Business News Wales has been talking to Ben Dobson, VoiceBox‘s Sales and Marketing Manager. VoiceBox is an award-winning tech start-up in the video and audio content market. Ben talks to us about his plans for the next five years, he also gives his thoughts on the effect of Brexit and what Wales can do to attract more inward investment.
Can you give our readers a little background into yourself and your role within VoiceBox?
I’m Ben Dobson, Sales and Marketing Manager at VoiceBox. We are an award-winning tech start-up that localises video and audio content for diﬀerent markets.
As is the case for most managers of start-ups, my day-to-day activities involve undertaking many responsibilities which, though not strictly in the job description, provide great variety and little opportunity to be ‘bored at work’. I’m fortunate to have a role that covers everything from international exhibitions and new client sales to overseeing all marketing activities whilst playing an active role in our technology adoption.
With every day bringing new challenges and opportunities, the role is perfect for me as I enjoy the autonomy and creative process that goes into building a brand and a successful team.
Before becoming involved in the VoiceBox project in 2015, I was fortunate to have gained experience across all aspects of digital marketing: from web development and eCommerce to video and social media marketing. What’s more, perhaps critically, I have previous experience in start-up ventures of my own. I feel it’s these experiences – boot-strapping and growth hacking – with an entrepreneurial spirit that has made me such a good fit for VoiceBox and vice versa.
What are your plans for the next five years, and where do you see your challenges and opportunities?
In a start-up, five year plans can seem a luxurious concept. For VoiceBox, ambitious six month targets are what motivates us day-to-day. As a tech company that needs to stay agile, trying to shoehorn strict long-term milestones can prove restrictive for opportunities which may arise along the way.
One of the immediate challenges we face is recruiting the right team to capitalise on emerging global opportunities. Given the nature of our business – localisation – we have clients from around the world that operate in diﬀerent time zones. As this client base proliferates, it’s important for us to establish international account managers and project managers. In China, for example, the aggressive growth of the Chinese Super League has seen some of Europe’s top players lured to clubs by the record-breaking wages on oﬀer. We see this activity, and the subsequent growth of Chinese football, as a huge opportunity to sell our localisation services; so putting an international VoiceBox team in place is an important part of the puzzle.
Another recruitment based challenge for us is retaining our company culture. Our current team, with an average age of just 23, is naturally one which embraces change without the inhibitions and inertia that can sometimes creep into more mature organisations. I’m conscious that how we introduce key personnel, that continue to push the company forward whilst retaining the agility of our start-up mentality, is a delicate balance.
In terms of our business model, as is true of all companies in the tech-sector, the impending ‘rise of the machines’ is something that we’re mindful of. Automated subtitles and translations, albeit quite crude versions, are readily available in the smartphones in our pockets so it’s vital that we embrace automation, innovations and streamlining as they emerge to stay ahead of the pack.
Looking back at your career, are there things you would have done diﬀerently?
It’s diﬃcult not to give a clichéd answer here as every career step has brought me to where I’m at now – building a brand in an industry that excites me.
Although it’s tempting to airbrush certain aspects of a career, in hindsight, if faced with the same career choices, I would invariably make the same decisions again but probably with more aplomb than in the first place. I’ve learned that, in business as in life, you must have confidence in yourself and what you believe in without being ‘watered down’ by the limitations others may have.
What do you think are the most important qualities for success in business?
Confidence is essential, particularly in a leadership role. If you don't believe in yourself and what you’re doing then you’re going to project that to those around you and become really ineﬀective.
I’m also a big believer that, in an increasingly millennial dominated world, stoicism and resilience are key qualities. There are going to be mistakes – big ones – along the way but this is where the opportunity to learn comes from.
Also, as I work in Swansea, to coin a phrase from Dylan Thomas: ‘ambition is critical’. It’s essential to keep looking forward to the next opportunity – pushing yourself and your company forward – rather than settling for your lot in life.
What are your top three tips for success?
- It’s important to put yourself in positions where you’re going to continue to learn. The quote ‘if you are the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room’ really resonates with me. To be successful, you should always aim to work with those who will help you develop and not plateau or even regress.
- Critical thinking and the ability to adapt can’t be overstated. I’m a big fan of the ‘red teaming’ concept – testing the eﬀectiveness of every aspect of a business model. Ultimately, if you’re not scrutinising and questioning your day-to-day processes, you can be sure that your competion will be.
- Finally, from an individual perspective, emphasise your strengths and don’t spend too much time trying to ‘fix’ your weaknesses. Although it would be brilliant to be the absolute best at everything, the truth is that we all have the things which we excel at and the things which we’re pretty horrendous at. Success comes around a lot quicker if you put yourself in positions where you are be able to shine a spotlight on your strengths.
Are there any innovations within your sector that you believe should be adopted by the wider Welsh market?
In a word: Subtitles.
In an era where video content is becoming as essential to a business as a website, subtitles are a great way to localise video content for diﬀerent markets. What’s more, as all social media videos are muted by default, subtitles increase video engagement and also fulfil corporate social responsibility by making the content accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing. And, for the SEO gurus out there, closed caption subtitles oﬀer an innovative way to optimise video content for search.
I can’t stress enough what a dynamic, cost eﬀective, product subtitles are; particularly so in Wales where bilingualism is part of our culture. Whether you’re in an independent business with just one product demonstration video or a multinational content production juggernaut, subtitles will increase your video content’s engagement ahead of your competion.
