Building a business around your disability

Building a business around your disability

Ben Woldfenden, who founded and runs Visiblis, a digital marketing agency, recently won the Stelios Award for Disabled Entrepreneurs. Our writer Zubee spoke to him about his disability, his business, and how life hurdles can push you to succeed.

Can you tell us a bit about your business and how you went about setting it up?

Visibilis is a digital marketing agency that offers a range of digital marketing expertise such as search engine optimisation, pay per click advertising, social media, website development and re-marketing. We help clients improve their online visibility and stand out from their competition.

Can you tell us some of the challenges that you have had to deal with along the way?

I have always had a very strong work ethic. My disability has meant I understand more than most how important it is to make every day count.

My cystic fibrosis (CF) has meant that a lot of standard working conditions aren’t suitable for me. Air quality is crucial, so air conditioning, carpets and dust aren’t possible for me. I also need to be able to do regular chest physiotherapy each day, and can take up to 40 pills, plus I need to attend numerous hospital treatments, so I’m not typically ‘employable’!

These needs have meant I’ve had a lot of doors shut in my face – there aren’t many employers willing to be flexible enough to find a solution. But I have always been determined to carry on and succeed.

Last year, I had a recurrent chest infection and ended up being hospitalised on five different occasions for two weeks at a time. But my ambition and drive didn’t let this stop me. I worked with the hospital to ensure I could access a strong internet connection and continued working throughout my stays – with the nurses fitting my IVs around my makeshift office!

I have always wanted a family, a wish that I’ve recently been lucky enough to fulfil through IVF, with my first son born in May 2014. This has driven me to create a business which will enable my children to grow up with a solid role model who has beaten the odds to achieve and build a successful business.

Having CF has meant that I’ve always wanted to get the most out of life. Growing up I was told I would only live to my teens and I struggled to set myself goals, to imagine life beyond on that.

When I hit 20 though, I realised that my life expectancy wasn’t necessarily set in stone. I could set my own path. My sister died from the same disability and this makes me want to get everything I can out of life for both of us. They then upped my life expectancy to 30 – I am now 31 and my health is strong and I continue to fight.

How long did it take you to get your business up and running to where it is now?

It has taken 3 to 4 years to get to where we are now – I started as a freelancer in other agencies and won my own little clients and we have grown from there.

In January 2013, I brought in a partner to not only to fill gaps in my skillset, but to allow a secure offering to clients if I was hospitalised through health. That recruitment has certainly been vital as I was hospitalised several times in 2013, but the business held its course.

Taking on board a partner, Ryan Dearlove, has been invaluable and a key milestone in the growth of the business. It was a gamble, as at the time the profits would be going back into paying his salary. I took Ryan on as a freelancer for four months to ensure we were a match and to see if the business could sustain us both. It could and it did.

Ryan’s experience lies with the technical side, allowing us to grow the agency’s offering to incorporate web development. The additional man power also meant we were able to take on board additional clients.

What key things did you have to consider when starting your own business?

I had to consider how and why I needed to make a business work for me. It had to work around my health schedule and be flexible.

How did you hear about the Stelios Award for Disabled Entrepreneurs?

I stumbled upon it thinking there must be an award out there for disabled business people, and thank goodness I was right! The award is such as great initiative on behalf of the Stelios Foundation and Leonard Cheshire Disability.

Stelios-Award-2014-Winner-Ben-Wolfenden-with-Sir-Stelios-Mark-Harper-MP-and-Clare-Pelham

How did you feel when you found out that you had won this prestigious award and the £50,000 cash prize?

It was an incredible feeling – very overwhelming. The recognition from the award means more than anything. After years of persistence and mistakes, I finally feel like the business is making great headway.

What are you hoping to do with the £50,000 cash prize?

We want to the be the best, not the biggest, and winning the Stelios award will help us employ a great senior creative who will add a new dimension to the team and create a full offering to clients.

I’m also planning to purchase an air filtration system for the office to ensure the environment is optimal for my lungs. This means I can continue to do what I love and continue to grow this thriving agency.

Do you feel having your own business has helped you develop as a person?

Yes without a doubt – it has boosted my self-confidence, but not without moments of self-doubt on the journey. Entrepreneurs are not bullet proof.

What are your future plans for your business?

My plans are to have a core team of specialists working on fun and interesting projects with great clients.

What are the top 5 things you believe a successful entrepreneur needs?

  1. Persistence/perseverance
  2. A desire to make things happen
  3. The ability to learn from your mistakes or things that go wrong
  4. A passion for your business
  5. The desire to learn from others and be a people person.

What advice would you give other disabled people looking to start their own business, but who don’t know where to start?

Follow your heart and do what you love. Always start with the possibilities of selling on the internet, you don’t need a website – you can use ebay or Amazon.

I remember years ago buying items from a discount sales weekend and selling them at a huge profit on ebay. I was buying dishracks for £1 and selling them for £14.99.

If anyone wishes to use your services, how can they get in touch?

Call me 07768 114884 or email me ben@visibilis.co.uk. I’m always happy to meet new people and give guidance on business strategy.

By Zubee

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