Christian Arno has built Lingo24 from his bedroom
Christian Arno has built Lingo24 from a bedroom in his parents’ house to the cusp of becoming one of the 50 largest translation companies in the world. Suzy Powell quizzes him on languages, investors and Brexit.
Languages have built Christian Arno’s translation business into a global success, however the Oxford graduate had no “grand master plan” when he set up Lingo24 in his bedroom at the height of the dot.com boom.
In fact, Arno admits that translating is not his forte – he leaves that to his 180 “Lingo-ists”, as they are affectionately known, and several thousand freelance translators around the world. He can then focus on running the business, which is currently targeting high-value clients worth £100,000 a year.
Arno set up Lingo24 in 2001 at his parents’ home in Aberdeen after studying French and Italian. He was passionate about languages and e-commerce and wanted to join the dot.com revolution to earn some “extra cash”.
A posting on Yahoo “amazingly attracted a couple of serious businesses”, and Lingo24 was born. In those days, people were only paid for the work they undertook and the business comprised Arno, a friend and a “tech guy”.
These days, the award-winning 24-hour translation service has offices in Edinburgh, London, Romania, Panama and the Philippines, among other locations, and has customers that include major retailer eBay and brands such as Adidas and Lush. Turnover is expected to reach £10.2m this year, edging the business close to the top 50 translation companies worldwide.
Arno describes what the business offers as a “hybrid service” with “brilliant people” supported by technology. “In the vast majority of situations, it is a professional translator supported by technology,” he says. “For our larger customers, we build highly-customised machine translation engines that make people more productive. We use technology to help our Lingo-ists go faster but it’s not to replace the person.
“We are absolutely punching above our weight in terms of tech, improving the quality and reducing the internal management overhead for clients of the translation service. We are restless in a sense, which our customers appreciate.”
In 2012, it launched Coach, a computer-aided translation tool that was awarded the Taus Excellence Award for Innovation. Two years later, an application program interface (API) was introduced to allow customers direct access to Lingo24’s translation services at multiple quality levels.
The same year an online ordering service, Ease, was introduced, and Lingo24 won two accolades – Scottish Exporter of the Year and International Trade Best Professional Service Advisor – at the inaugural Scottish Export Awards, run by BQ on behalf of Scottish Enterprise.
Lingo24’s motto is “Service beyond words”, but how does that play out in everyday business? “The team really does the best for our customers and values those relationships,” explains Arno. “They go above and beyond to deliver, and offer services beyond translation, such as content creation, strategic technology consultancy and desktop publishing.”
The company translates everything from online customer comments and webchats to instructions for surgical instruments and tomes of product catalogues online and in print. Arno thinks about how he describes the business “a lot”.
“We do some stuff that is a small number of words but is highly creative, to massive catalogues and e-catalogues with a lot of repetition but which need to be correct,” he muses. “Every organisation has a content hierarchy, from its website to user-generated content, and its importance is different from organisation to organisation.”
In some circumstances, a translation can be too polished especially if it has been generated as feedback from a customer and may not be 100% grammatically perfect. The translation is then carried out by someone “on the ground” who can make it as authentic as possible to the original comment made.
The Lingo-ists and a bank of more than 4,000 freelancers have worked in more than 200 languages, and translations are always made into their mother tongue. The majority of translations are between the major European languages as most of the clients are headquartered in Europe and the United States.
The addition of an office in Timisoara in Romania came about when Arno was looking to expand in the early days and sent hundreds of emails to recruitment companies in Eastern Europe and Africa asking a series of questions about the kind of people who were available for work and employment legislation in each country.
The response from Romania was the most promising with the right technical skills available and lower salaries than in the UK. It turned out that Romania was also the most multi-lingual country in Europe, second only to the Netherlands in terms of the number of people able to speak multiple languages.
The Lingo-ists located in different countries ensure that translations are not only accurate, but culturally and politically correct – particularly important for marketing campaigns, where one word out of place could change the entire meaning and could potentially damage a brand’s reputation.
A small percentage of the company’s business is checking brand names worldwide to ensure that there are no negative associations in a particular country or language, or that they don’t already exist. Having people on the ground, living in the country with languages as they change, is essential for some clients.
“It’s been a game of two halves,” explains Arno. “I was a student when I started the company and it was very scrappy, very much ‘learning as we did’.
“Until seven year ago, all the staff worked from home. I was learning and meeting incredible people along the way but I had no grand master plan. I just thought that there was an opportunity and little by little other opportunities presented themselves to me.”
One of these opportunities came when his initial business partner decided to move on in 2011. It heralded a new phase for the business, taking it into its “second half” – and prompted a repositioning for future growth.
A pivotal point in propelling the business into its next stage came in 2014 when Scottish business heavyweight Paul Gregory was brought in as Lingo24’s chairman. The former head of oil and gas consultancy Wood Mackenzie had led a consortium of investors to take a stake in the business, generating a multi-million pound investment allowing expansion and development on a new level.
“That took it from being a business of people with great ideas and enthusiasm to becoming one with real pedigree,” said Arno, who continues to be mentored by Gregory. “There is much more of a fixed strategy now and I am grateful for Paul and our managing director, Andrew Campbell, for that. We’re now aiming for higher-value accounts, worth over £100,000 a year. In 2012, we had six spending at this level, then 14 by 2015, 21 by 2016 and are aiming for 28 this year.”
Currently none of the high-value clients are in Scotland, however Arno is hopeful that will change soon – “watch this space”. That growth trajectory may continue in the same vein or it may morph into targeting fewer clients of yet higher value.
“We have not come up with a number, but it would be logical to aim for 100,” Arno says. “But it may be that we raise the £100,000 threshold to those spending, say, £200,000-plus.
“Our business is very much about people and building deep relationships. Paul made the point that we have room to grow and we have a nice place in the market where we are punching above our weight.
“The bigger companies don’t have our service and the smaller guys don’t have the bandwidth or tech to deliver what we do. We do well with winning and retaining clients.”
With Europe being the prime market, how will Brexit affect the business? “I am emotionally and personally very upset about Brexit, but on a business level it is more nuanced,” Arno admits. “We got our financial guys to do some analysis and the positive impact of Brexit is estimated to be £404,000 to the business while the negative impact is £400,000 – so virtually no impact. The business is naturally and fortunately hedged and I have not yet seen any situations where decisions have gone against us because we are a British company.
“People are pragmatic so I’m not too worried. What’s the point of worrying? We are just working our socks off to help our clients grow quicker internationally and reduce cost.”
Besides, Lingo24’s horizons are broad and there is plenty to look forward to, including plans to hold more peer-to-peer networking dinners under the “Journey to Global” banner where organisations – mainly retail and ecommerce – get together and share their learning journeys, discussing everything from marketing to technology. Arno describes them as the “antithesis to your average business event”.
“They are very informal,” he says. “People circulate and talk about where they are on their business journey. “We are having our first international one in Amsterdam this year, and a smaller one in Glasgow. There seems to be an appetite for it.”
Arno is also keen to unite the dispersed employees through initiatives like the internal weekly news update, the “Weekly Banter”, a mixture of personal news and hard sales figures, and he wants to continue the more fun elements of employee relations, such as making music videos, which saw the Philippines team record a Gangnam-style video and the Edinburgh team drawing inspiration from Trainspotting to make “Lingo-spotting”.
“We want to be releasing the potential of what is a very gifted team, and get back to the level of growth we had in the early years,” he adds.