At Home and at a Distance: An Interview with Jason Chicola of Rev

Blending, in education circles, is typically a way of mixing face-to-face and tech-mediated approaches to communication, creativity, collaboration, teaching, and most of all, learning.   More broadly, Reshan and I see it as descriptive and provocative — a way to lead and live so as to to constantly blend perspectives, people, tools, services, networks, and other organizational DNA.  We wrote about such practice in our book, Blending Leadership, and in this interview series, which we’ll slowly release through our blogs and other channels, we dive deeply into the stories of the people who played either direct or indirect roles in the construction of our ideas.  Part of our goal here is to reach out to influential people — people who helped shape our thinking, who built the tools that have helped our ideas come to life. We want to share their work, their beliefs, their practices, and their aspirations, since they might help to shake something loose in your thinking or practice.  Another part of our goal, as long-time school leaders, is also to help others, outside of school, learn from schools, which, at their best, are utterly human, utterly keyed into learning, themselves a blend of art and science, left brain and right brain, physical space and digital space, school and the world.  We hope you enjoy the conversation and perhaps join in someday.

In this interview, we speak with Jason Chicola, Founder of Rev, the blazing fast transcription, caption, subtitle, and translation service.

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Steve & Reshan: We found Rev by reading an interview with Shane Snow, an author we really like. He was asked about the tools that make writing possible for him.  He’s a really busy guy — runs a company, writes books and journalism, speaks at a ton of events . . .  He mentioned Rev as one of his indispensible tools.  So that was how we found the service, and we would love to know how you founded it. Where did Rev start for you?

Jason:  I came at the market — a place for all your transcription needs — in a roundabout manner.  It started with a question: how do we create jobs where people will work from home? There are many labor marketplaces out there.  There are marketplaces for companies that will come and do your laundry, they’ll come to clean your house, deliver food to you, cook food in your home.  I think there’s a lot of opportunity in all these categories, changing the landscape of services. But the kind of services that I’ve been focused on in most of my career are services that can be done at home and delivered at a distance, which is different. You can’t cook food or drive somebody from a distance, but you can offer knowledge-work-type services.

In 2004, I met up with the founder of a company that was then called oDesk and is now called Upwork.  I was the third employee there, the first non-engineer.  I had the opportunity to learn all kinds of things about how to build an internet startup.  oDesk is like eBay for work.  It’s a website where you can hire people from around the world to work on your behalf, and it’s pretty flexible and horizontal.  By that I mean, you can hire someone to do nearly anything that can be done at a computer.  You can hire someone to program, to write software, and you might hire that person from India or Russia, where there’s a lot of talent.  You might ask someone in the Philippines to do data entry.  You might hire someone in the Midwest to do customer support.  You might hire someone in Indonesia to do graphic design.

If you ever talk with somebody that has a career because of oDesk, they’ll say, “this changed my life.  I lived in a country where I don’t have great opportunities.  Now I can be my own boss.  I get to wake up in the morning and decide, do I want to work today or not.  I get to pick the kinds of work that I do.  I can earn what I deserve.”

Plus, there’s a free market.  People can set their rates as high or low as they want, but if they set it too high, no one will hire them.  If they do good work, though, they can increase their rate over time.  So when we started oDesk, a typical Russian programmer earned 2$ an hour.  Now, the top Russian programmers are probably earning more than 30$ an hour, which might not be a high rate if you were in Manhattan, but if you live in Russia, that’s an attractive rate.

I was blown away by the opportunity for remote labor, for the internet to serve the world’s flat workforce and bring people together.  If you’re building something in New York City, you shouldn’t be limited to people that are in Midtown.

If you work in a knowledge work capacity, it’s increasingly important for you to be looking into software that makes you productive, connects you to the people that need your kind of service, and gives you control over who you work for.  This is especially true if you live in a small town.  If you live in Des Moines, Iowa, do you want to only have the opportunity to work with clients in Des Moines, Iowa?

[oDesk merged with its competitor, Elance, and re-branded as Upwork, Upwork.com.]

I started Rev with the knowledge that oDesk, now Upwork, is an incredible company, and that people all over the world want to work from home.  But we also had a slightly different idea: people who pay for services want curated talent — to guarantee quality.  They don’t want to take a risk on quality.

The thought was, let’s build a work-from-home platform, where we can guarantee customers are delighted every time.  Where we give customers exactly what they want, and where we as a platform can stand by that quality.  We started with a firm concept and with the knowledge that people all over the world want to work.  We then asked a question: what kinds of services exist where we can guarantee quality?

We realized we wanted to find services where the measurement of quality was objective.  The assessment of what proper English is, is reasonably universal. Yeah there’s dialect, sure there are differences, but the standard of English, of what goes in newspapers, is pretty common.

