Alex: I was born in 1878 in Bogota, Colombia. For the first two decades of my life, I lived in Candelaria, Candelaria is the historic part of Bogota. Today it’s more recognized for being a tourist spot where you can go and see colonial Houses, a mixture of Spanish architecture and Native American style, to a certain degree a lot of fabrics and a lot of construction elements that you only fin the Americas an probably in particular in that part of Colombia.
However, I lived on the tallest building on that neighbourhood, which is a building that they built right before they passed a law that wouldn’t allow the construction of new buildings like that, so, the building per se wasn’t necessarily that nice, compared to the rest of the neighbourhood. Now, this is a neighbourhood that is next t the mountains in Bogota and it’s actually colder than the rest of Bogota because the clouds are constantly hitting the mountains and it rains a lot if you go outside of that area it’s actually like 2 or 3 degrees warmer in average. So, that’s where I was born.
Alejandro: So, San Francisco weather, more or less.
Alex: Yeah, actually pretty similar to San Francisco, by the way, it’s known today as a tourist spot. Back then it was a place where you didn’t want to go because it was one of the most dangerous places in Bogota, and in fact there was kind of a practical curfew at 8 pm, like, after 8 pm you didn’t want to get out of your house, because it was going to be dangerous, unless you called a taxi and the taxi picked you up.
Alejandro: What did your days look like?
Alex: So, downtown Bogota its, at the end of the day, pretty similar to any other downtown, you find probably a lot of young people, a lot of professionals, but not a lot of kids, actually there where no parks around really and in my building, I think that the only other kids where 5, 6 or 7 years older than I was, so actually I had a relatively lonely childhood which, looking back I believe it ended up helping me develop some of the skills that I developed because, pretty much my best friend was my blocks, the equivalent of Lego, we didn’t have enough money to buy legos so we had Extralandia which was the Colombian equivalent, so I played a lot of Extralandia back then and built buildings and such.
Alejandro: In terms of school, was the school nearby, or how did that look like?
Alex: Yes, and I ended up attending a, get ready, German-inspired MIlitary Catholic Academy.
Alejandro: Did you have to wear a military uniform?
Alex: Yeah, I learned to shoot rifles when I was 12 years of age.
Alejandro: In School?
Alex: Yeah, they teach you to shoot. There are two reasons for that, one is that the owner of the school was a friend of a friend of a friend and my mom ended up teaching history in there, on that school, so I got a scholarship, being her son I could go there without having to pay for education. The other practical reason is that in Colombia military service is compulsory, you have to do it, unless you go to a military academy, in which you learn how to be ready for war but you don’t have to go to the jungle and fight people, so if you want to play it safe you go to military academy in Colombia.
Alejandro: Wow, that makes a lot of sense. So, you’re in school, they teach you how to shoot. Did you see an inkling of some form of entrepreneurship, even at that time?
Alex: So, this is something that I believe I haven’t shared before, I usually share the story of my first company when I was 14, but I actually started doing this earlier and that is because when I went from the primary building to the secondary building, I was the youngest in my class, I started quite young, and I also the shortest, and people used to bully me a lot, and one of the things they did was that when I bought my food during the break, they would actually come and eat it. Like, I would open my chips and they would go and grab all of them, so, I didn’t have any money to buy more food, so I started figuring out ways to getting more money so I could buy two packs of chips, one for me to eat and the other one for them to take.
Alejandro: Oh man! That’s intense.
Alex: So I started offering my classmates the opportunity of buying homework, so I would actually do the homework for them and they would buy it from me and early after I started doing that on 7th grade.
Alejandro: You must have hit the jackpot in that, I’m sure you had a line of people wanting to do that.
Alex: Well, I became really good at it, actually I developed 3 writing styles, I had access to different types of paper, I learned how to write typos on purpose…
Alejandro: This is early CIA training.
