David Ciccarelli (CEO, Voices.com)

Over the past 15 years David has grown what was originally a small recording studio into the world’s premiere marketplace for voice-over talent – voices.com. In this session we hear about the company’s foundation, their fundraising history and recent insights from working through lockdown.

In a rush? Here are some highlights from this conversation

  • Entrepreneurship and voice recording service. (0:15)
  • Voices.com, an online marketplace for voice talent. (3:35)
  • Entrepreneurship, business culture, and customer feedback. (7:53)
  • Building a community for voice actors. (14:30)
  • Growth trajectory of voices.com, from subscription-based to transactional and professional services. (17:18)
  • Fundraising for a software and R&D-driven company. (22:45)
  • Raising capital, restructuring, and adapting to the pandemic. (28:54)
  • Pandemic preparedness and remote work implementation. (34:36)
  • Adapting to COVID-19's impact on businesses and communication. (37:25)
  • Remote work and team growth strategies. (43:04)
  • Business resilience and technology stack during pandemic. (49:47)

Spend time with this conversation - here's the full transcript

Qasim Virjee 0:15
All right. So welcome, David to start wells, a new normal series. I'm sure I don't know if you've taken a look at some of the past episodes. But essentially, we try and take a bit of a survey approach with entrepreneurs here in Canada, specifically in Toronto, looking at, you know, their entrepreneurial stories, as well as how this recent economic response to the pandemic, specifically, as opposed to focusing on the medical issues of the economic response to it has affected their business, and particularly an outlook on the future, hopefully, to extrapolate some lessons and some inspiration for the entrepreneurial community who may be watching this today. So first off, I want to welcome you to the show. Thanks for joining me today. And yeah, let's jump into it.

David Ciccarelli 1:04
Awesome. Hey, Catherine. Thanks for having me. This is great. So first

Qasim Virjee 1:09
up, David, you're the founder and CEO of voices.com. I love the fact that your company is a URL, because for me, I mean, I'm good old school, I got online, you know, and it 9495. And, you know, in the early days, of course, pretty boom, bust, you know, New York, Silicon Alley days. Everything was a.com. So I think that's interesting. Tell me a little bit about like that, how long you've been doing voices for as a company, and then you know, I'll ask you some questions that interests me anyway, about, about the impetus to to create the service offering, and then where we've gone from there. Sure.

David Ciccarelli 1:50
Yeah, that's great. The founding story is always a good one to start with. You know, I co founded the company, actually, with my dear wife, Stephanie. And the idea came to be because I grew up and went to school as an audio engineer, and learning how to record and mix produced music, opened up a small recording studio, here in London, Ontario, which is, you know, a couple hours outside of Toronto, for those not familiar with the city specifically, but I opened up the studio downtown got my name in the local newspaper. And that's how I met Stephanie. Stephanie was a classically trained singer, training at Western University in the music program. And one of her assignments was to record a demo of her voice. And so she, she, you know, did freelance gigs as well recording, performing music, events, weddings, funerals, and so forth. So she had a couple of reasons, I think, to come down to the studio that she saw the article in the newspaper, and we ended up hitting it off, but castling the, because that same article, and she was, you know, even in a low tech way, the power of a great publicity, first to raise the awareness of startups and scale ups. Because of that same article, there were other small businesses in town that wanted some recordings done. And it was a phone system recording some local commercials. They asked me if I knew a female voice talent, and I had just met Stephanie the other day, and I, my pitch to her at the time was, do you think you could come down and, and read this page of coffee, right, you know, kind of a couple lines of script. And if so, we'll split the money, I'll be the engineer, and you can be the voice talent. And we ended up doing work together. Of course, that also led to us dating and eventually getting married. And now we have four wonderful children. But right from the get go, we recognize that voice is unique in its ability to communicate and inform and inspire audiences. And so we put together a small website promoting Stephanie as the voice talent. And that actually attracted other freelancers from all around North America, people who spoke different languages who do do different characters. You know, some commercial work is very different than listening to an audiobook or a documentary or a corporate training videos. Now podcasts have intros and outros or even the ads in the podcast. So there's a proliferation of audio opportunities for for marketers. And so we've just written that word wave what we eventually created in what we have now is voices.com, which is an online marketplace, you can think of the freelance economy, there's lots of niche players of connecting buyers and sellers. And so voices connects the voice buying client, often ad agencies, more creative producers and marketing departments with professional voice talent, people who have a background in audio engineering, obviously, God given good Have a great voice. But they often have like the technical skills to be able to record in a home based studio. And what they're lacking is the, the access to job opportunities. And so we try to bring in these clients to post jobs on voices, outline what they're looking for, and then match that up with the most suitable talent and invite them to, to apply to the job. So that's been the idea, we've stuck with it for going on 15 years, that sounds long in the tooth, just saying that, but I think it goes to show you, you can find one little slice of the world, you should really like to just pursue that to to its, you know, highest and fullest potential. And so that's been our perspective of why we've stuck with this one idea for so many years.

