Connecting Businesses To Freelance Voice Talents with David Ciccarelli
Our guest is the Founder of an online market in a specific niche. It’s important to pay close attention to what we cover in this episode because what he has done can be easily translated to many different markets. He identified a need in a fractured marketplace and created a solution to address that need. Besides his own sweat equity, Morgan Stanley invested $18 million into his series A round, which means they were confident that he would succeed and succeed he has. With over 500,000 registered users operating in 160 different countries, he intends to take his company to the $100 million mark. He’s going to show us what he’s up to in this episode. Welcome, David Ciccarelli, to the show.
Thanks for the warm intro and welcoming words. It’s great to be here.
It’s my pleasure, David. It’s such an interesting company that you’re building and running. I have some background in the radio industry having run ads for Tony Robbins and Chet Holmes as CEO of Business Breakthroughs. What I learned from that process was that there are many pieces, many vendors and many people who contribute to that radio ad that you hear on air. It’s usually not thought much about when most people hear a commercial. They just think it’s an ad. We know all of the pieces and all of the skills, the abilities and the talents that go into making that ad. You happen to be a place where those people who provide those services can go.
We think of it as a freelancer marketplace at Voices.com where entrepreneurs, marketers, corporate clients are there to do one thing, find the great voice for their project whether that’s to educate, entertain or inspire audiences. They have a message to communicate. The means in which they’re doing that is through the power of the human voice. Sometimes that’s an advertisement. Other times it’s a YouTube video or maybe it’s some on hold greetings or it’s a product demonstration at a kiosk at a trade show. It’s an amazing market that we were able to uncover that it was tremendously fragmented, and the timing was right to bring all of the players together, the buyers and the sellers, into this online marketplace.
Give us an idea about how this all started for you.The beauty of a voice is that it's one track. It can be done remotely. Click To Tweet
I grew up being fascinated with sounds. My parents had this old shortwave radio that I could dial into radio stations across the world. I also was fascinated with the record player that mom had. We liked listening to the spoken word. As I graduated from high school, I looked at my options and found a school that was dedicated to the art and science of audio recording technology. I went to this program. I learned all about recording, editing and mixing sound not only for music but for film and other productions, TV, documentaries and so forth.
When you went to school, was it your intention to become a broadcaster?
I think more of a recording engineer. I played music growing up. The itch I was trying to scratch was how I blend the art, the performance and the creativity with the technology. It happened to be that this was a neat career path where there was the intersection of the two.
How did that go? Where did you take that?
There were a number of industry experts that came in through the program. I realized the path for me was starting my own small recording studio. My dad co-signed for a loan of about $15,000 to get me out the door to buy some recording equipment and open a small recording studio. I opened it up in London, Canada which is between Toronto and Detroit. I opened this studio and got my name in the local newspaper on my birthday. This is where it gets interesting. You’ll think I’m telling you a love story, but it turns out that my now wife, Stephanie, at the time she was a classically-trained singer. She’d sing at weddings, funerals and special events. Her mom would often drive her around to these auditions in person because people wanted to hear her sing before they hired her for a gig. Her mom is probably quite a savvy marketer. She read this newspaper article, cut it out for Stephanie and said, “Why don’t you go down to the studio that opened up and record your singing repertoire.”
Stephanie comes down to the studio chaperoned by her mother. We ended up hitting it off doing those initial recordings. It’s because of that same newspaper article. There were other local small businesses. There was a hair salon, an event management company. They wanted some phone systems in a local radio commercial. They wanted a female voice. I was a nerd. I knew only one girl in the city and that was Stephanie that I met a couple of days earlier and thought, “Why don’t I give her a call?” My pitch to her was, “Why don’t you come back down to the studio? You’ve got a great singing voice. Do you think you can read a couple of pages of copy? We’d split the money. I’ll be the engineer and you can be the female voice talent.”
That’s how we got into the business. We officially started working together and soon established a business partnership as well as it got romantic. That led to us getting married and now we have four wonderful kids. That’s how we stumbled into tapping this market of the human voice recorded. I learned about it in school. Stephanie was familiar with it ahead of time with her background in music and performing arts but realizing and recognizing the commercial opportunities of working with businesses that they have unique needs.
