Only two decades ago, some of the tools we now consider bedrocks of today’s voice over industry had yet to come into existence.
In this episode, David takes us back to a time before home recording studios, when voice over talent without agency representation had very few opportunities to book work. Listen as David recounts the rise of Voices, including the expansion of the platform as it moved upmarket, David’s journey to New York City to participate in the Canadian Technology Accelerator, the acquisition of Voicebank, and ultimately uniting Voices and Voicebank under one brand.
About The Voices Experience: The Voices Experience is presented by Voices.com. Produced and engineered by Randy Rektor.
Hi guys, David here from Voices, and thank you for joining me for another episode of The Voices Experience. Over the last couple of episodes, we’ve dug into a lot of data, from our annual trends report that revealed the buying behaviors from ad agencies and brand marketers, as well as in a separate episode, the stats behind how to become a successful voice actor. So if you haven’t heard those already be sure to go back and catch up, at least on those last two episodes.
On today’s show, we’re going to go back, but not back in time a few episodes, this go around, we’re going to go back really to a day when home studios were non-existent and talent didn’t get much voiceover work unless they had an agent. So we’re traveling back in time, more than 20 years ago, to the dawning of a new era of voiceovers, and that is Voicebank, a site you’ve probably heard of maybe through The Grapevine, or people have some great fond memories of it.
Well, we do too, as company co-founders, Stephanie and I, we always looked at Voicebank as a company that first opened the doors to online voice casting. They led the way as pioneers, connecting ad agencies with talent agencies to audition, really mostly union talent and agency represented voice talent, in general. Now their founder, Jeff Hixon, he was Voicebank’s founder, he was a real visionary. His ambition was to bring voiceovers online, and that meant building his business from the ground up. Literally Jeff told me stories of the early days when getting customers for him, meant installing internet connections by crawling around on his hands and knees, and literally plugging in DSL lines and dial up lines into the agencies just so they could get online and use his website. So that’s how early days it was.
Now, another way that Voicebank helped change the business was by inspiring those same talent agencies, not just to get connected, but actually install recording studios and sound booths so that talent could come into their place of business and do an audition for jobs that were sent to them from Voicebank. So if you think about it, Voicebank played a pretty significant role in shaping how you do your work today. So in a lot of ways, Voicebank was the gold standard. By introducing this new concept of online voice casting, Voicebank also gave talent a glimpse into the agency world, industry trends and access to a variety of talent agents who maybe one day would change the course of their careers. So it was often known as a place where you go to hear great demos. If you ever talked to anybody in the industry, they always said, “Oh, just go to Voicebank. You’ll hear agency rep talent, you’ll hear the celebrities.”
And so not only did fellow talents tell each other that, but coaches routinely sent their students to study the demos of agency rep talent and hear what a real, quote unquote, professional demo sounded like, and then hopefully they would be inspired. Well, simply put Jeff and his team ushered in a new era of voice casting, one that would pave the way for generations of voice talent, ultimately using Voices.com, not just to audition, but also do work from home. Well, when we built our company in the early 2000’s and gradually became more immersed within the voiceover world, Voicebank of course came on our radar as well.
Now, our business served two ends of the same spectrum of voice casting. We were connecting freelance voice talent with the businesses that wanted to hire them. And those businesses were often ad agencies, creative producers, Fortune 500 companies, yeah, and in the earliest days, a lot of small businesses. But over time, we were also able to move up market into bigger and more meaningful projects as well. Now, Voicebank, they were able to connect people that had union jobs and connect them with the union talent, as I said, often were represented by those talent agencies. So years went on, it seemed like we both kept doing our own thing, over time though, we acquired bigger and bigger clients, and they had different needs. The clients had needs of, there were sometimes seeking union talent, and they wanted to work with a talent agent in some cases.
So we asked yourself really, what were we to do? Are we going to enter in this space? How would we go about that? So in order to meet the needs of our biggest clients, we had to up our own game. What we needed was a broader talent pool, that not only offered freelance professionals, that’s many of you on the podcast today, but also expanded to include union represented talent, so union affiliated talent, those who are affiliated with the Screen Actors Guild, or ACTRA here in Canada. Now there really wasn’t an easy way to go about this. I mean, we always struggled with how to get the best work for voiceover talent, but also how to bring union work into the fold, and it wasn’t until acquiring Voicebank that we were not only in a position to entertain those inquiries, we were able to actually carry them through as well. Although union talent had created profiles on Voices, we weren’t able to connect them directly with union jobs, job postings that explicitly stated that they needed to hire somebody part of Screen Actors Guild, as an example.