Qasim Virjee 5:46
Well, it sounds fascinating to see the domain expertise that you brought into this kind of like, let's see what happens. And those YaSM in the in the early days, and the fact that you found this personal connection, and and essentially, you know, your wife through business is such a wonderful heartwarming kind of, you know, entrepreneurial story, and also that you've stayed as the company has grown in London. If I'm correct,

David Ciccarelli 6:14
yeah, no, absolutely. I sometimes jokingly say I married my first customer. Not marital advice, whatsoever. But, but true. nonetheless. No, we've, you know, Stephanie's backgrounds here I went to school is called the Ontario Institute of audio recording technology. It's based here in London. And Stephanie went to school and her family's also here in London. So there was a lot of reason for us to stay here. You know, we were having a young family at the time. So it made sense to plant roots from a personal perspective. And you're right, I think we leveraged our, you know, expertise, and I'm going to say passion. I mean, I grew up playing drums and music, through the music conservatories, definitely on Music and Performing Arts. That is something you know, dare I say that sometimes aspiring entrepreneurs or somebody looking for a next idea, sometimes miss out on I mean, this is a long haul. And if you if you just say, Oh, I'm spotting an opportunity, and it's an area you're both, neither have any domain expertise nor passionate about, I mean, you might get a year or two or three out of it. I'm as excited as ever, you know, even you know, prepping for the podcast today. You know, plugging in a microphone and kind of being self sufficient that way, trying to make sure that you know, that I'm living the living the brand as well, too. So I think that emanates from founders that kind of grow up with the company and are able to take their post secondary academic education, as well as interests. And, you know, convert that into solving a problem. And I'm not just gonna say, having an idea, lots of people have ideas, but really solving a problem that prospective customers might be having.

Qasim Virjee 8:05
Well, I look at that, as well as there's so many entrepreneurial things, reflect on it and what you've already said. But this idea of kind of, like, you know, taking an idea and comparing it against, you know, business model and against the the actual solution to a problem. I feel like, you know, great entrepreneurs understand that you need to be able to be in the mindset of ideation constantly in business, you always need to come up with new ideas. So it's kind of like a cultural context, where we're really the business is really the, the solution and the problem fitting, and being able to, of course, monetize that from from hopefully, day one gives you a little bit of a sustainable pat on the back to say, Hey, this is something I can commit to.

David Ciccarelli 8:52
gathering those ideas really can come from anywhere, I think I've found the best ones. You know, they're not always, you know, from the founder, or founders, you know, stargazing and just trying to dream stuff up, maybe that's where it is initially, but you whether you have an idea that a self generated or one that you've just done observation, and it could be as simple as you know, you know, sitting in a park watching people kind of carry on with their life, being in a mall, or even online, trying to understand what it like, what are the trends were and really what you're ought to be looking for our problems that people are having. And because people pay for problems to be solved, you know, again, preaching to the choir here, I know, you know, you and the listeners know this well. But one way we actually did this, again, super low tech. And I going back as I say, you know, 15 1015 years here was we actually put a toll free phone number at the top of every page on our website. It was like built into the template. And this phone would ring day and night. It just went to our little dinette office like the corner of our of our condo. And the phone would ring and it would blink this light. We had this mini phone system box. And both of us would look at each other and go, and the most panicked, you know, look like Okay, which one of us is grabbing the baby and like running down the hall muffling the crying and the other ones answering? You know, thank you for calling voices you've reached David, how can I help you? So you know, the phone would ring day and night, Stefan, I didn't know, you know, who was calling from where and we would pick up the phone and answer. Thank you for calling voices you reached David, how can I help you? And throughout that conversation, I realized very early, it's always great to if somebody found us through a search or through a referral. And they took that next step to call because they have they needed help they have a question, I'd often ask one of my favorite questions, like, what is one thing that we could do that would like knock your socks off? Like what would amaze you, like, if, if you've, you know, you know, and whatever that might be, you know, you start kind of developing, which nowadays we talk and kind of product land is like a bike backlog, right? It's your backlog of ideas that you're gonna prune and call over time. But there's always this, this list this ongoing list of problems to be solved, that are ideas in effect that are submitted by customers. So we've, we've maintained that in a little bit more of an advanced way, nowadays, just with a little feedback widget on the side, we still have the toll free phone number on the homepage. But there's also a little feedback widget on the side. But I just think that that's so important. You see patterns, especially if somebody or a group of people are submitting the same types of ideas over time, then, you know, it's almost like the plus one or the uploading, you're like, wow, seven people really think this is important. Maybe we should look into that further.

