Lingo24 is a company which offers online translation services to a range of clients, including Orange, BP, Bloomberg, RBS and T Mobile.
It was founded In Aberdeen by Christian Arno in 2001, has grown steadily since then, and now employs staff all around the world.
I’ve been talking to Christian about the growth of the company, and the challenges of translating sales and marketing messages for foreign language audiences.
Can you explain what Lingo24 does?
We are a web-focused translation company. Most traditional translation firms did not grasp the potential of the web at the time of the dot-com boom, and also tended to have an academic slant. I saw the opportunity to move this service online.
There is a lot of content on the internet, and websites are not necessarily achieving their full potential because they were limited to an English speaking market. People will generally search and look for content on their own languages, so companies have an opportunity if they cater for these users.
With the majority of online content in the English language, it is more difficult for companies to gain prominence, but there are plenty of opportunities in foreign language markets. Take German for instance, there is a potential market there of 100m German speakers for companies to target.
What kind of clients do you have?
One of our biggest clients is a hotel marketing group, and we translate its content into several different languages.
Orange is another client, it is very specific about its brand and the language it uses, so we work very closely with them on the tone of voice they use to foreign customers.
What are the challenges in translating sales and marketing messages and keeping them relevant?
It’s not just a question of direct translation from one language to another, it becomes much more complicated than that. A lot of marketing plays on culture and common experience that is specific to individual countries or languages, so it can be difficult to adapt to foreign markets.
Even with the same countries, marketing can vary a lot. I live in Edinburgh, and the advertising messages I see are often very different to those meant for a London audience.
When you are looking to target different languages and cultures, there is a lot to think about, even colours can have different associations for instance.
We offer clients different levels of service, from straight translation of documents etc, to a higher level where we work closely with clients to consider the target audience, and completely take apart the marketing message and reconstruct it.
It also helps that our linguists are all based in the company for which marketing messages are intended, so they have that local knowledge of what type of language will work best. Also, we employ people who have experience in the specific sectors clients come from, so they will understand industry terminology.
How many people do you employ now?
We crept over the 100 employee mark recently. We only employ three full time translators, but we have a network of 4,000 around the world that we monitor regularly to maintain quality.
Our Head Office is in Edinburgh, where we employ 10 staff, though the majority of our team (70 people) is based in Romania, which is the hub of our European operations. Romania was a good choice because it is a very multi-lingual country.
We also have four staff in New Zealand, two in China, as well as an office in Panama.
It must be a challenge leading a team that is spread so widely…
It is a real challenge in terms of keeping a community feel amongst the workforce. The main tool we use to keep everyone in touch is a daily newsletter, which lets people know about any key information, policy changes etc.
How did you get the site started in the beginning?
I studied languages at university, and had a year abroad in Italy as part of the course, and saw an opportunity to provide a service online and undercut established translation businesses.
I started a very basic website, and managed to get some business this way. One of my first clients was Fuzzybrush, the Liverpool Tourist Board another. This proved that there was a demand out there for this kind of service.
It was perhaps only one project per month, but enough to persuade my friends and I that there was an opportunity here, so we decided to make the website and service more professional, and charge prices to match this.
How did you fund the business at first?
I worked from my parents house in Aberdeen to keep costs down, but I also got lucky with share dealings while in Italy. I invested £500 of my student loan and managed to turn it into £15,000, which gave me a cushion while I got the business up and running.
I also kept costs low by giving people I worked with a share of the business.
Have you taken any funding at any point?
No, I’ve managed to grow the business gradually, as more clients came on board, and have expanded as and when we have needed to.
You have experienced growth of 30% during the recession – how have you achieved this?
It’s partly a reflection of our continued investment in sales and marketing, and a lot of the growth has come from international markets; the UK now accounts for less than 50% of our business.
We also have a very diversified selection of services, something which has helped us to survive and grow during the recession.
What sectors are spending most on translation?
Gambling companies, especially after the US ban, still had huge marketing budgets, and they immediately looked at growing their businesses in Europe and other markets to make up for the loss of the US market.
What trends have you been seeing recently?
Whereas five years ago companies expected people to speak English to be able to view their websites, I think that there is an increasing recognition of the need to cater to international audiences.
In other European countries, companies would naturally have a website in English as well as their own language, but this was not always the case for the UK.
People should look at translation as a way to open up another sales channel; it allows a business to reach a new market, and it can be much easier to get good search rankings in another language.
What advice would you offer to other online startups?
Think internationally from the start, in terms of buying domain names and marketing websites, this will save a lot of headaches and problems later on.