13 Dec Users help software company morph in new directions
Madison, Wis. – Mark Ramirez has little need for market research, especially when he pays attention to his client base.
When your user base is part of the creative class, and your product – which goes by the brand name MorphVOX – can turn a soft voice into a baritone, end-users find applications that even the proprietor hadn’t considered.
Ramirez, CEO of Screaming Bee, LLC, has paid attention to the roughly 30,000 consumers that have ordered the company’s voice-changing software, and the result is a next-generation product that is taking the company in new directions.
“It opened up new areas, so we came up with a plan to split MorphVOX into two separate lines,” he said.
According to customers, the adaptability of this software is an example of how the Internet is increasingly putting them in charge.
Voice-changing software is made possible by technological features like voice-altering algorithms, built-in voice analysis, and a voice-changing engine that may enable an additional revenue stream for Screaming Bee.
The evolution of MorphVOX into MorphVOX Pro, which is both an extension of the original MorphVOX and available as a separate product, was driven by multimedia needs.
Its original focus was to provide voice-changing tools for online games or chat programs, either for fun or role playing. Online gamers that played a character that was a dwarf or a troll or a member of the opposite sex could change their voice to match that character.
But consumers found a variety of uses for the software. Audio-visual professionals employed it for voiceovers in movies, animation, and podcasting. Dee jays wanted to change their voice during live performances. Publishers of educational audio books found it a creative way to reach children, and employers began to use it for sales and marketing training.
The client list does not feature Hollywood animators, but it does include a number of people that create online animation. Most of them are consumers looking for an affordable solution – both products can be downloaded for under $50 – which is one of the reasons Ramirez decided to continue to make the original version available at a price point that appeals to online gamers.
Ramirez, a former software engineer for Sonic Foundry, marvels at some of the creative license taken by clients.
“This one guy was basically a marketing manager for this company, and he would give audio seminars to employees, and he thought he had a real boring voice,” Ramirez explained. “So he used MorphVOX to change his voice into something a little bit more interesting. He said people like it so much that they listen to him now.”
David Rabin of Highland Park, Ill. isn’t sure that consumers have a direct impact on product development, but he agreed that MorphVOX an example of how the Internet empowers consumers. Rabin bought MorphVOX to create new voices for the characters in his brother’s annual Halloween show, which features animation, lights, and sound. He appreciates the ability to download additional voices for free, the sliding scale that allows him to change the pitch of voices, and the ability to download a demo to evaluate the interface.
He found it as the result of a Google search. “Without the Internet, I would not have been able to download all of the extra voices that they let you download and plop into the program,” Rabin said. “A place like CompUSA isn’t going to have a box with this product on the shelf. I don’t think it’s got a big enough market.”
Engine of growth
The market for Screaming Bee, a company founded in August of 2005 that still has less than 10 employees, might be changing.
In addition to the multimedia space, the company has opportunities to add licensing for its voice-changing engine. It has taken advantage of customer interest in using the engine as a library that people can put into third-party programs.
Basically, they take the most modern capabilities in MorphVOX and plug them into another product. “One thing we found is that people would say, `Is there any way of integrating this technology outside of your program, basically taking the engine that runs MorphVOX and putting it into an online game? Ramirez said. “Either integrate it into there, or put it into an audio system like a Voice over IP system, and that’s possible.”
During the recent Austin Game Conference, a number of large gaming and video companies expressed an interest in working with Screaming Bee, and several deals are under consideration.
The company also would like to expand into retail markets outside of direct online sales.
It likely will finance growth by continuing to “bootstrap” and market organically, but venture dollars always are a temptation. “I think we could grow faster if we had more money, sure, but then you also lose a little bit of control and independence,” Ramirez said, characterizing venture capital as a double-edged sword.
A native of Moorhead, Minn. who attended the University of North Dakota and graduate school at the the University of Minnesota, Ramirez came to Madison in 2000 after landing a job at Sonic Foundry. He was a software engineer on a number of audio tools, including ACID, Vegas, and Sound Forge, and stayed on for awhile after the company was acquired by Sony Digital Networks Division.
He moved on to DNASTAR for a couple of years, and started Screaming Bee with Shawn Pourchot, now company president, after developing some prototypes for voice-changing software. He did not launch the business in Madison because the city has dipped its toes in the electronic gaming waters, but because he grew fond of the city.
“We could open this business anywhere geographically, and now we’re pretty much direct online, so it wouldn’t really matter in terms of the industry,” Ramirez explained. “Realistically, if you want to do the gaming stuff, you would go down to Silicon Valley, or Los Angeles, or Austin, Texas. That’s where the big gaming hubs are.
“We’re here because we like it here.”
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