OWEN: My guest today is David Ciccarelli. He’s the founder and chief executive officer at voices.com. David, welcome to show.
DAVID: Hey, thanks Owen. It’s great to be here. I’m glad we’re connecting once again.
OWEN: Awesome. This show is all about, for the listener we bring on guests like yourself who have been able to systematize their business so that it runs predictably without you having to be there. And so we want to learn from how you are able to do that. But before we do that we want to give the listeners something that will give them the reason to stay all the way to the end. What are some mind blowing results that you know experience as a result of going through that process of systematizing and automating your business?
DAVID: Sure. I think the mind blowing result is that we’ve grown from being that kind of owner operator that was really just kind of the two of us, the two founders, my wife Stephanie and myself to leading ultimately and growing our market place, voices.com to generating over $15 million in annual revenue, and now employing over a hundred people as well too. So my entire mission, I had this vision at the beginning of that whole process was how do I automate myself, and specifically how do I engineer myself out of the business that no particular step or function relied on me. So the mind blowing result is we’ve actually been able to achieve that. This allowed us to kind of grow from, as they say, kind of that founding point in the company to now where we can determine what are the best ways to operate. Thinking more strategically about the company, hopefully that gives…
OWEN: That is mind blowing. That is awesome. Because I know if I heard that when I listened to an interview I’m going to stay all the way to the end. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, how has your company been transformed as a result of systematizing your business?
DAVID: I’m going to have to kind of go back to the beginning, because maybe there’s a lot of entrepreneurs that are watching and listening, wondering, “How did you go through those steps from two people to scaling to a hundred and hopefully beyond?” I guess the bottom line is that we’ve invested heavily in what I call great systems, really enterprise great systems.
OWEN: Okay. And what was that?
DAVID: The main one being, and certainly there’s a variety of them out there. But for us the main one being was a customer relationship management system called salesforce.com. Many of you are probably familiar with that. But for us this allowed us to, in effect, get on the same platform as Fortune 500 companies, global enterprises, even though there was just the two of us. So in short we’ve been able to punch above our weight class, kind of have that level playing field where we were operating on with the same technology that some of the world’s largest organizations were using.
OWEN: That’s awesome. How has your personal life been transformed as a result of systematizing your business?
DAVID: Humorously there’s been a lot less stress because we’ve been able to step back. I like to be strategically involved on kind of the day-to-day operations. None of it really relies on me. If there’s a bottleneck I certainly don’t want to be the bottleneck, so I look at that and go, “How do we allow more throughput?” if you will. And that’s throughput of any activity, it could be launching a marketing campaign, it could be handling inbound customer inquiries or processing orders if you will. So it allows me to kind of dig into the things that I really like doing which is plotting out the future of the company. In effect pursuing that next generation. And so if I can kind of be more, have more time to do so I was going to take all these various data points, whether it be looking at reports in analytics, could be reviewing customer feedback and survey results, and really tying all this together ultimately to create a clearer vision for what that next generation of the company will [Unintelligible 00:04:06]
OWEN: And you also mentioned during the pre-interview that it’s not only just your personal life has been influenced, your wife, your co-founder, talk about that too.
DAVID: Absolutely. Stephanie and I, I think have complementary skill sets, whereas myself being the more technical, analytical one, and Stephanie being kind of the more creative, outgoing, certainly the one with all the personality and a lot of energy. And so by, again, no particular process relying on her exclusively it’s given her the time to be a lot more creative. She really enjoys writing. She enjoys public speaking, being out in the community, or attending those industry conferences where she can become now the brand ambassador. So it’s allowed her to kind of pursue those endeavors.
OWEN: That’s awesome. Since you have systems in place that allows the business to run without you, and obviously Stephanie your co-founder, I’m wondering, personally what’s been the longest time you’ve been away from the business?
DAVID: Kind of a quick story comes to mind. We had the opportunity to celebrate our five-year wedding anniversary a few years back and we planned for a two-week vacation, but if some of you recall there was this large volcano that went off in Iceland actually. It created this huge ash cloud. And as our flight going from Toronto, Canada over landing in Paris, it was this evening flight, we literally flew over top of this volcano. It’s the longest ride ever. And when we landed we found out that we literally flew through this volcano and they shut down all the airports and we thought, not a big deal. We’re here for a couple of weeks and the business is running. My focus is watching the kids. And so it was kind of pretty much straightforward and orderly, enjoyed our vacation, did all the touristy stuff. But then at the end of those two weeks. The airports were still closed and they schedule them for another week this week, another week after that. So it gave us an extended vacation if you will.
OWEN: Yeah. You were not even planning it.
DAVID: No, exactly, which I think kind of put a lot of these systems and processes to the test because of unplanned event. So there wasn’t like I could come back and suddenly rearrange a bunch of things to accommodate. To answer the question, three weeks for a dedicated period of time was definitely the longest when we were away.
OWEN: Here’s the thing now, as the listener has heard a lot about what you’re actually achieving as a result of systematizing your business, but they probably want to get some context as to what the business is about. So what exactly does your company do and what big pain or problem do you solve for your customers?
