Everything is Possible
Entrepreneur, author, speaker and podcaster, Martyn Sibley, tells us about his leap of faith, how living with a disability has made him a better entrepreneur, and why he feels optimistic about Generation Z.
I run a business called Purple Goat, the world’s only influencer first disabilty marketing agency. People living with disabilities make up a huge minority in the UK – 22% of the UK population is living with a disability, which is more than 14 million people – yet just 0.06% of ads feature disabled people. We work with influencers to connect brands to disabled consumers. We carry out research and consultancy and create content for brands, and have a huge pool of disabled people that we can match to the right brand, all from the disabled community.
A Leap of Faith
After finishing university, I planned to move to London and work in the financial world but struggled to find work, despite having a degree in economics and a masters in marketing. I always wondered if it was due to my disability: I was born with a genetic disability and was in a power wheelchair by the time I was three. I need continual support just to survive and live, but I believe that this has taught me good emotional intelligence and that I’m a really good people person as a result – at university, age 19, for example, I had to manage four care managers. I’ve always had to fight for funding, which has taught me resilience, and I’ve always had to problem solve and think outside the box, which has made me a better entrepreneur – in my opinion, the more different you are the better.
I needed to earn money and work, so I took a job at a charity, where I got promoted and learnt a lot, but I wanted to come up with my own ideas and execute them myself. I wanted to make a bigger impact. I also struggled to manage my health: it was difficult trying to get into the office every day.
Eventually I took a leap of faith, handed in my notice and gave myself two months to work out what I was going to do. I wasn’t exactly sure what it would look like, other than that I wanted to do something to do with social media, blogging and inclusion.
I started out as a a freelance consultant and co-founded the online magazine Disability Horizon, which harnessed the power of the disabled community by using content that came directly from and for that community. At first it was difficult to get the business model to work for the magazine as it was so niche, but we also had so much content.
I then co-founded a business called Accomable with my friend, colleague and fellow world traveller with spinal muscular atrophy, Srin Madipalli. Accomable was an accessible travel website, like Airbnb for the disabled community. The business was very successful and was eventually bought by Airbnb in 2017.
Stigma & Prejudice
Despite the eventual success of Accomable, it was so difficult to get funding to set it up: even our main investor was someone with a disabled child. It felt like no one saw disability as an opportunity, despite the huge minority who are living with a disability.
The struggle to get funding, the stigma of and attitudes towards disability, the struggle to be taken seriously as a disabled entrepreneur, and having to take care to safeguard your health and not burn out are all barriers to disabled people starting their own businesses.
When I left Scope, for example, I didn’t have the accolades I have now: I’ve been voted the third most influential disabled person in Britain. There was very much a need to fake it until you make it and make it up as you go along – say yes now and work out how you were going to do it afterwards! The first year of Purple Goat was just graft and grind, but now, a year in, we have more people and more revenue: we’re on course to make over a million pounds this year. I now manage more people than ever before and I feel responsible for all of my staff and ensuring that their mental health is ok.
There is stigma and prejudice attached to the words disabled and disability: people see it as a burden on society, and that attitude need to change. Policy, procedures and environment are also big barriers. Fortunately, Generation Z is a lot more switched on about social issues and much more open to accepting differences.
"I don’t want people just to talk about it and tick a box to be compliant"
Another barrier is that businesses don’t engage with disabled consumers. I don’t want people just to talk about it and tick a box to be compliant – we need genuine progress. There’s a large amount of positivity when we talk about it, but there’s no follow up.
Young disabled entrepreneurs need role models who are a few steps ahead to help mentor them and help build their business models, and social media is great for this. When I was younger, there was no attainable role models but now you don’t have to look far on Instagram to find inspirational influencers. Case studies to inspire the younger generation would be great too, but it’s very chicken and egg: if there’s no funding, there are no success stories about disabled entrepreneurs.
My greatest achievements have been my travels around the world: I’ve been to Australia, flown a plane and skied in the Catalan Mountains. From a business point of view, my greatest achievement so far has probably been the acquisition of Accomable by Airbnb.
If there was one thing I could change about the perception of disability, it would be to normalise it. There needs to be a middle ground. I remember when the Paralympics 2020 happened, there was a shift in perception from sympathy and pity to seeing disabled people as super heroes: it felt like people saw the wheelchair and automatically assumed we were in the Paralympics. We don’t need a pity party, but there doesn’t need to be a triumph over tragedy narrative either. We don’t need to be heroes: disabled people are just people with different access needs or requirements.
I’m inspired by Richard Branson on the entrepreneur side and Barack Obama for things to do with social change. A lot of the people who I admire have become my peers and I’m now doing podcasts with them! My podcasts are Xceptional Leaders with Mai Ling Chan & Martyn Sibley and The Martyn Sibley Show, and I’ve also written a memoir of my life and travels called Everything is Possible.
I started out using blogging as a platform to get my voice heard, and now I’m an author and speaker, and have written for The Guardian and appeared on the BBC. I’m so passionate about making the world accessible, I think my enthusiasm is infectious and then things just happens. We need to educate the world how to take down the barriers so that we all get to be our best selves: there’s nothing stopping us and we can be anything we want to be.