From Street Kid to CEO: An Interview with Mike Calvo
He was a kid on the streets in Miami, growing up in the center of gang life and the drug trade. Today, he describes himself as an entrepreneur, not ashamed that he is a high school dropout and proud that he is doing something to benefit a community that he did not know existed until he was well into his 20s--a community of like-minded, intelligent people who are blind, who enjoy the Internet and the power of technology as much as he does. As the only blind CEO among the most talked-about companies that provide screen access to people who are blind, Mike Calvo knows business and knows people. He is smart; articulate; and, most would say, hyper.
I caught up with him during a packed travel schedule this summer and learned about the man, the company, and past and future highlights of his product. Like many busy professionals, his hotel suite bore the signs of multitasking. The remains of his breakfast were carried away as we spoke, and his laptop on the desk chimed the arrival of new e-mail messages every little while, yet, he was relaxed, casual, and never interrupted our conversation for telephone calls or e-mail messages. He stopped only once to answer a knock at the door and to ask the representatives of another company if their meeting might be delayed an hour to give me more time. Calvo, a born storyteller, talks rapidly, and his language is colorful--in the sense of being peppered with slang and vernacular and filled with analogies and parables.
Caption: Mike Calvo accepting an award.
Calvo is the founder and CEO of Serotek Corporation, the company that launched the product formerly known as FreedomBox, a product that has evolved dramatically and is now called the System Access Mobile Network. A series of coincidences--or, as he calls them, moments when God chose to be anonymous--led him to a string of successful ventures and, ultimately, to develop a product that, although used by only a few hundred people five years ago, is now enjoying a virtual explosion in sales.
Love Affair with the Internet
Calvo's first foray into a product to benefit people who are blind was one that did not start out that way. As a teenager and young adult, Calvo says he did what every Latin kid (he is Cuban American) did on the streets of Miami. But a combination of marriage, religion, and a certain kind of growing up changed all that. In school and his early jobs, he recalled an unsettling assessment that he heard all too often from teachers and employers--a message of low expectations, the subtle reminder that he, as a person who is blind, should not aim too high. Unrealistic goals, he was told, would lead to disappointment. "I was a rebel without a cause," he said of himself in his early 20s. His response was to start his own company, a company that trained and placed over 400 people who are blind in competitive jobs with such corporate entities as Ryder Trucks, American Express, American Airlines, FedEx, and Marriott. His conviction that computers are a must for every person who is blind grew steadily more ardent, and, eventually, that certitude evolved into a love affair with the Internet. The Internet, Calvo came to believe, was the single force that could give people who are blind opportunities that are equal to those of sighted people.
In 1999, Calvo's best friend (a fellow high school dropout and successful entrepreneur) gave him an FM transmitter that allowed Calvo to listen to radio stations broadcast on his computer while he kept his wife company when she watched television. It was not long before Calvo's first Internet-related business venture, Radio Webcaster, was launched. With an FM transmitter connected to the computer, software to tune into thousands of radio stations, and an FM remote control that worked through walls, a person could listen to any radio station (or anything else on the computer) through any FM radio and do it from the comfort of the living room or patio.
Radio Webcaster was featured in Playboy magazine and, in 2000, was hailed by CNN as a flagship product of the new millennium. The way that the product was assembled and shipped provides an excellent example of Calvo's ability to form connections with a wide variety of people and then connect the dots, so to speak, to make these connections productive. The transmitters were built in Indiana, the FM remote controls came from California, and the software CDs were burned in Miami. Calvo's friend in a Mailboxes Etc. location received orders, assembled the various components of a Radio Webcaster package, and shipped them. Meanwhile, payment went to Calvo's bank account, and word was spreading not only among sighted Internet radio enthusiasts, but among the blind community, about this great new product.
"I started realizing that there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of blind people who were professionals, who were party animals, who smelled good, and dressed well," Calvo said. "They were people who were cool, and they had money to spend just like sighted people." Through electronic discussion groups, where people talked about audio, music, and assistive technology, and through his growing customer base, he realized that there were many blind people who saw things the way he did.
