In a period when clear communication is essential, one growing company led by MIT alumni is working to make it easier. Jason Chicola ’00 is CEO of Rev.com, a speech-to-text service that has become a key resource for many during the Covid-19 pandemic. Today more than 170,000 customers, from universities to Fortune 500 companies, rely on Rev’s combination of artificial and human intelligence to rapidly record and transcribe remote meetings, along with other services such as video captioning. The company recently added a free online library of transcribed Covid-19 news conferences from world leaders, updated constantly, and announced it will provide access to its live captioning integration on the Zoom web conferencing platform free of charge to all K–12 educators through June 30.
Back in 1996, Chicola arrived at MIT—like many undergraduates—with fuzzy ideas about his career path. Once on campus, he gravitated to a computer science major. “I didn’t get a computer until I got to college. I couldn’t afford one in high school. But someone told me all the jobs were going to be in computers,” he says, laughing. He soon added a second major in economics. Studying microeconomics and the labor marketplace, he says, ignited his desire to offer people equal employment opportunities, regardless of geography.
The company where he started his career, Upwork, is now a vast platform for work-from-home jobs. He joined the company as the third employee—“and the first nonengineer,” he says. He focused on building access for workers in far-flung locations separated from robust urban job markets.
“It was the perfect combination of software and economics. Upwork was so exciting because it was a way to accelerate globalization and give people opportunities that they couldn’t otherwise get. It was life-changing for them. This is a social good that matters to me,” he says.
He launched Rev in 2010 with the same goal of creating job opportunities for a remote global workforce. But while those freelance transcribers—called Revvers—use the company’s platform to log in from all over the world to claim and complete assignments, Rev’s beginnings are rooted firmly in Cambridge. Chicola launched the startup with his MIT Kappa Sigma fraternity brothers, recalling an entrepreneurial pact they made during their college days. A decade later he continues to work alongside cofounders David Abrameto SM ’01, ’03 (CFO); Mark C. Chen ’00, ’01, MEng ’01 (VP of product); Paul E. Huck ’00, MEng ’01 (CTO); and Daniel L Kokotov ’00, ’01, MEng ’01 (VP of engineering).
“Our lifelong friendships allowed us to build a company with a different sort of culture, because we don’t have the kind of politics that you’d normally have on a small leadership team. We’ve all been at each other’s weddings. We all know each other’s children. Our relationships are more important than our working relationship,” he says.
These tight-knit relationships have helped the founders navigate some significant bumps in the road. In particular, the company came under public scrutiny in 2019 when a segment of Revvers protested their payment structure and workload. Chicola describes the backlash as transformative. He says that it made him realize that he communicated ineffectively with freelancers, filtering messages through various departments from his CEO perch instead of addressing grievances and changes directly.
“It was humbling,” he says today of the controversy. “We had a bunch of ways we were communicating. We had an online forum, and we sent emails once in a while. But the workforce had grown so much. In the early years, it was a few hundred people. It had become 50,000 people. The social dynamics changed. and we didn’t realize that. We botched the communication. We lost touch. People needed to hear directly from me.”
The workforce had grown so much. In the early years, it was a few hundred people. It had become 50,000 people.
Part of his willingness to acknowledge mistakes originated at MIT, Chicola says, “because MIT is humbling.” He recalls, “You come in and somebody runs circles around you, and then you realize you don’t know everything.”
Chicola addressed the complaints directly on the Rev website, clarifying changes to payment structures. Now he hosts live YouTube conversations with Revvers and centralizes freelancer communications, surveying them monthly for challenges, suggestions, and pressure points. The company also raised customer rates from $1 per minute to $1.25, vowing that Revvers would benefit from the increase. Over time, Rev has also rolled out an AI speech recognition engine to assist freelancers who once had to transcribe from scratch.
“We’ve really turned the dials to become far more of a learning, listening organization,” he says.
Freelancers, of course, are at the heart of the burgeoning and fragile gig economy, which is quickly evolving in the Covid-19 crisis period. Chicola draws a distinction between the current situation of his gig workers and others often profiled in the media, such as rideshare drivers. Revvers can continue their work safely and without interruption by the pandemic, he says, as they work from home without direct contact with clients or coworkers—adding to the job’s appeal.
“We’ve seen the number of people applying to work on Rev triple since the pandemic began. We’ve had to slow our intake of new people because we have to balance how many customers are coming in and how many freelancers are coming in,” he says.
Meanwhile, Rev’s customer base is rapidly shifting. In the past, many in the entertainment industry relied heavily on Rev to transcribe footage, but many of those assignments are now on hiatus. Reporters, however, are clamoring for transcription in droves. Requests from online learning platforms and meetings have also soared.
One thing hasn’t changed: Rev continues to draw heavily from MIT when hiring new employees. To date, 26 percent of its 90 engineers are MIT graduates.
“We recruit there every year, and we’ve been pleased every year with the quality of talent and the intellectual humility of the students. They want to build exciting things and make a difference,” Chicola says.
Are you celebrating the anniversary of your MIT graduation like Jason Chicola and his fellow cofounders from the Class of 2000?
MIT Virtual Tech Reunions, on Saturday, May 30, will feature special online events for reunion-year classes, plus fun and insightful programming for all MIT alumni. Learn more about Virtual Tech Reunions and save the date.