Business interview: Christian Arno, Lingo24

Christian Arno, CEO of Lingo 24. Picture: Jane Barlow
Christian Arno, CEO of Lingo 24. Picture: Jane Barlow
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FOR eleven years Christian Arno has resisted the temptation to raise money for the company he founded, translation technology firm Lingo24, writes Erikka Askeland. But now he has decided it is time to do so.

He has been encouraged by a Japanese rival selling a small stake to raise $12 million (£7.8m). It has whetted Arno’s appetite so this autumn he is taking his company – as well as his new born son Jonny – to the mecca of internet funding in Silicon Valley to try his luck and take Lingo24 into the big league.

The fundraising comes at a critical time in the expansion of online translation services. Current “machine translation” systems provided for free by web search giants Google and Bing are rudimentary at best. But internationalisation is the new buzzword. It is, after all, the World Wide Web and companies with a global focus are now catching on to the need to speak to as many people across the planet as possible.

Market research firm Common Sense Advisory estimates the global market for outsourced language services and technology will surpass $34.7 billion (£24.3bn) in 2013. The same firm recently named Lingo as the 62nd biggest translation company in the world – up ten places from 2012 and a notable achievement in a field of more than 27,600 suppliers of translation and interpreting services across 154 countries.

Lingo started as a student translation project as Arno studied languages at Oxford. It was the tail end of the heady days of the dotcom boom and everyone, including Arno, was looking for a way to get in on the craze. He had just returned from a year abroad in Italy and he decided to dip in.

He says: “The internet was going crazy. It was a brave new world. And the traditional translation industry was not doing much with the web and I had friends in a number of countries who could translate so I thought let’s see what we could do.”

The continued existence of the Edinburgh-based firm is a testament to its slow but determined growth and an “ethos” of keeping the business focused. Yet his labours have proved fruitful – the company now employs 204 people across its offices in the UK, Romania, Panama, the Philippines and New Zealand.

“We didn’t take any funding on or raise any expectations that we would be a billion dollar company in six months,” recalls Arno. “That helped. Keeping things tight financially served us well but we are coming to the point now where in order to achieve our potential we need to raise funds. We plan to be a much bigger business than we are. Which is both exciting and terrifying.”

The process has required an evolution of its product. Arno’s main focus now is on its technology platform, called Coach, which he likens to “eBay for translation”.

“The business is evolving from being a service business to having the characteristics of a platform business,” says Arno. “The centre of the shift is our Coach technology, a tool for linguists, which delivers customisable quality to customers for the lowest possible cost.”

The way he sees it evolving includes combining a variety of translation systems, including high-tech “machine translation” to a sort of translation crowdsourcing, connecting translators of all levels and cost including those who may only speak one language but can use an app that allows them to say “yes” or “no” on whether a translated word is correct.

He points to websites like Tripadviser, where much of the content rating hotels, restaurants and visitor attractions is user generated. For web brands such as these, it is attractive to make it all available in other languages but using current technology to translate it “makes no economic sense”.

“Companies can’t afford to translate the reams of user generated content on the internet.”

Arno has a somewhat convoluted comparison between the translation business and oil wells. “Some have been calling the end of the oil and gas industry in Aberdeen for years, yet people keep inventing technology which makes old wells economic again. That is what we try to do with translations, drilling into the workflows if you like, and making it possible to translate more content – making it economic to translate more types of content.”

Coach has been in development for close to a year and a half and is being rolled out across a number of projects and will be trialled by “big clients”, Arno insists. Another boon for the company is that it has recently signed a deal to work closely with New York-based translation management company Smartling, which has clients including location game Foursquare, social media site Pinterest and music streaming service Spotify.

“All this is critical at a time when the economies that are really growing in the world are not English speaking,” says Arno. “The other trend is the growth of mobile, which gives people in places like Africa faster updates.”

The firm’s fastest growing region of demand is currently Asia Pacific, although he admits this is from a “rather low base”.

He adds that it used to the case that English, alongside German, was a “pivot” languages, but increasingly the trend is seeing Vietnamese to Thai, and Brazilian Portuguese to Tagalog, for example. And Lingo24’s “Google-esque” model is well suited to this brave new world.

“That is going to be happening more and more. At the moment linguists have to pay significant ampounts of money to the market leader (SDL Trados – the “Microsoft of the translation world”) to get access to the level of technology we have in Coach,” says Arno. “We want to give them free access to the tools, then once they are within our system use them as active buyers and sellers in our markeplace, and monetise them that way. It is much more progressive.”

30-second CV

Born: 1978, Mansfield.

Education: Cults Primary; Robert Gordon’s College, Aberdeen; St John’s College, Oxford (for an MA in modern languages).

First job: A trolley boy at Makro. Loved it!

Ambition while at school: To travel the world and learn lots of languages. I’ve probably done more of the former than the latter.

Film: The Spider’s Stratagem, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci.

Kindle or book? Book – any escape from electronic devices is welcome.

Favourite music: Radiohead, The Clash, Belle and Sebastian.

Can’t live without: Cheesy to say it, but not seeing baby Jonny for more than a day is a killer.

Claim to fame: Played tennis with Goran Ivanisevic just before Wimbledon this year. Top, top guy.

Favourite place: To live? Edinburgh. To work, probably San Francisco.

What makes you angry?: Dishonesty and/or defeatism.

Best thing about your job: The sheer internationalism of it, the type of people who love languages and the unlimited possibilities of the web.