Tech Trailblazers

Tech Trailblazer: Martin McKay

  • Name: Martin McKay

    Role: Founder and CEO, Texthelp

    What does your typical day look like?

    I believe that before you lead other people, you have to lead yourself. For me, that means being a bit selfish and setting time aside to look after my physical and mental health. I'm an early riser and my alarm goes off at 5:30. I like to get out for a walk in nature with our dog - rain hail or shine. It is pretty dark at this time of year.

    As well as getting some exercise in, I like to meditate and have a quick dip in an ice bath. I have been meditating for a few years and the ice bath has been part of my routine for about 18 months. Those two things have done more than anything else to help me deal with pressure and stress.

    After that, I plan my day and head into the office if I am not on the road visiting our offices or customers. Every day is different - but that’s what keeps it interesting. I could be working with my team, or talking to customers or investors. I probably spend about an hour working on emails every day - the rest of my day is spent trying to move the business forward.

    What are you currently working on?

    Texthelp is a pretty exciting business to be working in at the moment. We made a few acquisitions over the past 2 years in Norway, Denmark and the USA. Integrating the businesses has been really interesting.

    I think I am most excited about our workplace market. We released a workplace version of our core product and it is great to see the impact it is having for both employers and their employees. There is a much higher awareness of dyslexia now, and there is finally an understanding that dyslexia is not an intelligence issue. Employers are really starting to value the strengths of their neurodiverse employees and give them the support they need to really thrive. Our acquisitions have given us access to more technology and we plan to roll out some great new features across the product range as a result.

    What inspired you to start your company

    I was born on a farm in rural Northern Ireland. When I was young my dad had a pretty severe stroke. He lost the ability to communicate and use his right arm and leg. That got me exposed to disability and also to the impact of someone not being able to make themselves understood.

    As you can imagine, at that formative age, it impacted us all deeply. But it also led to a lot of personal growth. That is when I learned first-hand about some of the barriers that can exist in the world for people with different sets of abilities.

    At that time assistive technology was not broadly available. Most people were unaware that assistive technology even existed at all. In those days most written communication was on paper. My dad couldn’t communicate or access information or services without help. Until then he was a very driven and independent man. He remained driven but lost a lot of independence. I know he did not enjoy having to depend on others for communication, and often people were making assumptions about what he wanted to say. I believe that we all deserve to live and communicate with as much independence as possible. I decided to work hard to make a change, and I knew that technology held a possible answer.

    Did you always want to work in this industry (tech)?

    When I started Texthelp in 1996, I was making software for people with strokes, cerebral palsy, and motor neurone disease - more profound motion and dexterity and communication disabilities. One of my university customers suggested that I try to make something for students with dyslexia - that was over 25 years ago. Now we have 350 people across the world providing assistive technology for students and employees with dyslexia, disabilities and other neurodiverse conditions.

    We operate in the UK, USA, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Australia and have helped 200 million people with our tools and technology.

    What’s your favourite part about your work?

    We’re here to make a difference. That’s important to me and the whole Texthelp team. We’re seeing many organisations making great strides towards becoming more inclusive. Companies, big and small, like EY, PWC, KPMG, Network Rail, and Belfast Trust are taking action to really value and support their neurodiverse employees.

    I love that Texthelp and the tools that we create are becoming part of their story as they work hard to make the experience at work better for everyone.

    What would you say to other people considering a job in this industry (tech)?

    Get on with it - it is a rewarding sector to work in, and has huge variety - definitely not boring. There are a huge number of different career paths in software development, digital marketing, operations and data analysis. In fact, come and work for Texthelp - we have 20 open positions today.

    How do you see this technology impacting our lives?

    Seeing the impact our technology has on people every day is the best part about the work that we do. Dyslexia impacts at least 8% of the population - my own daughter is among that group.

    In the USA, 14% of students are in special education, and 15% of kids at school are learning in their 2nd language. In the UK, 16% of adults are functionally illiterate. 16 million adults - nearly half of the workforce - are holding down jobs despite having the reading and writing skills expected of children leaving primary school. The average reading age is 9-10 years old.

    All these people find it difficult to understand text. Writing is not their favourite thing to do and that holds them back. When I take my glasses off, I can't read. At all. I can’t write or perform my job without them. It’s not an intelligence thing, it’s a vision thing and dyslexia is very similar to that.

    So we’re here to help those people. With the right tools, people with dyslexia and other neurodiverse traits can really thrive.

    Who inspired you to work in this field?

    I founded Texthelp trying to help one person - my dad - and my vision came to life. But I knew I could help more. Fast forward 25 years and today, I’m proud to say that Texthelp is helping millions of people to understand and be understood. Over 200 million people have used our products and technology so far. We want to keep growing so we can help as many people as possible.

    What do you consider to be the most important tech innovation or development in recent years?

    The pace of innovation continues to increase, and the rate at which machine learning has become accessible and generally useful is startling. I also think that the migration of computing into the browser has been great for us.

    What tech gadget could you not live without?

    My Laptop - even more than my phone. I spend a lot of my day looking at data and without my laptop I just could not do my job.

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