creating a more inclusive workplace – we’ve seen the impact. That’s why we believe that every employer should provide their employees with access to inclusive technology – whether they have disclosed their diagnosis or not. These tools empower different workstyles, and can benefit everyone. Many organisations have made great strides towards becoming more neuro-inclusive. We will continue to encourage companies, large and small, to learn about the benefits of inclusive technology and the importance of neuro-inclusion.

  1. You do a lot of webinars and content based marketing to help promote the product the company has to current and potential clients. Why do you find this the most effective medium? Do you employ any other marketing tactics to promote Texthelp?

We use our marketing – webinars, content, influencers and partnerships to show people that we really know our stuff through storytelling, use cases and showcasing lived experiences. We have decades of experience in helping to create inclusive education and inclusive workplaces and we’re keen to share that with the world. We also want to make sure that people know that this really matters to us. It matters to us that things are difficult to understand for too many people today. We know we can change lives, and we’re deliberate about how we show that in our marketing.

It’s also important for us to be out among the audiences we want to help and connect with, so in addition to all of our digital marketing, we go to trade shows and events. We want to make sure that people know we’re approachable, collaborative and easy to work with. We are partners, not just suppliers, working with our customers towards shared goals.

One big differentiator for us is that we offer our flagship product Read&Write – Free for Teachers. We know they are having a tough time right now so it really helps educators with big time savings when it comes to creating resources. We recently expanded this on the workplace side to offer the same tool Free for Family.

I believe that this new project will allow us to achieve our goal of increasing the literacy and understanding of a billion people by the end of the decade. It’ll also help us shine a light on technology as a powerful tool to help bring inclusion to everyone. I look forward to a world where inclusive technology is more widely appreciated and accepted.

  1. How did the pandemic affect the organisation? What positives can you take from this time?

During the pandemic, teachers, parents, and students moved quickly to find and implement digital solutions in response to the prevailing crisis. Edtech companies rose to the challenge, innovating products and solutions to meet the needs of teachers and students. Ours was no different.

When COVID-19 hit, remote learning and remote working took to the centre stage. The education side of our business saw a huge increase in demand as distance learning became a must for schools across the world. A lot of our customers were uncomfortable about this transition, and the pace at which it happened. So we really tried to make it as easy for them as possible. This new environment of remote learning created new demand for many of our products. We made our maths tool available for schools for the remainder of the school year and as a result, we saw the usage grow up to 400% in terms of sessions and a 10x growth in terms of the number of pieces of maths that students were creating.

The pandemic also shone a light on the need to make sure that support was in place for employees. People dont leave school and leave dyslexia or challenges with understanding behind. That’s why we work with employers to offer similar tools to help everyone with reading and writing. Tools that many people will already be familiar with from school and university and feel comfortable using. 

  1. In terms of staff, how many staff do you have now? Do you have any plans to expand this in the future?

Today, we have over 360 staff with half of our business in North America.

There are four vectors of growth in the business. 

Firstly, expanding into the underserved markets that we operate in with our existing products.  For example we have achieved almost 20% market penetration in the USA and we believe we can double that in the coming years. 

Secondly, product led growth.  We have good relationships with our existing customers, and understand their needs and can grow our existing customer market by introducing new products.  

Thirdly, M&A has allowed us to establish a global presence with market leading products in the UK, USA, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Australia.  Integrating the businesses has been really interesting. 

Finally, and possibly most excitingly we believe that the potential of the workplace market is significantly bigger than the education market.  Employers are starting to value neurodiverse talent, and finally understand that there are lots of incredibly bright, intelligent and driven dyslexic people who can thrive in the workplace with a little support.  We are proud to be working with partners like EY and PWC to help build a more inclusive working world.

  1. Have you won any awards recently?

Our products have won a number of industry accolades in recent times. Last year, we were delighted to receive two ‘Best of Show’ awards from Tech & Learning, a leading publication in the education technology market at the ISTE show in New Orleans. The awards recognised the excellence of two for our digital learning tools, OrbitNote, a web app that makes PDFs more accessible from right inside the document, and Equatio, a digital tool that makes maths and science classes more accessible and engaging for every student. Equatio also picked up a coveted BETT award last year as the winner of the award for Secondary – Digital Learning Product.

We’ve always understood that digital learning tools play a vital role in our constantly evolving education system. Our team dedicates significant time and resources to make sure we produce useful, innovative edtech tools that can be used by students and educators around the world. I’m grateful every day for the teams involved in designing, developing and promoting these products.

As a company, we were added to the 2023 GSV 150 list in the states. GSV is a well respected global fund with a deep understanding of the EdTech market.  To see Texthelp on that list is positive for all of us – it tells us we are doing the right things for our investors.  I tend to focus more on our customers and reaching as many people as possible.  When we do that, things go well for our investors too.

  1. Are there any other organisations or programmes in Ireland that you are fans of?

What EY Ireland is doing for diversity and inclusion in the workplace is just fantastic! Frank O’Keeffe is doing a great job as the Exec Sponsor of the EY Disability ERG.  I really admire their leadership, the programmes they have in place and how they are using inclusive technology to help support their staff.