SBA 7(a) Success Story
Navigating digital landscapes can be challenging for those living with a disability. Websites, software, and mobile applications aren’t always designed with the needs of these individuals in mind. Securing meaningful employment can also be a challenge in the disability community.
That is why Lynn Wehrman set out to launch Digital Accessibility by WeCo. – a mission-based business that simultaneously addresses both of these problems.
At WeCo, employees with disabilities are not only welcomed – it is a workplace requirement for those serving in technical roles. WeCo is a disability-focused manual accessibility audit, UX testing and training company. WeCo’s team members live with cog
nitive-, hearing-, mobility-, and sight-related disabilities, and work with other businesses to ensure their digital applications are accessible and user-friendly.
Wehrman, WeCo’s president and founder who lives with a cognitive disability, came up with the business idea while working for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT).
When the state was refitting their Americans with Disabilities Act Transition Plan, which included upgrading state infrastructure for accessibility, Wehrman was tasked with creating a website that would keep the public informed about the project. Having the website meet the digital accessibility needs of Minnesota residents living with disabilities was vital, but there was little knowledge regarding how to achieve this at that time.
Wehrman worked with MnDOT’s ADA Transition Plan Advisory Board members, who also lived with disabilities, and went to their homes and viewed firsthand how they interacted with the agency’s website. She discovered that websites that are not developed with the needs of users with disabilities, and their assistive technology, in mind, could be largely inaccessible to them.
Then, the light bulb went off.
“The Board members and I realized that the work we were doing together could be replicated,” Wehrman said. “And that many organizations could benefit from working with savvy digital professionals who lived with disabilities.”
Wehrman had the vision for WeCo; next she needed the capital. But it wouldn’t be easy.
“There are no traditional, or even social enterprise-focused funding opportunities for entrepreneurs with disabilities,” Wehrman explained. “Many of us have lived through periods in our life where work hasn’t been possible.”
WeCo was started initially with Wehrman’s retirement savings, and the willingness of their initial team to work for no, or deferred payment. A few years later, the company’s first funding came in the form of high interest rate lines of credit.
“We borrowed at rates that few people would consider, constricting our cashflow and making growth difficult. There was simply no other way for us to grow, so we are thankful to those lending companies that took a chance on us.”
Then, in 2019, Wehrman’s business advisor mentioned that CRF may be able to help. Wehrman connected with a CRF representative who guided her through the loan process, and she eventually received an SBA 7(a) loan to refinance her high interest debt, hire additional employees, purchase new equipment, and fulfill new contracts.
“The SBA loan really set us up to be able to grow. And I have to admit, it helped me sleep better. I was able to focus on the creative and management aspects of the business, and not how we were going to continue to function paying high monthly interest rates,” Wehrman said.
“Our SBA 7(a) loan helped us clean up our balance sheet, improve our cashflow and prepare us to begin to talk with potential investors. The crucial role CRF played in that was helping us through the loan process. Their professionalism coupled with belief in our mission and personal acts of kindness, made the SBA process so much easier.”
Now that WeCo has found its feet financially, Wehrman and her team have their sights set high for the future. She currently has a staff of 12 employees with plans to add at least two more by next year. WeCo also has plans to spin-off a nonprofit version of their company, specializing in delivering free and sliding scale digital accessibility services to small businesses and nonprofit organizations.
Wehrman’s advice to other social entrepreneurs facing funding challenges? She feels that finding the right match in lending can make all the difference.
“You may not find the right lender on your first attempt. But if you focus on working with an organization that truly understands your mission and business, the process can be positive and fruitful. Our fit with CRF was exceptionally good. It allowed us to move our business to a position that made it truly viable for growth.”