David Ciccarelli runs a global match-making business that’s growing at the speed of sound, or more precisely, the spoken word. From his base in London, Ont., Ciccarelli’s firm, Voices.com, has established itself as an online exchange where ad agencies, video producers and other media organizations go to find actors with the precisely the sorts of voices and inflections they need for commercials, mobile apps and other audio uses.
There’s nothing new about the market for voice actors. But with the advent of inexpensive digital recording technology and Web-based audio streaming, Ciccarelli seized on the opportunity to do all the brokering online. The company, which ranks 126 in the 2014 PROFIT 500, now has 55 employees and revenues in the $10 million to $15 million range, with customers across the U.S., Europe, Japan and Australia. Over 90% of its sales are exports, and the firm’s top line has grown by almost 470% in the past five years.
What’s interesting, however, is that when Ciccarelli started a small recording studio in the southwestern Ontario city almost a decade ago, going global was the furthest thing from his mind. Just out of an audio-production college, he bought some equipment and hung out a shingle. A brief newspaper article brought a few inquiries, including one from a young woman who was a classically trained musician and vocalist looking to record a demo tape. “She came in and we hit it off.”
A few other firms read the story, and contacted him, looking for someone to do voiceovers. Ciccarelli not only suggested his first customer, who he later married; he also had an inkling there was demand in the area for voice actors.
When he set up a website offering recording services for voiceovers, Ciccarelli suddenly found himself fielding inquiries from actors across North America. He offered to post mini-profiles of the actors. Potential buyers started frequenting the site, looking for voice talent. The trick, Ciccarelli realized, was connecting one group with the other. “That,” he says, “was the a-ha moment.”
Ciccarelli realized that the future lay in the exchange service, not the recording function, so he sold all his studio equipment and invested the proceeds in bolstering the company’s website so it can function as a true online market place geared to the needs of both the actors and the companies looking for voice talent.
He developed a business model with three separate revenue streams. Smaller clients or those with a one-off project who are looking for voice talent can post jobs or opportunities. Voices.com takes 10% of the value of the contract. To prevent its clients from being deluged with incompatible offers, Voices.com has developed a screening algorithm that generates only the closest matches to the job that’s been posted.
With larger, ongoing contracts involving multiple voices and languages, Ciccarelli will assign an account manager to work with clients, and charge a project management fee.
Finally, on the actor side, Voices.com collects an annual $349 fee for actors who can post audio clips, bios and other marketing information for potential customers. Says Ciccarelli of Voices’ stable of actors, which now exceeds 100,000 worldwide, “We in effect are creating brand advocates.”
As web traffic grew and the company boosted its online advertising, Ciccarelli’s team last year decided to step back and conduct a close-in assessment of where their customers were, and also identify further international growth opportunities.
Using Google analytics, they could see increased traffic from the U.K., Germany and Japan, among other places. For example, the company has a mobile app developer client in the United Arab Emirates, a French video-production firm and a Danish retailer that has spent $82,000 on Voices.com’s services in the past year.
Ciccarelli felt he couldn’t just add translations on the website and actor bios to serve those emerging markets. Instead, he recruited an in-house Spanish-speaking export manager to focus on one region in particular: Latin America. When inquiries from that region come across the digital transom, Voices.com staff immediately forward them to the export manager.
The company’s plan is to add more such staff to allow the company to focus on building its presence in markets such as Germany and Korea. “We are pretty purposeful in finding people who have conducted sales abroad and know how to cross-promote.”
Besides the HR component of its emerging international strategy, Voices.com is also building scalability into its operations and technological capabilities, Ciccarelli says. Moreover, the firm is in the process of translating the entire website into Spanish, with German, French, Portuguese and Japanese versions on the way.
The analytics exercise also yielded another important insight: “The biggest take away was that it’s going to take longer than one thinks.” Put differently, Ciccarelli, for all of Voice’s growth, must now get his firm to learn how to hold a note.