Alex: Yeah yeah, but the coolest thing is that I realized that I could actually auction the work, so whenever the teacher left the room and he had assigned us a kind of complex homework, I would raise my had and be like “ I am going to auction 3” so the people that paid the most where the ones that I would actually make the homework for, and depending on the complexity I would do 2 – 3, sometimes 4. But then to make it better, I offered a satisfaction warranty, so we used to be graded from 1 to 10, so “This is the amount of money you’re going to give me, and for every grade below 10 that you get I’m going to give you a refund. So I ended up raising the prices, so I ended up actually making good money for being a student in 7th grade.
Alejandro: Did technology play a big role in growing up? Weren’t you on a mission to own a computer while you were a young teenager?
Alex: I was really obsessed with the idea, I really wanted a computer and by the time I was 14 I got a letter from the bank where I had some savings and I had accumulated like 50 dollars of savings, and the letter said “Congratulations, you’re going to move from the account for children to the account for teenagers and young adults, and these are the benefits. Now you get to have a debit card” and whatever, but the very last benefit said “Now you have access to credit” and that was the best news ever for me, I can get a credit! Now I know how I’m going to get a computer, so I started thinking about how to pay for that credit, so this is when it became more and more popular, for, specially university students to write their thesis on computers so they could edit them, but they didn’t have computers, so what started happening in Colombia back then is that they would pay people with computers for them to actually write the thesis and have a draft of the thesis in electronic format that they could print and show to their teachers, the professors fixed it and, it was kind of a private secretary, kind of a private data entry work for university students, so I saw an opportunity there and I had one friend that had a computer, actually it wasn’t his computer, it was his brother’s computer so I couln’t use it so, anyway, he printed for me a sign that said “We do data entry work for college students, here is our phone number” and I posted those signs all over the neighborhood, the first time it didn’t work, I had to iterate, I realized that people actually wanted to see the adds, they didn’t want to call, they wanted to go, so I did it for the second time, they went there and I started doing some kind of market research, not realizing that was market research, today they call it the lean startup, fake it till you make it, so I had an idea of what kind of volume I could actually do, how much I could charge.
Initially, I had to fake it till you make it because people would get there, I was 14 and they would say “ Are YOU going to be the one doing this for me?” So they wouldn’t trust me so I would say “No, it’s my mom but my mom is not here but I can give you the price” and then they would say “Ok, here is what I have written, please transcribe it” and I would have to say “Oh no, we are too busy, we have two months of work right now” but, I didn’t have a computer, so, we couldn’t deliver what we were selling, but that information, I took it, and I went to the bank with the pamphlet that they had mailed to me and I waited in line and I told the teller “Teller, tomorrow I am going to be turning 15 and will be switching my account to this new account based on what you told me and I’m going to access the credit” and the guy cracked up and said “No, you need to be at least 18 and have a job for you to get a credit, this is not for you”. I was really pissed and, that memory is kind of blurry but I remember being really mad and, for some reason I ended up in the office of the manager of the bank and she asked me where my parents where and why I was asking for money, she was really concerned that I needed to ask for money to a bank. Not realizing it, I ended up making my first company pitch, because she asked a lot of questions about the business model that I had in mind and such. Two days later, right after I turned 15, I ended up getting a credit for 820.000 pesos, which is the amount of money I needed extra of all the savings that I had to be able to buy a computer, and I founded my first company, which was only me, working part-time, but I had so much time to think about the name that I ended up naming it APACHE AX CYBERNETIC ENTERPRISES LIMITADA. For legal reasons, I had to do it.
Alejandro: Why didn’t you make it longer?
Alex: I couldn’t think of more names for that. That was my first business, a data entry business. Later, only later, many years later, as I learned about the banking system and such is that I ended up realizing that the bank didn’t give me the loan, it was the bank manager herself the one that gave me the loan out of her own bank account.
Alex: I haven’t been able to get in touch with her again but I am trying to, I have made this story as public as I can so that, hopefully, one day I will be able to get in touch.
Alejandro: Wow, that’s incredible!.
Alejandro: You were in Colombia during one of its worst periods, you know with crime, with the drug trade, the kidnappings, all that stuff that was happening, in ’98 that was still pretty bad, wasn’t it?
