Award winner: LookOut: Visionary Entrepreneurship in a Digital World

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This case won the Free Case category at The Case Centre Awards and Competitions 2023. #CaseAwards2023

Who – the protagonists

John Johansson, the founder of LookOut, a mobile phone app helping the blind and visually impaired with their everyday activities, and Dick Eriksson, CEO of the company. At the age of 27, John was diagnosed with a genetic eye disorder that would eventually leave him blind, and this experience was the driving force behind LookOut.

What?

LookOut was a mobile phone app that connects blind people with a global pool of volunteers. Using their smartphones, blind or visually impaired users could request assistance from a sighted volunteer for activities such as reading the expiry date on food or helping set a digital thermostat. Originally a not-for-profit organisation, the company had grown quickly, attracting almost 33,000 blind users and 48,000 registered volunteers across almost 150 countries.

Despite its popularity, LookOut was yet to find a fitting business model and generate revenue streams. In order to attract revenue, it changed its status to a for-profit company in 2016, but John and Dick were still struggling with monetising the platform and insuring the sustainability of the business.

Why?

John and Dick were faced with several challenges in growing LookOut. Firstly, the absence of reliable statistics on those who are blind or visually impaired presented difficulties in attracting new users. Furthermore, many people experienced blindness in later life and were not proficient with smartphone apps. And 90% of those experiencing sight problems were living in low-income settings and would not be able to afford to pay to use the platform.

The app also had a surplus of volunteers, with 14 volunteers to every blind person. Many volunteers did not receive a call requesting assistance for weeks or even months and it was estimated that a third of volunteers would eventually become discouraged and uninstall the app.

The team were also faced with competition from other similar apps such as TapTapSee, Aipoly Vision, ColouredEye, Light Detector and VizWiz, some of which charged a subscription fee.

Where?

LookOut was a Scandinavian company, but the app operated in almost 150 countries worldwide and was available in 80 languages. 

When?

John Johansson had the idea for LookOut in 2012 and the app was launched in January 2015. The case is set two years later, in 2017.

Key quote

“No one has experience in approaching the blind people as a market for anything. If you gave me a million dollars, I couldn’t find anyone to give the million dollars to and say, please approach the blind. They would not know how to do it. So, we have to do it on our own.”
John Johansson, founder of LookOut.

What next?

John and Dick must decide on how to generate a steady stream of revenue whilst LookOut remained free to download. How can they persuade more blind users to register for the service? How can they better utilise their pool of volunteers? The couple have considered a screen share facility allowing sighted volunteers to help the blind and visually impaired navigate webpages. But the concept is new, and LookOut needed to make themselves stand out in a crowded market.

AUTHOR PERSPECTIVE 

This is the first award win for Attila and Whitney and the ninth for Copenhagen Business School. This is also their third win in the Free Case category (2018, 2019, 2023).

Winning the award

The authors said: “It is a welcome validation that there is a rising interest in social entrepreneurship, and how digital technology can open up new avenues to reach out to the disenfranchised and disregarded.” 

Case popularity

They continued: “The case touches a deeply human topic and the challenges that come with not being able to navigate in a world not built for you. It also conveys the complex challenges that come with building a digital platform, as a multisided marketplace, in an easy-to-understand and straightforward manner and without referring to the big tech companies.” 

Writing the case

The authors commented: “The teaching case is based on a real start-up; and we were fortunate to engage in a very open conversation with the founder, who was very generous in sharing his life-story (which led to developing the app), and the trials and tribulations of getting a start-up going without losing its social mission. Unfortunately, we were not able to build an equally constructive relationship with the CEO of the start-up, who failed to see the value of sharing their experiences with students through a teaching case. In the end, we were forced to anonymise the teaching case and the actors involved.” 

Case writing advice

The authors explained: “To find the emotional core of the story being told and, with that, to connect with the students.”

Teaching the case

The authors explained: “The case and case discussion have, so far, worked very well, as the students appreciate talking about (a) a digitally born company that is not Google, Facebook, and so on; (b) digital technology and business in the context of societal inclusion; and (c) how to deal with the wicked problem of addressing the needs of an excluded population.”

INSTRUCTOR VIEWPOINT 

Discover how this case works in the classroom.

"The case raises two important issues in teaching entrepreneurship.

“One is the importance of understanding the user experience rather than assuming what users may need. We don't often see cases that discuss the particular needs of individuals with impaired vision.

"The case is also excellent in generating discussion about multi-sided platforms. What I found through teaching is that students assume an app will automatically connect the supply and demand of the market. The case is an excellent opportunity that students can explore why this might not be the case.

“The case raises good points about the involvement of volunteers and what could discourage volunteers from helping when they did not expect any monetary incentives.”

Anoosheh Rostamkalaei, Lecturer in Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Kent Business School.

"The LookOut case study is a fascinating, multi-layered one. I used it with an undergraduate entrepreneurship class to explore business model development. As the students started to discuss the issues in depth, they quickly realised the how challenging the situation for LookOut was. It seemed that there was a new issue to address at every turn. The students really tried to brainstorm how LookOut might reach its target market for example and the discussion moved to a hot debate about how the company might generate revenue! Although many ideas and possible solutions were presented, there was no group consensus at the end! This didn’t matter, however, as the students certainly had a much deeper appreciation of the challenges associated with the development of a business model afterwards. They quickly realised a clear user need for a service does not necessarily equate to a successful business! This case study can be used in so many different ways with so many different student levels. It’s excellent."

Fiona Oster, Lecturer in Business Management, Birmingham Business School.

