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This article was published on September 21, 2021

How to build tech for good — and turn a profit

Christian Erfurt, CEO and co-founder of Be My Eyes on combining purpose and profit

How to build tech for good — and turn a profit

Christian Erfurt, the CEO and co-founder of Be My Eyes, who was interviewed for this article, is speaking at TNW2021 this year! You can get tickets for the event here.

As if it isn’t enough of a challenge to build a business that makes money, Christian Erfurt took on a more difficult proposition six years ago. He co-founded a company with a view to assist people with vision impairment, while also developing services for enterprises to adopt into their customer care and accessibility programs.

That company is Be My Eyes, which is best known for its eponymous mobile app. The idea is that a blind person can use it to call for help with anything they’re having trouble seeing or identifying visually around them, and receive assistance via video chat with any volunteer around the world who responds quickly.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve answered calls to help spot a phone charger in a messy room, and identify an item in a grocery store. The system is ingenious in its simplicity. In addition to providing assistance to someone in need of help in a pinch, it also gives volunteers an opportunity to do a good deed wherever they are. There’s also comfort in the knowledge that there’s a sustainable business keeping this service alive.

So what does it take to create something like this? According to Erfurt, it’s all about combining purpose with profit, and designing your business around that. “The next generation expects this from the companies, products, and services they patronize. And to speak of our mission in particular: accessibility in tech wasn’t really on the agenda five years ago, but it certainly is now. That’s what we’re building for.”

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Christian Erfurt portrait
Christian Erfurt, CEO and co-founder of Be My Eyes

After three years developing the user-facing app, Be My Eyes found its first customer in Microsoft. “They told us they were having trouble figuring out how to service blind customers using their software products. If a readout of the screen contents doesn’t help a vision-impaired user troubleshoot a problem, then everything comes to a halt for them. They’d then have to come into a service center to solve the problem. That’s not great service,” said Erfurt.

Together with Microsoft, Be My Eyes worked to tackle this problem and set a standard for better service. The solutions it developed have since been adopted by other companies, including Google. Erfurt said that these tools have not only helped reduce the amount of time its clients spend tackling customers’ issues, but also highlighted accessibility challenges these companies needed to tackle and improve their products.

Smartphone being used to identify items at a grocery store
Credit: Be My Eyes
Be My Eyes enables vision-impaired users to seek help from volunteers to see what’s around them, via video call

Over the past six years, Be My Eyes has grown to support more than 300,000 blind and low-vision users, with over five million volunteers in 150+ countries. It’s now gearing up to support senior citizens and those facing challenges that arise when you have conditions like color blindness, and dyslexia, as well as simply being unfamiliar with new-fangled tech.

The company is driven by the idea of combining purpose and profit, along with a principle that CCO Alexander Hauerslev Jensen discovered on a postcard in Copenhagen, which read, “Everybody wins, only when nobody loses.” Adopting these principles, as opposed to looking to existing best practices in the industry, can help propel companies to build altruistic solutions while also turning a profit, said Erfurt.

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