Her start-up, VoiceVibes, is beginning to like the sound of teaming up
The founder of a tech company that sells software to assess your speaking skills seeks advice on distributing her product. — Dan Beyers
The entrepreneur: As a wife and a mom, Debra Bond Cancro realized just how much the way she said things had everything to do with how effective she was in communicating with her kids and husband. She was really interested in tracking her own metrics on how condescending she sounded or when she sounded encouraging versus negative.
“The way you say things has everything to do with whether people actually hear you and listen, or decide to tune you out,” Cancro says. “I thought it would be really cool if there was something like Fitbit but that tracked how I sounded — how I came across during the day.”
Cancro, an engineer by training who spent most of her career in product marketing for tech start-ups, pursued the technology to track vocal metrics. She also landed National Science Foundation funding for research looking into what she calls the “vibes” of how your vocal delivery makes people feel. She and her team created algorithms to predict how humans would perceive the way you sound — boring, energetic, timid or captivating — to incorporate into the design of their product, VoiceVibes.
The pitch, Debra Bond Cancro, founder and chief executive of VoiceVibes: “VoiceVibes is a practice and assessment software tool for public speaking. It enables students or practicing professionals that need to give a speech the ability to practice on their own, audio-record their delivery and receive automated feedback and tips for improvement. VoiceVibes gives users dashboard metrics that tell them specifics at a glance, such as if their pacing was off in certain sections, if they paused too much or used too many ‘ums’ and ‘uhs.’
“Public speaking is our first market so we can get some traction with a very tangible application that people already do — practice for speeches and presentations. Individuals can purchase a subscription to use the service through our website, but we are predominantly working with college and university clients to make it available to their students on a semester basis.
“We piloted our software at Wor-Wic Community College in Salisbury, Md., in 2015. Now, VoiceVibes is included in communications and business courses at colleges and universities across the country including Ohio State, the University of Miami and Stanford Graduate School of Business.
“Our distribution plan is to sell directly to colleges and universities and also distribute through partners including publishing companies and others that have online training curriculums or Web video platforms that could easily incorporate our technology. As we look to distribute our technology through other channels, I’ve read pros and cons about white-labeling for those companies to include our technology in their product. Some people say start-ups should never white-label their products. I’m hoping we can negotiate for partners to include our brand when they include our technology — kind of like ‘Intel Inside’ — but if push came to shove and a potential partner didn’t want to include our logo, how costly is that?”
The advice, Elana Fine, executive director of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland: “It’s great that you’ve been able to get validation on your technology from college and university clients. However, colleges and universities traditionally have a very long sales process and are often very difficult as first verticals for start-ups. Pursue other ways to grow the business through publishing and software companies, like you mentioned, or other private-sector opportunities. Don’t worry so much about white-labeling VoiceVibes. You don’t really need a consumer brand right now.
“Think about what your real value proposition is and the target customers who might be using your technology. Most professionals doing public speaking will be doing so on behalf of their company or organization. This includes CEOs and C-suite executives who present at their own company’s major events, industry conferences or investors relations calls. Big organizations need their top executives to be able to present well. Other potential sales channels for you could be companies with large sales teams who need polished sales pitches. Or consider business incubators or organizations that support startups with entrepreneurs constantly doing pitches.
“If large companies want to use your software and white-label it, there isn’t much of a downside for you. Companies might like to have their ‘own’ platform to have their executives and sales teams use to practice their presentation skills.”
“The way you say things has everything to do with whether people actually hear you and listen, or decide to tune you out.” Debra Bond Cancro, above, founder and chief executive of VoiceVibes