Alex: Yes, in the 90’s there are different memories, at the beginning of the 90’s a lot of what we used to call narcoterrorism, so, drug lords doing terrorism against each other, but that meant that every other day or so there was a bomb exploding somewhere in Bogota, a lot of them used to explode in downtown Bogota, so it was relatively common for us to be awakened by the shaking of a bomb that had exploded.
Alejandro: I left at 8 years old from Colombia, and of course, I was in Cajica, which was a little farther from the actual city, but, just having your home broken into and all that stuff, I remember, years later, I had trouble sleeping on my own you know, it took me a while, I think I was like 15 years old with a beard, still sleeping with my parents in the US. So my dad was like “look man, you are way to freaking big, you gotta find your own bed”, Did you have… did any of that stick with you at all? Like, reflecting on that now?
Alex: I value peace of mind, because, I actually counted. I got robbed in Colombia 10 times, and any kind of way you can rob people I was probably exposed to. So I was robbed by pickpocketing, I was robbed by people with knives from the streets, trying to get my sunglasses, I was robbed at the business that we had with a gun pointed at my face and being tied down in the back of the office while…
Alejandro: At the office?
Alex: Yeah. I was robbed by people that pretended to be owners of a company, they gave us a check, we delivered computers to their office and the next day the checks bounced and we went to the office and the office didn’t exist, the office was empty. They tried to rob me while driving on my car, so I ended up developing a good sense defense, like being aware of what’s happening around me all the time, on the traffic light, being aware of the distance to the car in front of me, the distance to the car behind me, to the height of the sidewalk in case I have to drive through the sidewalk, so, its a lot of cognitive loads, because you cannot think about your future, you cannot think about what to do, about how to do better in life, you’re always thinking what might happen and how I’m going to be reacting to that situation.
Alex: Yes, So, when I came to the US for the first time, it was strange knowing that I could just let my mind wander, not thinking about what might happen to me or my loved ones. By far, 99% of Colombians are great people, but that 1% make so much damage that they don’t let the other 99% focus on things that they could be focusing on.
Alejandro: So, you came into the U.S. so, did you move on your own at this point? Or who were you with?
Alex: So, I ended up moving actually with my dad and his family, we asked for a visa together and we were lucky to get the visa because this is 1998, when we got the visas, and 95% of tourist visas in Colombia were being rejected, that’s the actual number, 95% of visas, you had to wait for 6 to 9 months for the appointment, only to get rejected in most cases. So we were lucky and getting a visa was so difficult that everybody getting a visa was like “I’m out of here” and even though I had a successful business I was 19 by then, I already had a car, I was living by myself, so I mean, for a young person in Colombia I had been able to achieve a lot and I was conscious of that but I really wanted to explore new lands and new opportunities and that’s why I broke my business to pieces, I allowed some of the members of my team to continue working with the clients and I got a one-way ticket and I came to the US, to Boston. Initially, I shared a space with my dad and his family but a few months later I moved to Miami where I had some other relatives that I had never seen, I mean they were my relatives but I had never met them.
Alejandro: So, how did you meet your wife and co-founder Tania in Miami?
Alex: Well my roommate was a journalist, a Colombian journalist and she used to co-organize a meetup for Colombian journalists in Miami, now, most of the Colombian journalists in Miami were people that had fled Colombia because they were targeted by the many different groups with weapons in Colombia and they were on asylum visas and such, so it became a group of immigrant Colombians expats, living in Miami because they couldn’t go back to Colombia, and in one of those meetups, which, being in a Colombian meetup it was like 20 minutes working and 2 hours of dancing
Alejandro: haha! That sounds about right.
Alex: That’s where I met Tania. She didn’t have that background of having to flee Colombia because of safety reasons, but she was in the media industry, she was working as a Spanish radio station in Miami, Caracol Radio.
Alejandro: Caracol, that’s a very big company.
Alex: That’s when we met, and she was kind of an oasis for me, because Miami, at least back then used to be a plastic city and she was only the least plastic person, the most real person that I had met in Miami by the time. We fell in love, we started living together within 3 months or so and we quickly set our goal to move to New York City, and a year later we were able to Flushing NY, on every last stop of the F train.
