Published in Business London, May, 2016
Here’s a question the big thinkers at Voices.com may have to grapple with in the next year or two: When does a huddle become a melee?
For 13 years, since it began as the union of a handful of people and a nifty idea, the company has carved out 10 minutes right before lunch every day for a meeting of everyone who’s available. They hear about new products and initiatives, systems under repair and notable sales achievements. It’s a corporate mash-up of high school announcements from the principal’s office and a pep rally before the big football game.
Five years ago, there were 17 people to accommodate at the huddle. Today there are 101. By the end of next year, there could be 300. And by the end of 2018, if things going according to the company’s ambitious plans, there will be 400. By then, they won’t all be working in London, but the majority certainly will be, and the huddle might start to look more like Friday night at Rock the Park.
An ever-expanding huddle is perhaps the least of the many challenges Voices.com will face as it continues to grow, chasing its founder’s dream of hitting the $100-million revenue mark within four years.
“We’re north of $15-million this year, and we’ve been doubling every year for the last five or six years,” says CEO David Ciccarelli. “Our medium-term goal is to reach the $100-million plateau by 2020. I think we’re on our way to doing that, but we’ve got a lot of work to do to make it happen.”
Until recently, Voices.com was hiring one or two people every month, training them individually and integrating them with little trouble. “But in April, we hired 11 people,” Ciccarelli says. “And we’re planning to do that again this month, and next month and so on. We expect to have 200 employees by the end of 2016.”
For many years, the story of Voices.com was that of a spunky tech start-up, navigating the world of funding, cash flow and market development with the goal of creating a lasting organization with international scope. Five years ago to the month, it appeared in this very space – on the Business London cover – where it was branded “all grown up.” Today, that grown-up company is poised for its next leap forward, with hundreds of new employees, eye-popping revenue growth and the likely creation of offices beyond its London base.
If it continues to meet its market and revenue goals, it could very well go public, something Ciccarelli, 37, identifies as a personal, long-term goal. “I’m working toward eventually taking our company public. Exceeding $100-million in sales seems to be the threshold to get listed on NASDAQ. Be it three or four years away, we will get there eventually, I wholeheartedly believe.”
The Voices.com birth story has a little bit of everything and borders on legend. Ciccarelli met wife Stephanie when she came into his Richmond Street recording studio, looking to lay down some vocal tracks. They recorded the songs, and, in 2003, created a business together. They also got married and had four children – three girls and a boy, all under 12 today.
It would be a stretch to say they knew exactly what they were doing, but they had an inkling. They wanted to bring together voice talent and businesses that needed voices to record everything from commercials to training manuals to film narrations.
Inspired by eBay -- when eBay was inspirational -- they set out to build an Internet-based directory of voice talent available for hire with a click or two of a mouse.
Initially, they were just going to be the matchmaker, bringing the parties together and letting them make their own deals. But that changed early on, in part because of a visit Ciccarelli made to the set of Dragon’s Den in Toronto.
By a series of happenstance connections, he found himself serving as something of a prop while the show was auditioning both hosts and guests. His pitch was well received, but rather than entertaining an investment offer that might have come as part of a regular show, Ciccarelli instead received some spectacular advice.
“They told me the value was in owning the whole process from end to end, brokering the deal and handling the money,” he recalls. “It was a great idea, but we had no idea how to do that.”
So the company created an escrow payment system called SurePay and patented it on both sides of the 49th. That smoothed the process and allowed for thousands of transactions to take place every month.
Voice talent paid to subscribe and be listed. Companies hiring them paid 10 per cent per transaction. Voices.com handled the funds and distributed the money once the job was done. Neat and tidy. Today, the company uses the system to disperse payments of between $250,000 and $500,000 every month.
As the company grew, so too did its pool of voice talent. It stands at about 125,000 worldwide now. If you’re looking for a woman in New Orleans to read your firm’s video pitch in English, Spanish and German, there’s a good chance you’ll find the right person in the Voices.com stable.
