Living abroad has taught me that while Google Translate may work for the basics, sometimes it might leave you with a waiter wondering why you have ordered a ladies dress on the side of your salad. Or worse, with a cultural miscommunication that hampers your personal or business relationship.
Enter Smartling, a software and language translation services company, solving a major problem in global commerce. To enter new global markets, companies must not only translate words but localize for culture. So, if Tinder enters the Japanese market for the first time, its marketing collateral and application all need to be culturally relevant for that market to breed adoption.
Smartling, located in NYC, was founded in 2009 and founder Jack Welde has built tech since college: his senior project was co-creating one of the earliest personal information managers, which was eventually sold to Apple in 1993. Welde, a combat-decorated Air Force pilot, also served in the armed forces for 10 years, including a stint living in Germany.
Books with covers in colors of flags of Europe countries, laptop and globe on a table in a modern interior Source page for the map texture: http://visibleearth.nasa.gov/view.php?id=57730
Mary Juetten: What problem are you solving?
Jack Welde: To enter new global markets, companies must not only translate words but localize for culture. We not only supply high-quality translators to translate and localize content but, provide a platform to do so. Our platform leverages machine learning, machine translation and powerful workflows to optimize the translation process.
Juetten: Who are your customers and how do you find them?
Welde: Our customers are B2B and B2C brands that are looking to reach more customers by localizing their products and services to other countries and include InterContinental Hotels Group, GoPro, Shopify, Slack and SurveyMonkey.
Juetten: How did past projects and/or experience help with this new project?
Welde: I grew up in a military family and we moved all over the world. I then went into the service myself for 10 years, and was deployed for about 180 days every single year of my military career. I had the chance to work all over Europe, Central and South America. One thing that became abundantly clear to me from living and working in all of these places is that language and culture are inseparable. People want to buy products and services in their native languages, even if they have a working familiarity with English. Without the right language, great products and services and key information becomes essentially unavailable to large parts of the world.
I learned this powerful lesson as a result of my first company, which I co-founded with some friends in college in the early 90s. We developed one of the first Personal Information Managers, and we sold the company to Apple. Well, the first thing that Apple did when they bought our solution was internationalize the entire platform, and just a few months after the English version shipped, a Japanese version shipped, too. That’s something I’ve never forgotten.
Juetten: Who is on your team?
- Frank Miele, VP of Finance
- Ani Obermeier, VP of Marketing
- Brian O’Reilly, VP of Sales
- Kunal Sarda, VP of Customer Success
- Andrew Saxe, VP of Product
- Max Sogin, VP of Technology
Juetten: Did you raise money?
Welde: Yes, we raised about $60 million over a series of funding rounds. What’s interesting to recognize is that the company was founded back in 2009, just following the stock market crash of ‘08. This was both a time of uncertainty, and a very different market from where we are today. Today, a brand new startup can go out to raise “seed funding” and wind up with $10 million. But back when we were starting out, it was not so easy. There was not a huge amount of capital available, due to the macro-economic concerns. In fact, I did quite a bit of the very early software development myself and initially funded the business with my own money to hire other developers to help scale out the platform.
Over the company’s history, we raised money very carefully, and at every stage we set specific goals we wanted for the business. For example, initially we set a goal of just five customers paying us $2,000 a month. We managed to hit that goal, and heard great feedback from these customers that their business was growing in ways that wouldn’t have been possible without Smartling, which put us in a good position to raise our Series A round.
Juetten: Startups are an adventure — what’s your favorite startup story?
Welde: There was one very important client we had been working with that hired a new expert to spearhead their internationalization efforts. Understandably, this new member of the client’s team had big plans about what needed to be accomplished, and needed to know if Smartling was up to the task. It had been difficult to align our schedules to sit down and discuss the path forward.
The client had a packed schedule of many meetings, including a planned trip to Tokyo for an industry conference, it was becoming near impossible to sit down for a productive discussion. Well, upon learning that this client and his team would be flying out to Japan, I recognized the opportunity for our paths to cross. This exact conference was already on my radar, and it seemed like a great chance for us to get together. I went ahead and booked a flight and purchased tickets for the conference on the spot. Two days later I was on an airplane to Tokyo.
I landed, had a breakfast beer with a prospect, and then went off to meet the client. We had a successful and productive lunch meeting to iron out the details of how Smartling can fit into their rapidly scaling business demand.
All in all, I spent 18 hours in the sky, 12 hours on the ground, and then 18 hours flying back, but was worth it. I solidified the relationship with this client which led to a long-term and prosperous business relationship.
Juetten: How do you measure success and what is your favorite success story?
