An interview with Larry Gould, founder of thebigword
Larry Gould is founder of thebigword, an impressive, 30 year old language company that started out as a very small part of a recruitment group. In 1998 the recruitment arm, which was producing $40 million in annual revenue was sold and Larry was left with this small language business in Leeds, UK. By the year 2000 the company had built its revenue to around $2 million. Since 2008 when it was ranked by Global Watchtower as the 2nd fastest growing translation company in the world, it has expanded earnings from $34 million to an amazing $53 million in 2009. Amazing for several reasons; For starters this growth has been organic. Also, Larry is obsessive, perhaps even neurotic, about his company and employs his own unique style to business management while blending in an effective psychological element internally.
CSN – Larry, thebigword has been in business since 1980 and is now ranked as one of the world’s top ten translation companies. What would you consider to be the keys to both your survival and success?
Larry – For one thing, we are very flexible. Our senior team is always asking “What is irresistible about working with TheBigWord?” and “What is irresistible about working for TheBigWord?”
We are creating bridges between the customer and the technology. We do use some of our competitor’s technology but in a very strategic way. And this is why we are winning out and experiencing this explosive growth. Another important reason is that we have built up a global network of 9000 translators and interpreters in 72 countries over the past 30 years. And we’re obsessed with quality.
You’ve got to be neurotic as well. I think I’m pretty neurotic.
CSN – Neurotic? Larry, I’m putting that last one in the article as a key to your success.
CSN – Was there a major turning point or pivotal period in the company’s history that defined its course and ultimately led you to where you are today?
Larry – Yes, in 2000 we recognized the huge potential with the proliferation of the world wide web and got heavily involved with the dot com boom.
We were a traditional mom & pop shop, but the real change in our attitude towards the language part of the company was the introduction of the world wide web. What we understood was that now companies all over the world would have access to sell their goods and services in cyberspace so we invested very heavily to facilitate that. Without that dot com period we never would have invested so heavily in technology.
That technology basis, has led us to be able to support our people in providing service to our customers.
Our vision during the dot-com era was to become one of the world’s leading translation companies providing localization for web sites. It was the web sites that turned us on. It changed us from a “cottage” industry business to one that would facilitate international trade and that’s what actually happened.
CSN – That dot com era marked explosive growth for many companies, however most did not survive. What did you see happening at the time that ultimately led to massive failures in spite of unprecedented global market access?
Larry - The mistake that was made at that time was that nobody understood how to deliver their goods. You could go into cyberspace and order a football shirt from a famous football/soccer club in the United Kingdom but how would you get it to the customer? That’s where we saw it fail in a lot of cases. What is exciting now is that companies have their acts together in the fulfillment side of their orders. With companies now delivering we see that they have warehouses around the world and deliveries are well organized.
That’s the reason even we have offices all over the world, so we can deliver and be there. We think it’s very, very important that we are physically accessible. Not just through technology, but accessible through face to face contact. Technology is sensational, and it’s a great support tool for our people.
That’s actually the differentiator between our company and the other LSP’s out there. We think that technology is tremendously important, but it supports us. We commonly see companies in the market obsessed with technology and people come second.
CSN - In terms of your success, is there anything else that has made a significant difference?
Larry - We are also very proud of the fact that 40% of all our staff last year, and we have a staff of 300, were either promoted in their own jobs or promoted into a higher grade. Despite the tremendous pressure that we were under last year coping with the growth our staff turnover was the lowest that we had experienced in the company’s history. So despite recruiting and pressure of delivery, the sense of excitement was great and they are still here.
CSN - The fact that your staff turnover last year was the lowest in a 30 year company history is a really important point to touch on especially considering the strain that many companies endured and are continuing to endure as a result of last years’ economic meltdown. Many companies were focused on reducing staff.
Larry - I suppose we were affected by that in a positive way. When other companies are laying off and you’re not, and you’re recruiting more, I suppose it helps keep people in place.
CSN – Larry, tell me about the unique media control you’ve employed throughout your office.
Larry - The one thing that we have been quite famous for is the total banning of the “R” word. We’ve worked very hard to maintain our ban on the “R” word. “R” being Recession of course. Because even if the economy shrinks 1%, 2%, 5%, even at 10% there is still 90% of it left.
So we put certain rules in place such as no newspapers aloud in the building and where we would have CNN or CNBC or Bloomberg in the reception area and in different parts of the building on the flat screen TV’s, we’ve banned those stations.
thebigword generates a new piece of work every 1 and 1/2 minutes and a new work inquiry every 2 minutes of the working day.