DAVID: Absolutely. Thanks for the opportunity to share that, voices.com is knowingly the brand name but it’s our destination, it’s our website. And voices.com s an online marketplace. We connect creative producers, mostly business owners, folks who are working with marketing, with professional voice actors. And so these are the people with great voices, they also have a home recording studio and they read scripts. That could be a script for a radio commercial, a video, a podcast intro or outro, phone systems, you name it, it’s actually a ten plus billion dollar market worldwide.
OWEN: And a quick tangent so that the listener knows is that the intro and outro to process breakdown, I actually got the person who I hired from you company actually.
DAVID: That’s awesome. Thank you so much. We appreciate your business. And so that’s what we do, is we help with those business owners find, search for, and audition if you need to do some auditions. And then ultimately hire a professional narrator or a voice actor to read that script and then bring it to light. So the pain point if I may kind of that we’re solving is access to talent. Sometimes you might have a certain vision and kind of an idea of who you’re looking for that might represent your brand in your mind, but then you have to listen to a number of talents. So where else would you go to do that. Maybe traditionally you might work through a talent agency or maybe call up some friends and family members that might have great voices. But now when it comes to kind of some of the more challenging characters, personas, maybe even languages or accents that you want recorded voices.com has a 125,000 voice actors from all around the world who also speak over 100 different languages.
OWEN: That’s awesome.
DAVID: So basically any voice you can possibly imagine you can likely find on voices.com.
OWEN: So you mentioned earlier that you have 100 employees, I’m also wondering, is the company profitable? What was last year’s annual revenue and what do you expect to do this year?
DAVID: For sure. Last year, we continue to be in growth mode. I would refer to us on an EBITDA basis kind of marginally profitable. This is the challenge many entrepreneurs face, you can either be reaping those rewards and taking those profits in…
OWEN: Yeah, to grow the company especially…
DAVID: Exactly, [Unintelligible 00:09:04] company. And so at this point we still feel that there’s a huge opportunity out there. Every day is exciting, coming into work and working with new clients, working with new voice talent as well. And therefore we just want to be constantly driving forward, so we do continually invest in the future growth of the company.
OWEN: Last year you did what?
DAVID: Last year we did seven and a half million dollars in sales. This year we’re looking at, as I mention off the top, kind of across that 15 million mark. We think that my personal goal would be 100 million by 2020, so that’s in effect kind of doubling every year over the next three and a half years or so.
OWEN: That is awesome. The thing is we realize what your business is now but it wasn’t always the way it is now in terms of from a system standpoint. So take us back to when the business was not systematized and automated like it is now. What was wrong with it?
DAVID: It was much smaller. I think our first failure if you will was that we believed that we could keep a lot of this information in our head, namely information around our customers, specifically who our customers were, names, phone numbers, email addresses, how often they called. So I think that was a big mistake that we didn’t even have rudimentary spreadsheets. In fact it was so bad that we were just making do, but we actually have those large whiteboard in the corner of our dinette which doubled as our home office. And it was a large whiteboard that Stephanie and I literally wrote down the names of our customers. And so I think that was a big mistake that we didn’t get on to a true platform. We did it as soon as we possibly could but that was a mistake. On top of that because we didn’t have a system or spreadsheets if you will we also didn’t document even what we were doing, it was more of the fly by the seat of your pants type approach. Our solution now is that we definitely do document our processes and I can kind of, in a bit I’m sure kind of explain our approach to doing so. But the end result is that we maintain a collection of what we call playbooks. In fact every role or position within the company, and definitely every department has one is a playbook which is in effect kind of an internal user guide, but it goes through the policies and procedures, the systems, the step-by-step on how to carry out particular actions. And then they serve not only as the internally best known practice but they also are great training material going forward. So we maintain those certainly every quarter, every two quarters,. And absolutely when somebody new joins the team that sometimes is the prompting to go, ” Actually we changed something here. That needs to be updated.” And we do that in the moment. And they’re all hosted in Google Docs as…
OWEN: And also we’ll get into how it’s working right now, but I really want to share with the listeners some of the low points that you guys actually experience when you didn’t have the system the way it is right now. You mentioned something like a story during the pre-interview about having toll-free telephone numbers and stuff like that, and dreading who was going to answer the call. I don’t know. What was that?
DAVID: Yeah. It’s, again, kind of a funny story here. Two person operation working out of our apartment, our condo if you will, and we did have a degree of foresight to realize we definitely wanted to connect with our customers. And I thought the lowest cost way to do so was to actually install a toll-free phone line into our apartment and then post that phone number at the top of every page on our website. And whenever that toll-free number would get called there was this little box that kind of sat in the corner and it would click into motion, and the called would be listening to some initial greetings. But as the caller was going through the, “Thank you for calling Voices. Press one for sales and two for customer service, and so forth.” Stephanie and I would kind of give each other this panicked look. And the panicked look was which one of is grabbing the baby and running down the hall, and kind of muffling the crying in the background, while the other one answers in the most professional of all voices. “Thank you for calling voices.com, you reached David. How can I help you?” And so we would kind of [Unintelligible 00:13:58] really green things. And then at the same time keeping track of that information by documenting it using that same whiteboard. It was literally just ticks beside people’s names. That was as sophisticated as we got it in those earliest days.