Qasim Virjee 11:51
It's very interesting, because I feel like I feel like, you know, business culture in the last, let's call it half a decade, has gotten a bit intense, maybe for new founders. And we deal with this a lot where we're mentoring here on campus and mentoring, like SAS startups and technology startups that are not only launching companies to envision futures for bleeding edge brand new technology that didn't exist yesterday, which is difficult in itself, right? When you're like, creating productizing, something that may not sustainably itself be productize, double in five years or two years. There's the pressure of that kind of like technological evolution and supporting it and the business model. And then there's also the pressure, which I think is kind of like a cultural pressure in the like, you know, VC startup sort of arena and something that maybe Silicon Valley has propagated, if not through media. But otherwise, people have picked up on this kind of very intense, we have to please the customers and we have to be, you know, scale relevant at all costs. And in doing so, I think the companies a lot of early stage companies seem to be affecting this kind of machismo, you know, in the marketplace that doesn't offer feedback, it doesn't offer the kind of welcome participation from the customer base to say, we're here for you. And we want this relationship to be, you know, mutually beneficial. And it's really just about like utility instead, which I think can be really harmful. And it's really nice. So again, here that, you know, that you guys, obviously, each project that voices is probably supporting is something that is about relationships, right? You're in being a marketplace, it's, it's something I'd like to hear more from you on is, is the kind of relationships that have formed through the platform over the years, if there are any anecdotes that you can share.

David Ciccarelli 13:52
Yeah, the, I mean, so many ideas and thoughts come to mind here, marketplace businesses, is really a subset of platforms, there's, you know, innovation platforms, which would be like, you know, the Android operating system, or you know, you know, Microsoft, you know, that's, that's an innovation platform. And then there's these kind of transactional platforms like a two sided marketplace. And by its very nature, the word that keeps coming to mind that drives us is connection. We are connectors of buyers and sellers, we call them in this particular niche talent, the creative talent or voice talent and the client. So we need to maintain those relationships. Now often, the real challenge is what's referred to as classically, the chicken and egg challenge of well, which side do you build up first, and, invariably, from Airbnb, Uber invoices, and you know, Upwork and Fiverr, almost every two sided marketplace you actually start with the supply in our world, that would be the voice talent. And you have to get kind of like call it a critical mass. Maybe that's 100, maybe it's 1000. It's not millions. So a lot of people think it's like any all of these people, you just need something to begin with. So we actually built a community around there. I mean, again, going back to the day here, you know, forums were the first ones have started a blog, we had, we were the first one in our industry to have a community group on Facebook. Let's

Qasim Virjee 15:21
take a pause. And just for any of our listeners, who may have been brought online, from the 90s onwards, explain what what a forum is? Oh,

David Ciccarelli 15:32
sure. Yeah, sure. So funny that I wouldn't even think that I would need to do that. But, I mean, really, it's the precursor to what we see on Facebook groups. Nowadays, you'd log in with a username and a password. And in effect, it would, you know, a discussion group, someone could put in a question. And then, or a topic that they're having a challenge with. And all kinds of people would get feedback. So often it related to like the art and the craft of performing doing voiceovers or voice acting, if you will. But then often it would be, you know, we would try to encourage a conversation around improvements to our website. But it was it was really just a two way conversation, you know, probably read, it's the closest thing to what I would or like,

Qasim Virjee 16:19
so I wanted to bring that up. Because I think I think that's true, I think Reddit becomes a thing. And again, this these days, Reddit is this thing where very few brands kind of treat it with warm embrace, people are kind of afraid of the mass populace feedback in public domain. But that's the beginnings of the internet. And it goes back to bulletin boards before the web, right? So yeah, it's always been a cultural thing that's as part of the internet. So for

David Ciccarelli 16:45
sure. So I mean, however, you're going to grab that feedback or inspire it, then then I think that's important. More recently, and I mean, if you wanted to kind of just jump to like, Okay, how do we formalize this, because it sounds very ad hoc and organic. Eventually, we created what we call customer advisory groups, it's probably a, again, an overly formal name. But really, it's just, you know, frankly, like a list of people of names and emails that we that we can who have agreed to participate. There's no incentive, you know, it's just highly engaged power users, if you will, who want to co create something. So on our platform, what they wanted was statistics, the voice talent wanted to know how many times people are listening to my, my demos that I've uploaded, what's my what they call their audition to booking ratio? How many times do I have to audition, and do these tryouts before actually win one. And now they're all comparing stats with one another, you know, I can try to beat my last week. So it's almost this like gamification layer that that's built in. But I mean, it's pretty rudimentary now, but they wanted it. Those are the kinds of ideas that that are almost sometimes hard to sell internally, because they're like, what's the revenue opportunity for this, but they're definitely the lighters for customers. And it's so wonderful to be able to show, like, you know, not only that the idea came from a customer, but it also like, the feedback afterwards was like, overwhelmingly positive. Don't get me wrong, we don't get them. All right. Sometimes there's even controversial changes that we can preview or pre sell, if you will, the idea that, hey, we might need to make a change in this area. And here's why is this messaging makes sense? Do you understand this? So it's, it's nice to have a highly engaged group that can honor us, you know, a sense of confidentiality, vulnerability on on behalf of the company, in order to have you know, the best ultimate outcome. But I mean, that's where it leads to. And that's just, uh, you know, either it's a once a month email that says, here's three questions, or here's a screenshot, or here's a link to a usability test. If that's too frequent, maybe, you know, maybe once every three, three months, some type of predictable cadence on that, I think you got to build that into the routine of, of ultimately building a product that customers love.

