11 May 2017

A2i’s story

Susie Fisher started the company in 1999 from a small bedroom! Now many times bigger, you can read the full story here…

The idea…

Back in 1999 I worked in a university’s disability department, and was asked by a tutor to transcribe some course material into Braille. The internet was still quite new, and I could hardly find any suppliers online, let alone anyone who could produce work quickly. I realised it was impossible to get accessible formats transcribed for our visually impaired students in under two months. For our students to be receiving the same – equal – education as our sighted students, we needed transcribed teaching materials in days, not months. So I undertook setting up a Braille service within the university – however I never forgot how difficult and slow it was to obtain Braille, and felt this inequality was not only unfair and discriminatory, but also a problem I could do something about.

After successfully setting up the university’s Braille service, I asked my employer if we could offer the service externally. They didn’t go for this, but fortunately for me they did agree that I could go part-time to set up my own service. So I took the step of a 50% cut in salary and set off with the ambition of setting up the largest commercial Braille transcription service in the UK, with a super-fast turnaround time and top ratings on Search Engines!

Setting up in business…

first officeAfter the whole business plan process came together – cashflow forecasts, budgets, funding etc – I purchased my equipment and officially set up A2i Transcription Services in June 1999. If I remember rightly, I set up the whole business for just £6000 back in the day! I worked from a small bedroom in a shared house in Birmingham, and I took my first orders from some contacts I had through the university. Luckily I’d been on a web-design course, and managed to get A2i in the top 10 on Search Engines for “Braille”. My product range included Audio, Large Print and E-text right from the beginning.

I remember every order being seen as vital income. One time I was recording some audio for a customer and realised it contained some language that I was not prepared to read out loud! At the time it was upsetting to potentially risk losing a client, but I chose to stick to my principles and phoned the customer to refuse the work – who immediately said “that shouldn’t be in there, please remove it, thank you so much for pointing that out!”

Slow progress…

I would say that I was a fairly cautious but very positive and confident person, and in business I have tended to take small calculated risks. I think this has helped A2i grow steadily over the years. I have passed various landmarks, and completed steps I would never have thought possible initially! I moved the business to Bristol after I got married, I took on my first employee, we became a Limited company and registered for VAT. We have moved offices several times since then, having now bought a perfect light industrial unit with a lovely mezzanine floor and juliet balcony overlooking the local park!

When I started to take on staff, I sat down and wrote A2i’s Principles of Business. This has been a guiding document ever since. It sets out exactly the sort of atmosphere and attitude I would like to see at A2i, whether we stay small or grow big! It talks about respect for each other, and always putting people first. I know we’ve had some busy and stressful periods at A2i, but I sincerely hope that my staff still experience the positive, creative and rewarding environment I wanted to create. I certainly recognise that our Principles of Business have enabled me to recruit some of the best staff out there.

Photo of A2i staff at the Business Awards dinnerThe highs…

In November 2007 I was voted “Business Person of the Month” and went on to the Business Person of the Year awards. Although not *quite* winning, we had a brilliant night out!!

Other highs have included various celebrations – we love having goals and celebrating successes! Recently we have taken a whole afternoon down the pub when we met our annual target, and we always keep a bottle of champagne in the fridge just in case!

Bumps in the road…

I am absolutely sure I have made mistakes along the way! Maybe I should have taken more risk – or less at times. When recession hit us in about 2010, we were knocked quite hard and we had to make as many cuts as possible. Going through redundancies was probably our lowest point, and I never want to be in that position again.

What has worked…

old office photoWe’ve now made it out of recession and are thriving again. The company is at the strongest point in its history so far, with a really strong team of key staff. Sometimes I am asked what makes A2i work, or what helped us survive the recession… I think it’s a combination of belief and staff!

I have a strong Christian faith and believe that A2i has something important to offer to employees, customers and the community. Although I know not everyone believes in the power of prayer, I would testify to the fact that I have prayed about every big decision in the company. During our lowest point in recession when we had real cashflow problems, every month I prayed for enough cash in the account to pay the salaries, and every month the right amount of remittances came in just in time! This does not mean I will rely on this without making any effort on sales or credit control, but I do believe that A2i can keep going and keep making a difference.

I am also fortunate enough to have found a really brilliant team of staff. They are the lifeblood of any business, and we have been lucky to have recruited a team who are enthusiastic, helpful, extremely capable and committed to A2i and its customers. We plan to take A2i forward together.

Susie Fisher,

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