OWEN: And so I’m wondering, was there a specific thing that happened that made you say, “Enough is enough. I have to…” Your breaking point, you have to change things around. What happened?
DAVID: I definitely think that we were taking calls day and night. That was a big issue. We also found that we were kind of reinventing the wheel by answering the same questions over and over. But the real tipping point was that when we were writing all of these names down, our kind of mid-afternoon break was to head down to the local coffee shop and actually we’re trying to memorize all of the names that we had written on this white board by jotting them back on the napkins from the coffee shop, and we realized there’s no possible way that we can do so. There’s over a hundred names that we had, and I think I read that the human mind can possibly keep up to 250 names, but that’s if you know people face-to-face and a lot of them are personal relationships or family members. But folks, customers that we’ve never met, we only knew them by name so we didn’t have a lot of contacts. We felt a hundred was maxing out. And so that was really the tipping point if you will where we realized we need a better system to do this. We cannot possibly keep it all in our heads.
OWEN: I totally understand. So what was the very first step you took to systematize the business?
DAVID: How to kind of get all of that intellectual knowledge if you will out of our minds and off the whiteboard, and into some kind of sheet. So we started with a pretty low tech again, which was a big spreadsheet and just trying to get all of the information possible that we actually knew about them instead of kind of resorting to the short hands, we wanted to have complete information of all of our customers, accurate information that this is their phone number that we wrote down correctly. We think that they’re in East Coast or West Coast. We just kind of did a big data dump if you will. And then that actually led us to importing it into our first database.
OWEN: Which is Salesforce, right?
DAVID: Yeah. We actually used something different before Salesforce, but then eventually kind of migrated into Salesforce.
OWEN: What did you do different for Salesforce, I’m wondering?
DAVID: It was another CRM package called NetSuite.
OWEN: Oh wow, that’s enterprise.
DAVID: Yeah, which is still in the market today. At the time they were both relatively new. And we initially went with NetSuite because they had this financial reporting package as well too. And I’ve always been a big fan of the one system that does it all.
OWEN: Yeah, solving the entire problem.
DAVID: Exactly, and not having to duplicate data in two different systems. Which one is the system of record? These questions you want to have them at least thought through initially when you select your master system. And so we just found that the usability at least at the time of NetSuite was subpar, and therefore even just when it was the two of us we realized we don’t enjoy using this, and that might be kind of a small takeaway as well is that you really need to enjoy using that system, what it is, because your business’ brains and memory of how everything works. So we actually found if you will a lot more enjoyment in using Salesforce.
OWEN: One of the things that you mentioned during the pre-interview that really stood out to me was that you guys before, because knowing that the tool you were going to use as enterprise and it would take a while to understand it, you all wanted to fully understand what you were trying to port over. So you spent some time understanding all the different parts of using this spreadsheet to fully breakdown what you needed to push over to this CRM. Can you talk about that because I think that’s important to share with the listener?
DAVID: For sure. The first thing is this kind of like low tech spreadsheet. Really that next step was when you get into some system, I don’t think spreadsheets are going to be scalable for very long when you get in to some system. Then you next have the challenge of adoption. And so we needed to kind of create some clear definitions around what is a lead, meaning kind of perspective customer versus an account which is an active customer, and the contacts, the people that work at those companies. So we created those definitions, we also literally, again, white boarded and if not whiteboard writing these out on pen and paper just in kind of flow chart style what kind of triggers those conversion moments where this relationship becomes something else, or you have an account, what are those sales deals and Salesforce calls these opportunities. And so what information do we need there to represent a sales deal? And so by kind of creating that system and knowing who’s responsible for what it really avoided these data silos where we had all the transaction information in one area and all customer information in another. It allows us to kind of look almost holistically at the entire business, those key moments of truth if you will, those steps along the way. And then ultimately customize. I don’t want to say we built it from scratch because Salesforce was very good coming out of the box if you will, but customizing the application to our needs.
OWEN: First of all you knew exactly what you needed it to be like by using the manual way before being able to now take what you had manually by taking to a tool that you can now build, or customize a tool to suit that manual way that you already built with the information that you needed. But just to make this even more concrete for the listener I’m wondering, on that spreadsheet, and the different triggers, and different stages can you just talk about what was happening there so the listener can have a more concrete understanding of it.
DAVID: Sure. Let’s take the opportunity record, and an opportunity again is representative of a sales deal. On that we listed what are called fields, basically the areas where you’re going to enter data and list it exactly what information we needed and what were the steps in the process. So a sales deal just doesn’t come in and close, often there’s a prospecting phase. And then maybe there’s a quoting phase where you’re sending out a price quote. Then maybe there’s a negotiation phase. Then ultimately there’s a closed one deal where you landed the sale. And then admittedly there’s also a closed loss. You don’t win all of your deals as well too because really thinking those through, even a simple sales process like that with those four, five key steps allowed much more consistent information, and encouraged what became best practice internally. But you can do that for, and that’s just on the sales deal. You can look at support cases…
OWEN: Even production as well, yeah.
DAVID: Exactly, production, your order flow, really any aspect of your company is going to have, let’s call it an object or a unit of work. And usually that unit of work will have a series of steps that it’s going through. You can call it a status or you can call it a stage, but it’s usually going through a series of steps.