THE CASE 

The case

Who – the protagonists

John Johansson, the founder of LookOut, a mobile phone app helping the blind and visually impaired with their everyday activities, and Dick Eriksson, CEO of the company. At the age of 27, John was diagnosed with a genetic eye disorder that would eventually leave him blind, and this experience was the driving force behind LookOut.

What?

LookOut was a mobile phone app that connects blind people with a global pool of volunteers. Using their smartphones, blind or visually impaired users could request assistance from a sighted volunteer for activities such as reading the expiry date on food or helping set a digital thermostat. Originally a not-for-profit organisation, the company had grown quickly, attracting almost 33,000 blind users and 48,000 registered volunteers across almost 150 countries.

Despite its popularity, LookOut was yet to find a fitting business model and generate revenue streams. In order to attract revenue, it changed its status to a for-profit company in 2016, but John and Dick were still struggling with monetising the platform and insuring the sustainability of the business.

Why?

John and Dick were faced with several challenges in growing LookOut. Firstly, the absence of reliable statistics on those who are blind or visually impaired presented difficulties in attracting new users. Furthermore, many people experienced blindness in later life and were not proficient with smartphone apps. And 90% of those experiencing sight problems were living in low-income settings and would not be able to afford to pay to use the platform.

The app also had a surplus of volunteers, with 14 volunteers to every blind person. Many volunteers did not receive a call requesting assistance for weeks or even months and it was estimated that a third of volunteers would eventually become discouraged and uninstall the app.

The team were also faced with competition from other similar apps such as TapTapSee, Aipoly Vision, ColouredEye, Light Detector and VizWiz, some of which charged a subscription fee.

Where?

LookOut was a Scandinavian company, but the app operated in almost 150 countries worldwide and was available in 80 languages. 

When?

John Johansson had the idea for LookOut in 2012 and the app was launched in January 2015. The case is set two years later, in 2017.

Key quote

“No one has experience in approaching the blind people as a market for anything. If you gave me a million dollars, I couldn’t find anyone to give the million dollars to and say, please approach the blind. They would not know how to do it. So, we have to do it on our own.”
John Johansson, founder of LookOut.

What next?

John and Dick must decide on how to generate a steady stream of revenue whilst LookOut remained free to download. How can they persuade more blind users to register for the service? How can they better utilise their pool of volunteers? The couple have considered a screen share facility allowing sighted volunteers to help the blind and visually impaired navigate webpages. But the concept is new, and LookOut needed to make themselves stand out in a crowded market.

AUTHOR PERSPECTIVE 

Author perspective

This is the first award win for Attila and Whitney and the ninth for Copenhagen Business School. This is also their third win in the Free Case category (2018, 2019, 2023).

Winning the award

The authors said: “It is a welcome validation that there is a rising interest in social entrepreneurship, and how digital technology can open up new avenues to reach out to the disenfranchised and disregarded.” 

Case popularity

They continued: “The case touches a deeply human topic and the challenges that come with not being able to navigate in a world not built for you. It also conveys the complex challenges that come with building a digital platform, as a multisided marketplace, in an easy-to-understand and straightforward manner and without referring to the big tech companies.” 

Writing the case

The authors commented: “The teaching case is based on a real start-up; and we were fortunate to engage in a very open conversation with the founder, who was very generous in sharing his life-story (which led to developing the app), and the trials and tribulations of getting a start-up going without losing its social mission. Unfortunately, we were not able to build an equally constructive relationship with the CEO of the start-up, who failed to see the value of sharing their experiences with students through a teaching case. In the end, we were forced to anonymise the teaching case and the actors involved.” 

Case writing advice

The authors explained: “To find the emotional core of the story being told and, with that, to connect with the students.”

Teaching the case

The authors explained: “The case and case discussion have, so far, worked very well, as the students appreciate talking about (a) a digitally born company that is not Google, Facebook, and so on; (b) digital technology and business in the context of societal inclusion; and (c) how to deal with the wicked problem of addressing the needs of an excluded population.”

INSTRUCTOR VIEWPOINT 

Instructor viewpoint

Discover how this case works in the classroom.

"The case raises two important issues in teaching entrepreneurship.

“One is the importance of understanding the user experience rather than assuming what users may need. We don't often see cases that discuss the particular needs of individuals with impaired vision.

"The case is also excellent in generating discussion about multi-sided platforms. What I found through teaching is that students assume an app will automatically connect the supply and demand of the market. The case is an excellent opportunity that students can explore why this might not be the case.

“The case raises good points about the involvement of volunteers and what could discourage volunteers from helping when they did not expect any monetary incentives.”

Anoosheh Rostamkalaei, Lecturer in Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Kent Business School.

"The LookOut case study is a fascinating, multi-layered one. I used it with an undergraduate entrepreneurship class to explore business model development. As the students started to discuss the issues in depth, they quickly realised the how challenging the situation for LookOut was. It seemed that there was a new issue to address at every turn. The students really tried to brainstorm how LookOut might reach its target market for example and the discussion moved to a hot debate about how the company might generate revenue! Although many ideas and possible solutions were presented, there was no group consensus at the end! This didn’t matter, however, as the students certainly had a much deeper appreciation of the challenges associated with the development of a business model afterwards. They quickly realised a clear user need for a service does not necessarily equate to a successful business! This case study can be used in so many different ways with so many different student levels. It’s excellent."

Fiona Oster, Lecturer in Business Management, Birmingham Business School.

THE CASE 

Read the case

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TEACHING NOTE - Reference no. 319-0319-8
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Don't miss a thing - join our case community today.

Benefits include: lower prices for teaching materials, a 50% discount on Learning with Cases: An Interactive Study Guide, royalties on case sales, free attendance at the annual Members' Case Forum, discounted case workshop places and much more!

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