Artificial Intelligence is improving by leaps and bounds, and in UserWay Labs we have some mind-blowing applications on the way. Most people don’t realize, accessibility is about much more than limited eyesight, movement and hearing. Picture an analysis of your webpage assessing its complexity and offering simplifications to speed your business. The next wave of standards being codified now pay a lot of attention to the needs of people with cognitive disorders and learning disabilities. And UserWay will bundle these capabilities into its standard offering.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Allon Mason.
Allon Mason, Founder and CEO of UserWay, is an entrepreneur with more than 20 years of experience leading and driving high performance software and tech companies. His past innovations include XPlace (a leading freelance marketplace) and Platin (a disruptive mobile-based location-based tech). When he’s not moving fast and breaking things, Allon enjoys spending time with his kids, skiing extreme terrain and flying airplanes.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I’ve been a global citizen from birth: I was born in Hawaii, went to school in New York, did a semester at Sea that included a game-changing visit to Japan, and ended up settling in Israel. That’s where I built my first tech startup, XPlace, which quickly became a leading marketplace for freelance talent. In an effort to make XPlace accessible and meet strict accessibility regulations, I realized the market suffered from a significant lack of technological solutions for remediation. There needed to be an easier way to achieve web accessibility compliance.
Compliance is an ongoing journey filled with complex nuances and continuously evolving rules created by the W3C (the World Wide Web’s standards creation body). Accessibility is a lot more than just color contrast, tap targets, and keyboard navigation. It’s a different way of thinking about the user experience. While in 2009 the mantra “mobile-first” was introduced, UserWay is proud to have introduced the methodology of “accessibility first.”
I was volunteering at a school for underprivileged youth when I had my “Aha!” moment: Accessibility requires a different way of thinking, a holistic approach to building digital services, considering the needs of differently-abled users before even writing a single line of code. Website owners should not be reinventing the wheel each time they want to make a site accessible. And what followed was the seed that evolved into a plug-and-play solution to this challenge.
Hundreds of millions of people rely on online services every day — people who are unable to easily access content because of inaccessible sites. The vast majority of websites today have thousands of accessibility violations, whether they know it or not, which makes them vulnerable to lawsuits and lost revenue.
I wasted no time assembling a high-performance team for UserWay, with whom we executed on my vision to automate accessibility remediations, make solutions available to the public, and create a real impact on millions of lives around the world.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
Disruption occurs when you transform a problem, and do it elegantly, profitably and at scale while defining a new industry or category that hadn’t existed before. In our case, it’s a transformation that touches the lives of everyone who uses the internet: Accessibility Compliance as a Service, for every website at a reasonable cost.
We built the original accessibility widget that websites could deploy in minutes, an innovative solution for automatic remediation of accessibility violations that does not require site owners to alter their websites’ existing code. It caught on like wildfire as businesses quickly understood that UserWay saves them hundreds-of-thousands of dollars in compliance and remediation expenditures.
That single line of code looks under the hood and triggers remediations based on UserWay’s deep AI-powered rule engine that analyzes a website’s code, structure and patterns. The fixes, which take mere milliseconds to apply, help transform the lives of businesses, which no longer have to worry about ADA violations or alienating end users who rely on assistive technologies to access digital content without barriers.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I was studying architecture at Cornell University when, during my freshman year, a close friend said, ‘Are you ready to spend the next ten years of your life as a low-level architect designing stairs and bathrooms? Wouldn’t you rather have a little more flexibility to make time for ski vacations…?’
That comment, which probably seemed insignificant to the person who said it, changed my entire perspective. After that, I shifted away from architecture and changed my major to business and finance. And I never looked back.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
I make a point of partnering with people smarter than me, individuals I can learn new things from every day. One of them is Dr. Lionel Wolberger. We met at a Cornell Alumni event, where we started a conversation that led to the birth of a new business. It was like he tore apart my blueprints, but then rearranged the pieces into a better, smarter concept. On that day, and feeding off our incredible synergy, a new company was founded. I know very few people, in or out of tech, who are able to get excited by innovation the way he does and combine hunger, tenacity and work ethic with truly original thinking. Lionel also inspires me in his commitment to standards. He often quotes Mead who said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”As an active member of the W3C, which defines the future vision and standards of digital accessibility, Lionel is contributing to the future of accessibility.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
Disruptive innovation and business-as-usual and feed off each other. Life is all about living with such contradictions and interacting opposites. The year 2020 has been the most disruptive year in my lifetime. On the one hand, COVID-19 shut down entire cities and put so many people out of work. On the other hand, digitally mediated communication exploded, and many businesses started realizing new ways of working together and creating value.