OWEN: And is it like the steps are always the same?
DAVID: They are. It’s for that particular unit of work. And that’s what allows it to be repeatable. And then you can look at other really neat things like adding automation and so forth as the company gets more sophisticated.
OWEN: I get how you did the spreadsheet thing, broke out all the different steps so the different stages of the company was able to put that into a tool like Salesforce so that it worked the way you wanted it to work. But I’m wondering, were there any other steps that you guys took to systematize the business besides that?
DAVID: We always start with a low tech solution. So now even if something sounds like it’s a big issue… And this sounds awfully silly but we even just… Because in the moment it sounds like, “Oh man, there’s things happening all the time. We need to process around this.” My immediately counter argument is, “Really? How often has that happened? Let’s do this. Why don’t you just get a sticky note and add some check marks on to it. Do that for a week and then let’s talk. And how many check marks on there. Is this happening once a day, 10 times a day? Let’s get a sense of the scale of the issue.” And it’s really only at that time when we have an understanding of how big of the problem is this that we can very quickly create a business case for spending the time and energy, and maybe financial resources on building out a much better system. So we usually start from paper to spread sheet, and the ultimately some kind of computerized version which was going to result in a build out system, in our case in Salesforce.
OWEN: I like that whole concept but can you give us an example of something specific that happened in the company that you guys had to employ that manual process first and then going to build a system for automating eventually. Is there something that comes to mind?
DAVID: For sure. Let’s even talk about handling support cases. So a support case would be kind of an inbound customer inquiry by phone, by email, or filling out an online form. And so these were coming in really just ad hoc. You can’t predict when your customer’s going to need help. We answered each of them individually. There was with kind of an on the spot creative solution and answered to these often common questions like, “How do I reset my password? What’s your pricing plan?” Very typical questions, and so that was the manual no process, no documentation. We then move to actually realize that Salesforce had this component called support cases. So we actually kind of thought… And when you look at the customer life cycle we actually started at the end. We kind of worked backwards if you will. We wanted to serve our existing customers the best. And that’s where there’s focus on customer support cases kind of first came out. The rule of thumb that we had which was every customer support interaction needed to be creative as a case, so now it’s logged. And that was every inbound phone call, every inbound email, every time a form was filled out on our website it created a case in Salesforce. So it became, again, a single source of truth for all customer service inquiries. But in answering those cases, because sometimes on the spot if you’re on a call you might need to get back to somebody because you need to research it. Or it comes in by email and you realize, “I’ve answered this 50-60 times. Do I really want to be typing this out from scratch?” We actually created an internal knowledge base that provided answers to common questions. So these FAQ’s allowed us to almost in effect have a customized intro and outro of the email, but literally pull in the kind of meat and potatoes, the body of the message. And so it was a standardized solution, a standardized step-by-step that we could use over, and over, and over. Not only is it saving a ton of time in our fingers but we were consistently giving the same correct answer. It needed to be maintained only once. And that allowed us to answer customers through a variety of channels but giving them verbally the same answer or typing it out. And that was a huge breakthrough. And last point on that is that we actually made that knowledge base accessible and searchable on our website. So no longer do customers necessarily need to rely exclusively on us, they could actually employ a customer self-service.
OWEN: And that’s kind of like the automation part of it now?
DAVID: Absolutely. There’s definitely a generation of people who would prefer… and maybe it’s a bit of personally type as well too…
OWEN: That’s true. I usually prefer to find the answer myself.
DAVID: Yeah. I don’t want to wait on hold. I don’t want to call in and find out if it’s after hours or wait 24 hours for an email to get back to me. If the answer is on the web I’m probably going to Google it first and then get through if I get to a help section of a website. If it’s done with a degree of sophistication a lot of customers are going to be able to find those answers themselves.
OWEN: And so I’m wondering, how exactly do you document procedures and processes for the business and what tools did you even use?
DAVID: I mentioned these, a big one is these playbooks have through Google Docs. We are kind of a Google apps centric business. So if you think of kind of mentally the separation is Salesforce manages our customer information. And then Google apps, namely the docs and the drive kind of manages internal documentation of how we go about serving those customers. And so we do have a template of creating new playbooks, and that refers for any groups, so for instance marketing, what are the key roles in marketing? What is somebody who’s responsible for partnerships? How do they differ from public relations? How do they differ from content creation or search marketing? These are all different roles, and each role is going to have responsibilities. Also we’ll document what are the systems that are being used? And so marketing is a particular challenge. I read in a chief marketing officer website cmo.com that the typical CMO has to deal with over a hundred different marketing systems alone. If you think of content management systems and every ad platform…
OWEN: Analytic systems…
DAVID: Absolutely. So you’ve got all of these. And this is why you need that playbook to kind tie all this together to realize there’s a time and a place to use each of these. And who owns for that system? Who’s responsible for maintaining the credit card information if it’s an ad platform or maintaining contact information, whatever it may be, generating the reports as an example. Those playbooks have really been instrumental for us that as they say not only solidify and say once and for all this is how we use it. But as I say there’s double duty, so that when we train somebody else in that role that they’re getting access to the same information.
OWEN: So who’s responsible for managing and maintaining this playbook, because otherwise it could get stale.
