Losing her job as a traffic manager and radio host at a Spanish radio station in Miami led Tania Zapata and her husband Alex Torrenegra to the perfect idea for a new business.
The year was 2001, and Zapata spent two frustrating years looking unsuccessfully for voice-talent opportunities. Unable to find a permanent job in the field, she started working as a receptionist at a hotel.
“It was really hard to get jobs,” said Zapata recalling with frustration the difficulty of that episode. “I went to a talent agency. They got a lot of money from me and it didn’t go anywhere.”
But together, Torrenegra, 34, and Zapata, 38, came up with the idea of starting their own online voice-talent agency. They created a faster and more accessible way for voice-talent professionals to get discovered for movies, commercials, radio and more.
They started building the platform for their business as a side project, and officially launched it under the name Voice123.com in June 2003. Torrenegra said by the end of the year they had made $10,000 in transactions, employing not only Zapata’s talent but hundreds of other voice-over professionals.
Remember Buzz Lightyear speaking in Spanish in Toy Story 3? Javier Fernández-Peña, a voice-talent professional from Spain, found this job through Voice123.com.
Zapata and Torrenegra also launched a sister company, VoiceBunny.com, in 2012, which is focused on the production of voice-overs.
Currently they have a team of 20 employees and about 100,000 voice-over talents on their platform operating in nearly 50 languages. Their clients include companies like Pixar, Rosetta Stone, AT&T, among others.
According to Torrenegra, Voice123.com reached $17 million dollars in transactions in 2011. He expects that along with VoiceBunny.com, both companies could reach $20 million dollars in combined transactions by the end of this year.
But the road to success had its challenges.
As Torrenegra and Zapata started to be successful, they received hate mail and negative comments in online forums.
They thought “some people hated [them] just for being Latinos,” recalls Torrenegra who said they even had to ask some of their Latino employees to use Americanized names so people wouldn’t think they had many Latinos in the team.
“We thought that we were doing something really wrong and blamed ourselves,” said Torrenegra. “We thought we were making mistakes because we were immigrants that didn’t understand how the system works.”
According to Torrenegra and Zapata, it wasn’t until years later that they realized that people hated them not because they were doing something wrong, but because they were changing the way the industry works, and they were making it more efficient.
Torrenegra and Zapata still remember the humble beginnings of their lives in the United States.
Zapata arrived in 1994 as a permanent resident in Miami. She worked in her aunt's business, a distributor of compact and laser discs, and later as a sales associate at Burdines, a department store in Florida.
Torrenegra arrived in 1998 as a tourist to Marlborough, a little town in Massachusetts where he worked in entry-level positions at McDonalds, Starbucks and Filenes.
Zapata and Torrenegra married in October 2001 and now they are based in New York.
Today, besides running their companies the Colombian couple is involved in other side projects. For the past four years, Zapata has been working on a documentary about a group of volunteers from Engineers Without Borders, who are creating a water-supply system for a hospital in Kenya.
Torrenegra actively promotes entrepreneurship and is a mentor for multiple Internet start-ups in the United States and Colombia. In July 2012 he received the TR35 Colombia-Innovator of the Year Award, a prize that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology gives to outstanding entrepreneurs and innovators under 35.
Based on their experience, they advise Latino entrepreneurs to get rid of the stigma of thinking of themselves as “second-class citizens of the world” and to start dreaming big.
“For the past five years new businesses have been founded by immigrants,” said Zapata. “We are a very important economic force in this country and we should be proud of it.”
Mariana Cristancho-Ahn is a journalist, entrepreneur, and co-founder ContentOle.com.