Alejandro: Wow, and by the way, why New York? Was it just because, obviously the branding, or, did you have family there or not?
Alex: No, I just loved New York, the first time I visited New York I felt at home. So I had been living in Massachusetts for 5 months and everything was perfect, nobody was going over the speed limit, everybody gave you right of way, initially it took time for me to get used to that, but eventually I learned how important it is, but I went to New York for the first time and I remember parking nearby at Radio City Music Hall and after two blocks of walking, we see a yellow cab crossing a corner and almost hitting a guy, an executive with a briefcase. The guy takes his briefcase and slams it on the car and the cab stops, the guy gets out with a bat and eventually they realize this is a bad idea and they move forward.
Alejandro: And that was the moment you stopped and said: “this is gonna be my home”.
Alex: “This is my place, this is my people” (laughs). Now I am definitely more settled down, I have a daughter so for me that kind of activity is not necessary, but back then it was like “this is real, this is not as perfect” so I set my eyes on New York City. Not only because of that, the museums, the art, everything.
Alex: The idea actually started in Miami, so, Tania working at a radio station, she started to pursue a career in voiceover and very quickly as we met she was starting to do that
Alejandro: By the way, how did Tania get introduced to the idea of voiceover?
Alex: Yeah she used to be the receptionist for the radio station and one day they were looking for a backup for one of the shows and she volunteered and she became one of the most known DJs in the night shows on that radio station. She wasn’t doing her own voice, it was like the voice of a child, she was supposed to be like a naughty 10-year old or something like that, only in a Latin radio station you’re going to find that (laughs)
Alejandro: (Laughs) That’s hilarious
Alex: Well she learned about the voiceover industry and realized that money in voiceover is not necessarily in being a DJ but in actually selling your voice for ads and commercials, so she started looking into that and we learned that one of the ways that you would get work, especially as a Spanish voice actor, because her English is very good but she focused on doing Spanish voices back then, you had to pay a fee between 400 and 1000 dollars to a company that would take a 60 second demo with your voice, put it on a cd and ship it to many agencies all over the place. That was one way, and they would get those cd’s and listen to them and if you’re lucky, they ended up contacting you.
Another way is going through agents, so agents similar to on-camera agents, who would go there, they would cast you and if they think that you have future, they would probably work on a portfolio of the work that you’ve done, so she also did that. She paid a few thousand dollars to agents to do a photoshoot because back then you needed to be good looking to be a professional voice actor apparently…
Alejandro: Wow, that’s crazy
Alex: Neither of them delivered, they kept her money, the other venue, the CD thing ended up working just a little bit, so, I already had some experience on creating websites and such, I had been looking for ways to do it online and was surprised at finding that nobody had created a casting service online for voiceovers, and actually we were very surprised. Like “really, we should be missing the point, this should be somewhere”, but not, it wasn’t. So, we started working on the idea, working nights and weekends, and while I was coding the website, Tania was collecting email addresses of people that had created their own websites, voice actors that had created their own websites, and after 6 months of work or so, we launched Voice123, January 12 I believe, 2003, and we emailed a bunch of people, bunch of talents, letting them know that now they could participate in this marketplace and quickly Voice123 became the largest marketplace of voiceovers out there. Today we have 300.000 voice actors in the system and we have processed millions of auditions so far.
Alejandro: Was this from your home? With like a server? What did that look like? Yes, this is 2002 – 2003, so, there was no such thing as AWS, you had to actually rent a typical server somewhere, so we did that, however one of the things we realized we wanted to do, is we wanted to allow people to record their auditions with their own microphones in their computers, this is when people where switching from modern to broadband and broadband was good enough for that kind of recording, but that required specialized software, back then for those that were into this, I remember that Macromedia launched flash communication, a flash communication server, which was the first technology ever that would allow you to record something from any browser with a microphone, but no company was hosting computers that had that software, so we had to set up a computer in our studio, this is a studio the size of a living room, we were living, really tiny in flushing and whenever you visited the website, if you were auditioning for a project you were actually connecting to the computer in our apartment and that computer had all of the auditions. Once my sister visited us and by mistake, she switched the wrong light switch because it was actually connected to the light switch and the server went down with it for like 2 hours while we were able to fix it (laughs)
Alejandro: It was already on! (laughs) and you already had people working! Did you lose the information?
