David Ciccarelli, Founder and Chief Executive Officer at Voices.com sat down with CanadianSME to chat about some of the strategies he used to grow his company to make it as successful as it is today and his opinion on what makes a good leader.
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 successfully raised $2M in funding from the Business Development Bank of Canada, followed by a USD $18M Series A funding from Morgan Stanley Expansion Capital located in San Francisco.
David has been happily married to his wife, Stephanie, for more than 10 years. They have a son and three daughters and live in London, Ontario, Canada. In his free time, he enjoys listening to audiobooks, running, and biking.
What are some of the strategies you’ve used to help grow Voices.com into the success it is today?
We had the opportunity to participate in the Canadian Technology Accelerator. The event focused on the following two points: How do we tap into the ecosystem, and learning more about “what’s going on in Silicon Valley.”
The event helped us understand how Canadian companies can expand abroad and create jobs. The event, called “48 Hours in the Valley,” was a real crash course on the inner workings of life in that world and the mindset of successful technology businesses. The first day was filled with pretty intense workshops and seeing how businesses run.
One of our takeaways for attacking the marketplace was the following slogan: Taste the market, test the market and take the market.
From that experience, I learned Canadian businesses needed to “think bigger” and be more aggressive. The way we materialized that was this mantra of what we call 10X. Thinking 10X is one of our mental models for how we go about making decisions. We don’t pursue a revenue opportunity because it will add $10,000-$100,000 to our top line. Rather, we’re pursuing the Silicon Valley growth strategy to conceptualize a million dollar incremental idea.
If your readers haven’t spent any time in Silicon Valley, it’s well worth spending the week there and understanding how business is done elsewhere in the world.
MIT runs a conference called the Platform Summit. Voices.com is a two-sided marketplace, which is commonly referred to as service providers and buyers. People are interacting with one another rather than with Voices.com and we’re just the intermediary, similar to PayPal, Amazon, and Uber. There are some common traits of what makes a platform successful. A big takeaway was that too often we slip into a mode of work that replicates the traditional business pipeline, which is organized in a linear fashion. You gain no efficiencies as a business grows through this linear old-school train of thought.
Mark Porter defined strategies as the choices a business makes. And a solid business makes sound, logical decisions. These experiences have helped us make logical decisions based on our goals.
As CEO of Voices.com, you’re responsible for creating the vision of the company. How did you come up with the vision of the company? What was the inspiration behind the vision?
Our vision is to be the place where the world finds its voice. Organizations or brands can communicate their message to their audience in order to inform and educate their audiences and tell their brand stories. We want to have a positive impact on the world through the power of the human voice. If the vision is the “Why” of the business, your mission is specifically “What” you do.
We’re the connector with these voices all around the world. It’s important to continue evaluating and/or refining the vision to make sure what we are doing is still relevant and in line with our goals. That is my responsibility as the CEO.
As CEO of the company, you also lead a whole team of employees. What do you believe makes a good leader?
What makes a good leader is being quick to listen and slow to speak. Listening first is very important. When you are invited into a meeting or asked for your opinion, in order to understand the background and respect the work, one must be patient and listen.
Somebody once shared with me the following: “As CEO, your words weigh 800 pounds.” This really hit home to me. A leader of an organization has the power to build up and the power to tear down.
Founders and CEOs have amazing opportunities when you’re invited to conferences or to speak at events. A leader must synthesize all this information from outside sources and the main role of the CEO is to make sense of it all, in order to improve their company.
You’ve created a vibrant culture at Voices.com. What approach did you use to create the company’s culture?
We definitely think a lot about culture. There is plenty of research that tackles the subject matter of what makes some companies outperform others. Through such research, one can extrapolate how to develop these competitive advantages that are long-lasting. A business is just a group of people working towards a common goal. The culture is just a reflection of the type of people that you have in an organization.
Sometimes people think about hiring the smartest people – the MBAs, engineers, and technologists (which of course are all very important). But if your focus is only on hiring for “book smarts,” you will miss out on something truly additive and meaningful. Emotional intelligence. Balancing book smarts and heart smarts help create an emotionally healthy workplace and culture. This is the ability to have difficult conversations and communicate effectively with one another. You can sense one’s emotional intelligence based on their communication, or their ability to deal with rejection, for example.