A more common scenario is as follows: Agency X is shooting a series of radio ads and wants an announcer with a British accent – the funny kind, not the snooty kind – in New York City. There might be 500 people who fit that bill, and Agency X can’t spend time listening to samples of every potential person. That’s where the real value of Voices.com exists. It’s also what separates the company from your basic Google search, a critical distinction in an age when aggregators are destroying entire sectors of the economy.
Agency X posts a description of what it’s looking for, and the Voices.com algorithm sends an email alert to the top 1,000 potential matches. Those likely matches have the option of sending an audition recording. Typically 50 to 100 might do so, and they are passed along to Agency X, which then goes through them and selects a bunch to pursue in more detail.
It’s a nifty model and it worked well to help Voices.com grow at rate of one or two employees per month for several years. As satisfying as that growth was, it wasn’t going to get Ciccarelli and his team to their $100-million goal. To do that, they needed to alter their model yet again.
But first, a twist on one of the oldest sales realities out there: It’s much easier to sell more to an existing client than it is to develop a brand new client.
“We realized we needed to land and expand,” Ciccarelli says, invoking a rhyming slogan with a small degree of sheepishness. “For example, we had one guy using our site to do Microsoft Money videos. Microsoft: Obviously, there’s more potential there. So we made a concerted effort to expand to different departments, to marketing and product development and HR. They all need voice talent at some point. We now have 73 contacts within Microsoft.”
The company has made similar inroads to other large clients, creating a kind of multiplier effect that’s fuelling rapid growth. There was just one problem as the percentage of clients tipped from small and medium-sized businesses to large, multinationals.
“Our payment model, which was ideal for self-serve businesses and smaller companies was not at all set up to serve large companies,” Ciccarelli says with a shrug. “You don’t have someone at Microsoft swiping their credit card to make a payment, something our smaller clients love being able to do. They need legal non-disclosure statements from the voice talent, they need other legal papers, they use purchase orders and a whole system of orders and payments. We needed to adapt immediately to create a full-service professional approach.”
Larger clients may hire someone to read a one-off script, but they are just as likely to be in the market for someone to spend 100 hours reading a book or lengthy product manual. To serve those clients, Voices.com delivers the specific talent, looks after the legal and payments issues and takes a much larger slice of the much larger pie, somewhere between 25 and 50 per cent of the fee -- substantially more than the 10 per cent it takes on smaller, self-serve jobs.
That’s where the growth is. And that’s why the company is hiring so many new people to search out clients, match them with talent and service the ongoing relationships.
“We’re primarily hiring sales, business development and account managers,” says HR Manager Kaitlyn Apfelbeck, herself a relatively new hire 18 months ago. She and a just-hired assistant are in charge of monthly training sessions for new employees and then implementing a carefully crafted program of matching newbies with each other to ensure they develop friendships as quickly as possible.
“After people have been here for three or four weeks, we interview them again to get an idea of how they’re doing and to see what’s been good or bad,” she says. “One of my biggest challenges as we grow quickly is to make sure I’m available to our employees when they have a question or concern.”
Salespeople work on a base salary with commission bonuses and have targets to meet on a regular schedule. The daily huddles are in part designed to boost their morale, creating a team atmosphere that may appeal to younger workers. The average age at the company is 32.
Responsibility for planning and running huddles is passed around to various groups. To accommodate the ever larger crowd, the company is renovating one of its two floors at 150 Dufferin Ave. The 6th floor soon will be home to reorganized workstation teams and an expanded lunch area known as Central Park. That’s where the daily huddles will take place.
There’s more room to expand on Dufferin, but eventually Ciccarelli expects to open branch offices. The first will be in New York, where there is the greatest demand for voice services. The timing isn’t set, but in the next year or two, there may be a video link from a New York office into the London Central Park, with employees in both offices sharing stories and encouragement before breaking for lunch in two very different settings.
So goes the growth of Voices.com, a company that began small and relies in equal measure on innovative technology and old-fashioned sales calls and commissions to drum up business and chase its lofty goals.