DAVID: Absolutely. It’s the manager of that department, so in effect the most senior person in that department. Now, when we created the marketing one as an example where we went from probably four, five different smaller versions of it and we just consolidated it into one, it was the director of marketing who I said, “Look, by the end of the quarter you’ve got three months. I want all these consolidated, as I say single pointed truth.” And she in turn asked for participation from each person. So the person responsible for content created the content section. The person for public relations created that section as well too. But ultimately it came down onto her and the performance review that I was sitting down with her to say, “Great, let’s run through this. This is amazing.” That’s part of being a manager, is that you can leverage the expertise from people on your team as well/
OWEN: At the time when you working on systematizing and automating the business I’m wondering what books and even mentors had influence on you and why?
DAVID: There’s the classic E-Myth, but I think it was the E-Myth Enterprise and talked more about, I think it was the seven components…
OWEN: You know I don’t even know about that book, the Enterprise one. I know the E-Myth but I never knew there was an Enterprise.
DAVID: Yeah. There’s a couple of different ones now but the Enterprise one is really interesting because it just talks about scaling up and running a much more…
OWEN: A bigger company, okay.
DAVID: Exactly. I really enjoyed that, but to compliment that as well too many entrepreneurs I think they see everything as an opportunity. And a book that I enjoyed was The 80/20 Principle by Richard Koch.
OWEN: I love that book.
DAVID: And the concept of filtering out those activities that really are low impact that just consume a lot of time, energy, and resources, you can probably diminish them or get rid of them entirely. And then focus on the 20% of your time and your activities on those things that are going to result in delivering 80% of results. And that often comes through with number of exercises that we do now, this kind of 80/20 type themed brainstorming sessions and exercises when we were building a system, determining what to do next. But those are to certainly instrumental books.
OWEN: That’s awesome. If we just only talk about what you did and the results. It doesn’t give a full picture of what happened, because there obviously had to have been challenges while you were trying to systematize the business. So what is the biggest challenge that you experience when you initially tried to systematize your business and how did you solve it?
DAVID: Well, when you first build something and you have a bit of an idea or maybe even a hope of how you would think it’s going to work and it fits the system you can engineer it a certain way. But then when it starts getting used you don’t really know if it’s working right. And you should create that definition of success, but then the challenge really is the verification of it. And I think sometimes I mentally slip back into this where I feel like I need to verify a particular part of the system or verify the data is correct. So building in those monitoring systems on top of the core functionality be it through reporting or reports in dashboards and some kind of analytics I think is a good way to overcome that nervousness. Is it working the way it should be? And that way you can have a lot more confidence in the data that’s coming out of the system, is it working, address any slippage that occurs, leaks if you will, exit pass whether they’re volunteering or not. And if those anomalies do happen it actually creates an opportunity where I can go about fixing those. And it’s challenge, this kind of need, despite building the system, building the system the need to kind of want to monitor it. When those anomalies do pop up I view those as opportunities to actually refine it and make it all much better.
OWEN: So viewing issues with the system as opportunities to improve up on that system. But then you also mentioned a verification. Did you have to do something specific to make sure that you’re always verifying? Is this something you put into the system to make sure that happens?
DAVID: Yeah. We have in effect a red warning or alert systems. A lot of it is email based to trigger when something happens outside of the norm. This is a great example actually I think is Google Analytics allows for this where I believe they’re called analytics alerts or intelligence events. And so for instance if the daily traffic coming from Google Adwords, where the source is Google Adwords or cost per click exceeds 5,000 visitors in a day I will get an email. Because basically what that’s telling me is that suddenly something happens where we’re getting a lot more clicks and consequently paying a lot more to Google for that advertising traffic. And I want to be notified about that. On the other end if for instance organic traffic suddenly dropped by 20% over the daily average kind of over the last seven days I also want to know about that. So I think there’s events that if you can kind of build those event-based triggers that merely alert you, and yeah, you’re going to have to investigate or go, “Okay, that’s nice to know my email but no action required.” I think that’s a great step in solving the need where you don’t necessarily need to log in to every different system multiple times a day, build these event-based triggers, and you can again refine those over time too that allow you to identify what those anomalies are and then quickly address them.
OWEN: That’s awesome. I’m wondering, what was the second biggest challenge that you experienced when you initially tried to systematize the business?
DAVID: Yeah. I see a lot of, again, other entrepreneurs make the same mistake that we made which is to jump into automation way too quickly. It sounds very glamorous that you’re like, “I’m going to get this system and it does these things in an automated fashion.” But learning from experience that kind of low tech solution first and then kind of systematizing it for lack of a better term and then finally adding automation you get to refine multiple steps along the way. I have this phrase I say. Progress is better than perfection. If you aim for perfection and this fully automated system that requires no intervention whatsoever it sounds wonderful, but when you flick on a system like that and it is automated things can get out of hand very quickly. A quick story if I may to kind of put that into context, we have this idea that we wanted to follow up with customers very quickly after they signed up with us which makes sense. You sign up, you create an account on voices.com. We wanted to follow up literally within the first five to ten minutes of somebody signing up. There’s research from the Harvard Business Review that says if you can call somebody within the first five minutes you can increase the likelihood of a sale by 400%. So we definitely want to call people as quickly as possible. And so our way of kind of going, “Let’s kind of trigger. When somebody signs up we’ll create a task and it’ll email out a task.” In Salesforce it’ll have this little task object that the account managers need to address. When there’s a couple of hundred people signing up every day and then you don’t get through everybody every day either. Next thing you knew we flipped on this automated system, we had 20,000 tasks all in this backlog that kind of became meaningless to be honest with you because it’s like, “Oh, it’s just another couple of hundred email.” They just piled up. Nobody really looked at them. And everyone kind of loathed these tasks because there so many of them that we eventually just turned the whole thing off, mass deleted the task and go, “Okay, let’s create another way to do that,” which became an alert when somebody first signed up. It alerts the account manager but it doesn’t create this other task.