Culture is made of up artifacts, which are tangible elements that make up that group of people. Some assume that if you have a “cool” office, you, therefore, have a great organization and an excellent culture. But that is an extremely surface level approach. Culture is hard to develop and difficult to maintain over time.
You’ve managed to successfully raise over $20 million in funding ($2 million from BDC and $18 million USD from Morgan Stanley Expansion Capital). What strategies did you use to help raise this much capital?
Investors are investing in 2 things: the story, and you as an entrepreneur carrying that out. An early stage company will often not have enough traction, so investors will be looking at other cues to understand the potential of the business.
When you tell the story, whether it’s verbally or in a brief document, it’s about answering these 3 questions:
How big is your market? The first question is the headline and will gather the initial interest. Investors are interested in TAM (Total Addressable Market). Avoid the approach of “if we can capture x% of the market…”
- Why you? Why are you going to be the person that breaks through in this industry/market?
- Why now? You need to create a sense of urgency of why you need the capital right now. And it’s important to describe that plan in less than 1 page. This should be used to keep you on the radar for that investor or distribute that information to their investment committee.
If you follow those guidelines, the goal is to receive term sheets from different investors and then decide which opportunity is best.
Forbes and The Wall Street Journal are just some of the prestigious companies for which you have contributed your writing to in regards to entrepreneurship. What inspired you to contribute your writing to these media outlets?
A simple phrase for how to enter the market in the US, or the 10X mindset… these types of frameworks are about simplifying the approach. I’ve been the beneficiary of that from learning about the successes and mistakes of many entrepreneurs. The by-product of contributing also increases exposure for Voices.com.
Voice-over is not the first thing that comes to mind when people think of digital media. Voice is intangible and invisible. By resorting to explaining what the business is, and more about our customers, I have to create these “aha” moments. Communicating through mediums with large audiences certainly helps and it’s drawing attention to our industry.
I also wanted to mention that Toronto has become an incredible tech hub. Toronto created more tech jobs in 2018 than any other geographic metro area including the Bay area and Silicon Valley.
In your expert opinion, what is the most common mistake that entrepreneurs make?
Refusing to receive advice from others is a huge mistake that entrepreneurs often make. Another major mistake is being fearful that someone else is going to steal your idea. Investors are not entrepreneurs and they get hundreds of pitches per year. At the end of the day, you know more about your business than anyone else, but what you don’t know are the real unknowns. You may be unfamiliar with hiring your first VP of Sales or expanding into the US, or tax implications, etc. Investors are really good at pattern recognition. Because they look at perhaps 1,000 companies in a year, they can spot a success. And if they don’t, they will ask you something different that makes you think. Those questions are incredibly beneficial and will help you in the long run.
You founded Voices.com with your wife. How would you say this has impacted your relationship?
We do everything together. We understand each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and how we both get our energy. Introverts, like myself, recharge their batteries by being alone. Whereas an extrovert gets their energy through other people and bouncing their ideas off of others. My wife and I are opposites and learning about each other’s personalities have helped our marriage and our business. We know that our marriage always comes first, and will continue to always come first.
It’s been important to learn to understand how to establish boundaries, to allow for each of us to thrive in our own right. It’s important not to allow the dining room table to act as the board table. We refer to it as “permission to proceed” which informs the other person when to put the business hat on. The business has been complementary to our marriage.
On a final note, did you always know that you wanted to become an entrepreneur?
I would say yes. I didn’t necessarily know what my long-term game plan was. Most kids traded hockey cards, and I was the kid that bought entire boxes of hockey cards and would sell them. I would sell pop out of my locker at school.
At a young age, I was able to figure out what I liked doing and I found it very natural. After graduating from the audio engineering school, the options were being a sound engineer on a cruise ship and travel, or other cool options. I was toying with the idea of going to business school. My dad made the recommendation that you can always go to business school at any time but being an entrepreneur could essentially be your business school experience. The business skills were learned the hard way. I learned that no circumstances are going to get any better tomorrow compared to right now. Never wait until tomorrow to start realizing your goals and dreams.