Qasim Virjee 19:15
So let's talk a little bit about the growth trajectory of voices. So like, you know, from the last 15 years to now in terms of either side of the coin, you know, the the talent or the agencies or whoever's booking the talent through your platform, how big role? Well,

David Ciccarelli 19:32
the first, and truth be told the first five years are pretty, pretty quiet. I mean, it was really Stephanie and I and probably two or three other people, I mean, it took us a year, I think two years to hire our first employee, which was always so nerve racking, you know, we bootstrapped is really what it comes down to, you know, fast forward to we actually, initially and it actually mirrors the growth trajectory mirrors the business model evolution. Initially, we were a membership based site only, then we layered on a transactional element where we were earning a transaction fee for, you know, successfully making the match. And we were also processing that payment online. So it was a, you know, a true kind of end to end experience. So we went from subscriptions to also subscriptions and transactions. And then we eventually found that there was actually some clients, not the small ad agency that wants a 32nd video, or a short little commercial, I'm talking about, like, you know, fortune 500, companies that want corporate training a 10 hours of corporate training in 10 different languages, like, wow, because 100 hours of content is a lot of moving parts. So we introduced a professional services aspect to handle those more complex needs. At each of those inflection points, not only was there growth because it was, frankly, new revenue opportunity, but it also needed the support in terms of staff. So where we are today is, you know, north of 100 employees, you know, revenue continues to grow, you know, quite predictably, which is great to see. And I would say, notably, you know, I'm almost like seeing, you know, a chart here, where it's like, business model evolution layered on with employee, you know, you know, headcount increases, that also is aligned with how our financing strategy evolved as well to at the beginning. It's cash from customers. And it's like, as you said, right off the bat chasm that I really love, which is like, hopefully, you're monetizing something off the bat, which I know there's pros and cons to that. But we certainly did. It was a it was a subscription site, a membership based site for those voice talent. It was $100 a year. And so the very, we actually were generating cash, which allowed us to reinvest in advertising and generating awareness. Then we, you know, successful with that for call it a couple of years, we took on some debt. Our first loan was, I think, 30, maybe 50,000, and then 30, and then 50 101 50 to 5500, we got up to $2 million from the Business Development Bank of Canada. And with every single new financing event, we always, you know, cleared off the old debt re cleaned up the balance sheet, and then oh, yeah, no, sorry, that was me.

Qasim Virjee 22:45
You gotta frozen this weird shape.

David Ciccarelli 22:47
Yeah. So every so what every leg of the financing journey, we also recognize that kind of at the end of it with BDC, that we really, I was skeptical, to be candid that and maybe unsure that they'd be willing to, you know, invest five or $10 million, and I shouldn't even say invest, lend us money, because this was all debt, right? There really wasn't a lot of physical assets, you know, we weren't buying vehicles, there wasn't a manufacturing facility or some big plant somewhere.

Qasim Virjee 23:26
So it was difficult, right? Oh,

David Ciccarelli 23:29
for every software and r&d driven company, you don't have the physical assets. In fact, we're developing an intangible asset, often in the forms of a patent or an intellectual property or customer list. So that actually prompted us to finally explore raising our Series A, our first institutional capital. And you know, that that was ultimately we landed with Morgan Stanley expansion capital, which is their growth equity, kind of private equity group out of San Francisco. And they've been fantastic. Fantastic partners.

Qasim Virjee 24:07
Very cool. How did that search? How long did that search take? Was it something that you know, because I think a lot of founders who are in those shoes have definitely been there where, you know, you're used to kind of running your business and the financing of your business feels very much intermingled with, you know, day to day operations, because it's a mixture of like, then moving your revenues around. You know, when it comes to the point of saying, Okay, we need to actually look for Capital Partners and figure out what the value of the business is for them in terms of our next five to 10 years of growth in order to return on that investment and so on. How much of your life did that equation in that capital search steel Do you remember back?