Do you foresee any issues that Welsh business will be facing in the short/medium/long term?
It’s diﬃcult to answer this question without becoming too Brexit focused so I’ll jump to the next question, if that’s alright.
Do you have any predictions in regards to the impact of Brexit on your sector?
Having recently taken part in BBC 5 Live’s election debate in Cardiﬀ, the Brexit factor is still an ominous cloud of indecision. No matter which side of the vote you were on, I think everyone’s keen for a swift resolution and the much promised ‘good deal’.
From our company’s perspective, EU funding has been a key component of our growth. We’ve benefited immensely from the Overseas Development Fund, a joint Welsh Assembly Government and European Union initiative. Chiefly used for grants towards attending international exhibitions, it has enabled us to secure the much coveted international trade that’s helped to create jobs and boost our local economy. In the past 12 months, we’ve successfully travelled across North America and Europe developing our international client base. It’s disappointing to think that, post-Brexit, other start-ups like ours won’t have the same opportunities to grow rapidly and attract global clients to Wales.
In terms of the composition of our team, I can only speak positively of how we’ve benefited from open EU borders which have allowed skilled linguists from across the continent to enter the UK and join our team. As a company, we oﬀer our services across 200 languages so having multilingual capabilities internally provides a day-to-day benefit which, at best, is likely to be a much more elongated process post Brexit.
Though the implications of Brexit will be wide ranging for many sectors, for the localisation industry and our business specifically the departure from the EU seems more overt. Especially as our co-founder, Anna Bastek – a Polish entrepreneur, has helped to create over forty jobs in the South Wales region over the past 11 years.
However, despite the uncertainty ahead, I’m confident that VoiceBox and the localisation sector as a whole will adapt and thrive no matter what the outcome of our Brexit deal.
What do you think Wales’ strengths and weaknesses are as a place to do business?
One of the things that makes Wales a great place to do business is that it oﬀers a chance to get the work-life balance right. For many of us in South Wales, we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to escaping our city centres with the Gower Peninsula, Brecon Beacons and Pembrokeshire being on our doorstep.
Increasingly, friends of mine, who have worked in London since graduating, are now relocating back to South Wales because of the balanced lifestyle it oﬀers. Particularly so for those who have young families.
Another exciting aspect is that Wales seems to be in a period of redefining itself. The booming creative sector and its success, such as BBC Wales’ productions, has made Cardiﬀ synonymous with arts and quality production. This has seen skilled creative sector jobs and independent agencies sprouting up across the region.
Similarly, Swansea is establishing itself as one of the UK’s go-to places for tech-startups and, with the recent commitment of the £1.3 billion Swansea Bay City Deal to make Swansea the ‘Internet Coast’, this evolution is set to continue. That’s not to forget the proposed Swansea Tidal Lagoon, the world’s first, which would bring a host of commercial revenue opportunities in addition to environmental benefits to the city.
However, despite these positives, a lot of Wales’ potential is hampered by our public transport. As London looks forward to the Crossrail high speed railway, everyone west of the border is still making do with a railway infrastructure that was past its sell by date at the end of the last century. This has to be addressed as a matter of priority as it undermines all of the positive developments that are taking place.
What can Wales do to attract more inward investment?
I think it’s a balance between providing a skilled workforce, through our University and vocational training courses, and oﬀering favourable incentives to companies. Though it’s come in for some notable scrutiny, the Aston Martin plant at St Athan has created 750 jobs and is going to benefit the local economy immensely.
Sticking with automobile theme, partnerships such as that between Swansea University and Rolls Royce – to develop and research cuttng edge aerospace developments – is going to have a residual eﬀect that Wales, and prospective investors, will benefit from for years.
What skills should the education system be promoting to the next generation?
My answer to this question has two facets which can seem contradictory but I feel underlines the need for balance in how, and why, we embrace technology.
Firstly, as has been the case for many years, a lot of the jobs which are around today simply didn’t exist when the majority of us were in school. As the digitalisation of our industries continues to gather speed, it’s vital that the education system gives opportunities for young people to acquire skills – such as coding – to thrive in their adult life.
Tech incubators, like Swansea’s TechHub, are providing would be tech-entrepreneurs with a great platgorm to get started. However, at present, there’s a big disparity with the skill level of local based iOS and Android developers compared with the skill set in emerging markets like India, so there’s a huge opportunity for our young people to meet this need.
Although I’m passionate for embracing technology, there also has to be a purpose and a balance.
We often talk, with great excitement, about ‘disruptive technology’. As crude examples, look at BlockBuster Video’s nemesis Netflix or Napster for the music industry. However, the disruption that technology has brought hasn’t been limited to business models, it’s crept into our everyday lives.
In an age where Donald Trump is president, the term ‘fake news’ is now, often comically, part of our everyday lexicon, what the elections and referendums have taught us is that people are having quasi-facts impact upon their decision making.
So a ‘skill’, if you can call it that, is for our education system to plug the gaps in young people’s lives which we once took for granted. Much in the same way that extra funds have been allocated to target child obesity by gettng children physically active through PE and after school clubs, I feel that we need to promote community and current aﬀairs awareness to avoid social and political apathy. It could be through something as simple as watching a weekly highlight reel of ‘mainstream news’ as a class and then encouraging debate and discussion.
As well as allowing young people to remove themselves from the confines of their tailored social media timelines, encouraging discussion and debates will also serve to provide them with ‘real life’ social skills that don’t require an emoji or a ‘like’.
I hope that’s not too much of a soapbox answer.