I know that once you spot a hot gal that you have interest in, your mind starts working right away, “How can I get her back here?” I understand that completely. We think the same way.
I sometimes joke that I married my first customer. I don’t know if that’s advice I’d give to everyone, but that’s how it worked out.
What ended up happening is you were able to book business for her or you had customers that you needed a female voice for. When did the whole idea of opening this thing up to the world come about?Nobody changes from good enough to maybe better. Click To Tweet
After we realized we were modestly successful in London, Canada not exactly a major market, realizing, “If there’s a business here, maybe we should create a website that’s dedicated for it.” I had a small website for the recording studio, but we created a website that soon attracted other freelance voice talents. Guys who spoke French and German, a female voice talent who did celebrity impressions and audiobook narrators. They would always contact us and say, “I found your website. Can I be on this website?” We thought, “Sure, no harm, no foul. We’ll list your name and a little link where you could click the link and you can hear a sample recording of your voice.”
That was the sell side of the market, the voice talent offering up their services and concurrently were those clients. We would get emails from independent video producers. They would say, “I found this voice talent on your website. It’s a name and a little play button and I can listen to it. How do I get in touch with them?” That was the proverbial a-ha moment was, “Let’s back up a step. Rather than us doing the production and steering some business through referrals to various partners, why don’t we pivot? Why don’t we get out of the recording studio business and create a marketplace?”
We were both fascinated with eBay at the time. Freelancer marketplaces were early, Elance was probably one of the first. That was the idea is rather than the exchange of physical goods, why don’t we exchange services? The beauty of a voice is that it’s one track. It can be done remotely. The file is relatively small. It’s not a large video file. It’s MP3 in most cases. We thought it was easy to transmit over the web, but that was the idea of the pivot of getting out of the recording studio business, selling that equipment, that same $15,000 and hiring our first web developer. We built our first website by going down to the local library and taking out Web Design for Dummies, teaching ourselves how to hack together a few web pages. We realized that if we want to do this at a scale and do it properly, we would need to work with the help of some web development experts to get it where it needed to be for that first true version.
Give me a feel for timing on this.
It was 2005 when we initially launched the website.
When you first started doing this, would it be safe to say that it wasn’t like you had a master plan? It was playing it by ear and going along with things as they evolved. Did you have a master plan?
Neither of us has a background in formal education in business. We don’t have an MBA or didn’t do some executive education program. There was a plan. Both Stephanie and I, by our nature, are quite diligent about planning and at least getting our ideas down on paper or pixels. That was a document that we did keep up to date. It was more of a living document, but much has changed. I’ll reference my dad again. He was like, “That’s great you’re writing everything out, but the business you have a few years from now won’t look anything like this.” That was a constant reminder to be willing to be flexible with what you were working on now and be comfortable with that ambiguity, that sense where you might need to shift gears slightly. In our case, because we were running a recording studio, it didn’t mean I needed to hold onto the equipment. I realized that’s an asset. If I sell it, I can invest $10,000. It depreciated somewhat. Now we’ve got $10,000 that we can work with a web developer.
Once you made that decision, did everything go perfectly after that? Did you ever question that the idea was good or that you were on the wrong track?
The first glimmer of hope was when we launched the business. This was when the Yahoo Directory was still around. We knew that there were a lot of freelancers out there. Stephanie wrote this long-form sales email and made a simple offer to the voice talent, which was, “We would create a profile for you. We will host your audio voice-over demos, think of them as highlight reels samples of their work and help get you to work that we’re going to attract to this website in exchange for a small membership fee.” At the time it was $50 a year. I recall that first weekend, Stephie emailed out a couple of hundreds of people and at the bottom of that email was a link to a PayPal to make a payment.