David Ciccarelli 24:53
Oh, no, I remember clearly because, you know, listen prior to that, it We hadn't raised capital not for lack of trying, I think it was just half hearted efforts, you know, you show up at a pitch contest, and you get an inbound call, the economists are talking about what you might be doing. And it was so disorganized. And mostly because we didn't have conviction that we really wanted the capital, as founders. And so my first dare I say, you know, recommendation, or something I would really strongly advocate for, is have conviction that you are going to do this and you're going to run what's called running a process. If you're not running a process where you're in control of kicking it off, all the documents are already prepped, and I can talk to that, but you're kicking it off and you have an endpoint, starting to finish, it will seem so disorganized to the to the investors. And you'll just be you know, everyone's going to be at a different stage. So let me put this in a in a positive way, there's really, at least, you know, I'll speak from personal experience. Fortunately, over you know, the preceding call it five years, there had been either, you know, at conferences, names, if I saw somebody else got funding, that was a similar business, but in a different area, like another marketplace, I just jot that investor name down as the firm, maybe that particular investor, and, you know, access to their LinkedIn profile or something, and then all the inbound. So in effect, I had a spreadsheet, I developed a Google sheet of over 200 inbound inquiries, I was not aware that some of them were only Angel, some of them series A's. Some of them were private equity, I just, I went through that sheet and my email was simply this. I'm thinking, you know, voices think, you know, we've been in touch in the past, the subject line was like voices raising 15 million, I think was like the subject line. It's like, Hey, we've been in touch in the past, you might remember and I try to reference where it was, or reply to the original, you know, we're looking at raising around a capital R series, a first institutional investment. If you're interested, let me know. And I'll shoot you a one pager just to get you up to speed on the latest. So I didn't push the one pager I pre selected, I almost kind of generated a bit of interest. And I got half the people right away said, Yeah, I'm interested. And so I'd send that one pager, I go, if you liked what you see, let me know. And let's hop on a call. So then I think I did 80 phone calls, and it was the same calls, you know, time and time again, you hear about the firm, why they're different, you know, what's, what are they look for check size data company, and so forth. And I would say, Look, you know, based on that, I'll you know, I don't think we're going to be the fit, you're looking for a company much bigger than us, or much earlier. So it was it was good to almost pre screen, but you built the relationship nonetheless. If, after on that call, and this is one of the most, I think, under estimated documents, is a lot of people spend time creating a pitch deck, which might be you know, 10 slides that run through the business, I created what's referred to as a confidential information memorandum. It's the long version of the pitch deck with all the detail pitch decks, you're often giving in person. But, you know, if I'm just going to send over like, basically the business plan, I want to have that story very much controlled, but I had that done ahead of time. So I was more or less reading off of it during those calls, which always, you know, it kept me honest, I always said the exact number, the same number to everybody. I wasn't giving different information, you know, at different periods of time. But and then I'd say, look, it sounds like you're really interested, let me send you the SIM and this confidential information memorandum. Let me send you the sim. Again, if you still like what you see, we'll we'll meet in person. I'm happy to come see you. And so Stephanie, and I, basically, you know, we scheduled a roadshow, where we wouldn't from New York to Boston, LA, San Francisco, Silicon Valley, and as well and actually started in Toronto. So we did the whole loop all again, in control of that timeline, all tightly scheduled, with the intention at the end of that. I you know, again, making that ask, if you still like what you see, we'd love to receive a term sheet from you in the next couple of weeks, so that we can make a decision moving forward. And we ended up with three term sheets and selected Morgan Stanley based upon the the board members, the investors. You know, there's the, let's call it the decision making criteria is not just valuation. That's a really important takeaway. There's, let's call it that would be under the economics you know, how much money and what's the valuation how much you're gonna give up? But then also control and control would be, you know, how much do you would you still get to retain? What are your voting rights? What are your veto powers? You know, what is the what's the board makeup? Those are, I'm going to daresay, equally important factors when making your investor decision of who you want to be partners for, you know, for really that next leg of the journey, and it is a journey. But that's our that's our capital raising story. Hopefully, there was some good pieces in there that that those are going to find helpful.

Qasim Virjee 30:33
I think there's great tips in there for people listening for sure. The and that was when did you guys raise capital? When was it was

David Ciccarelli 30:40
was 2017, we ended up raising 18 million US?

Qasim Virjee 30:45
And then since then, have you gone to a series B? Or

David Ciccarelli 30:49
no, we haven't, you know, the use of proceeds for that initial Series A, or threefold, we actually and this was the other thing, you need to have a clear use of proceeds. I didn't have again, I'm going to reuse that term, we didn't have the level of conviction of like, what why do you need 10 million bucks? Why do you need 5 million bucks, and it cannot be or we're going to do what we're doing now. But bigger and better. It's like, okay, it lacks the inspiration. And so this turn this go around, I actually had reached out to a what I would consider at the time a competitor who was you know, interested in partnering, I pitched the idea of like, hey, what if we, you know, merged our companies together like us acquire you. And he was interested. So we ended up acquiring a company called voice bank that did a very similar business, they were founded in 1998, believe it or not, they really hadn't modernized their website at all. But they had a real stronghold with the unionized acting community, the Screen Actors Guild in the States, they had all the big talent agents, they had a lot of celebrities listed listed on this platform. So we wanted to roll that into into voices. So that was, that was a big part of the use of proceeds. And then ripped out and replaced all of our technology and infrastructure. When you when you start your you're not thinking like, you know, I need the world's best CRM or HR system, you're like just trying to run it off spreadsheets, and, or air table and kind of just get your way through. So I mean, we we ripped out and replaced most of our tea systems, you know, upgraded and filled in gaps on our executive team. And then only now are we at that point where we're truly accelerating the sales and marketing aspect of it. So there was a an order of operations there that made sense. But those were the three use of proceeds, I'm sure it will be considering what the series B looks like before long.

