As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business,” I had the pleasure of interviewing David Ciccarelli, CEO and founder of Voices, the online marketplace that connects business people with professional voice over talent. The unique blending of his audio-engineering background with self-taught business savvy and website development afforded David the creative freedom to pursue his passion for innovation during the first dot com boom, the result of which catapulted him onto the scene as a pioneer in his field in the early 2000s.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’m the CEO and founder of Voices, the online marketplace that connects business people with professional voice over talent. I have a background in audio engineering and am currently enrolled in Harvard Business School. I started this company with my wife, Stephanie Ciccarelli, in the early 2000s during the first dot com boom. It has allowed me creative freedom to pursue my passion for innovation.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
The Voices website started out as a pretty flat directory, and after launching we would receive requests from voice talent offering to list themselves on our site. We quickly had global, multilingual talent featured on the site and talent who could do specific deliveries, such as character voices. The real “aha moment” came when I received a phone call from a person who saw these talent and asked how he could hire them. Before that moment, we hadn’t even considered how we could monetize the directory.
We ended up referring this client to a talent in Toronto and connected the two of them to complete the job. Upon reflection, we realized that we deliver value to the talent. We couldn’t just continue to serve as a trust intermediary with no compensation. Given we put no effort until that time into marketing the platform, we thought that we could surely get other clients who were interested. The idea was simple: we would charge the talent a subscription to be listed on our site and in exchange we would bring clients to the site to post voice over jobs.
We were solving a real problem for talented voice actors who were not located in big metropolitan cities, who didn’t have an agent, or weren’t part of a union. These people were talented and had technical skills, but they needed a way to market themselves to clients. It was a problem that enough people had so we achieved that elusive product market fit. We tapped into the market first, and then built out our product over time.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
At the beginning of our journey, we received a loan to market our company and we decided to mail out jumbo postcards to a mailing list of advertising agencies in New York City and Los Angeles. We were excited about the idea of direct mail that could interrupt busy people with a compelling message. We created these jumbo, high-gloss postcards that we sent to these contacts every two weeks for six weeks.
To bring people to our website, we listed a contest on the postcards with the chance to win a first generation iPod. To enter, someone had to come to our website, put in their email address, and then they would be entered into a draw. The agency we worked with on this campaign ended up sending out 15,000 postcards. At the end of the campaign we got only two email addresses from people who entered the contest.
The lesson we learned is that you can’t ask people to channel switch. We were marketing to people in the real world and expecting them to go to a computer and type in a URL to visit our site. We also had no brand recognition whatsoever. This was the first piece they were ever receiving from us. You’d have to overcome metal objections before you actually followed through.
We learned that the best marketing captures people in the moment, It’s why point of sale marketing is so effective (i.e. in the checkout at the grocery store). That’s why search ads online are so effective. You’re typing in a problem that you have right at that moment and the ad is a solution to that problem. Our marketing no longer asks people to channel switch, but rather meets them online.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
When we first started, our purpose was really to help people use the gift of a great voice to put food on their tables. For the two of us founders, my wife Stephanie and myself, that was a pretty motivating purpose. In fact, we were a startup ourselves, so we were trying to put food on our table too. That’s where this notion of shared success came from. If voice talent continue to get work on Voices, then clients will get their jobs done, and we’re also a beneficiary of that successful project.
Over the years our vision has evolved and we’ve added more color to the language we use to describe our vision and mission. A company’s vision statement should be something just shy of “to make the world a better place,” where a mission statement is more about what it’s going to achieve.
For Voices, our vision is that we believe the human voice informs, entertains, and inspires. We exist to make the world a more positive and accessible place through the power of the human voice. Our mission is to create the definitive destination that connects people with the right voice to bring their words to life.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
To inform our company’s values to our customers, we list them right on our website. But more than just listing them, our product and our organization lives out our values. We defined our set of values as a leadership team, and have refined them over the years. We have the self awareness to be able to ask ourselves if something is really a part of our core values. A good way to determine if something is a core value is to figure out if it is a reason you would hire, fire, or promote someone.
We create content for our community that states our values as well. We recently held a webinar where we walked through our vision, mission, and values while speaking directly to customers. The video showed our product roadmap for the year, and the introduction of our values helped put that roadmap into context.
There are a number of ways we promote our values to our employees:
- We employ value-based hiring. We have weaved questions that speak to our values into the interview process, even the pre-screening call.
- The next place an employee would learn about our values is through onboarding. We have a series of sessions as part of employee onboarding, including a company overview and a session called “MBA in a Day” that includes a module on Voices culture. Both of these are led by myself as founder and CEO, which puts further emphasis on the fact that these values are important to us. Our HR team also runs a session on creating a high-performance culture.
- We include our values in performance reviews and weave them into times of feedback, like a one-to-one meeting. If done right, your values get infused into the everyday language used in meetings. People start adopting the language in their acknowledgments of other successes.
- Monetary rewards are in part tied to our values. Our bonus program includes measurements of both performance and living out Voices values.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
“This too shall pass.” For me, this means that you should celebrate wins when you have them because you’re not going to feel like a champion everyday. It’s a reminder that the good things — like feelings, results, or a record-breaking day — can slip away so appreciate that moment in time.
Negative things will also pass. It is one comment, one negative review, one customer who’s upset. Just being willing to do your part to resolve the situation and then let it go. I always have room to improve there, but over time this principle has emboldened me to make some hard choices. Whether you have to communicate a tough decision or do something that’s unpopular, you do what you need to do and then most things resolve with time. It’s not to take away from the personal or mental toll that occurs in the moment, but in the grand scheme of your entire life it’s short lived.