And we also couldn’t process union payments through a paymaster. So there was clearly a big gap of where we were, and where we wanted to be. At one point, we actually did explore becoming a union signatory, and at the union suggestion, however, it meant that all jobs posted on our website would need to become union jobs. Now we asked a lot of the clients how they felt about that, and frankly, they felt quite differently, so it was this all or nothing approach that ultimately caused that to fall apart. Now, fast forward a couple of years, in 2015, we were invited to participate in the Canadian Technology Accelerator, it was a program put on by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, it’s now known as Global Affairs Canada. Well, the CTA, as we call it, helps Canadian companies with existing technology or products or services, explore new opportunities in foreign markets.
The CTA provides mentoring, workspace, and introductions to potential partners, that could be investors or customers. In fact, a few years earlier, we had spent time at the CTA in San Francisco, Silicon Valley, where I had lived for a while and had the mentorship of a director of marketing at Facebook. Stephanie spent time, during that same period, visiting Twitter, Google, and other tech companies. I mean, we learned a lot in those early days. So when the CTA program came up again, this time it was in New York city and that led to us applying for the program and ultimately getting accepted. Now getting accepted actually meant that I was going to be living there for the better part of a year, I mean, Stephanie and I were like two ships in the night. I mean, we had one apartment in New York, I lived there for a month, then we’d pass each other briefly over a weekend or leaving an airport, one person coming, one person going. So it was a really tough time, but very rewarding from a business experience as well.
Now, my time in New York city, it was all about business development. I mean, I was setting up meetings, literally pounding the pavement, walking up and down Madison Avenue, Fifth Avenue, where all the ad agencies are, creative producers, and a lot of talent agencies. So I was meeting with the ad agencies and talent agencies, those town agencies were particularly insightful, I mean, despite showing Voices.com, our own website, nearly all were actually disinterested. I mean, I uncovered that they relied so heavily on this other website, Voicebank, to get all of their leads on a daily basis, they really didn’t need us. And that’s just how the industry worked, especially for union work.
So meeting after meeting, I was getting a lot of no’s, or, “No, thank you, sir. We’re good.” And then it just dawned on me that no one was going to change from good enough to, well, maybe better. I mean, Voicebank was good enough for a lot of the talent agencies, despite it being decades old. I mean, it was founded in 1998, it really hadn’t been updated since then. And it wasn’t mobile friendly, it wasn’t a modern web experience, there’s no usability testing or user experience that was invested into it, it was there, it always worked, and the fact is that it was functional and it just works. So the maybe better, that was us, Voices.com, we can have a fancy, modern, mobile app and web experience, but it just didn’t matter. So maybe we were better, maybe we’d become better, but it wasn’t worth the hassle of changing or switching or really adding to the operation of so many of those talent agencies that I spoke with firsthand.
Now I did ask them if we could bring you more union work, would that be of interest to you? Of course they all said yes. So I figured maybe that was our approach. How do we bring talent agencies more union work, perhaps that would invite them to join Voices.com? So at our next strategic planning session, we explored a number of avenues of growth, from new products, new geographies, but it seemed that the conversation always kept gravitating back towards the desire to move into the union space, and bring union work and celebrities and agency rep talent onto the platform. And by our vantage point, there was really only two options, and those two options were build or buy. So in one scenario, we would be in direct competition with Voicebank, an established industry player, where we would need to build a 10X better solution. Again, no one was going to switch to maybe better, it had to be 10X better, so significantly better.
Now the other approach saw us coming together under the same banner to achieve a common goal of moving the industry forward. So we much preferred the latter, Voicebank and Voices shared so much of the same clientele, it only made sense for bringing those customers together and giving those, many of the same customers, the ability to get everything they were looking for in one place. The solution seemed really obvious to us, we wanted to partner. So after a few phone calls, Stephanie and I arranged for a meeting with Jeff Hixon, the founder of Voicebank, we flew out to Los Angeles, I mean, it was one of those odd moments where in life you realize that you’re flying 5,000 miles in one direction across the country, just for a 60 minute meeting and then pretty much turning around, hopping on a plane, and coming home.