OWEN: I’m glad you shared that story too.
DAVID: Yeah, do you see like work for the sake of work, like more clicks than necessary. So we realized that and eventually kind of turned that off.
OWEN: And while still on challenge I’m wondering were there any other challenges that you experienced when you were trying to create systems to systematize the business and stuff like that?
DAVID: For sure. The challenge often will come up where if you’ve invested in a particular business platform if you will that you can face challenges on integration. So I always kind of try to think of this as if it’s a platform that there should be other apps, almost like an app store or an app ecosystem, or some kind of marketplace where you can build on to functionality. And sometimes those kind of add-on’s don’t work exactly the way that you would’ve wanted to, or necessarily they were positioned or kind of described as such. And so we’ve run into a few of those. But now our number one vendor selection criteria is, is it native to Salesforce, meaning does it actually work plug and play in Salesforce, not some third party that we’re going to spend months trying to jam into these two things to work together. But is it natively working in Salesforce where it is kind of plug and play. And they have an app exchange is what they call it where you can find a lot of those business applications for everything imaginable. So that’s one of the ways that we’ve been able to solve it is just to be very disciplined on our app selection criteria.
OWEN: Given all the challenges that you were experiencing then I’m wondering why did you stay committed to the goal of systematizing your business?
DAVID: It’s the only way that you can scale up a company, right? The flipside, if we never took any steps to build process, to build systems we really would only be kind of a two-person company. And it would be highly labor intensive if you will. And the only unit of economics would be hiring more and more people. At some point you want to have kind of a breakout where your growth actually becomes independent of how many employees that you have. That it becomes kind of a multiplier effect. And so I’d like to believe that we’ve achieved that, because two people can only possibly contact and manage so many relationships. But now, with the right systems in place, with a staff of 100, we have 250,000 relationships that we’re maintaining. Obviously you need a great system behind the operations to be the main way that you’re scaling up your company.
OWEN: Let’s take the listener to a more current time in the story. At what point in time were you able to systematize your business and have it run successfully without you? I’m assuming this is the vacation when you [Unintelligible 00:42:30]
DAVID: Yeah. That was about five years into the company. I was kind of the first real good test of that. Another instance was last year I lived in New York City for much of six months. So it’s kind of there for a month, back for a couple of weeks, then there again for a month. And before that I was in another technology accelerator program in Silicon Valley for three to four months at that point. So I think there’s been times on and off where there have been good blocks of time that have allowed me to step back and put the system to the test.
OWEN: Now that we’re talking about more currently how the business works I always want to give the listener a behind the scenes of how your business works. Imagine someone who probably has some need for a voice professional to do some voice work for whatever they product they have on one end of this conveyor belt. And on the end of this conveyor belt is that same person that have gone through your system and they’re raving about you and they love you guys and they’re telling the whole world. But behind the scenes is this whole systems and processes working to make that transformation happen. Work us through it and feel free to start from how you’ve acquired it in the first place.
DAVID: Absolutely. That is really the first place to start is kind of this initial awareness piece. And so how would somebody maybe first come across voices.com is actually likely through our content. So we do have a content creation process. And so with that, that kind of starts with ideation where certain ideas for new stories, or blog topics, or how-to’s, tips and tutorials, these kind of articles and done and managed. And that story if you will goes through a series of steps from editing, and then ultimately to be shared, which means it’s published and live, and there’s a URL with it. And if it’s to be shared, well then, another member of the marketing team actually picks up that URL, schedules a post across various social media channels. So there’s are scheduled in advance. And then it gets finally tracked as shared. And so that means that this thing is totally done. But that content creation is really done because we ultimately want to get awareness in two main areas because we’re an online company. That comes down to search and social. And so we want to kind of tap into all that demand that’s happening. So we’ve gone from content creation to demand generation. And if we can tap in to the demand on search all those people that are searching for voice actors or voice over talent, how do I produce a radio commercial, these kind of terms, we actually have to start with the content. So that when people are searching for that it bubbles up organically. The next would be if the purpose of marketing is to actually bring somebody to the website and convert that visitor into a registered user, once they’ve signed, as they said, that becomes kind of almost like this hand off into sales. The sales team which are really account managers, they manage that relationship from that initial signup or we’re calling people right away, introducing ourselves, making it a lot more kind of a personal approach despite it being a web company. We want to service our client and talent accounts closely. But usually because voices.com is very much a utility in certain way, you’re there for one reason which is to hire a talent. Those clients usually, again, have this project in mind. And so we wouldn’t want to quote on that project. We have a quote calculator that takes in a number of variables for example what language, how many words they want to speak, how many talent that they might need to hire on that. And we walk through that quote calculator and generate a proposal for them. And then if there’s some negotiation that needs to occur, mapping of the timelines, we do that. And then we ultimately close the deal. And so that’s kind of sales piece. And then lastly, and we’ve covered this quite a bit was this kind of customer support system. And then after every sale a customer might have some further questions, they can certainly go back to the account manager. But for those things that may be of more of a technical nature the customer support system would be there. Those are kind of three big chunks, I think of it as market, sales, and service.