If you’re fortunate enough to grow a business of any size or scale, most things you do will have a group of people who will be disappointed in a decision or might have wished something different, despite the majority of people understanding the decision. There will always be critics and over time you can learn that it’s actually a sign of the impact you have on people. You do need to be thoughtful in your words and communication, but it shouldn’t prevent you from doing the right thing for your business because someone might not like it. You need to make those decisions knowing that you might not please everyone.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I think raising startup capital was really hard on Stephanie and me. This was for a couple reasons. We didn’t feel comfortable asking our families for significant ongoing financial support. We wanted the business to be successful on its own, not because we were pursuing a dream. And for the first couple of years, we couldn’t find any seasoned investor who would be willing to buy a small stake in the company because we were too small.
Then after the first few inklings of success, we felt like we were on to something and we were reluctant to give up a share of the company. So if you’re not going to take money from family and you don’t want to sell a chunk of your company to a friendly investor, then you’re left with bank financing.
Banks operate with very strict parameters as to what a business should look like from a financial statement perspective. We didn’t need money to buy physical assets, like a warehouse or inventory, but rather we needed marketing capital to bring people to our website. It was hard to create a financial profile of the company that would be appealing to a traditional bank. Further, the two of us were otherwise unemployed with no business degrees. So, how exactly were we going to service the debt? Our answer was by selling subscriptions to the website.
That was a big risk for banks. We didn’t have anything that they could consider collateral. Our solution to all of this was to take on small amounts of debt ($30,000 at the beginning) to grow the company. Should things go well, we would pay that loan off early and get another one for the next leg of the journey, building a credit history with a financial institution and getting to know the people there. Over time, we grew that to a $2 million loan from the Business Development Bank of Canada.
We were still a small, growing company and were still the same people we were before. But we proved that over time you can build enough of a track record with an institution that you can produce results and service the debt consistently. It was only after all of that that we wanted to bring on a partner and investor that would help level up the company and have the accountability of a board of directors.
In the toughest moments in our financing journey, what motivated us was seeing the successful marketing campaigns that led clients to post their jobs on Voices. We were living out our vision to make the world a better place, helping talent get paid for their voice, and the financial results indicated that it was working. When you get the combination of work that is meaningful to both your customers and yourself, then that’s all the motivation you need.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
In 2017, we received an $18 million growth investment from Morgan Stanley Expansion Capital.
Today we have over one million members and are the largest marketplace for audio and voice over products and services in the world. We have a global network of voice actors who lend their talents in over 100 languages, accents and dialects and we serve customers in over 160 countries.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Solve real-world problems. You don’t want to be creating or selling a solution to a problem that nobody has. Often the best way to come up with these is by observing the world around you. Look at the challenges people are having. Put yourself in situations where there are groups of people and see if there are common challenges that people have.
- Develop a brand. You can change these over time, but start with the story you’re going to tell over and over. You can create this long history if you get the right name from the beginning. We actually started as “Interactive Voices,” then shortened our name to “Voices.com,” and just recently refreshed that to “Voices.” Also, develop a brand that separates the identity of the organization you’re creating from the identity of the founders. Tying those two closely together makes it difficult in the event of a sale of a company to bring in other executives as your company grows because you tied it to a family name. The brand should have a distinct identity.
- Think “10x” when building your internal systems and processes you want to consider growth. You don’t want to build for scale as if you’re the next Amazon, but imagine if you had ten times the number of employees, and ten times the number of leads. Only when you reach that moment should you be evaluating the next 10x. If you think too small you’ll be constantly solving today’s problems and fighting fires instead of building your company.
- Surround yourself with the best advisors. This ranges from legal and tax advisors, to consultants that are telling you something you don’t know. In the early days, you have more time than money. But as you grow and mature, you’ll hopefully have more money than time and trusted advisors can provide you with advice that can save you the time from not having to learn things the hard way. They are giving you their life’s experience.
- Hire slow and fire fast. The team you surround yourself with are people you’ll spend a ton of time with, they’ll know the details of how your business runs, and you need to trust them. If anything during that recruiting process is raising red flags with a candiciate, then don’t move forward with them. It’s far more painful than finding out there is not a fit after they are hired. My mother always says to “never make a decision until you have to.”
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
As co-founders and spouses, Stephanie and I have helped each other along the way, and our skill sets complement each other. It’s for that reason that it’s rare that tech companies have a single founder. Often the skill set required is both technical and creative, or externally focused on customers or internally on the product.
We helped each other, but we also had many conversations with our parents. They would lend a listening ear to help us talk through something. It’s part of our decision-making process to hear something said aloud and to get some initial feedback from someone else to provide a first impression. Hearing something said the first time breathes life into an idea. It’s out there now, we’ve named it, and now we’re talking about that subject. It goes from idea to a topic of discussion. Now, those conversations happen with the leadership team and the board of directors.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Do work that you love. There are certain times in the day that I’m very energized and sometimes when I’m not. If you could design your perfect job, you like these tasks and responsibilities, lean towards that end of the spectrum and spend more time on the things you really like doing. Don’t fret so much about external validation.
Usually there’s something in your life story that weaves its way through your whole life. What do you really enjoy doing? I actually like making decisions. I like to communicate the problem, the situation, the recommendation, and why we’re making that particular decision. I realized that if I’m in a meeting, I try to lead to that point.
You can find the aspects of your work that you enjoy doing and identify them. Look for something you’re good at, you enjoy, and that you can get paid for.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Twitter: @davidciccarelli, @voices