Adopt a framework for ideation and design that works for your team and stick to it.
David is an entrepreneur at heart. For the last decade, David, with the help of his team, has grown Voices.com from the ground up to become the leader in the voice-over industry. As Chief Executive Officer, David is responsible for setting the vision, executing the growth strategy, creating a vibrant culture, and managing the company on a day-to-day basis.
David is wholeheartedly dedicated to growing the company to become a world-class organization and leading the industry in the digital age. He often writes about these experiences in the Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur Magazine, and Forbes.
David has participated in the Canadian Technology Accelerator in Silicon Valley and then the Canadian Technology Accelerator in New York City. He successfully more than $20M with Voices.com’s Series A funding from Morgan Stanley Expansion Capital located in San Francisco.
Married to his wife for more than 10 years, David and Stephanie have a son and three daughters and live in London, Ontario, Canada. In his free time, he enjoys listening to audiobooks, running, and biking.
Where did the idea for your company come from?
As an audio engineer by training, I opened a recording studio where I got my name in the local newspaper on my birthday introducing me to the broader business community. Stephanie’s mother read the article and passed it along to her because she was looking to have her singing repertoire recorded. Stephanie and I met through the recording studio. Because of that same newspaper article, other small businesses contacted me asking if I knew a female voice talent who could do voice-overs. I called Stephanie and our business partnership began with her as the vocal talent, and myself as the audio engineer.
We taught ourselves web design and development and launched our first website that soon attracted other freelance voice talent; male voices, kid voices, those who could perform character voices or even speak in other languages. We listed these voice talent on the site.
Soon thereafter, creative professionals, video producers and marketers would reach out asking how to get in touch with those voice talent. That’s when the lightbulb went on! What if we could build a service that connected the client with the voice talent creating an online marketplace for voice acting work. Since that idea, we’ve stayed focused on creating the largest marketplace of its kind.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
My day begins between 6:00 or 7:00 with the first meeting at 8:15 with my assistant when we recap what happened yesterday to address any follow-up items, and then transition into today verbally walking through meeting-by-meeting. The purpose is to confirm that I’m equipped with the information to make the most of each session.
I’ve found that it’s most productive to have theme days. For instance, I may go deep on sales and marketing one day, and then finance and investor relations another and then recruiting, interviews and company communications or internal operations then next. Organizing your days keeps your mind thinking along the same lines, often resurfacing ideas or actions from meeting to meeting. I also find myself repeating key messages over and over in slightly different contexts. That’s part of the role of the CEO, to communicate the vision, mission and values as well as articulate our strategy and reinforce that we’re taking the right steps to make it become a reality.
How do you bring ideas to life?
We take a product development approach to ideation. Specifically we follow the 5-day Google “Design Sprint” for problem identification, exploring a series of “how might we” questions working towards a designed prototype. That prototype is then shown to users to gather feedback, a process called validation. Sometimes we need to begin the process again, or perhaps simple refinements are all that’s required.
With a designed solution in place, we kick off a development sprint to translate the prototype into small tasks to be built by the development team. Of course we validate further, engage our friends in quality assurance and eventually launch.
While most sprints are two weeks long, they can extend further especially if more market research is required on the front end, or perhaps usability testing was inconclusive. We do prefer progress over perfection so we have a bias towards shipping sooner than later and consistently adding value, always improving the experience our customers have on our platform.
What’s one trend that excites you?
The explosion of digital assistants, specifically smart speakers, is a trend I find fascinating. Smart speaker adoption is faster than any other consumer device; with Amazon Alexa in more than 50M homes and 100M units sold. The smart speaker battles are really the digital assistant war; the stakes are high because digital assistants are the gateway to voice-based search, social experience, commerce and voice communications. And, if you consider digital assistants on smartphones, voice assistants have reached mass market penetration, installed on 2+ billion devices, representing a true global opportunity.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Each Sunday night, I plan out my weekly action items. A to-do list of sorts, these action items keep me focused on dedicating time and energy in the right areas. I organize my list in areas of the company ensuring that I’m touching marketing, sales, support, product, technology, finance and human resources each week.
While I may not get to everything each week, I carry forward those unaddressed areas to the following week. This form of horizon scanning means that I can stay fairly connected with our team, know the challenges and spot opportunities. I enjoy seeing how it all fits together and then serving as a catalyst for positive change.
What advice would you give your younger self?
– Build a firm foundation – invest in systems and infrastructure.
– Hire slow, fire fast – take your time finding the right people using the right criteria with complementary skills to you. Don’t look for people who have a similar personality or skills as you.
– Avoid long-term leases – every landlord wants you in for 5 to 10 years, but there may be opportunities to sublet or work from a co-working space for longer than you think.
– Never make a decision unless you have to. Consider the consequences of a decision using the 10-10-10 model (created by Suzy Welch). 10 minutes from now, 10 months from now, 10 years from now. This is a decision you should be able to live with not just in the short term but for years to come. Don’t get rushed into making a decision because someone else is putting pressure on you.
