As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing David Ciccarelli.
David Ciccarelli is an entrepreneur at heart. For the last decade, David, with the help of his team, has grown Voices from the ground up to become the leader in the voice over industry. More recently, he has led the charge through Voices’ transition from a voice over platform to a creative services marketplace, newly adding translation, audio production, and music composition to the services offered on www.voices.com. As Chief Executive Officer, David is responsible for setting the vision, executing the growth strategy, creating a vibrant culture, and managing the company on a day-to-day basis. He is frequently published in outlets such as The Globe & Mail, Forbes, and The Wall Street Journal.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. 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?
Absolutely. The foundation for Voices was actually the small recording studio I opened after graduating from the Ontario Institute of Audio Recording Technology (OIART) in London, Ontario. On my birthday, of all days, I managed to get my name in the Business London newspaper. My now mother-In-law showed that article to my now wife, Stephanie, who is a classically trained singer. She suggested Stephanie record her repertoire at my little studio, so she ended up recording her music with me as the sound engineer.
That article in the paper started getting attention from other local businesses who needed a female voice for their ads. I only knew one girl in the entire city — Stephanie — so I called her and asked if she would read the copy. She agreed and we recorded in that little studio again.
Not long after, we started getting flooded with messages from voice actors asking if we would feature them on our website. We just said yes and yes until we had built up quite the selection of voice over talent. Once ad agencies and video production companies started using our website to hire voice actors, I had what I call my proverbial “Aha!” moment. That was the catalyst for us moving away from the recording studio and toward becoming a voice over marketplace. We actually wrote out the concept for Voices on a napkin! It was then that we started actively connecting voice-buying clients with professional and aspiring voice talent. Now, more than 15 years later, Voices is the leading voice over marketplace and has some exciting things on the horizon.
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?
After our initial site launch, back when we were called “Interactive Voices,” we were gaining traction and more and more voice actors were signing up on our website. Our brand promise was to provide opportunities to talent, so we came up with what we thought was a brilliant idea: we would send jumbo postcards to potential clients in New York City and Los Angeles to get them to register for our services. The way we’d get them to do this is by including an iPod nano giveaway, requiring them to fill out a form online to be entered into the contest.
After discovering that a large part of our potential client base would be advertising agencies, we paid a marketing agency big bucks for a direct mailing list for about 30,000 people working in ad agencies. We figured that if they weren’t already searching for voice talent online, we needed to reach them where they actually were — in their offices, working.
We arranged a six-week campaign, with three rounds of postcards being sent out. We sent them these postcards, expecting them to receive the mail, walk over to their computers, and type in a long URL to enter the contest. In hindsight, this was a hurdle for our target audience, and we felt it in the campaign results. Of the approximately 30,000 recipients, exactly two — that’s not a typo — people registered for the contest. It was painful at the time, but is funny to look back on now.
One thing that worked out for us is that the marketing agency we’d used to secure the mailing list also designed a colour palette and initial Voices ‘look,’ including mascots, key messaging, and a brand identity, some of which has evolved and is still in use today.
Our lesson in all of this has stuck with me. Our biggest mistake in that situation was what is known as “channel switching,” which is when a customer is reached through one marketing channel but needs to respond or act using a different channel, like when you’re listening to the radio and are prompted to pick up the phone and dial a number. We used direct postal mail, but needed the recipients to fill out an online form and email us to act on the call to action, which backfired.
If a business is online, advertising should be done online. If a business is offline, then offline methods of marketing should be engaged. That’s not to say that traditional marketing doesn’t have value. Many companies maintain both an online and offline marketing presence successfully, but those traditional methods are often better used to generate awareness rather than to yield results for a specific campaign.
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?
There’s a gentleman by the name of Glenn Yonemitsu who was essentially the first executive coach we had. He worked — and still works — at the Business Development Bank of Canada, with whom we had a commercial banking relationship.
About a year into that relationship, we had the opportunity to work with the Bank’s advisory services. Glenn was leading the Growth Driver Program and also ended up being our consultant, though the term consultant doesn’t do it justice. What made Glenn so special and memorable was that he went far beyond the mandates of a typical business relationship and would go above and beyond for his clients’ success, whether that looked like early morning breakfasts or late night phone calls to discuss strategy, reports, or anything under the sun.