OWEN: That’s good. You’ve already talked about to an extent part of this thing where I was going to ask you what systems you have in place to enable the employees know what they need to know and you’ve talked about how you have procedures and processes like playbooks and stuff like that. But I want to highlight something you said during the pre-interview how you have a company wide access to all the information, or this company-wide dashboard, department dashboard. Talk about those things.
DAVID: Yeah. Company-wide… We’re very open in terms of the access to the information be it in Google Analytics or Salesforce where most of us are spending our time in Salesforce. And so the way we make that information accessible, yes, it’s on to like the specific record. We’re working with XYZ company, but then when there’s 250,000 accounts you actually want to get this bird’s eye view of how is the entire company doing. And so I’ve created a series of these company-wide dashboards that look at sales across the entire company, marketing metrics across the entire company, and all different channels and so forth. And then customer support satisfaction scores where everybody in the… So that’s kind of what’s on the company-wide. Then we do drill down into some more specifics on a department basis. And you can see everything on performance on a daily, weekly, or monthly progress as well.
OWEN: You also mentioned there’s a personal dashboard as well. Talk about those.
DAVID: Yeah. And that’s where I think if we’re wondering how do we ultimately know, one, is the system working, but on an individual basis how am I contributing to the success of the company. We do really create a mechanism and requires a high degree of personal responsibility and personal success in their position, and how do we do that? The mechanism is the concept of this personal dashboard. So if we’ve got a company and department dashboards every individual here at Voices has a personal dashboard. So they can see… Let’s just take sales as an example because everyone can easily grasp this especially if you worked in sales. It outlines the exact… there’s reports and charts if you will across emails, calls, number of accounts that I’ve activated, how many deals I have in the pipeline, what are my sales results on a daily basis, monthly basis as well. And it’s just your own…
OWEN: Play your own roles…
OWEN: You also mentioned, I think this is interesting, the performance review system?
DAVID: For sure. If an individual is responsible for their success on a day to day basis we also need to kind of check in every once in a while. And so we have a performance review system called work.com. It’s a module that’s added into Salesforce. And in effect what this does is it allows at the end of a three month period… At the beginning you set goals of course. And it could be hard goals like those tangible sales numbers, or they could be softer goals like learning a new skill. But at the end of those three months you would sit down, you’re given a number of surveys, or sent out. And you sit down to do these surveys, and there’s called a 360. Maybe some people have done these before but basically there’s a self-assessment survey, there’s a peer survey. So you review people that you might work closely with, not necessarily in the same position but maybe they’re in a supporting role. There’s an upwards review where you review your manager, and then there’s the manager’s review. And you kind of go through this process kind of to document and kind of capture the stories of not only those hard results but the impressions are that…
OWEN: That you’re creating, yeah…
DAVID: Exactly, on how you’re working together. And we do that once every three months. And that’s kind of a great way to level set and make sure that we’re all moving towards the same common goal.
OWEN: Let me see if I got that peer review thing right. So it’s like 360 degrees, the person is being reviewed by their manager and also being reviewed by their peer within the same department or peer across the company. I’m just wondering.
DAVID: They could be peers in different departments actually, and that’s where usually find the biggest area of improvement is because there’s not quite an understanding of what somebody else might be doing in another department. So for instance I might make the sale but that sale gets handed off into the finance department, and now for the invoice to get sent out and accounts receivable we’re literally waiting for the chapter arrive in the mail or a wire transfer. And so by having a complete deal information, the sales opportunity we can accurately create an invoice and send it out, if we have the correct billing contact, and address, and so forth. So those are kind of those learning opportunities where we hear from the other departments and how we’re working together, we can spot those areas for improvement.
OWEN: And they find out with their peer reviews that they’re actually doing a review of themselves. So I’m assuming that at the end of the day you’re just looking at all these three different reviews, the one from the manager, one from the company across the board, the other people reviewing them across the company as well as them reviewing themselves and see does this all three line up together.
DAVID: Exactly. What’s funny is that most people are hardest on themselves. And I think when you’re doing a self-assessment you don’t want to be gloating, and you know these areas that you can improve upon. And truly it’s just a matter of… others want to encourage you in this area as well. Yeah, you’re right, this came up a couple of times. Not the end of the world but let’s make a point of fixing this particular activity or let’s get some mastery in this area as well too.
OWEN: I’m wondering, now that you have more free time in the business I’m wondering which areas you focus on now and why.