Alex: We didn’t lose information but we couldn’t process auditions for like 2 hours. So, that’s when we already had some good volume, but it took almost a year before we could actually set up a proper server in somewhere for it to manage the auditions.
Alejandro: How did you go about communicating this to people? One thing is building it, the other thing is like, who did you say, “ ok, we’re gonna target this first” and how did you even reach out to them, how did that look?
Alex: So, we were quite ignorant, in terms of what we were doing and looking back, that ignorance probably ended up helping us make the best that we made, because if we had known more user acquisition and MVP and investing and whatnot, chances are we would have not done it. Because it was too risky, but that ignorance ended up helping us to take the risk, so, we didn’t do any research whatsoever in terms of what the buyers were going to be, we knew about the talent side, the supply side of the marketplace.
Alejandro: You knew there was a gap there, that there was a need, you know, it’s crazy
Alex: Honestly, we didn’t know there was a need, and that was part of the huge ignorance we had, we knew there was a need for the supply side, yes, meaning talents wanted to get work, but we had no idea about the buyers that needed those voice actors, so, again, ignorance, in this case, ignorance is bliss, because we ended up building something that actually people wanted, but we had never talked to anybody that had bought voiceovers before.
Alejandro: Keeping in mind that you haven’t talked to anybody but you experienced it from the supply side. Tania had gone through the whole process, you guys were amazed that there was no sort of platform out there that could at least help someone like Tania out and being able to her or him with buyers an do it in a way that was efficient and cost-effective, and so you guys went about building it, now knowing what would happen. So, how did you even test this in the supply side? Or did you immediately start reaching out to the buyers? With Tania as the example of one voiceover or how did it work?
Alex: So, what we did is the only thing we knew back then to do for user acquisition and that is we did pay per click, it is 2003, Google Adwords was relatively new, there wasn’t a lot of competition, we had done some consulting for other businesses doing pay per click, we knew a little bit about it, so that’s the only plan we had, we are going to put 10 thousand dollars of our savings, the only thing we had to pay per click, to attract the buyers, and surprisingly, it worked, people ended up liking the idea. Here is the surprise, we realized quickly that people that used to buy voiceovers, they were not using us, the people using us were the people that were buying a voiceover for the first time, they didn’t know how to do it, so they went online, they typed in voiceovers, they found us. Only years later is that people that already knew how to buy voices started using us because they didn’t have the need.
Alejandro: So people, when you say people where doing it for the first time, you’re talking about people that wanted to buy a voiceover, got it, so for the first time, not the big companies out there, because they had their channels of distribution, they had the people where they would get voiceover, so it would be individuals like small businesses.
Alex: Yeah, small businesses that didn’t know how to get a voice, so, they went online, they are typing voiceover and they see voiceover online, Voice123, ok I’m going there and that’s how it grew. And we grew very quickly because we were the only ones offering it back then.
Alejandro: Where there any particular problems as it was growing that you began encountering that were pretty scary?
Alex: Well it would be probably a whole hour (laughs). More than scary it was probably challenging, we did receive a lot of hate mail, because we were really, drastically changing the industry. Before Voice123, if you wanted to get a really good 30-second voiceover for a TV commercial, for example, you would have to go through a casting director, the casting director would contact several talent agents, they would contact the voice actors, the voice actors would be sent to an auditioning studio, they would record de audition, send it to the talent, to the agent, the agent would chose the best ones, they would go to the casting director, the casting director would pick the best ones, they would go to the buyer, the buyer would pick the winner, then they would all met on an actual recording studio for the session and if everything went according to plan, then the buyer would pay to a paymaster, so the paymaster is yet another entity that would split the money into different people.