We woke up to over $5,000 in our PayPal account, which immediately was that seed capital. There were two concurrent thoughts. One, that’s amazing, we hit the right value prop that resonated with an audience and then at the same moment realizing we have to live out this brand promise. We’ve promised these people that we will get them work, we will help market them online. The initial success immediately was the challenge of how do we get people work? Our thought was who has all of this work? Who’s hiring these voice actors in New York and LA? There are a lot of ad agencies. That’s where all the creative people are. We took out a bank loan of $30,000 and decided with that $30,000 that the best thing to do would be to launch a direct mail campaign to ad agencies in New York and LA. It wasn’t a direct mail campaign of a one-off.If you're willing to do some type of marketing or direct advertising, do it as close to the point of sale as possible. Click To Tweet
It was well thought out. It was a sequence of three jumbo-size postcards. The offer was to receive the postcard, enter to win a first-generation iPod. It was a draw for an iPod. We tried to move people to break up their status quo and drive traffic to the website. We spent $30,000. What happened? We got two leads. The cost per lead was $15,000 each, not even cost per customer. We were devastated. We were on the hook for a $30,000 loan at a predetermined rate to be paid back over a few years and we’re no further ahead. What do you do in that situation? We decided on a couple of things. In the spirit of Forrest Gump, how do you turn lemons into lemonade? We realized this marketing agency that did the campaign, they gave us a visual identity, a color palette that we didn’t have. At the time, this nice retro cartoon style artwork.
We had mascots. We called them voice guy and voice girl for years and years and we had messaging that we felt was solid. That became the messaging, the value props that we used over the phone and other emails that we sent. I made close to 10,000 phone calls to clients over the subsequent several months. I’m calling out to those agencies because we knew where the postcards went. We didn’t have a contact there and certainly not an email. I did a lot of cold calls and made the pitch to say, “There’s a service you might be interested in if you’re ever hiring voice talent.”
What year was that?
That was all in this first year 2005.
Even though the internet was there and was probably starting to get active, you chose postcards. Tell me why and what do you think of using something like postcards to promote now.
I learned a couple of important lessons that we still face now and it is this. Nobody changes from good enough to maybe better. What I’m doing is working. I’ve got my system, my process. Everybody’s familiar with the terminology. They’ve got it whether it’s a system that they log into. Maybe it’s pricing they have established or it’s a relationship they’re withholding. It’s good enough. It’s working. They’re not going to change to something that may be better and risk disrupting their world. In order to introduce something new into your prospect’s sphere of influence, into their daily operation, it needs to be a quantum leap better, 10x better at minimum.
The value that’s to be delivered needs to be dramatically superior that they are willing to make that switching leap. That’s why we thought how we insert ourselves into that process and the postcards were not the right way to do it. Here’s the other lesson which I had time to reflect on this. Why didn’t that work? My hypothesis is because we caused channel switching. We sent something through direct mail channel and required that person to take the postcard, walk over to the computer, launch a browser and type in an address. It was the steps and the friction that was involved in going from a paper message into a digital realm was too high.
If I were to do it all over again, the much smarter thing and the takeaway is don’t channel switch. That’s hard to do. Instead, if you’re willing to do some type of marketing or direct advertising, do it as close to the point of sale as possible. If you have an online store, then you should be marketing online. If you have a retail store, maybe you have a beautiful sign outside of your physical retail store so people know the landmark. There is a lot of foot traffic. Put one of those A-frame street signs that you can put out that arrests or stops people in their tracks and can see your store. You want to market as close to where you’re ultimately going to transact as possible. That would be my advice or at least a lesson that I learned the hard way.
I’d like to add a little bit to what you said because I like what you said about channel switching. There’s another perspective on this and it’s a perspective that I frequently use with my clients. That is when a channel is busy, clogged and cluttered. Switching channels is maybe the most effective way to reach somebody. The reason I bring that up is that when we look at what we’ve learned after spending a couple of million dollars a year on radio, what I learned was that it’s hard to promote a URL on the radio. As you say, switching channels, but I think of it as because people can’t remember the URL while they’re driving. 80% plus of the radio was consumed in the car. When someone’s driving and they hear a URL they go, “I want to look that up.” When they get home, they completely forgot what the URL was and probably forgot all about what they heard.