The Next Step
One good idea sparks another, and Calvo soon began dreaming about another product that he wanted to create. What he envisioned was, as he playfully described it, "A kind of AOL meets WebTV for blind people." In other words, whereas Radio Webcaster gave people who are blind a taste of the breadth of radio stations that are available through Internet connections, it did not give them the easy access to news, entertainment, shopping, instant messaging, and more that sighted people enjoyed with easily accessed commercial interfaces.
Once the idea was rooted in his brain, Calvo began to post to various electronic discussion groups to find the kind of collaboration he needed, and, as he put it, "This 20-year-old kid from Kansas, a typical geek who then spoke in three-word sentences, said he could do what I needed." That "kid" was Matt Campbell, and their relationship led to the development of software that, in January 2007, was demonstrated as the first access to Windows Vista for people who are blind.
"I write the road maps," Calvo explained, "but I don't know a lick of code. Matt is the one who makes the magic." Although Calvo lives in Orlando and Campbell lives in Kansas, the two are in constant contact, talking back and forth via Skype as though they were both zipping around in the same office space. "Sometimes it seems like I spend more time with Matt than with my wife and family," Calvo quipped. (Calvo has five children.)
The first FreedomBox product was designed with "technophobes" and people with limited dexterity in mind. The product was driven mainly by voice commands and offered an extensive web browser, providing instant access to e-mail, radio stations, news, entertainment, and instant messaging--in short, everything that sighted people with limited technical expertise were already enjoying.
Calvo recognized that this new business could not be operated alone and sought investors. One contact in the Minneapolis area led to another, and Serotek Corporation was formed. When the Serotek board involved Michael Fox, a consultant who specializes in business turnarounds, the company saw growth.
"Michael Fox polished me up, shaved me down, and taught me how to speak in the business world," Calvo said. (For AccessWorld readers who may remember hearing him on Internet radio programs back when Radio Webcaster was new, however, Calvo has clearly always had a decidedly engaging style and charming way of communicating his point.)
No Overnight Success
Sadly, as Calvo sees it, except for the few hundred early customers who discovered the first-generation FreedomBox, people who are blind were not quick to trust a product that did not cost much. (Access to the then FreedomBox Network--now SA Mobile Network--originally cost $99 a year or $9.95 a month.) Gradually, Calvo and Campbell started adding features of interest to more sophisticated users. The price was raised to $499, and sales increased exponentially.
When System Access became an integral part of the product--thus enabling a user who is blind to access such popular applications as Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, some of the most serious--and savviest--blind computer users started paying close attention. With the software on a USB drive, a person could have access to the features of the network from any computer.
A lawsuit claiming trademark infringement inspired a change in the product's name this past June. The new name, SA Mobile Network, is, Calvo said, actually more reflective of where the product is headed. The latest development, called SA to Go <www.satogo.com>, affords computer users who are blind the opportunity to render any computer accessible simply by launching the <www.satogo.com> web site. The SA Mobile Network continues to evolve; blogging, podcasts, RSS feeds, and more have been added to its original smorgasbord of shopping, entertainment, and news, and more features are on the horizon.
In January 2007, Serotek demonstrated System Access with Windows Vista at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the same venue in which Microsoft rolled out Vista itself. The product will soon offer braille access and Java compatibility, Calvo said.
Serotek Corporation and its SA Mobile Network are gaining momentum and recognition in the assistive technology arena, and Calvo is giddy with the news that the product he loves and uses every day is gaining popularity. But "at the end of the day," as he said, he is first and foremost an entrepreneur.
"I feel called to do what I'm doing right now," he said, "but my major interest is facilitating the needs of my customers. Right now my customers are blind consumers, and I wake up each day to facilitate customers who want to open their wallets and put their credit cards on the virtual counter."
The Liberty to Use a Computer: A Review of the FreedomBox by Deborah Kendrick
Who’s Using the FreedomBox? by Deborah Kendrick
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