Friends, Artists; Lend Me Your Voice! (A Profile of Voice123)Blake Harris 07.01.2015
by Blake J. Harris
One of the most critical steps in completing an animated video is finding the right voice to bring your story to life. But with such a deep and diverse roster of vocal talent out there, it can often be difficult to find the right artist. And even when you do, this part of the process—between renting studio space, supervising sessions and mixing recordings—can be rather costly. Well, that was the case at least, until a San Francisco startup called Voice123 came along and managed to shake up the traditional business model. How they did it involves technology, entrepreneurship and gumption; but as much as this tale might resemble a Silicon Valley case study, it actually begins as a good old-fashioned love story.
The Power of Want
When Alex Torrenegra was 14 years old, he desperately wanted a computer. But growing up in Bogotá, Colombia—where the tech was scarce and the money tight—this was not such an easy thing to obtain. Nevertheless, Torrenegra’s desire didn’t waver; so he tapped into the entrepreneurial side of his personality—that part of him that always saw problems as little more than obstacles in need of clearing—accessed publicly available PCs and founded his first business in June 1993: Cyberprise Ltd., a one-man, web-hosting company that would eventually grow and specialize in domain sales and brokerage. Soon enough, he was able to buy the computer he wanted; but not long after, he realized he wanted more.
At 19 years old, he wanted to follow in the footsteps of many tech-bent entrepreneurs and migrate to America so he could make his mark. The first half of that plan worked out pretty well, as he was able to make a life for himself in Miami; but instead of making a mark, he was much more focused on making hamburgers. His first job in the states was the graveyard shift at McDonalds. After a few months there, he left for a gig at Game Stop (assistant manager) and then, after that, found work at some companies more aligned with his passions. There was Batanga Media (where he worked as a Traffic Analyst), Terra (IT Project Manager) and Rentalo.com (Chief Technology Officer). None of these were exactly what he was looking for, but at least he was moving in the right direction to help him get what he wanted. Until, unexpectedly, he wanted something else.
That something else was the love of a bewitching twenty-something by the name of Tania Zapata. Like Torrenegra, Zapata was a Colombian living in the States but, unlike him, she was already doing what she dreamed of doing. Well, kind of. She was an aspiring voice-over actress who very sincerely loved her craft but, like many aspiring artists, often felt lost, confused or taken advantage of when it came to the business of her art. When looking for work, she seemed to constantly cross paths with suspicious, credential-less talent agents who claimed a want to represent her. Characters like these were commonplace, but at least they were easy to identify. Harder to detect were those who had a background or expertise to offer—casting directors, studio engineers, paymasters, etc.—but were surreptitiously angling for a bigger piece of the “voice-over pie.” Again, Zapata’s love of the craft certainly trumped these frustrations. To her, and to her friends in the industry, this was simply the cost of doing business. But to Alex Torrenegra, this was an obstacle in need of clearing.
“So he said: let’s automate this,” explains Margarita Rueda, the current Head of Voice123, as she serenades me over Skype with the aftermath to this love story. Like Torrenegra and Zapata, Rueda is also Colombian-born, so perhaps it’s not surprising that she speaks with a bustling sense of pride as she relays what happened next. “ She was struggling with this and he was a geek of computers, so he said: let’s automate this. Let’s do an algorithm and pull away everyone in the middle. Make the clients and the voice actors have contact with each other.”
In 2003, Torrenegra and Zapata did just that, and together they launched Voice123: the world’s first online marketplace for the voice over industry. The site was relatively simple and unspectacular—favoring functionality over fanciness —and was meant to be used primarily by Zapata and her fellow voice-over friends. Except, because the service worked so well, those friends told their friends (who told their friends [who told their friends…]). The actors loved this service because it removed all the nonsense, and the clients looking for vocal talent loved this model because they didn’t need to pay a commission for the service. “They [Torrenegra and Zapata] decided to work in a subscription-based model,” Rueda explains, “as opposed to a commission-based business model. That’s because they really wanted to be out of the way; hands off.”
Week after week, this hands off approach continued to work. By the end of 2004, Voice123 was processing over 1,000 auditions per day. And by the end of 2006, the service had processed over a million auditions. Capitalizing on this success, Torrenegra and Zapata founded Bunny Inc., which would become the parent company of Voice123, and an umbrella for additional creative solutions that adhered to a mission statement of “helping humankind reach its full potential by allowing companies to delegate their creative projects to us.” And as Voice123 continued to thrive, so too did Bunny Inc.
For Torrenegra and Zapata this was amazing, but it also came as somewhat of a surprise. “They weren’t expecting as much as what happened afterwards,” Rueda describes. “They were just expecting, like, let’s solve this problem.” In terms of solving the problem that had inspired its creation, Voice123 was a runaway success. But, as a result of that success, came an unexpected hitch: with so many folks now using the service, it was becoming increasingly easy for voice actors (particularly those with less experience) to get lost in all the traffic; and, by the same token, was creating a crowded environment for voice-seekers to find talent.
Since Voice123 was (and is) at its core, a marketplace, this wasn’t necessarily an issue that required solving. In fact, some devout capitalists might even have described this evolution as a good thing, arguing that the cream had simply risen to the top (or that the market would correct itself). But for as much as Voice123 had been birthed to build a middleman-less marketplace, it had also been created to give a voice to those who wanted one; not for the sake of charity, but for the goal of a meritocracy. And so, with this in mind, Torrenegra was able to come up with a clever solution.
An Algorithm for Change
In 2007, Voice123 introduced SmartCast, the first algorithm capable of electronically matching voices with projects. By using criteria like gender, budget and purpose of recording, the algorithm scans through all of its registered voice actors to find the best matches. From there, invitations are sent to the best fits; interested talent can reply with an audition and then, voila, the interested parties are matched up. It’s all so simple—yet elegant and efficient—and that’s what we at IdeaRocket love about it.
“Under the old model,” reflects Will Gadea, the creative director at IdeaRocket, “video-makers used to have to hire a studio to cast voice talent. Then they would go to the studio, and supervise the session in-person. It was expensive, cumbersome, and time-consuming. Now we can put a call out and have dozens of voiceover artists audition for us within a few hours.”
That ease that Gadea describes is what has attracted clients as large as Pixar and Warner Bros to Voice123. And it’s also what has enabled the service to grow upwards of 100,000 voice actors (in over 50 languages). Naturally, success like that has yielded some accolades along the way; in 2012, Torrenegra was honored with MIT’s “TR35 Columbia” Top Innovator of the Year award and in 2013, he received an NYC Venture Fellowship from the City of New York. And beyond the awards, the success of Voice123 has enabled the company’s leader to found Torrenegra Labs (an incubator that Forbes named one of the top immigrant-owned startups in the US) and further expand the lineup of offerings from Bunny Inc. with services like the ArticleBunny (which matches up content-seekers with talented writers).
Yet as impressive as all these accolades and expansions might be, I felt compelled to end my interview with Margarita by asking a question about what had started this all: did this innovation help the love of Torrenegra’s life find the kind of work she was looking for? Did Tania Zapata get what she wanted?
“Yes, yes,” Rueda says with a laugh of exclamation. “Right now she does it less and less because Bunny Inc. is growing so much. She gets projects though, every now and then; not casting, but people look to book her.” It’s true; recent highlights for Zapata include TV or Radio spots for McDonalds, ESPN and Palmers Cocoa Butter Formula. “But right now,” Rueda finishes, “she’s the Chief People Officer for Bunny Inc. So she’s the person making us happy.”
Judging by the grin that never left Rueda’s face throughout the course of our interview, I’d say Zapata is doing a pretty good job.
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