When it came time for Voices to pitch to investors, Glenn actually arranged a roleplaying exercise so we could rehearse our pitch. From the moment we stepped off the elevator, Glenn and his panel acted as potential investors with Morgan Stanley. We went through the whole pitch deck, with “Morgan Stanley” asking tough questions, challenging our data, and preparing us as best they could for the real pitch.
Because of this preparedness, Voices was successful in raising $18M with Morgan Stanley Expansion Capital. Practicing our performance with a real panel and sharpening our ability to think on the fly were key elements to that success, and none of it would have been possible without Glenn. Our project with Glenn later went on to win the National Champion Award for Canada, the Global Gold Award, and Canadian Association of Management Consultants Project of the Year recognition in 2018.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Stephanie, my wife and Voices Co-Founder, and I were just starting our family and noticed there was a lot of content on TV, in games, and in toys that was questionable — overtly violent, with a lack of moral purpose or impact, or just sort of thoughtless.
Ultimately, your vision is your why statement. For most companies, this looks like “Trying to make the world a better place,” but through the lens of their particular niche or industry. For us, that was through voice.
We wanted to contribute to messaging that was more uplifting and had more of a positive impact. We aimed to create content that did make the world a better place, through the power of the human voice. Kids are listening to these stories — on TV, in movies, in video games, on their phones or tablets — and being influenced by what they hear, so we asked ourselves “What kind of world do we want our kids to grow up in? How might we influence media and entertainment to reflect that?”
That’s the reason we do what we do and we haven’t really deviated from that original vision. We remain committed to being an “E for everyone” platform, where the work gets done to make the world a better place.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
In the earliest hours of the pandemic, before it was even on many peoples’ radars, I was studying at Harvard Business School as part of an Executive Education program. I was chosen to be a team lead and my first task was to communicate all of the policies and practices in place at Harvard to keep students safe on campus to my group members.
We looked at case studies of how companies had navigated through turbulent times, including the NASA Challenger Shuttle disaster and the supply chain challenges with Airbus. They all highlighted navigating through uncertainty and ambiguity, and at the time, we had no idea that it was real-world foreshadowing for what was about to come.
After that initial group meeting, during which we evaluated and familiarized ourselves with those safety policies, people generally didn’t think much more of it. This was in February of 2020, when life still felt normal, though there were whispers of COVID-19 emerging.
With turbulent business experiences and precautionary tales still at the forefront of my mind, the first thing I did when I returned from Harvard was to secure a round of financing from the bank to have extra cash on hand. Something all entrepreneurs, CEOs, founders, and leaders should know is that you always want to have more cash than you need, especially when you don’t need it. Having that contingency cash in place before an emergency hits makes life a lot easier than scrambling to secure funds after crisis hits.
Next, we conducted a Work from Home readiness assessment. There wasn’t really a solid, comprehensive checklist in circulation, so we created our own. We asked questions like “Does everyone have a company laptop? Do we even know how to run a large-scale video conference? Does everyone have cameras and reliable Internet access?” After asking those questions, we deduced that we were woefully unprepared from a tech standpoint, so we ran our first simulation of a large group call with the entire company. Myself and our VP of People & Operations, Ann Walton, sat in my office and hosted a company-wide meeting with over 100 employees in the office so we could test the gaps in our tech.
By the time the readiness assessment was complete and we were better prepared, the WHO had declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. The announcement came on Wednesday, March 11, 2020 and immediately prompted me to insist upon mandatory WFH for all employees beginning the following Monday. Our staff were instructed to use Friday afternoon to pack up their belongings and equipment and get set up for the following week in an entirely new work environment: their homes.
In order to make this transition as smooth as possible, it took preparedness — and perhaps more importantly, the awareness of what we lacked in preparedness — before the challenge actually struck. Successfully leading a team during uncertain or turbulent times requires thinking ahead and planning for the unexpected. If you haven’t been able to plan before a crisis hits, then you need to be able to pivot quickly and keep a level head.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I think to consider giving up is human. I don’t know a single person, whether a CEO or a friend, who hasn’t contemplated giving up on something at some point. It seems like an easy solution when things get tough. Walking away starts to look appealing.