That’s why we switched to using a telephone system. We put an 800 number in the radio ad and that 800 number was driving those one-point 3,000 phone calls a week into our call center. We were closing a broad data, broad traffic over the phone, qualified or unqualified, we were closing 10%. The trick was if we sent them to a URL, it didn’t work. Later, we discovered there is a way to make it work with a URL on the radio, but it requires carpet bombing. It requires a constant barrage of ads in twelve-hour a day increments to make sure that everybody hears it and never forgets it. The URL has to be super easy. I like the idea of staying within the channel, but sometimes it makes sense to try going outside the channel. After all, there are many of us that are inundated with emails and with all this other electronic advertising. It’s sometimes refreshing to get a postcard in the mail, pick it up and hand it to the person who should take care of this and say, “Give this guy a call. Find out what they’ve got.”However you're going to market, pick one thing and completely own that channel. Click To Tweet
We’re both saying the same thing. This was some other advice that was given to me. However, you’re going to market, pick one thing and completely own it, own that channel. If it is a radio that drives calls or if it’s Google AdWords or if it’s social media, every one of these channels is effective for the right type of business, for the type of entrepreneur that is going to read up on it. They’re going to understand all the intricacies of how these systems work. We took that experience of postcards. I reformatted that copy into Google AdWords ads. We were one of the first ones to advertise in the whole industry. We were getting clicks at the time for $0.05 and then Google instituted this $0.10 minimum. I thought, “They doubled my costs.” I look at that now on a cost per click, $0.10. I wish I spent hundreds of thousands of dollars. We didn’t have those resources back then, but when you find a channel that is working, it’s way more effective to double down than be on the hunt for something as if there’s some silver bullet out there that’s suddenly going to unlock all revenue. My experience has been you’re better off mastering one marketing channel.
We are talking to David Ciccarelli. He is the CEO and Founder of Voices.com, an online marketplace for voice talent available to you to use any way you like. David has spent a lot of time explaining so far where he’s come from and we’ve got more to go. David, now that you had figured out the marketing, you understood exactly what your market was and you had this vision of aggregating a channel and more importantly consolidating it and dominating it, what are the next steps for you in growing this company?
Every entrepreneur needs to think how they’re going to fund the future growth of their business. There are fundamentally three sources of cash. Cash from customers, which means you’re selling something of value to your customers and they’re paying you for that. It could be a product. It could be a service. There’s debt. You’ve gone to the bank. You’ve made a proposal. You might be buying an asset. Maybe it’s working capital to invest in an effective marketing channel that you have proven to be delivering a positive ROI at least within a reasonable payback period. We have equity. That is selling a portion of your company to an investor, an outside partner. For the first number of years, that was the journey that we went on in growing Voices.com. We always had a membership-based service for the voice talent to subscribe.
We had great monthly and annual recurring revenue. The debt was the accelerator that allowed us to invest in the marketing channels that we’re working and hire salespeople. We had an online approach and an offline approach. Get traffic to the website but we also did outbound calling through a team of sales representatives. Our first loan was $30,000 for those jumbo postcards. We were able to pay that off early, thankfully. We then went back to the same bank and said, “We’ve got a bit of a track record here. Can we top up and renew this loan at a higher rate?” We got a $50,000 loan and paid that off in two years. We got $100,000, then it was $250,000, $500,000, $900,000 and finally a $2 million loan.
That was unheard of for a pure software or internet company. Most banks and traditional financial institutions, as many of you probably experience, they want to invest in hard assets. It could be a fleet of vehicles or a small manufacturing plant, some equipment. Investing in software or a marketing campaign was risky on their part. I was only able to do because we developed a track record over the preceding few years. Those are the ways that you can think about how you get cash to fund your business.
