The SC Interview Series is an effort to highlight the work creative professionals are doing that “move the needle” in how we work and perceive the world around us. The next interview in our series features Brett Heising, Entrepreneur, Founder & CEO of brettapproved.com, the world’s foremost travel website for people with disabilities. As a Phoenix-based entrepreneur, Brett was an inaugural member of SEED SPOT, a Phoenix incubator for social entrepreneurs. He also serves as a Board Member of United Cerebral Palsy of Central Arizona as well as a committee member of the Phoenix Mayor Stanton’s Commission on Disability Issues. He offers nearly 20 years of experience in public affairs, public relations, media relations, journalism, advertising, corporate communications and crisis communications, and is a relentless advocate for public accessibility. Brett joins Scarantino Consulting from his office in Phoenix, Arizona.
Josef Scarantino: Brett, welcome and thanks for participating in the SC Interview Series. Let’s start by telling the readers a little about yourself.
Brett Heising: Well, you pretty much nailed it. Prior to becoming an entrepreneur, I was a journalist, PR and public affairs professional. I’ve lived in Phoenix since moving out here after graduating from The Ohio State University in 1999. While my wife and I love Phoenix, I will always be a proud, sturdy son of Ohio. I believe you can’t appreciate where you are or anticipate where you’re going, unless you respect where you’re from.
JS: Take us back to the founding of brettapproved.com. What was the spark that started you down that path to become an entrepreneur and solve the challenge of accurate and reliable information about public accessibility? Did you always want to become an entrepreneur and business owner?
BH: I honestly started brettapproved.com because I got tired of traveling on business and not having a hotel room that met my needs. So if somebody asks you “Have you ever met an entrepreneur who started a business because he wanted to take a shower?” the answer is yes, you have, I’m that entrepreneur. No I never wanted to be an entrepreneur, it just sort of happened. I knew what I wanted to do professionally the minute I set foot on the campus at Ohio State and I accomplished those goals.
JS: You also initially participated in SEED SPOT, a Phoenix incubator for social entrepreneurs. How did that experience come about and eventually contribute to launching brettapproved.com?
BH: While fledgling, the entrepreneurship scene in Phoenix is up and coming to be sure. Competitive business incubators like Seed Spot teach participants valuable lessons in structuring a pitch and financial modeling. That experience provided me with a solid foundation. There are other great start-up initiatives in Phoenix; House of Genius Phoenix and One Million Cups Phoenix. I’m proud to be a member of the Phoenix start-up community and I try to give back whenever possible.
JS: We first met several years ago at an event I organized in Washington, DC promoting innovation for people with disabilities. You were an incredibly engaging mentor to the winning team, if I recall correctly. What kind of parallels arised between mentoring the team at that event and managing your startup brettapproved.com?
BH: I believe that knowledge is useless unless you share it and I think that the greatest gift I bring as a mentor is that I encourage people to learn from my mistakes. Entrepreneurship is hard. Anyone who says otherwise has never done it. So my philosophy with the team you mentioned in D.C as well as the people in my charge at brettapproved, Inc. is very simple: be comfortable enough with who you are and what you know to admit what you don’t know and share your mistakes openly so that they aren’t repeated. It is said after all, that the best way to learn is to teach.
JS: One of the innovations that makes brettapproved.com such a valuable source of information is the brettscore™, a proprietary, standardized rating system. Explain how the brettscore™ is helping to provide more personalized experiences to consumers even beyond users of manual and motorized chairs.
BH: Living with any type of disability is very personal. As a result, what works for one consumer in terms of accessibility may not work for another. That’s why the brettscore™ is so important. It allows contributors to brettapproved to emphasize what’s important to them. While we’ve focused on manual and motorized chairs, over time our goal is to be as inclusive as possible and help everyone, regardless of their disability or physical impairment find hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues that meet their needs.
JS: Your academic background is in journalism, public relations, and political science, where you earned a Bachelor’s degree from Ohio State University. How has that experience contributed to becoming the corporate evangelist for brettapproved.com?
BH: The secret to success in life is confidence. That doesn’t mean you always have the answers, because you don’t. Being confident simply means being comfortable in every decision that you make. I honed my confidence while attending Ohio State. It is a large, Top 20 public institution, ranked 16th in fact. A lot of people told me while I was in high school that I would never succeed at a place that big. I smiled politely, listened intently, then used their doubt to fuel my success. A lot of people think they’re tough. The upside to having a disability, if there is one, is that I don’t think I’m tough, I know it, because my life gives me an opportunity to prove it every day. I would not be the man I am, the entrepreneur I am or the mentor I am without the lessons I learned at Ohio State and my remarkable parents.
JS: Let’s switch gears and talk about your volunteer work, particularly with your board and committee positions with the Arizona Bridge to Independent Living, United Cerebral Palsy of Central Arizona, and the Phoenix Mayor Stanton’s Commission on Disability Issues. How important has volunteer work been to your success as an entrepreneur and disability advocate?
BH: Somebody I trust once told me that, “In life you can either be a contributor or a consumer.” I strive to be a contributor. My goal isn’t simply to tread lightly and live a life that benefits myself and my family. My goal, is to positively impact the community I call home and help as many people as possible. And I do that through my volunteer work at ABIL (now rebranded Ability360), on the Mayor’s Commission on Disability Issues and through my work with UCP of Central Arizona.
JS: This is a question I ask all of my subjects: For individuals who are considering pursuing entrepreneurship, particularly those with a disability, what would you tell them? How do they get started and what resources are available?
BH: I think individuals with physical disabilities can make exceptional entrepreneurs because we understand firsthand that adversity builds character. I have been blessed to enjoy an extraordinary professional career and I can say unequivocally that nothing I have done professionally has been as challenging as starting a company from an idea. It will test you in ways you can’t fathom. It will humble you and bring you to your knees, and if done correctly, build you up again. Entrepreneurship, like life, is not simply a matter of success or failure. Rather, it is an exercise in self-determination. By that I mean, it allows us to examine how we define success.
I think that in terms of how someone “gets started” and resources, it starts with a simple Google search. Look for business incubators in your area, small business associations, entrepreneurship programs at local universities and do everything you can to cultivate a network of people who will put you in a position to be successful. These resources aren’t going to find you, so it’s important to be proactive.
JS: Would you like to offer any closing thoughts to our readers?
BH: In terms of closing thoughts I would just say, that tomorrow is a gift wanted by all but promised to none. I would encourage your readers to make the most of the day they’ve been given. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t remind your readers that brettapproved is predicated on user-generated content. We don’t focus on what doesn’t work, rather we ask our community of users to focus on the restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues that meet their needs.
Groups of people are never taken seriously until they flex their economic muscle. By focusing on what works, we tell our community where to spend their hard-earned money. It’s all about economics. So please create a free account on brettapproved.com, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Above all, if you have any questions please email me, firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are a consultant doing some extraordinary work that “moves the needle” in how we work and perceive the world around us, reach out to Josef Scarantino of Scarantino Consulting, for a chance to be featured in the SC Interview Series.