Nick Kozak for the Toronto Star
Case Studies

Entrepreneur creates Netflix for the blind

Vital Stats
Owner:
Kevin Shaw
Name:
Zagga Entertainment Ltd.
Contact:
kevin@zagga.tv, 416-886-4532, www.zagga.tv
Field:
Video-on-demand services for the blind
Employees:
1 part-time, several advisors
Active:
2 years
Offering:
Video-on-demand service with descriptive audio for the blind
Core customers:
People with loss of vision interested in narrated television and movies

Kevin Shaw’s entrepreneurial epiphany began with a dusty stack of shrink-wrapped DVDs in his living room in 2011.

While searching for a film, Shaw — who lost his vision at the age of 19 as a result of a rare disease — discovered he’d never even unwrapped many of the films.

“I realized getting the DVD to play was not the issue, it was navigating the onscreen menu to get to the described video option, and turn that track on, that was the problem,” says Shaw, now 35.

Described video narrates the action onscreen between dialogue, allowing blind people to enjoy films much like closed captioning helps people with hearing loss.

After doing some research, he discovered neither Rogers-On-Demand or Netflix offered described video menu navigation and content. Shaw immediately saw potential for a new entrepreneurial endeavour.

“There’s a huge niche for this service,” says Shaw, stating that over 10 million North Americans are living with vision loss that cannot be corrected.

He started hashing out a prototype and by 2012 he incorporated Zagga Entertainment with the goal of setting up the first Netflix-type service for the blind.

Unfortunately, now Shaw and his business partner Jacky Tuinstra-Harrison, who works part-time as director of sales and acquisitions, are at a stand still.

They lack sufficient content and capital to properly launch the service.

Complicating his pitch is the fact that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) only requires four hours of described programming a week. That’s in stark contrast to what Shaw believes is the demand.

A survey conducted by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) on Zagga’s behalf found that of 250 people living with vision loss or low vision, 47 per cent subscribe to cable or satellite. Fifty-five per cent said they would sign up right away or try a described video service if it were available today.

With weak CRTC regulations surrounding descriptive video, Shaw feels the needs of the blind are being overlooked, and that is making it difficult for him to convince investors of the demand for his services.

“Launching a service like this has a very high barrier to entry,” says Shaw, who has worked in radio and live entertainment for over a decade. “Here we’re licensing content from the major studios and we need enough of that content to make the service viable.”

Shaw plans to price his service similar to traditional video-on-demand offerings, without charging a hefty premium for accessibility or described video.

The prototype currently offers a glimpse of how the system would work: “It basically shows what the user interface would look like and feel like to someone who is blind and using a screen reader to navigate the screen as opposed to their eyes,” he says.

To make it real, he needs funding.

In a blue sky scenario, he suspects he’ll require about $10 million to buy a good chunk of content and launch Zagga’s as of yet unnamed service throughout North America. But at the moment, Shaw is after $2 million to launch the service on a smaller scale in Canada.

“I’ve put in my own capital to cover legal costs and build the prototype but we haven’t raised anything yet,” says Shaw.

The most common concern from investors is what’s to stop Netflix — which hit 40 million subscribers last year — from launching a similar service tomorrow, undermining Zagga’s product.

Deborah Fels, a professor at Ted Rogers School of Information Technology Management who is working with Shaw in an advisory and research capacity, says Netflix isn’t a viable competitor.

“Netflix doesn’t care right now. They’re already fighting the notion that they might be required to include descriptive content,” says Fels.

The American Council of the Blind has been lobbying the streaming service to include described audio but so far there’s been no change to Netflix’s offering.

Instead, Fels suspects Shaw’s biggest challenge in wooing investors is a lack of evidence surrounding demand. He needs to convince investors that there’s wider demand for the service than just blind people. Fels argues that if all movies were narrated like this – an audio description as a performance element – they might appeal to the seeing public much in the same way audiobooks do.

“From my point of view there’s still a lot more research to carry out,” she says. “At the moment (Zagga) only has one market survey.”

While Shaw continues to network with potential investors, he and Fels are developing a software that would allow him to crowdsource descriptive audio, meaning anyone could record a descriptive audiotrack for content and submit it.

Crowdsourcing could lower the cost and speed up the process of generating described content, adds Shaw.

There aren’t plans to integrate the crowdsourcing aspect of the software right away, but he hopes it could eventually be used as a tool for describing viral videos and web content that often get overlooked.

“We know that the technology is there to handle all the accessibility challenges,” Shaw says. “We just need that large amount of capital to build a library that people will want to come to over and over again.”

EXPERT VIEWS

As Interviewed by: Rosemary Westwood

Zagga has a few things going for it: It has no direct competitors and no obvious substitute. I also see the CRTC regulations as a positive, because they offer an opportunity for Zagga to use first movers advantage to build a brand among visually impaired people, who don’t likely have good feelings towards Netflix because it didn’t look after them. However, they have to deal with powerful suppliers, the huge film studios and content aggregators, and there is the threat of new entrants, big names like Netflix that could come in and compete. So, to lure investors, they need to do more validation, and test more of their hypotheses, including the prototype. Test that software to prove it is easy to use for the visually impaired, test that Zagga can even get the content it needs. Another hypothesis is pricing. I believe Kevin can charge a premium over the $8 Netflix fee. Obviously there’s superior value here. And he should stay away from crowdsourcing content. You can’t control the quality. But if you’ve got good quality narration, you can charge a premium.

by Brad Poulos - Ryerson

The issue is not about regulation, it’s about spreading the word. Zagga needs to start small and leverage early success. They have a big advantage with CNIB to gain legitimacy and to connect with potential customers. But to get more funding they need something more concrete. For example, it’s not clear to me what the prototype can actually do. They need to start with that platform, have the software ready so it could be uploaded and used, and there are government grants that could help fund that. Volunteers, family and friends of blind people, who are already reading some of the descriptions could be tapped to add the voiceover for new programming in exchange for some sort of incentive. Of course, they will need to also do some quality control, but a model similar to Wikipedia could work well. The content is something that will develop over time, and to build up content they could partner with companies like Netflix, instead of seeing them as competitors. But this is mostly ideas right now. There will not be investors or partners until there is something more concrete.

by Theo Peredis - York

This is a great idea, but Kevin needs to solidify the research. For the service itself, get people in there and test it, and see whether people like it or don’t like it. Then, what’s the demand? Are there really 10 million potential viewers? And what about in Canada? Get solid numbers behind that. Also test what the possibilities are, if he develops this, that it can be sold on to Netflix or other big names. The second piece is to get CNIB on board to start lobbying the CRTC for better described video requirements, and get laws on accessibility changed. To get funding he needs people to start demanding this service, and do get that he needs to raise the profile. Then, if the CRTC does require more described video, and if Kevin’s product is great, the big players will have to come to him. He can make his service available to those companies, or if he has the customer base, sell it. For now, he should seek out an angel investor who perhaps has friends or family members with vision impairment, and seek financing more in the way of a donation to get him started.

by Deirdre Fitzpatrick - GBC

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