I don’t think you’re giving yourself enough credit here because I’ve been in the same situation as you. I raised almost $1 million from a local bank. I did it because I had an incredible CFO who hounded me to make sure we create a fantastic relationship with my bankers. We would send them our financials every month to show them that we had nothing to hide and we wanted them to be kept up to date on the business. This paid off big time. This ended up becoming the only financing we ever needed before. I grew that company to well over $10 million before I sold it. You did an amazing job of getting that banking relationship in place. That is what propelled you to the point where you were able to attract Morgan Stanley, I would assume.
I love the notion and to double underscore the importance of a good banking relationship. Banks want to provide you with the loans when you don’t need it. When you need it, they’re nowhere to be found. Be proactive about building those relationships from a position of strength. I love that you’re voluntarily giving the financial statements as you’re building. The bank is going to ask for them anyway. They’re going to want your last couple of years. You’re not giving them anything. They’re not ultimately going to get from you if you want to get a loan from them. Be proactive about it. I sent them a monthly email, similar and I call it the monthly flash report.
It was a bullet form, here are the highlights. Sales, net profit or loss, and we’re straightforward about that, number of employees, new logos or accounts that we landed, corporate clients. Maybe we’re in the newspaper again, maybe we’re up for an award, something else that can send them some social signals that they can see that there’s some momentum being built here. I love the relationship-building with the bank. You brought up Morgan Stanley and this was an important turning point because it’s where we are now and it’s that last piece of how you fund the company is equity. Stephanie and I, we had grown the company significantly, certainly north of that $10 million mark, well beyond that.
We came to the crossroads to say, “Do we think a bank is going to lend us $5 million or $10 million?” We’ve gratefully matured into that realm of venture capital or even private equity. We made the decision and it is a decision to bring on external investors. When you make that decision, that’s you taking the first step on a journey. I’m happy to tell the story of the journey of how we land world-renowned investors. It starts with being intentional and owning this process. What that means is having a plan in place.
This is definitely a time where you’re going to want to be as buttoned up as you can, which is you need a fundable plan. There are three questions that every investor I’ve lived is going to ask you. I’ve lived in Silicon Valley for a few months and in New York for a few months as well. I had done a lot of pitching to venture capitalists and they always ask the same three questions. I feel like I have pattern recognized of what they were asking. How big is the market? Why you? Why now? To unpack that a bit, how big is the market? It’s got to be a multibillion-dollar market that is exciting. It’s growing. It’s a vertical market. It’s a niche. It either looks untapped but everyone can understand it.Every entrepreneur needs to think how they're going to fund the future growth of their business. Click To Tweet
You brought up voice. Most people think of radio and TV commercials. That’s only about 10% of the market. The other 90% is all the unglamorous phone systems, corporate training videos and product demonstrations. It’s not exciting, but there is a huge demand for it out there. Big market and growing, because it’s not English, it’s multiple languages as well. Why you? Every investor’s going to say, “That’s great you’ve identified a market. What makes you think you are the best person in the entire world to conquer this market?” At that point, we had a track record of saying, “We’ve got a great brand name and great URL Voices.com. It’s not only our brand identity, but it’s the destination.” There were a couple of hundred thousand users on the platform at the time.
Lots of traction in terms of jobs and sales. There was enough evidence to demonstrate. The hardest one to answer though is all about the timing. “Why is now the right time for us as investors to put in $5 million, $10 million, $20 million into your company and give you the fuel?” The way we went about answering that was finding an opportunity to acquire a then competitor and merge the two companies together, bring them under our umbrella. I had those conversations with that other entrepreneur and hammered out the outline of what a deal would look like and being upfront that we’re working with an investor and this is the use of proceeds. Part of the use of proceeds would be to pay you outright for this company and acquire it and merge it in. That was critical to telling that story. I’ve been listening to some of your other shows about the importance of storytelling in how you communicate with customers, but also how you communicate with your bankers or investors. That is the three-act play that you need to have crisp and spoken with the confidence of how you’re going to position your company.