Qasim Virjee 33:08
So it's really interesting to hear this because the backdrop now we're going to jump into the C 19 situation. But the backdrop, you know, if I guess ending 2019, they're a good place of being somewhat restructured to be confident with the team and with the software stack, and with the whole everything tightened up, and having, hopefully, for your money in the bank, that's more than you need is a really good place to come into this, you know, craziness that we've been dealing with the last few months with the pandemic, how immediately let's talk about I guess, they go hand in hand, but the team and the company itself versus or otherwise interrelated to your customers? What have you seen from the marketplace impact, you know, or force you to make decisions to do with the closure of the team to the company itself? And even Yeah, let's talk about now in the last couple of months, and then we can talk about where you think the industry is going as well.

David Ciccarelli 34:16
Well, I had a great professional development opportunity, in February of this year to continue my business education at Harvard Business School and, and during that month long, it's actually a three year program, but it was a month long on campus. And I remember sitting down again, this was February. I remember sitting down, you know, day one, and there was, you know, fellow students on either side of me from China. So we immediately started having a conversation because remember, February was not really kind of on the shores of North America as of yet.

Qasim Virjee 34:54
news topics but exact

David Ciccarelli 34:55
Exactly. And it was people everyone's just trying to figure it out, you know, what's the severity Eddie, and both of them, you know, quickly, you know, got to the point of like, look, it's highly under reported in China, we think it's a lot worse, it's gonna get really bad. And I was like, ooh. So, you know, I the very first as soon as the program was over, the very first thing I did you know, at the beginning of March, before, who declaring global pandemic was we actually ran a work from home readiness assessment. I mean, we have 45,000 square feet, in in London, no remote employees, mostly on desktops. I

Qasim Virjee 35:39
didn't realize the 100 people worked in London at one place. Yeah,

David Ciccarelli 35:42
exactly. And we're all in, we're all on one floor. So you see everybody all the time. And, you know, none of the conference rooms even had video cameras. So like, we just were not. And I'm like, if we have to go to remote work situation, we need to like, you know, is this even do we even have the capabilities like technical capabilities? So we ran, we ran that assessment got the laptops for those who needed to get laptops. And literally like, you know, I think we ran a couple simulations of like big group, team meetings virtually. And it wasn't before, like the day after, I think it was a Wednesday or Thursday, again, who declares the global pandemic, you know, mid mid March. And that Friday, I said, effective Monday, it is mandatory work from home like, and I think that was what I wanted to do was create a unified work experience, I want everyone to be the same. I didn't want some hybrid thing, or half the people in the office, and I want everyone to have the same experience. And we literally just kind of picked up and I thought what was most important was to create a sense of stability, and a moment of uncertainty.

Qasim Virjee 36:55
Yeah. And then how was it? Did everyone treat it with the equal response? Or how did you find the feedback from your team?

David Ciccarelli 37:05
Well, initially, I think everyone was so relieved that we were proactive, like, even the two weeks earlier, like, and I think at the time of like, do we really need to be more, you know, and I was like, a lot of, but there were just like, wow, that was that was like tremendous foresight to be prepared.

Qasim Virjee 37:25
Yeah, be quick and be agile about making that decision. Because you're right, March was, everyone was so confused, and panic stricken, that it probably really helped for me in a comfortable environment to make sense for themselves, of what's happening,

David Ciccarelli 37:41
for sure that that sense of that sense of stability, played out in us carrying forward, I'm going to call them cultural routines. So every Monday morning at 1145, we have what we call our weekly huddle. So it's a company wide, all hands meeting, we run through good news, or Numbers of the Week, you know, systems and operation and anything upcoming, we always end off with thank yous, and we ran that I was the, you know, show host just like I am here, you know, on camera today. You know, I play music in the intro, we've got the chat on the one side the video call, like, it's, we just kind of picked it right up, I did notice, and I'm sure a lot of people did was, you know, this phenomenon that was referred to as zoom fatigue. And I mean, we use Google meet. But you know, where once was the informal interaction, it felt like everything was being booked for a 30 minute, Google Hangout. And we're like, Guys, we got to dial this back. Like, let's just so we established new routines, a daily stand up for the various teams, 15 minutes only, and it's just used that to, again, replicate the in person bumping into each other in the first couple minutes of the day. We changed, you know, for our board reporting, like, again, the board was like, you need to prepare for Worst case scenario. And, you know, we I created what I called a weekly flash report, which give gave, you know, basically, on a day by day basis, what our sales, what our job postings, what's our gross margin, like? It was, I sent it out every week, but you could definitely see the trendline. And provided, but it was like a one, one Google slide with a headline and some notes. So that, you know, what I'm emphasizing here is, and hopefully everyone's hearing is the level of communication. You know, this was a time where you and to many organizations, even now, you need to over communicate. I mean, we had town halls where there's like, q&a ahead of time, like you could send in questions and then anonymously or you could ask them on the spot. So I think we You over invested in the communication which absolutely paid off. So fast forward to kind of where we are today. And many have said this in different shapes and forms, but COVID-19 has, you know, it's accelerated our growth, there have been, you know, if you will winners and, and losers, those companies that have really struggled, and that breaks my heart, it's people's dreams, it's people's livelihood, there are also tech enabled and tech led companies that are really thriving, because they're a solution to people's problems. And that's in a time of need. And an ad agency or a creative producer who no longer has the ability, or dare even say, the luxury of going into a physical recording studio and working collaboratively with one another, they are almost forced, like many of us were to look for an online alternative to whatever it is, whether it's grocery shopping, or clothes shopping, you're now looking for these online alternatives. And voices.com was the equivalent to a, you know, remote recording studio, I gotta find somebody, how can I hire them and collaborate with them remotely. And so our business has really thrived, actually, in this environment, both from we, we segment our client relationships by existing business, new business, and also what we call win backs, one customers that maybe did business with us in the past, but there was a gap year, and we've won them back. We

