A Helping Hand
A civic-minded businessman uses the Internet to reach disabled and elderly populations.
It began in 1997 as a hobby, an altruistic mission that mirrored Kevin W. Sypniewski’s desire to help the disabled, chronically ill and the elderly. It was a company called AssistGuide (www.AssistGuide.com), which promoted the businesses of special health care providers, via the Internet. In less than a year, it found a niche among medical professionals, travelers and families seeking information for their clients and loved ones.
Not everyone shared Sypniewski’s enthusiasm, however. “Some people would tell us ‘Are you nuts? You’re talking to disability providers and home healthcare providers about the Internet, and they don’t even use e-mail,’” he recalls. Little did they know that seniors are one of the fastest-growing users of the Internet and that by the year 2002, Internet users in America, 55 and over, are expected to double to 22 million. The criticisms never stopped Sypniewski. So much so that in 1998, he quit his management position at UNUM, the world’s largest disability insurance agency, and invested $50,000 of his and his wife’s, Barbara, savings to transform the non-profit Web site into a corporation, AssistGuide Inc. The result: A quarter of a million dollars in annual revenues, and growing. In fact, the company in January signed an agreement with HiBEAM (Hawaii Business Entrepreneur and Acceleration Mentors), a non-profit organization that seeks venture capital for promising upstarts in Hawaii. Sypniewski hopes, with HiBEAM’s backing, to land $1 million in revenues this year. In five years, the company potentially could generate $100 million.
As a child, he witnessed the triumphs and challenges of disabled people. His Aunt Kathryn after a serious equestrian accident was confined to a wheelchair for more than 50 years. She died in 1993 at age 91. “She lived independently in her own house, and I never saw her disability as a barrier,” he says. His late brother Michael was born with cerebral palsy and also required special care until he died in 1994. Sypniewki’s mother, Jacque, and sister, Karen, both were special-education professionals. “I never saw a disability prevent anyone from living a full life,” he says.Already AssistGuide.com is on the right track. The Web site today receives about 100,000 visitors monthly, lists 140,000 disability and elderly-care providers and connects to 350 related links. Its offerings run the gamut from chat forums and on-line job searches, to domain hosting and virtual tours of facilities. Fifteen employees work out of a technology and design center in Missouri, a Web administration office in New Jersey and a marketing office in New Mexico. “We’re not about a Web site, we’re about helping providers in the business use the Internet as a tool,” Sypniewski says. “Most people in this industry can’t afford it, so we want to serve them cost-effectively and in the end, help them find profit. Once I had the belief, a suspicion that there would be people to support this, then I knew it wasn’t going to happen without me,” says the entrepreneur, who works from his Kailua home.
Those family members continue to inspire Sypniewski, whose typical work day can demand up to 11 hours, seven days a week. While he works with HiBEAM to seek outside capital for his company, he also hopes to combat the financial challenges faced by the disability- and senior-care industries. “They primarily rely on federal and state funds, but I don’t think it should happen that way,” he says. “If we don’t do something on the state and private level, we’re going to be in a bigger mess in the future.”