That’s probably the best explanation I’ve heard in a long time about how to approach an investor with the things that they care about most. If you notice, those are the same things that you have to come up with every day when you sell anything. The one thing that is obvious and the thing that we all miss when we’re sitting in front of investors is the urgency part, the why now part. You had a credible why now. You said, “If I don’t buy this company right now, then they could turn around and do the same thing that we’re trying to do, and we could lose the market. With your funding, you are investing at a time when the growth can be explosive.” You’re creating a vacuum that sucks them into the interest cycle as to get them excited about your investments. That’s brilliantly done. I love how you phrase that and how you’d describe it and you accomplished it.
That was the story and we accomplished it, which is in and of itself. It is a journey. We had over the years accumulated a spreadsheet, names that I had added to a spreadsheet of people who had expressed interest here and there. We never were quite right or couldn’t answer those three questions, but they said they’d keep us in the loop. There were 200 names on this list from the previous decade. I had sent out personalized emails to every single one of them saying, “We’re thinking about raising our series-A for X million dollars. If you’re interested, let me know and I’ll send you a one-pager.” A one-pager is almost like a speaker profile, but it’s on your company, like a one-page media kit. It’s done through the lens of the investor, a one-page investor profile.
I sent that and if they liked what they saw, then we got on a call. As those calls progressed, that led to in-person meetings. Stephanie and I did the roadshow in Boston, New York, Silicon Valley and LA and met with all of the investors in person because they’re investing in you as a person and in this case, in us as a team. It was super critical to have that in-person connection. In the end, we got a number of term sheets, which may be for those that might be a new concept, that’s an offer to invest in your company. We went with what we believed to be by far and away the best deal. It’s not the best deal, but they’re the gentlemen at Morgan Stanley that we’ve been working with. They were the best investors. They were the best partners for us over the long haul that superseded individual terms of the deal. We realized that this is a partnership of people. We wanted to work with them and thought we would learn a lot from them through the experience. That’s how we were able to consummate that relationship.
That’s an important element. The point that you’re making is that these are relationships. They’re not necessarily wallets. It’s a good point. When I sold my company, I was lucky enough to have found two interested parties at the same time. I was able to set up a bit of a bidding war. That was what made my venture exciting. It took me a couple of years to put this together. By the time it came together, we had got exactly what we were looking for and more. Anybody who’s reading now and who are looking to get funded, remember what David is explaining here. It’s the relationships that you build over time.
I love the idea of keeping a list of anybody who expressed interest and then keeping that list up to date with current goings-on. You did it right. It’s a terrific journey that you’ve been on and I want to thank you so much for sharing that with us. We’re at the point in the show where I’m going to be asking you two questions. The first question is more about you than about the business and that helps readers get to know you a little bit better even after hearing your story. Who in all of space and time would you like to have one hour to enjoy a walk in the park, a quick lunch or an intense conversation with?
It seems like an easy one for me. I would have to say Jesus, most written about human being and deity at the same time. I would love to be able to go back in time to a couple of thousand years ago when there is so much history around that period. I would go with Jesus.
He’s the ultimate entrepreneur. I can understand that.
It’s hard to argue the impact he had on the world.
It would have been an incredible business proposition. Here’s the grand finale, the final question, the change the world question. What is it that you are doing or that you would like to do that truly has the potential to change the world literally?
I feel like we’re living it out. We want to be the literal voice that you hear, the voice of the world when you listen to a movie or an inspiring audiobook or a documentary that informs you in some new way. We hope that that voice came from Voices.com, that in some small way we’re making a positive impact on the world through the words that you’re hearing.
For our audience, David has promised to give a free report called the 2019 Trends Report for styles and types of voices that are currently being hired for. If you are someone who would potentially like to be on Voices.com, you might as well get this free report.
Thanks so much. It’s chock-full of stats and well-researched from data from over 2,000 creative producers who use Voices.com. They’re giving you the real deal of what are the hottest voices that people are looking to hire nowadays to communicate their messages.
David, thank you for being with us and sharing your wisdom and carefully telling your story, which I found fascinating and I’m sure the audience has as well. Thanks and I can’t wait until we get a chance to talk again.
It’s my pleasure.
Resources Mentioned in This Episode:
- David Ciccarelli
- Business Breakthroughs
- Web Design for Dummies
- 2019 Trends Report
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