So in that meeting and speaking with Jeff, we heard his vision for creating a single portal where producers could pick between union and non-union talent, agency rep talent, or freelance professionals. And after exploring the partnership for a while, I floated the idea of, “Hey, what do you think about Voices actually acquiring Voicebank?” And he seemed to be pretty interested, and I said, we’d follow up with an offer. And that prompted Stephanie and I to line up the financing and reach out to our network of investors who had actually expressed interest in investing in us over all these years, I actually kept all of these investors in a big list, so we had really some people that we could approach, a pursuit list if you will. So I reached back out to those investors, with a simple email, just informing them that we were considering raising around capital. And if they’re interested, let us know we should hop on a call.
I’m sure I did, goodness, over a hundred calls, I narrowed it down to 20 in-person meetings that Stephanie and I then did on a road show. Now, for those of you who don’t know what a road show is, it’s when the founders, again, hop on a plane, travel from city to city telling the founding story, and it’s the same one that you heard in episode one, so if you haven’t heard the founding story, go back and listen to that. And then we’d would walk through our investor pitch deck, there’s lots of information out there about investor pitch decks, but really it’s a 10 slide PowerPoint, if you will, that just walks through, again, the story and the nuts and bolts of how the business works.
In addition to that investor pitch, we also incorporated a product demo. I mean, Stephanie gives a great product demo, really putting the investor into the mindset of being a casting director for a fictitious Walt Disney world resort project. Now, one of these meetings was with Bobby Bassman, I mean, Bobby’s a managing partner at Morgan Stanley, the global investment banking firm, and Bobby’s a legend, he really championed us within the firm. And so fast forward by a couple of months, we were able to close the deal with Morgan Stanley, and in July of 2017, we announced this $18 million Series A investment from Morgan Stanley Expansion Capital, their private equity group that’s based out of San Francisco, serving the broader Silicon Valley area. Now at the same time that that investment was closing, we were also concurrently engaged in due diligence with Voicebank, and due diligence is just really the looking through the business operating procedures and manuals and all the legals and financials, just to make sure that the house was in order. And of course it was. It was in order, in which case the deal went forward.
So about a month after Voices was invested in by Morgan Stanley, we also acquired Voicebank in August, 2017 I believe, bringing both union and non-union worlds together, all is one, online. So just before that announcement actually happened, though, Stephanie and I did spend some time with the Voicebank team, shared our vision, our philosophy, and then we also invited them to come up and fly up to London for some additional training. So we felt like, not only did we get the deal done, but we we’re really trying to fuse the two teams to work collaboratively together as well. Now, regionally, the desire was to actually keep the brand separate for a couple years and then merge them together slowly, but things didn’t go according to plan, as sure as some of you who were around at that time may have noticed, and we actually opted to accelerate the timeline by a matter of months.
There was just a lot of confusion, a lot of distraction happening, and we figured, look, let’s just bring these two brands together, sooner than we anticipated, but we ended up in a great spot, nonetheless. So we took the next year to migrate everybody onto Voices.com, and in June of 2018, Voices and Voicebank were united under one brand. Voices.com is the first ever platform with the power to offer both producers access to unionized SAG-AFTRA members and claim freelance voice talent. So I think we’ve done that in a pretty good way, and I’m super proud of the team for doing so.
So that’s the behind the scenes look of how it all happened. Today Voicebank, in case you’re curious, you ever type it in to Google, it’s just going to automatically redirect you to Voices.com, but that’s the story of how it all happened, the financing, the acquisition, the merger of Voicebank and Voices.com. And it was a really challenging time for us, of course, as you can imagine, but I believe that we’re stronger for it now, I mean, there’s more opportunities for talent than ever before, and we’re realizing the full potential of bringing the brands together and all of these producers under one roof.
So this is part of The Voices Experience story, and it might even be part of your Voices experience too. So if you ever wanted to learn more about how we brought the Voicebank and Voices together, I’d encourage you to visit our help section on the website at voices.com/help and just type in Voicebank, I’m sure you’ll get a lot of background information as well as some tutorials, and I’ve even written a couple open letters on the subject, there’s an open letter to voice talent, and separately there’s an open letter for talent agencies sharing with them how we hope to work together with them in the future.
So if you ever have a question, simply send it to [email protected], and I’ll do my best to get back to you right away, but please be sure to subscribe on iTunes, Spotify, or Google Play to catch the latest episode, well until then, use your voice to inform, educate, and inspire the world.