Qasim Virjee 41:36
found that even ourselves lately, it's like, people are looking back through their kind of relationships with their business or otherwise, it's saying what's important to me. And looking back to their Rolodex of people and reconnecting, so it's interesting, it's happening. multisector absolutely

David Ciccarelli 41:51
at just, I mean, if they were just because they were interested before, and said no, well, I mean, like, literally rug pulled out from all of us. And so it's created this, this, like, multi year pull forward of digital transformation, a company that wasn't considering investing in digital technology, software as a service, you name it, you know, moving procurement, procurement on to a marketplace of some kind, all of a sudden, is like, actually, it's faster, it's cheaper, it's more secure, it's remote enabled, it's like, wow, the value prop really starts to, to expand. I wanted to, again, at the prompting of the board wanting to understand, is this a temporary phenomenon? Or is this a permanent shift in behavior. So I actually conducted over 100 customer calls, that I wanted to validate if that was the case, and I heard, you know, unequivocally that this is a permanent behavior shift, that people have moved, almost a realization that, like, I didn't realize it was so fast, and so easy, and a superior buying or customer experience. So that's where we are today. And again, it's kind of like, you know, counseling, where we started a conversation, which was like, those kinds of customer channel checks and like going back and like, Okay, well, what do we need to build for you now? How can we serve you in this new environment, so the importance of like, you know, founder directly to customer, even if you're a technical or engineering founder, as I would consider myself with an engineering, audio engineering background, I just, I still think there's so much value, that you're hearing it unfiltered from your customers as what you need to do next. And that's created the next backlog of what we're going to be building over the next, you know, 12 and 18 months.

Qasim Virjee 43:47
Right now, it's funny to bring the conversation full circle, but also see that, you know, I think it's just an aspect of business that people can avoid, if they want to be successful is that relationship base, right? It's fascinating to hear this, I have to ask just because I'm in the game of physical infrastructure, and, you know, kind of a landlord. But so how it has that she has this last few months of this, it's kind of not acknowledgement experiment, I'm guessing it's going to be something that has legs, but this this new way of working for your team being distributed. Do you think it's something that's going to require you to get out of your office or change your your Liesl kind of obligations, and then in the future, we,

David Ciccarelli 44:35
I was, I was always the, I mean, clearly for running for 10 years of insisting that everyone was in London or move to London and be, you know, having 100 people in one location. I was pretty stuck in that mindset. However, we have been surprisingly Oh, you know, even more productive remotely. So that's prompted us. And we again, asked the surveys and kind of, you know, informal one on ones like, is this working for you, we, you know, in terms of the management team, all the individual contributors, and there is absolutely an interest of some people who want to go back into the office, okay? It's not that, oh, this is so much better. Like, there are people who want to work from home, and there's people who want to work. Back in the office, there's also times where we need everybody together, I think there's something to be said, of having those interactions, those informal, spontaneous moments. And so what we've developed and rolled out and already announced to our company is what we call a work from anywhere program, which is, in effect means one day a week in the office, you know, pick your day with your team. And it's to have those team meetings and one on ones, we think those are more effective in person. And, you know, actually, I had one, you know, our first one with the leadership team, just yesterday, and now as a strategic planning session for about eight hours. So, yeah, that's definitely going to be more effective than being in front of a camera for eight hours. Yeah, so I think there's, there's absolutely a time and a place. But it's also opened up a now, you know, I go see, global talent pool might be a little bit aggressive. But you know, we're, we're absolutely looking to recruit out of Toronto, Kitchener, Waterloo, Ottawa. You know, it's like, Hey, if you can get to London for a day or a couple of days, every couple of weeks, and have those like Heart to Heart moments eye to AI, then why wouldn't we consider working with the best talent we possibly can. So it's, you know, it's probably a verbose way of saying it's a little of both. I think there's an absolute need to be in person. But I think there's also realization on my part, as a founder, to be accommodative to hiring great people, because they value the flexibility of a work from anywhere policy.