Alejandro: So many players in all this layer.
Alex: Yeah, so because of that, that 30-second voice would probably take 3 weeks to get and 3.000 dollars or so, plus royalties. We come in, we create an open marketplaces were people compete and market dynamics and now you can record from your home, send it, you can audition in 5 minutes, you don’t have to go anywhere to audition and no middlemen, and within a year or so, you could get voice of the same quality within 1 day or so, for 300 dollars. So, a lot of people loved the idea, because the voiceover industry used to be in the US centralized in LA, Chicago, and New York City, now we have talents working from anywhere in the U.S. from their homes and building their own home studios, so the people that were used to the way industry worked, they didn’t like that and some of them started sending us a lot of hate messages, hate mail, racist comments, and for several years we thought it was a xenophobic kind of thing, we thought that it was people not liking that immigrants, that Latinos were changing the industry and we were shy about telling others that we were Latinos, as we hired more people in Colombia, because we have always had de connections with Colombia, we asked them to use American names as supposed to their real names for that. To protect them and protect the business.
Only later is that we realized that that wasn’t really the case, that yes, some people used xenophobic slang, but most of the people that didn’t like what we did it was because we were disrupting the industry and it wasn’t about race or anything like that, but at the same tie we were also discovering how many other people loved what we were doing and the number of people that we have positively affected their lives is more than the people being affected negatively by this and more and more we see people thanking us and every now and then we are on the streets and people identify our faces and they say “oh that is Alex: and Tania, owners of Voice123 yeah, can we take a picture? You changed my life, thank you”.
Alejandro: That would be me if you guys weren’t my neighbours, that would be a little weird if I asked for his picture. I’m like, we are in the same building, I don’t know what’s the proper protocol, that’s amazing!
Alejandro: Are there any particular lessons that come to mind that you say “oh man, if I saw myself 10 years ago I would sit me down and just share this and this”?
Alex: So many, but I would probably buy a book called Platform Revolution, one of the best book written on the topic of marketplaces of the 20th century and send it to myself 10 years ago, read it and you are going to end up having a huge impact in humankind if you follow the advice in that book.
Alejandro: Platform revolution, do you remember the name of the author by any chance?
Alex: Multiple authors, its a relatively academic book
Alejandro: Ok, don’t worry, platform revolution
Alex: It depends on what they want to achieve, but I think that the challenge for most Colombians is that they don’t dream big enough, their dreams are very limited by the context in which they were raised, the idea of doing something from Colombia that is going to change the world is funny to most of them, at the most they think they are going to be able to do something that changes Colombia or at the most it changes Latin America. But building something in Colombia that is going to have a global impact, no. There is no such a thing as a dream that is too big.
Alejandro: That’s great! Are there any podcasts that you listen to? or any reading aside from the Platform Revolution that you would recommend?
Alex: I listen a lot to planet money, sometimes in insightful, sometimes it’s fun, and on a daily basis I read hacker news a lot, some of the topics in there are quite insightful
Alejandro: Alright, is there anything else that you would like to share before we conclude? Any news on what you’re working on now?
Alex: Yes so, Voice123 is now part of a larger company called Torre, at Torre our expertise is creating platforms that connect demand with the expertise needed for that demand, so we also have Bunny inc. and within Bunny inc we have multiple brands, we have Voice Bunny which is the largest production service of voiceovers out there, writing bunny for buying the text, translation bunny, for creating translations and such. We are expanding our bunnies to many different creative services so that companies can outsource anything creative when they need to do so, and we are also working a couple of projects under the Torre brand, that’s the name of the company that is trying to make waterproof 02: 59? That’s the mission of our business xxx for many people, at a massive scale, we are going to be releasing some of those services pretty soon, so, stay tuned!
Platform Revolution: https://www.amazon.com/Platform-Revolution-Networked-Transforming-Economyand-ebook/dp/B00ZAT8VS4
Planet Money Podcast: https://www.npr.org/podcasts/510289/planet-money