It was this very disruption that inspired our Content Moderator. The Content Moderator tackles an issue that every site owner needs to begin addressing: removing offensive, defamatory and biased content from its website. With the UserWay AI-Powered Content Moderator, each site is combed for potentially offensive content and every issue is flagged for administrators to review. Site owners can decide to accept the moderator’s suggested changes, input their own revised text, or dismiss the alert. It gives site administrators full awareness of what’s actually on your site and full control over what to do about it.
Some brands find the new social sensitivity very disruptive. Many businesses have been running for years and years, and content teams probably don’t have full visibility and workflow around content that was published years ago. What was considered okay in 2010 isn’t anymore. So, we give these teams the ability to make updates and meet the standards their audiences expect.
My bottom line is to ask, have we made the world a better place for our children? I believe that can be achieved by continuously asking ourselves: How can we improve this, even if just marginally?
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
- A thousand no’s to every yes — Steve Jobs used to have this as his mantra, and it helps me focus in my business, in my family, and in everything I do. Saying no is hard, but critical. It might sting, but it’s the only way to move forward on the things that matter.
- Ask open-ended questions — This is something I can’t stress enough. Sometimes, especially where accessibility is concerned, you won’t know unless you ask. A good example of this is when we were building UserWay’s free Accessibility Widget. If I had just asked ‘Does it work?’ the answer would have been ‘Yes.’ The real question needed to be, ‘How would you use this tool?’ The answer to that uncovered a lot of truths, opportunities to grow, and insight into what our users really need us to create.
- Know what you don’t know — I’ve had temporary, situational disabilities — I broke my arm, for example — but I’ve never had a long-term disability. That means I need to surround myself with people who know what it’s like and can verify that our solutions are helpful and impactful and not just “meeting compliance standards”. Similarly, every disability is different and might impact people to varying degrees. Since there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, I learned that we had to engineer each of the UserWay features with specific customization and controls to make them both powerful and flexible while remaining intuitive and effective for millions of users around the world.
Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
We’re proud to have created a technological innovation that empowers people and helps them function independently. Users are sharing their experiences and love for our solutions on social media. Organic referrals and UserWay’s reputation have been our main sources of leads as we strive to have a product that sells itself.
UserWay solutions operate on over half-a-million websites and are growing rapidly. You’ve likely used sites with UserWay technology on them, whether you’re aware of it or not. In fact, we’re proud that UserWay has achieved its market leadership position without having spent a single dollar on marketing or advertising. We reinvest everything back into R&D to push the envelope on the innovative tech that’s defining an industry.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
We were the first accessibility remediation solution to roll out a Dyslexia Friendly Font, the first to have Content Moderation for the elimination of biased and prejudicial language. Our next focus is cognitive capabilities and simplification. Artificial Intelligence is improving by leaps and bounds, and in UserWay Labs we have some mind-blowing applications on the way. Most people don’t realize, accessibility is about much more than limited eyesight, movement and hearing. Picture an analysis of your webpage assessing its complexity and offering simplifications to speed your business. The next wave of standards being codified now pay a lot of attention to the needs of people with cognitive disorders and learning disabilities. And UserWay will bundle these capabilities into its standard offering.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
I love “How I Built This” by Guy Raz. It’s always an inspiration to hear how an entrepreneur builds their concept from the ground up. But the Airbnb episode really stuck with me. I remember Joe Gebbia talking about how many failed launch attempts he went through, listing all the rejections he got on the way. This stuck in my head: ‘We were introduced to 20 investors in Silicon Valley. Ten replied to our email. Five met us for coffee. Zero invested in us.’ I always remember that as I pitch UserWay and build companies — you have to go past zero to get to where you’re going.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
‘Get your hands dirty.’ It started in my first crisis when my technical co-founder left a company I started. I had a choice: Close the business, or get my hands dirty and dig in. I learned to lead developers and write the code myself. This involved sleepless nights of coding. But this life lesson means more than rolling up your sleeves and getting things done. It means doing the grunt work and the hardest parts of building and leading a company, making the tough decisions. Often it is cutting a favorite feature of a product, or identifying people who are just not right for the current stage of the company.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Believe in yourself, dare to try, and get back up if you fall. Don’t let other people draw a flag on your face, categorize you, stereotype you, peg you as this or that, just to make it easier for them to understand who you are. Each person is a textured kaleidoscope of unique experiences — a citizen of the world.
How can our readers follow you online?
They can contact us at userway.org/contact or find UserWay on Twitter at @UserWayOrg for the latest updates!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!