I could have been a translator.
In 2005 I earned an honours degree in French and Spanish – and yet had the deflating knowledge that still wasn’t enough. I researched post graduate diplomas and it was between translation and journalism. Look where I ended up. I know it was the right choice, but on days like today I wonder what might have been.
You see, I’ve just had a long chat with Christian Arno of Lingo24. He started the translation service in an Aberdeen bedroom four years before I graduated – and is hoping to hit the £10m turnover milestone this year. You can understand why I’m wistful…
Christian, though, has an incredible energy and entrepreneurial flair. His success is all the more impressive when he explains his process.
“We started the Panama office because when the US military pulled out they left an amazing infrastructure 30 miles north and south of the canal,” he begins.
“A number of people moved in to create call centres. I realised we had all the talent and opportunity there and were an attractive employer with the benefits we could give.”
The Romania office was the result of a tonne of legwork and messages fired out by Christian himself.
“Dragos replied and I realised it was one of the best places in the world for Lingo24 because of the multilingual people, the technology skills and the process-oriented nature of the people,” he reveals.
Incidentally, Christian does speak a little Romanian after living there for a year, although his own degree, from Oxford University no less, is in French and Italian.
“I spent a year in Pavia and that’s actually where it all started,” he laughs. “It was in the middle of the dotcom boom and I had some time on my hands. I realised the internet was going to require a lot of online content and as far as I could see there were translation companies and tech companies, but none that did both. I put up a pretty basic website and suddenly I had customers.”
The first ten years were fairly fluid in terms of plan – where there were opportunities, he grabbed them. Lingo24 gathered clients like MTV, opened an offices all over the world ( including Cebu, Philippines, Nuremberg, Germany and London) and won several awards. Then Christian went on a stag do.
“That was a funny one,” he starts, laughing at the memory. “I met a guy on the stag do who worked for Wood McKenzie and knew [CEO] Paul Gregory. We got on well so he introduced me and initially I just asked Paul for advice, I didn’t expect him to invest!”
Lingo24 had already started to plan to strengthen the management team and was looking into investment options, but Paul was by far the preferred individual. He joined the board as chairman.
“To have someone who has grown a business and can share their advice is just invaluable,” Christian said. “It gives us the platform to win big engagements too.”
Every company owner I interview talks about the importance of the right staff as you scale, and Christian is no different. I was interested to know how the added complication of multiple languages plays.
“Well, the common language is English, but we work hard to keep the team engaged,” he says.
“We have the “Weekly Banter” email, a Skype chatter and a cultural experience group which organises events. We also use Officevibe which is an amazing tool which surveys the staff in a fun way – it’s also anonymous so lingo-ists can give their views freely and we can monitor how things are going.
Lingo24 has developed several software tools, like Coach – a computer aided translation tool and an API giving customers direct access to translators and machine translation engines. Extensions Magento and Demandware allow platform to platform integration and one click translation ordering. Despite all this, it’s still all about the people, and Christian worries about the future talent coming through.
“I feel very strongly about languages in education,” he says. “Language graduates get paid more, no matter what career they choose – that research has been done by Oxford University. This attitude that everyone speaks English and therefore foreign languages don’t matter is just not right.”
The future is bright for Lingo24; offices in Switzerland and Chicago are on the cards and they’ve just opened in the Netherlands.
If this has all piqued your interest and you’re wondering which languages are worth learning – yes Chinese is important, but the majority of Lingo24’s work is in the European languages. German, French and Spanish are still the most important for UK businesses.
Maybe I have a chance to pursue my alternate path after all…