For me, it boils down to the fact that I’m not just doing this for myself. It started out as a dream scribbled on a napkin, but now it’s the livelihood of over 100 employees and thousands of talent. I have a wonderful wife and four beautiful kids who rely on me. So when a challenge arises, I look at it like a puzzle to solve. It’s just an obstacle that has to be overcome, and I’m fortunate that Voices has a team of very skilled, hard-working people to help us over that obstacle.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
As a leader, eyes are often on you. During challenging times, this is magnified because people are looking to you for security and answers. The most critical role I’ve played during uncertain times, most recently during the COVID-19 pandemic, is that of stability. Imagine the leader is the head and their team is the body. When the head is strong, so is the body. This works in reverse as well, but particularly during challenging times, the body often mirrors the head, AKA the team looks to the leader for guidance and stability. It’s my job — or any leader’s job — to provide that.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
There were some obstacles at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when we were transitioning our entire staff to remote work, but I think we’ve been very fortunate at Voices because we have an engaged, motivated team. I attribute that partly to our diligent hiring process — we always strive to make sure whoever joins the team is the right fit for our company culture — and partly to the incredible efforts of our Social and Health, Safety, and Wellness Committees.
Motivation and engagement don’t come solely from hitting sales targets or meeting goals. What we’ve found is that our team is most inspired, motivated, and engaged when they feel heard, valued, and supported both in their day-to-day business operations and in respect to the company culture and that sense of belonging. Any leader can inspire their team by treating them like people first, employees second.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The best way I’ve found to communicate challenging news is to be transparent about it. Tiptoeing around or sugarcoating a subject only prolongs the process and ultimately damages the mutual trust between you and the team or customers. If there’s been a mistake, own it. If something hasn’t gone according to plan, explain why. Transparency, while not always comfortable, is crucial when communicating.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Planning is important, but the best advice I can give here is to plan for unpredictability. Plan with the knowledge that there’s often a likelihood you’ll have to pivot. Make sure you have contingency plans in place, not only for the obvious elements like employee workstations or safety, but for things like finances, office overhead, and long-term contracts as well.
Even the best laid plans need back ups, so I encourage any leader to plan as if everything will go smoothly, but also plan for hiccups, fires, or global pandemics where possible.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The number one principle that has worked well to guide a company through challenging times at Voices is stability. I want to first and foremost create stability in the midst of chaos.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, that looked like continuing 1–1 meetings with employees every week, company-wide weekly huddles where we shared news of what was happening within the company, and keeping up with regular meetings and project reporting sessions. We needed to keep momentum in order to maintain stability.
This also meant that every single person at Voices needed a unified work experience. Everyone needed to be at home with all the necessary equipment for their roles in order to be successful. Making it mandatory streamlined the transition process and put everyone in the same boat at the same time. It really compressed the learning curve.
The first week was a little bumpy as we all got used to Google Meet, virtual check-ins, and working from home, but we got through it by giving the staff the same consistency they could have expected in the office. We did our best to replicate the serendipitous bumping into each other that happens at the coffee station, on the way to the bathroom, or near the water cooler by creating virtual opportunities for face-to-face connection to chat about non-work things, what was on deck for the day or week, and how things were going. We also sent out a COVID19 newsletter, which was daily at first, then weekly, before tapering off as it was no longer needed.
One of my proudest moments from that time is how we connected with both our staff and our talent from our platform. Ann Walton, VP of People & Operations, had a 1–1 with every person in the company to check in and ensure everyone had what they needed. I had 1–1 conversations with the top 100 talent on the Voices platform to ascertain the same. Those acts were well-received, because they demonstrated we cared and were proactive about the wellness and support of both our staff and our customers.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
First, under-communicating. Your stakeholders need to know what’s happening, especially in times of turbulence. Try putting yourself in their shoes. If the roles were reversed, would you want to be kept in the loop?
