Swink is an online marketing agency with a distinct social character. By involving people with autism in the labour market, Swink has an important social impact.
“Because of their concentrated way of working and their eye for detail, people with autism are highly suited to the precise work of an online marketing agency,” says Niels van Buren, Swink’s general manager.
For people with a disability, including those with autism, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to participate in a society that is more and more individualised and in which there are more and more demands on people. Van Buren explains: “It’s only if you’re very competent socially and can network effectively that you have a chance of being successful in today’s labour market.
“It’s estimated that only 28 percent of people with autism are in paid employment, despite the fact that they often have many valuable talents and are highly employable. But because they have no work experience, they can’t find a job. Here at Swink, we focus on the actual abilities that someone has. We look for people with an affinity for the Internet and computers, but they don’t need to have already put that affinity into practice with a company.”
“In general, you can say that people with autism are often able to concentrate for long periods, are analytical, have an eye for detail, and work in a very structured way. If those qualities can be channelled effectively, then they’re ideal employees.”
“When I hear from clients that they think our work is as good or even better than that of a ‘normal’ agency, then it’s a big compliment for us,” says Niels van Buren. “But what really sets us apart is our social relevance and the impact the company has on society. That adds something extra and makes us unique. A client once told me: ‘Your work is just as good as that of your competitors, but I’d rather pay your bill than theirs because I know that something extra will then be done with my money.’”
Swink has had its “social return on investment” calculated in order to clarify the financial aspect of its social impact. “Every euro invested in our company generates 1.95 euros,” says Van Buren. “That’s mainly because our employees have previously been on benefits but now receive an employment contract and salary from us. Another social aspect is that we educate and train people and help them develop a work rhythm. People who spend their time at home without work are less happy, often feel isolated, and mean higher healthcare costs for society.”
Niels van Buren has often seen how Swink’s employees really blossom after they’ve been taken on. “They often start out nervous and uncertain, but proper training and interesting work mean they become increasingly sure of themselves. What also helps is that at Swink we talk about autism in a mature and businesslike way. Our people often encounter a lot of incomprehension in their contacts with others, so they try to hide their autism. But at Swink they can be themselves because their colleagues are also autistic. The managers – who aren’t themselves autistic – are good at dealing with autism.”
Swink now employs twelve people and the aim is to increase that figure to a hundred. Niels van Buren explains: “The next step involves scaling up the company, because that will enable us to have a greater social impact. The company is purpose-driven rather than profit-driven, because we prioritise our social mission and only then do we consider how much profit we need to make in order to remain financially healthy. The latter of course also determines our raison d’être.”
Swink was set up by Paul Malschaert in 2007. When he was still an IT manager in the 1990s, he was involved alongside his work in an initiative to boost social involvement among seriously ill children in hospital via the Internet. He then discovered that as adults many of these children find themselves dependent on benefits. Getting people with a disability involved in normal life was an important reason for Malschaert to start up Swink.
He explains: “With Swink, we aim to strike a balance between building a healthy company and our social objectives. When I’m an old fellow in an old-folks home, I’ll then be able to look back on a life that didn’t just consist of earning money.”
Niels van Buren has known Paul Malschaert right since the foundation of Swink. That’s because he was the account manager at ING bank who arranged the financing for the company. When Malschaert indicated in 2014 that he wanted Swink to grow, Van Buren saw an opportunity to become an entrepreneur and he joined him as co-owner.
In addition to wanting to be an entrepreneur, the diagnosis of MS that he was given in 2010 was another incentive for Van Buren to join Swink. Despite the physical and mental blow that the disease gave him, he managed to climb Mount Everest, showing that something seemingly impossible was in fact possible. “I joined Swink,” he says, “without knowing anything about autism, but with a lot of experience in the business world, a healthy interest in people, and enjoyment in helping them with their personal and professional development.”
Swink provides online services to the marketing and communication departments of large companies and government/semi‑government bodies. The services include content management, website statistics collection, website migration, online marketing, database clean-up, and helpdesk services for online platforms.
Currently, Paul Malschaert is constructing a cyber-security proposition. People with autism have a lot of talent for this kind of service because they are really good at puzzles,” says Malschaert. “For example, they find it interesting to discover how to hack into a system so as to expose its vulnerabilities. We want to recruit autistic people who we can train to do this kind of work.”
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