Welde: I know that this company thrives when we get three things right: closing sales, delighting customers, and shipping great products. It’s really just that simple.
A good example of this was with our very first customer. Their own service had global customers, but a platform that was built in English from the ground up. Their developers saw translation and localization of the platform as a huge roadblock, estimating it would take at least 18 months to get up and running — even before they hired their first localization expert. Well, when we met to discuss Smartling, we felt confident that we could get their website up and running in as many languages as they needed in as little as four weeks, fully localized.
Sure enough, four weeks after launch we delivered their entire website, including the customer experience, in the two complete languages, and they started generating revenue in those countries. They were blown away, and over the next eight months they launch another 20 languages to the project. Since it was a new product, we were hustling to add the features this customer (and others) wanted, we were closing early deals, and we were obsessed with delighting customers.
Juetten: Any tips to add for early-stage founders?
Welde: Manage your headspace and manage your emotions. There will always be ups and downs throughout the entire process, and you will hear a lot of “no’s,” both from prospects and investors. It should be expected. After all, startups that successfully manage to raise venture capital funding must be doing something that’s new and different from what everyone else has done before. Maybe you have a new spin on a problem or a new way to tackle the technology, but at first a lot of people might not get it, they might not trust it, or they just won’t understand it. A big part of leading a startup is being able to keep your cool and lead with a clear head. There will be a lot of high highs and low lows, but leaders need to keep their emotions in balance.
Juetten: And of course, any IP horror stories to share (they can be anonymous)?
Welde: You bet! As with any startup and growth company, IP infringement happens. One time we came up with a marketing slogan and decided to run with it. We didn’t realize a competitor had used the slogan a long time ago, so we had to change direction after they pointed it out. This forced us back to the drawing board, which we put on hold for a few years. And I’m glad we did, because what we came up with is something far more expressive: Move the World with Words. It represents everything we do and stand for as a company and the driving force behind global commerce.
Juetten: What’s the long-term vision for your company?
Welde: We started this business with the idea that one company can help other brands —those that have great products, services and ideas — make sure those solutions are not locked up in an English speaking world. We truly wanted to make the world a little smaller.
We recognized that an important convergence of technology and content was beginning to emerge. We now all have a computer in our pocket, internet access is available for everyone, and practically every service has moved over to the cloud. Now we didn’t see it this prophetically, but we knew that this upcoming boom of technology and accessibility meant that language would become even more important to consumers. We realized that we can bring people around the world a little closer together. This thesis has remained unchanged and continues today.
Looking forward, we recognize that there have been, and will continue to be, serious advances in machine translation and machine learning, with the roles of human translators and project managers shifting as well. Businesses now have a real hunger for data — and not just simple data that says “we paid this much to enter a new market,” but rather the data that brands can use to uncover the true value of that new market. We can already provide insights like “what are the costs of translation? How fast was it done, and was it done on time? Was it an improvement from before, and more efficient than last year? What was the quality like?”
But perhaps more importantly, we want to provide brands with the deep insights they need to push their business, and content, in new ways to move the world with words. We are a data- and technology-enabled services company. Now that’s a mouthful, but what we mean is that we can provide organizations with the insight to recognize “is this good for my company and business? Did it help me increase global revenue, profits, margins, downloads, web traffic, and customer satisfaction?” We think that’s pretty exciting.
Juetten: Can you also provide a few tips for founders?
- I am a big believer of “good today, perfect tomorrow.” Nothing is going to be perfect right away, so just get it out there as soon as it crosses that threshold of “good enough” so that you can get real market feedback. The market is very good at figuring out quickly what it wants and what it should have. Don’t try to make something perfect, just to find out it’s not what people actually want or need. Get it to market early, get that crucial feedback, and improve rapidly.
- Rapid execution. Building infrastructure and teams that can deploy quickly and operate with agility is a secret weapon. Whether that means creating content quickly in small batches, or creating products and features in batches, rapid execution enables your business to keep moving and adapt on the fly to market demands and expectations.
- Manage your headspace. Leaders must manage their emotions, and recognize that there will be both incredibly high highs, but also dramatically low lows. Don’t let these moments interfere with your mission, and get in the way of focusing on the end goal.
- Take care of your people. If you’re going to ship a new product there are parts that come together to make it happen: people, process, and technology. You might have the right technology, but if right processes or people aren’t in place, then it is not going to be successful. Tech is usually the easy part; the hard part is the people.
What a journey, as a founder myself, I would encourage others to pay particular attention to Jack’s comments around the personal touch and the people side of a technology business. And thank you Jack for your service. #onwards.
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