Q 9Q 9
Lost in Translation
Claudia Mirza and Azam Mirza spotted a trend-the growth of the non-English-speaking population in the United States, increasing the need for translators and interpreters. So they proceeded to start a translation business, with big ambitions. For a while, Akorbi Language Consulting thrived. They broke the $1 million annual revenue mark in just two years, bolstered by translation jobs for corporate clients such as Southwest Airlines and Aetna. But that was their revenue plateau. They spent the next three years feeling pretty dejected. Marketing and revenue dollars were headed in opposite directions-the more they spent on sales andmarketing, the more their business seemed to shrink. The Mirzas were on the verge of the entrepreneurial unthinkable: bringing in an outsider as CEO. "Just because I own the business doesn't mean I am the best person to lead the company," says Claudia. "Are we the right people to run it, or should we let someone else take the reins " Azam wondered.
You can surely understand the reasons for their thoughts of self-doubt-they have marketable skills, the global translation market is worth billions of dollars, but their business plan is not becoming business reality. Indeed, the Mirzas feared that getting to the next level of growth and profitability may be something they could not do on their own.
Hiring an outsider to manage her business would be especially tough for Claudia. She was always a self-starter, launching her first business, a copy center and translation service, to put herself through business school in her native Colombia. That business supported not only her as a student but also two full-time employees-translating study guides for college students. After graduating, she moved to the United States for a telecom job. After growing up in India, Azam had been an IT consultant at Ernst Young before becoming a freelance IT worker. The pair dreamed of starting a business together. "We are skeptical about working in an environment where our life and livelihood are decided by someone else," said Azam.
Soon after the couple got married in 2002, they also joined her language skills with his technical talents to create software that would make it easy for corporate customers to automate high-volume routine translations. Their software would allow corporate clients to reduce their reliance on human translators.
Claudia began lining up pro bono work for some highprofile clients, such as the Dallas Arboretum and the Greater Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Savings from previous careers financed the launch. Azam handled sales and project management, while Claudia oversaw translations.
Akorbi Language Consulting targeted large companies willing to spend several thousand dollars per translation contract. By November 2002, through word of mouth, they won their first paid project: translating brochures into Spanish for 3M. Workload and number of employees grew so that at least three translators worked on each job-including brief memos, billboards, or hefty insurance guides-to get the subtleties just right. Azam also helped companies find freelance IT talent.
Akorbi's staff grew to eight full-timers in Dallas; a dozen in Buenos Aires and Medellín, Colombia; and five tech developers in India, as well as a network of hundreds of freelance translators who pitched in on big jobs. The company had 33 language clients and nine IT customers. Revenue jumped from $20,000 to $1.2 million. Spanish translations accounted for about half the business, with Chinese a strong second.
Akorbi developed a reputation for its attention to cultural nuances and reliability. For example, a slogan for Dallas Area Rapid Transit, "Dump the Pump," was rendered into lyrical, rhyming Spanish by Akorbi: "Keep your wallet safe and say goodbye to the gas station" is the English rendering.
It turned out that demand for translation business was far greater than it was for IT, partly because of intense international IT competition. The Mirzas decided to cut IT staffing and concentrate on translations. This move freed Azam to use his tech skills to push so-called localization services, an offshoot of the translation business that helps companies adapt their Web sites and software to foreign markets.
But the proverbial next level was elusive. After two years under its new plan, Akorbi's language customers had increased to 56, but revenue had dipped to $904,000, even though the sales staff had increased from three to five people, with each employee making some 50 cold calls a day. Over $200,000 was spent on marketing in 2006 and 2007, including about 1,000 mailers sent out each week. Profits had been slightly in the black since 2005, but the Mirzas were not pleased with the small return received for all the time, energy, and money they had invested. Akorbi had received positive PR in many major publications, including U.S. News and World Report, Dallas Morning News, Dallas Business Journal, Latina Style, Hispanic Trends, Al Día, and Forbes, but that had not translated into profit. Something needed to be done, but what
The Mirzas decided to get company-wide input to answer that question. They shut down the company for a day in October 2007 to bring together their Dallas employees and their top-producing Latin American translators in a rented conference room. International employees connected via teleconference for a marathon strategy session. The Mirzas started with a presentation that analyzed Akorbi and the translation market. But the day was also intended to boost morale. The staff took notes and threw out suggestions. The Mirzas decided to reconsider their pricing, which some staff members viewed as too low, and increase online presence. They also discussed opening a Washington, D.C., office to be in a better position to bid for government contracts. Says Maria Clara Buzzini, translation services manager, "The meeting helped us understand the big picture."
The strategy meeting was useful, but the Mirzas are still frustrated by lack of growth. "I'm tired of seeing the same million [revenue] number," says Claudia. She says 99 percent of Akorbi's customers return, but the company just can't seem to gain ground. "We want to know what we should be doing that we are not doing right," says Azam.
To help them answer that question, they say, they are on the verge of hiring a top-level outsider with more perspective and experience. That could be a CEO or a sales executive. Either way, says Claudia, "I know I need someone aggressive who can keep my company on its toes." But the Mirzas have yet to post a job opening because of worries about the risks of handing over their labor of love to another person. As Claudia is quick to point out, "At the end of the day, we are liable for what happens to this business."
If hiring a CEO is not the answer, what should they do to get their business to the next level