Mark Esho

Making a mark

Mark Esho was left paralysed from polio at age five and given a 10% chance of survival. Now, as well as being Founder and Director of Easy Internet, he’s also a bestselling author and a motivational speaker, and has worked with the Department for Work and Pensions to change attitudes around employing disabled people.

How do you identify as disabled, and what does it mean to you?

I see myself as being differently abled. I don’t like the word disabled, because we are all disadvantaged in one way or another during our lifetime.

Why did you start your business? Can you share your story so far?

At age five, I went to bed after a long, happy day playing with my foster siblings. I woke up in the night feeling that something wasn’t right, but thought nothing of it and went back to bed. Shortly after that, I had a violent fit and blacked out. The next thing I remember was being in hospital: I’d contracted a severe case of polio, even though it was supposed to have been eradicated from the UK – no one could figure out how it had happened.

The polio initially left me paralysed from the neck down and I was given a 10% chance of survival – which to me at least sounded better than 1%. Over time, I was gradually able to gain back some limited mobility and became a wheelchair user.

After I left hospital, I was placed in a special needs school, so my parents sent me to Nigeria, where I could attend mainstream school instead. Due to my years in hospital, I had lost four years of schooling, but I managed to claw some back in primary school, moving straight from Year 1 to Year 3, and then from Year 3 to Year 5. When I was 18, I returned to the UK to do my A-levels and then to do an MBA at De Montfort University, which was incredibly difficult because in those days accessibility was almost non-existent.

I found it difficult to find employment despite my MBA, because people’s expectations of Black and disabled people are poor, so for years I hid my academic achievements and worked in low-end jobs. Eventually I was offered a job as a Service Manager for Mosaic, a Leicester-based disability charity. I worked at Mosaic for seven years, but then, in 1999, I developed post-polio syndrome, which caused intermittent chronic fatigue, and found I could no longer cope with a standard nine to five job. The prospect of long-term unemployment watching day-time TV filled me with dread.

I’d always enjoyed spending time online, reading and exploring all sorts of things. Despite having no technical skills and no IT qualifications, I came up with the idea of creating an online business featuring properties for sale – an early forerunner of Rightmove – and after some research, I set up House-Online.com, the first website to offer completely free property listings online. I taught myself FrontPage and, with some help from a friend to create the database, managed to launch the site. Unfortunately, I was turned down for a business loan, and after rapidly running through my sparse savings, the venture flopped.

The experience forced me to evaluate my successes and failures and to weigh up my future options, which were very limited at the time. However, it had enabled me to learn basic web design and most importantly SEO (search engine optimisation). SEO was almost non-existent in those days (even Google was a newbie back then), so I decided to learn everything I could about SEO as my instincts hinted at its future value.

I launched my second website, Rank4U, in 2000, but in the first three months had zero sales. No one understood the value of SEO and I couldn’t get out there to pitch for business – you can’t call up a business, do a pitch, and then when they invite you to come in, ask if their premises are accessible. The other problem was that very few businesses understood SEO or appreciated its value – at the time it was one of only four search engine optimisation companies in the UK. By then, the credit card I was living on and running the business from was reaching its limit, so I decided to take a drastic step and offer my services completely free of charge for the next three months. My strategy paid off, as the companies I worked for saw the value, and, most importantly, my previous clients offered testimonials to new prospective customers. Soon, I relaunched Rank4U on a no placement, no fee basis (the first in the UK) and the rest, as they say, is history!

I’m now the founder and Director of Easy Internet, which started in SEO before adding hosting and website design, plus website builders for those who prefer the DIY approach. The internet changed and grown, and so has my company – from a standing start to more than 100,000 customers and growing.

In 2018, I wrote my autobiography, I can. I will., which became a number one bestseller on Amazon.

In 2012, I was the winner of first ever National Diversity Award for Business Excellence, and Easy Internet went on to sponsor the National Diversity Awards in Leeds the following year. In 2016, I was awarded a Highly Commended certificate in the category of “Director of the Year SME – Small” at the Institute of Directors East Midlands Director of the Year Awards, and in 2019, I won the Institute of Director’s East Midlands Director of the Year Award for Inclusivity.

What do you see as the main challenges facing your business and its continued operation or growth?

Access to finance and quality employees. I have also had to overcome people’s prejudices as a Black and disabled person.

What can we do to encourage more disabled entrepreneurs to start businesses – what is holding them back and what can we all do to help change that?

Disabled people need more disabled mentors, business support and access to funding.

I’ve worked alongside the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to change attitudes around employing disabled people in support of their Disability Confident campaign – both of my businesses are Disability Confident employers – and was also asked to speak at the Blaby District Means Business event on the divide between employers and disabled people. Having a job is something every person, disabled or non-disabled, should be able to have, yet 22% of employers will not hire disabled people.

There are a number of false misconceptions around hiring disabled people. Primarily, businesses think that disabled people are less productive.

As the Founder and CEO of several successful businesses and someone who is disabled, this is this misconception that hurts me the most. It’s something that I have personally had to battle against, and the reason why, for many years, I resisted meeting clients, for fear of discrimination against my disability and race.

Disabled people want to work. And because so many barriers have been put up to stop this from happening, when they are employed they are just as productive as any able-bodied employee. If an employee broke their leg, you would support them back into work as best you can. Why should a permanent disability be any different?

Sadly, businesses also feel that disabled employees will take more time off sick, negatively affect their business image, and lack the skills needed to do the job properly.

In fact, having a disability forces you to think in ways that able-bodied people cannot. This can be a huge asset in the workplace. Disabled employees thrive when given the right support.

These misconceptions have no hope of being dispelled until employers make the reasonable adjustments necessary to hire disabled people. Sadly, many buildings are still not disability friendly, and to truly become disability friendly as an employer, you need to make your workplace and your employment processes disability friendly. Disabilities come in many shapes and forms. Some are completely invisible to the naked eye yet still make everyday life more difficult to manoeuvre. These types of invisible disabilities still need to be considered when it comes to making employment processes more accessible. Even simple things like filling out a form or writing a CV can be difficult for people with physical and learning disabilities. Think about creating an alternative way of accepting applications for people with disabilities.

It may seem like a big task, but it really isn’t. All it takes is a little time, thought and empathy. Communication is key. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Disabled people will be pleased that you thought to ask, rather than be offended – and trust me when I say that it won’t be anything they haven’t heard before!

What do you consider your greatest achievement or the proudest moment in your life so far?

Being invited to meet the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, in 2012.

If there was one thing you could change about peoples’ perception of disability what would it be and why?

See the person not the disability first.

Who or what inspires you?

I’m inspired by the ability to change people’s perception of diabled people and to make a difference.

Do you have a recommendation for a book or a podcast which has helped you along your journey?

Richard Branson’s autobiography. I also love listening to Fearless Motivation on Spotify and Youtube.

Mark Esho, Founder Easy Internet