– Grow your operation with cash – sell real products to actual customers who will pay for your offering. Use that cash to grow. Don’t be indebted unless you have to be. If you’re really building momentum, go into debt to meet the demand that’s in the market or to pursue a growth initiative, because it is those sorts of activities that create value in an organization. Once you have exhausted all the debt you can raise, only then should you consider bringing in investors that will require you to sell a piece of your company, consequently giving up a portion of the control.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
I’m a firm believer that everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. There needs to be an objective source of truth in business and in life.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Developing routines is one of the best practices entrepreneurs can do to instill discipline in their lives. Each Sunday evening, I plan out my weekly action items. These are self-assigned tasks that go above and beyond the events in my calendar. To some they may seem mundane, however I find listing these to-dos out ensures they get done and serve as a reminder to dedicate my time and energy on the most impactful activities.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
We think about strategy as a company’s response to the market forces that results in a series of choices that differentiates you from your competitors. With that in mind, we made some fruitful choices, namely the acquisition of our domain name, voices.com. Prior, we operated interactivevoices.com which was a mouthful and frankly not very memorable. In contrast, Voices.com serves as a short and memorable identify, but also a destination. Since rebranding as Voices.com, we’ve grown 20X and welcomed more than 500,000 users on our platform. We often cite this strategic choice as being key to who we are as an organization and provides us direction moving forward, the definitive destination for voice-overs.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
One failure early on was avoiding difficult conversations with staff who were underperforming. It might be the Canadian in me, but I found it hard to have crucial conversations with people about their performance and as a consequence, poor performance became the new standard of what was acceptable. While I had hoped performance issues would improve and resolve themselves, they didn’t. I learned that delaying performance management takes a toll on you and your team that is more than just financial. It’s best to have these course correction conversations in real time so that an employee can decide what they’re going to do.
Once you begin having crucial conversations about performance, one of three things will happen. The employee will:
– improve their performance and begin to thrive
– opt out because they don’t want to meet expectations, or
– be invited to be successful somewhere else
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
One idea is to start a business where you collect problems and then make money helping people to solve those problems by connecting the right people to each other. You could set up a consulting firm where all you did was scanned the horizon for problems that need to be solved and then identify who you think could solve those problems. Put another way, become a social innovation hub. Not only do you run the hub, but you’re the primary orchestrator, connector and evangelist for the great things that are happening under your roof. There’s a lot of hurt in this world that you could help to ease through the creation of businesses created to solve particular issues. For instance, mental health is a big topic and everyone knows that they need to be taking care of their mental health. Let’s get really specific and solve for anxiety. What if you found someone (or several people) out there with the passion, skills and knowledge to solve for anxiety? Providing an organizational structure and technical support to subject matter experts and community champions makes a huge difference in seeing something like this take flight and scale.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
Recently, our VP of Sales an Account Manager and I rented a car in San Francisco to visit our best customers in Silicon Valley. For around a $100, we bounced between the biggest technology companies in the world making presentations and learning how we could serve them better. Walking away, we all sensed that this was one of the most productive days in memory. I’m sure a year from now, we’ll look back and recognize that those visits were a real turning point.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
One piece of software that makes me more productive is Salesforce.com. Without Salesforce, we couldn’t do what we do, and I certainly wouldn’t have a birdseye view of everything that I need to see as CEO. We live by dashboards and reporting. A close second is Google Drive. One of the reasons I love Drive so much is because it simplifies the creation of slide decks and anyone in the organization can contribute. Before we got smarter about doing presentations, I was responsible for compiling decks for monthly board calls and quarterly board meetings. This took a tremendous amount of time and caused unnecessary stress. Now that I’ve trained our management staff on how to create succinct, compelling and aesthetically pleasing presentations, monthly reporting sessions in-house go much more smoothly with many of those slides eventually being incorporated into slide decks and board-related materials. I feel like I got a lot of my life back after I made the decision to ask others for help and trained them on the tools they needed for us to be data-oriented storytellers who were expedient and lean.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
One book that made a big difference in our product journey was Machine, Platform, Crowd by Erik Brynjolfsson. The book was critical in helping us refocus and refine our priorities as a platform. Over the last several years, we’d strayed a bit from the platform road and were beginning to think more like a pipeline business. If you run an online business or an online marketplace, you need to be thinking more like a platform and build for scale, user experience and speed.
What is your favorite quote?
At a growth conference, I heard Shark Tank star Robert Herjavec say that, “No one changes from good enough to maybe better.” This off the cuff comment really stuck with me because as we’re showing customers a faster, better way to work, the friction often comes with their comfort in doing business the way it’s always been done. In order for someone to switch their buying behavior, your solution needs to be five to ten times better than the status quo. You may be better, but that’s not good enough. You must be dramatically better.
- Adopt a framework for ideation and design that works for your team and stick to it.
- Plan for success. Take time once a week to get your priorities straight. Sunday nights tend to work best because you’ve had ample time to reflect on the previous week and can nimbly assess from those learnings what you need to do for the next week.
- Physically writing ideas in a book is helpful for documenting what needs to be done and also helps free up mental and emotional real estate.
- Be strategic with how you manage not only your time, but your energy. Group similar tasks and meetings together so that you can focus and save time shifting gears.
Carlyn runs the day-to-day publishing operation here at ideamensch and interacts with our awesome customers and entrepreneurs. She is likely editing this with a cat on her lap.