Second, not making the tough choices. While we work very hard to keep our employees in the loop and part of the decision process, there are times when decisions need to be made for the good of the company or for the sake of stability. For example, for the first few weeks of the pandemic, some companies made it the choice of the employee whether or not they wanted to work from home or in the office, and it was chaos. It’s important to remember that as a leader, tough decisions often fall to you and you need to be prepared to make them.
Third and finally, treating crises as inconveniences rather than opportunities. Yes, crises are inconvenient and challenging, but you can’t always stop them from occurring, so you have a choice to make: are you going to lament that it’s happening or are you going to use it as momentum to propel yourself and the company forward?
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
We operate in the freelance economy, or as we prefer to call it, the future of work. Though there was some detrimental impact at the beginning of the pandemic when everyone was panicking and unsure of what to do next, we’ve been very fortunate that the freelancing world has thrived amidst COVID-19 due to its virtual, efficient nature.
With that said, we are still constantly evaluating our marketing strategies and goals as the world continues to shift. Any leader should be doing the same, whether during times of uncertainty or not. Following market trends, evaluating your target audiences, and analyzing what your competitors are doing are critical strategies at any time.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Assess the situation, constantly. You should always be looking at the potential impact of a risk and the likelihood of it occurring. If the crisis has already happened, you need to be asking yourself “What’s the impact?,” conducting analysis of the different potential risks and outcomes with variable factors, and establishing response protocols for those scenarios. This is exactly what we did in preparation for the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Communicate often. Have a tendency to over-communicate rather than under-communicate, even if you don’t have a lot of information. It’s better for people to be over-informed than scratching their heads wondering what’s going on because they haven’t heard from you in a while. We sent out daily, then weekly newsletters to our employees when we started working from home so that everyone was up to speed.
- Remember all your stakeholders. As a leader, it’s important to make sure your employees are in a good spot, but as CEO, there are two other groups you have a responsibility to: customers and board members/investors. Before the pandemic, I would send out a monthly flash report — a one-page summary of the previous month’s performance — to board members and investors. Once the pandemic hit, I began sending that flash report out weekly. It was well-received and helped our stakeholders feel informed, invested, and engaged.
- Keep old routines and establish new ones. Routine is often an anchor during uncertain times, so it’s important to keep those scheduled 1–1 check ins, team meetings, and social hours in place to maintain a sense of normalcy. It’s also important to create new routines and opportunities that reflect current conditions, which is what we did by introducing daily stand up meetings when we first started working from home. This was a daily opportunity for teams to check in with one another, get collaborative and brainstorm ideas, or just connect with co-workers.
- Celebrate wins. When a crisis hits, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and like you’re barely staying afloat, but when you take a step back, it becomes easier to see all of your accomplishments. Don’t forget to acknowledge these wins! It’s crucial for morale and will encourage people to keep going. For example, we do this through weekly thank yous at our company-wide huddle meeting. We also celebrated our first virtual hire, our first completely remote software release, and our first 120-person virtual meeting. These are milestones and deserve to be recognized. If you’re not going to do it as a leader, nobody will.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
A few quotes — or rather, definitions — that I’ve learned have helped me lead the business as it’s grown over the years. The first is a definition of strategy. Strategy is the integrated set of choices a business makes to differentiate itself from competitors and deliver superior long-term results. I love this definition of strategy because it emphasizes the need for leaders to make decisions regarding which opportunities to pursue and which not to pursue. Additionally, your set of activities as a business should be different from those of your competitors.
Another definition I’ve found helpful is that of culture. Culture is behavior in the absence of policy. Said plainly, your corporate culture is how people act when no one is looking and when there isn’t a hard rule or guideline to handle the situation. We can’t anticipate all the scenarios we may find ourselves in or the countless decisions that each individual makes on a daily basis, but a strong culture will result in your team doing the right thing.
How can our readers further follow your work?
There are a few ways readers can keep up with what’s happening at Voices. For monthly insights, they can follow me on Medium — just look up David Ciccarelli. We also publish blog posts, trend reports, and press updates on our website, www.voices.com. And, of course, there are the standard social channels: Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook are all @voices, LinkedIn is /company/voices-com.