DAVID: I guess I kind of touched on this as well too around in the kind of monitoring and verifying that all is working on. I feel like I’m constantly trying to find those areas that have yet to be improved, if you will the stones…
OWEN: The treasure hunt…
DAVID: Yeah, the stones that have kind of yet to be turned over, usually they’re the diamonds of the rough that if you confine them that this whole department sometimes suddenly becomes way more productive or we yield better results in a particular area. We have, for instance 200,000 leads in our system, could be leads that some people we met at a conference, some people have downloaded these white papers or PDF but they have yet to become a customer and they never became a paying customer. So we’re right now working through. How do we reach out to those leads in the most efficient way possible. How do we reengage them and start a conversation up again to bring somebody who might have been interested in at one point and then regenerate a relationship to maybe spot an opportunity. I like finding those kind of opportunities for improvement.
OWEN: That’s awesome. What’s the next stage of growth for your business and what do you plan to achieve next and why?
DAVID: We’ve just hit a really critical milestone and for us it was crossing the 100-employee mark. I think that was in and of itself a critical stage and one that we’re really working hard towards of achieving. But for me personally every year I do write a strategic plan and it is kind of more of a living document that’s maintained. And I literally print a hard copy every year. It’s saved electronically but I like that hard copy because it puts in stone, like, “Hey, here’s what we committed and we’re not changing things.” But one of those key initiatives in that strategic plan was just to amplify that we’re those things that we’re already doing so well. It’s not necessarily moving in to a new product segment that we have no experience in, but rather scaling up those things that are already working so well. So I think it’s very timely that we’re speaking because my mind is really around our systems and kind of squeezing out optimal performance out of the way that we’re currently doing things.
OWEN: That’s awesome. As we come to the end of the interview and you want to do a quick summary of the steps the listener has to go through to kind of transform their business so it runs without what would that be?
DAVID: I really like saying, start with this low-tech solution regardless of what system you currently have in place. This could be as straightforward as getting some blank pieces of paper, create some time sheets if you will, and literally write down what you’re doing every day. If you’re a solo entrepreneur, or maybe you have a smaller team around you, as the team leader, or president, or CEO of a growing company I think it’s important to determine what is it that you do best that no one else can do. And if you find you’re doing things or your time is being utilized on other activities you got to write those down. And then ultimately determine how can I build a module for this system especially if it’s repetitive work on a daily basis. From there something like creating a flow chart, especially if you’re like, “I broke up my day in these kind of 50-minute increments, or one hour increments.” I tracked my time for the last week and I realized that there’s these buckets of activities, and they maybe even relate to each other. There’s a bit of a process here. I think flow charting that out is a great step. And then from there you can determine, is there a system that can either be added on to what we’re already using, purchase, build, customize, however you’re going to do that, that gets it out of the daily routine and into a bit more of process-driven organization. I think that’s one great place to start.
OWEN: As we come to the end is there a question that you were wishing ??I would’ve asked you during the interview that I didn’t ask you that you feel like maybe would help to round out the interview even more. Go ahead and ask the question and post the answer.
DAVID: I’d love to hear from you if there is an area that you find other entrepreneurs do struggle with at the beginning or when they’re building their systems, where do you find that a lot of our entrepreneurs have that difficulty in taking those first steps? Is it just getting it down on paper and kind of planning it out or is it the selection of a particular system, where do you see those challenges?
OWEN: The amount of work that needs to be done, they know where they’re trying to go, and then this whole paralysis of where do I start and not knowing what is the very next thing to do. And so some of them have this overwhelm, and that’s kind of like how to get over the whole thing and know that you don’t have to solve the entire program once you decide to take that first step and build up on that. It’s the mindset thing literally.
DAVID: I guess there’s the old saying of how do you eat an elephant, like one bite at a time. And I think I can definitely sense that as well. Sometimes projects are just huge and determining where you start. And it could be starting with a vision of where do you want to end up and then taking a step there or just take some action that moves in the right direction. That’s a great point.
OWEN: And so what is the best way for the listener to connect with you and thank you for doing the interview.
DAVID: The best way would be, you’re welcome to email, firstname.lastname@example.org. That goes right to me of course. Or through Twitter as well, davidciccarelli is the handle there. Certainly I would love to reply and chat with you there. But if there’s an opportunity where you are creating a video or podcast of your own to promote your own business or product then we’d love to provide the voice over for that video or other kind of creative production. So I encourage you to check out voices.com the website and see if there’s an opportunity for us to work together.
OWEN: Now I’m speaking to you the listener who’s been listening all the way to this point. I want to thank you first of all for listening to the interview so far. And if you’ve enjoyed it I want you to do us a favor and go leave your honest review, hopefully a five star review on iTunes. And to do that go to sweetprocess.com/iTunes. The reason for leaving a review is the more reviews we get, the more exposure we get, and the more listeners we get, and the more encouraged we are to go out there to get guests like David to come on the show and take you behind the scenes to see how their business is systematized and what steps they took to make that happen. Finally, if you are at that stage in your business where you are tired of being a bottleneck and you want to get everything out of your head so your employees know what you know and can get work done predictably, and on top of that you want to be able to track that they’re getting the work done, sign up for our 14-day trial of SweetProcess. David, thanks for doing the interview.
DAVID: All right. Thanks for having me on.
OWEN: And we’re done.