We actually tried two services in the first year of the company.  We tried document translation and audio transcription.  Both did well, but audio transcription did even better for a number of reasons, not least of which is because its quality was objective.

The third service that we’ve offered at that scale is our closed captioning of videos.  If you made a movie, and you wanted that movie to play in movie theaters or on TV, or if you wanted to post it on Netflix or Amazon, you had to have that movie captioned.  Somebody had to watch the movie, type the words, time them against the video, along with some other nuances . . . and we offer that service as well.  You can think of it as a close cousin of transcription.

I would say we stumbled onto our path based on our search to find ways to create work-from-home jobs, where the customers were delighted in terms of quality.  What we learned along the way was that, for these kinds of services, customers want: better, faster, and cheaper.  That’s mostly what mattered.  There’s a bunch of other things that we could provide and will provide over time, but if the quality is not good, if the speed is not fast, or if the price is not right, no one is going to get to first base.

We spend 90% of our time not with our customers, but with freelancers, trying to create a great place for them to work, which means first and foremost building tools and software to make them productive as they do the work.  Rev is kind of like a black box to you, the customer.  You put audio in and you get a transcript back.  Behind the scenes, we build software to ensure the process; we build all the things for the freelancers to make their jobs rich, rewarding, and efficient.  It’s a two-way marketplace.

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Steve & Reshan:  The very first thing we noticed about Rev was that it was very easy to join. It has a graceful, minimalistic signup page and absolutely no nonsense in terms of pricing and getting started with the product.  The second thing we noticed, over our first year with the service, is that Rev keeps getting better in terms of transcript turnaround time.  It has become an important part of our workflow, almost like a game we play, where we dictate our ideas quickly, forget about them for the rest of the day, and then open email in the morning and find them all typed up and ready for editing.  For people who traffic in words, Rev keep us on a very productive cycle.

Jason:  I’m delighted that you’ve noticed that.  It’s not an accident.  We work hard to make that happen, and the good news is that it’s going to keep happening.  Specifically, turnaround is going to keep getting faster, and the quality is going to improve.  As for the improvements that you observed, today we have 4,300 people working actively each month on our site. As we grow that number, we get faster, because we have people working around the clock. There are people working 24/7.  When we were smaller, there might only be 2 people online at 3 in the morning. Now, there are a lot of people working at 3 in the morning, because maybe it’s 3 in the morning, or maybe they’re working from Australia.

On simplicity, there are markets where it’s understood that you need to make the user experience good.  You should make your product or service easy to use.  There’s a certain playbook around software usability that anyone who does usability work probably knows . . .  most types of services in the world, most companies that are low-tech, haven’t applied that playbook yet.  Before we got to the market, if you wanted something transcribed, you would find a website that first of all did not show a price.  It would say, “click here to request a quote.”  That approach has a lot of problems for the user.  It means you have to wait a couple hours to get a price.  It makes you think, “do I want to do this or not?”  The pricing formulas were always opaque and complicated.  On the backend, they were probably asking about the number of speakers or the topic to figure out whether the price should be higher or lower. That’s an unnecessary burden on the consumer.  We wanted our interface to be very simple.

If you go to our homepage Rev.com and you look above the fold, you’ll see our prices.  There’s an entire price menu right there.  You never have to call over the phone or email about a price.  It’s that simple. There are no actions.  Are there some customers where we could charge a little bit more? Sure there are. But, I think we benefit far more from making it so easy for everybody, and eliminating those unnecessary actions where somebody is emailing back and forth, talking to one of our reps, trying to figure out a price.

This makes everything faster.  It allows us to refine our quality because our quality control systems rely on certain data points.  If you want to know which baseball player is good, you look at their batting average.  We have internally what I would characterize as a moneyball-type system.  We have a baseball card on each freelancer, and we share it with him or her. If a metric is low, we share that and they work on it.  Were looking for a lot of ways to save time. Quality is more subtle, it’s harder to measure as clearly as we’d like. Turnaround is extremely cut and dry.  Last year, we worked in 12 hour cycles; now it’s 6 hours.

The reason we call the company Rev, Rev.com, is because we duplicate a rev. Think speed, rev your engines.  Part of our brand promise is that we will always get faster.

Steve & Reshan:  Who is your ideal client?

Jason:  Our ideal client is someone that has needs that we can meet fully and knock out of the park.  If we can really meet their needs so that they want to keep coming back, we think that’s a great customer.  We have an extremely simple set of priorities, and the number 1 priority we have internally is to increase repeat usage.

If a customer doesn’t come back, why didn’t they come back? If they come back a lot, why did they come back a lot, and how can we do more of whatever it was that they liked?  We’re obsessed with repeat usage.  Were a bunch of number junkies running around with Excel figuring out who’s using Rev a lot, why they’re using Rev a lot.  We talk to them and we try to make that usage go up.

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