So instead of the usual depressing news we actually feed, through our tv’s, the listings of all those new pieces of work being generated and the new work inquiries that are constantly coming in. You can watch all the orders and requests being received in real time so that you can see what is actually happening in our world. In our world we were in actual fact in a sensational [growth] situation. But we had to sort of guard against the other side [media negativity] and we had to talk about our successes within the company. I think a lot of people were too susceptible to negative influences and we banned that. We banned it in quite an aggressive way.
CSN: That’s a very interesting psychological approach and it sounds like you’ve realized actual, tangible gains from that strategy.
Larry: Yes, we really have on that side. And I think as well, that it’s created an atmosphere of great stability within the company, which is reinforced by the instability outside the company.
We’re not concerned about “Swine Fever,” we’re concerned about “Whine Fever.” We think there’s a global “Whine Fever” epidemic going on which is actually much more dangerous to peoples’ health than the flu.
CSN - So, you are on a mission to stamp out global “Whine Fever?”
Larry - Yes we are. You know Keith, on a serious note, the amount of people who are suffering emotionally and experiencing pressure and depression from all the media and this desperate need to talk ourselves down is a very dangerous situation. Dangerous for people’s physical and emotional health and for business health. And again, we have to keep reminding ourselves that even if the market drops down to half its size there is still opportunity. And that’s why we’ve survived 30 years, it’s my 3rd recession.
Now that brings us back to being neurotic, being neurotic about the excitement of opportunities. We’re neurotic about customer satisfaction.
I would add one more thing about survival. It’s absolutely essential that you have sound financial information within your organization. What actually happens when people are a bit fed up or worried is they stop looking at internal financial data. That’s internal data not external, external financial data can be dangerous to look at but it’s equally dangerous –at your peril- not to check your own financial data. So we base our decisions not just on lots of optimism and enthusiasm, that is very important, but it’s also essential to have sound business reasons for making our decisions. So we’re also obsessed about ROI.
This is actually why I am able to stay really positive and sleep at night. I always know where we’re at.
CSN - In a recent press release, you were quoted as saying: “The industry needs to wake up to the fact that in business terms, 2009 is going to be a very different year from any we’ve seen in the past two decades”. You are certainly qualified to make this comparison. Could you elaborate a little on what you believe companies need to know to help get them through these challenging economic times?
Larry - We believe that the translation and interpreting that we do is a commodity. I think there is a lot of emotion within the industry about these services not being a commodity. At the same time there seems to be a desire by some of the larger players within the industry to actually move away from or even get out of translation and focus on technology but they can’t really get out of it because it’s their bread and butter. I also think there’s a real danger as that technology becomes available free for example and changes.
Now we are also investing a lot in technology, and we believe strongly in it, but that technology is backing up the delivery of our commodity and supporting our people.
The other thing going on now is a lot of online auctioning. Translators are feeling hurt and depressed by this auctioning. It’s part of the new reality where clients are pitting translators against each another.
Before technology it used to be a 50/50 arrangement with the translator and all you had to do was work out 50%. But now it’s more complex. It’s very complex. So when you’re in that auctioning situation you really need to know what you’re bidding and how that affects the company.
Also, telephone interpreting is a new area that has aided our growth.
Our customers who were having problems investing in new projects, and I think this will affect all the market, are beginning to realize that they’re able to rework their current projects in quite an inexpensive way to open up new markets. For example, if you have a product that might be out of date or loosing popularity in your own market like clothing, fashion, mobile phones, children’s items, etc. Those items can be repackaged a little and then go online and sell well into other markets outside of the US or the UK.
The language barrier is the final frontier to trade but it’s not just the written word, it’s also the spoken word. We are now interpreting 1.2 million minutes of telephone interpreting per month in 140 languages and we connect over 99% of those within 60 seconds.
The ability to talk on the phone is opening all sorts of opportunities. For example we had a very interesting situation recently...
Mom Rayna was a Bulgarian national, and a recent immigrant to the UK.She was giving birth to her second child at a hospital in Hackney, London.
During the birth, doctors became concerned because the cord was around the baby’s neck. They desperately needed to tell the mother to stop pushing and start panting – but she had only a rudimentary grasp of English.
The situation was critical and there was no time to call in a face-to-face interpreter.
So the hospital called their access number, and in less than 60 seconds were patched through to the thebigword’s Bulgarian interpreter, who was able to give the mother the correct instructions and her baby was born safely.
Telephone interpreting is a very, very exciting and important new part of our business.
Published - February 2010
ClientSide News Magazine - www.clientsidenews.com
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