Qasim Virjee 47:13
Yeah, and I think this is, it's a really heartening kind of tale to hear that there is this, I've been hearing it from a few founders in different industries, that there is this kind of awakened mentality from the experience of seeing people actually jump into remote work. I think a lot of leaders were hesitant. We all, you know, everyone in different sectors knew that it was the way to do it, and last few months because of safety. And we want to make sure that our teams are safe and happy and comfortable. But there's always that like question of like, okay, well, will this be the status quo? And will we not be able to come together? But the truth is, I think, yeah, people who are committed to what they're doing will want to do it to the best of their ability. And, and if doing it together is kind of part of the point. Because, you know, that's what teams is all about as the fun of like collaborating on stuff, then, then collectively, you'll figure out ways to come together and to do that. But really cool to note that now also this this new stage, it sounds like of kind of how the team is going to grow with welcoming people from outside the city, potentially, people that may not have fit the model before. Yeah,

David Ciccarelli 48:21
for sure. I mean, we we actually are, you know, in the in the throes of, you know, not only the strategic plan for 2021 and beyond, but also, you know, filling new roles in product and UX ours, like UX researchers, product design, of course, always software developers in high demand, product marketers, which is, you know, a bit of a hybrid role, that but you know, we've been very successful in one recruiting because in this, in this area, we've both recruited and actually onboarding employees, and they were delightful. I mean, you're shipping them a MacBook Pro, and you're just like, they're getting set up on their own, and you just schedule all the same sessions. So we've been, I would say, increasingly proficient with the Google application suite from Gmail to Hangouts and mean and, and of course, calendar. So, you know, the learning never stops, it doesn't matter. Just when you think you've you've got to figure it out. There's either a new, you know, economic challenge, or even a new customer challenge. And if I made to mention because I it's something I'm actually really proud of. Fortunately, we've not because the company's continued to grow, we've not needed to, you know, conduct any layoffs. we've retained our entire team. And we've even We've even added during the period. So I think that's indicative of customers. is increasingly choosing us. And, you know, my intention is to keep keep that momentum going through the rest of this year and into next.

Qasim Virjee 50:08
Well, that's it's such an honestly, from all angles to great story and I think I'm feeling like, like we're seeing so much positivity now come out of this, hopefully people's perceptions are changing to say, Okay, well, how can we face adversity as solution providers? Right. I mean, we this is one of the context. I think entrepreneurial pursuit is about solving problems, and making those solutions available. So it's good to hear that things. Things are well over there and that your team is together, even though they're not because Yeah.

David Ciccarelli 50:45
As best as we can be, that's for sure.

Qasim Virjee 50:47
That's great. I like your mention of Google, it's been very beneficial to us, as well as a team and a community here on campus of a member organizations to use Google for a while. Any other tools that you want to shout out in terms of things that you guys have experimented with that are helping your team get together?

David Ciccarelli 51:06
The big ones for us have been Asana, we've moved all of our one on ones into Asana, all of our team projects, tasks that just sometimes would maybe be like, oh, did that get done or not? So that that is something we've been highly proficient in. And then while we use JIRA, as part of the Atlassian, suite beforehand, I would say our level of documentation with JIRA is complement, which is confluence, the, you know, wiki style documentation. Confluence has been, I think our like licenses have tripled in that which is just serving, we kind of think of confluence as the source of truth. Whereas Google Docs, we can link to Google Docs, but Google Docs is a lot more informal or works in progress. Those are, you know, I'm just like glancing up at my, my bookmarks up up here. Those are the big ones. We've always been huge users of salesforce.com. I mean, we went back in like, literally, our first contract was in 2005, when it was just f&i. And they were like, you're buying two licenses of enterprise salesforce.com. And like, trust me, you know, if this is if this works, it will be the single best technological decision because it will mean now and looking back. Now I've got 15 years of customer relationship information, which has proven to be invaluable in decision making. And so And you'd be surprised we even have, like customer relationships for 15 years. So those are the that's the, that's our tech stack. That has, as I said, proven quite effective.

Qasim Virjee 52:47
It's fascinating, thanks for sharing that, because I think it's something that also people don't share is what's the stack. I've been doing a lot of just like camera work or research on YouTube and in a vlogging techniques and stuff lately, it's my one of my pet passions. It's my sourdough, if you will. And it's one of the things that I've noticed a lot of YouTubers doing is like this, I forget the name of the URL, but there's a website where it kind of lists with their rig is their camera rig. And it's great because we all learn together. So that's, that's cool. So great to hear from you, I'm so happy that this talk was particularly I think it touched on, you know, relationships, the strength of relationships and the power of business to to really allow people to work together to build relationships. And it sounds like that's core to the values of voices and heartening to hear amidst you know, the first few months of this pandemic where especially I was interviewing a lot of businesses that were suffering just to kind of share those stories and I think now hopefully we're coming a little bit out of that hospitality industry the events industry in the meetings industry for from my angle is still very much impacted and will be for quite a while and then something that we've actually parsed out of this series into a new podcast called to gather and I think a new normal is now going to explore more stories like this businesses that are looking forward and learning from the past to be able to strengthen what is already working

David Ciccarelli 54:19
well the plan the pleasures been mine and if I can ever serve as a resource to you or any of the listeners or viewers then then then lean on me happy to connect on on LinkedIn is probably the easiest are simply sending me an email to david@voices.com I'm I'm quick to reply, so hopefully I can be of help.

Qasim Virjee 54:41

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