Four years ago Thorkil Sonne realized that his young autistic son possessed an extraordinary memory and a remarkable eye for detail. Those traits are prevalent among people with autism, and Sonne saw an opportunity to help individuals with the disorder find productive employment. As the technical director of a Danish software venture, he knew those qualities were critical in software testers. So he went out on his own and launched Specialisterne, a Copenhagen-based software-testing firm that now has 51 employees, including 37 with autism, and revenues of $2 million.
You started your company to improve the lives of people with autism. Why not just create a nonprofit focused on research or job training?
I wanted to do more than just provide a sheltered workplace for people with a disability. My goal is to create opportunities for people with autism on an international scale. You might find money to support sheltered working environments in Scandinavia but not in Poland or Spain or Brazil. To extend its reach, our organization needs the kind of funding that only a profit-making venture can generate. It must succeed on market terms.
Is it hard to reconcile two missions—serving customers and aiding people with a disability?
We’re constantly asked whether we support customers or a cause. We want to do both, of course, but we’re always fighting against the suspicion that we’re just a charity. Our corporate social responsibility profile might open doors with CEOs, but executives in charge of software testing aren’t evaluated on CSR, only on getting the most for the company’s money. To wipe away their suspicions, we must exceed performance expectations every time.
All our business comes from the private sector. Because Denmark has no tradition of social enterprises, the government doesn’t earmark contracts for companies like ours or give them tax breaks. We have to compete head on.