Monday Interview: Christian Arno, Lingo24

BORN at the tail end of the heady days of the dotcom boom, Lingo24 began as an experiment in using the web to upend traditional translation services. Fourteen years on, virtually every aspect of the industry is being driven by technology, and Lingo 24 is sharpening its focus.

Arno was born to an English mother and Norwegian father whose job took the family to Aberdeen. Picture: Contributed
Arno was born to an English mother and Norwegian father whose job took the family to Aberdeen. Picture: Contributed
Arno was born to an English mother and Norwegian father whose job took the family to Aberdeen. Picture: Contributed

It’s not a remarkably long time in corporate reckoning, but in the context of Scottish technology firms, Lingo24 is closer to old guard status than founder Christian Arno might care to admit.

“It is a funny thought, but yeah, maybe,” he says. “We have still got that scrappy start-up mentality, but we also have some professional investors now, and there is some grey hair in the boardroom.”

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Launched from a spare bedroom in his parents’ home in Aberdeen, Arno has led Lingo24 on a journey that should see turnover top £9 million this year. The company has picked up a number of accolades along the way, including Scotland’s best e-business start-up in 2003, HSBC’s Business Thinking Award in 2010 and a slot in The Times’ Fast Track 100 list in 2011.

Growth never slid into reverse, but after rapid expansion in the first decade, things started slowing down. Arno admits he and long-time business partner Jack Waley-Cohen “maybe scrimped in places where we shouldn’t have” by sticking to the start-up axiom of cost savings, rather then investing in the business. This included a narrow leadership structure.

“Really it was just me and Jack running around, probably trying to do too many things all at once,” Arno says.

Throughout it all, Arno resisted the temptation to raise external financing, but after Waley-Cohen’s amicable departure in 2012, Arno started exploring the options. A tilt in 2013 to tap into funding from Silicon Valley came to nothing, but support from closer to home was forthcoming just a few months later.

A consortium led by former Wood Mackenzie chief executive Paul Gregory signed a seven-figure investment deal reportedly worth £3m, giving Lingo24 the wherewithal to start upgrading its equipment and building out its technology infrastructure. Gregory came on as chairman in April 2014 as part of the deal, while other senior appointments have expanded the board to a total of nine directors.

The company is also recruiting at other levels, with about 20 sales and technology posts open at the moment. These are spread across its offices in Edinburgh, London, Panama, the Philippines, New Zealand and Romania, where Lingo24 currently employs 220 people.

The £24 billion translation market is being driven by software localisation – the revision of websites and apps for use in a foreign language – as well as increasing volumes of user-generated content.

For companies like Tripadvisor, which bases its ratings of hotels, restaurants and visitor attractions on user reviews, having that information available in as many languages as possible is very attractive.

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Lingo24 clients such as Adidas and The Economist similarly need to speak to people around the world in their native language. Going forward, Lingo24 is targeting other mid to large size organisations with annual sales of £50m up to £1bn or more.

“The market is growing, and some sub-sets are growing faster than others,” Arno says.

“We are focusing a lot of our efforts on e-commerce because it is a growing sub-set, and one where we have certain advantages.”

Those advantages include Coach, the company’s technology platform which aims to make translation faster at a lower cost. Other technology streams include an online ordering system called Ease and an application programme interface (API) that provides a direct link between a client’s content management system and Lingo24’s translation platform.

The company has effectively become a hybrid of a product and services business, in line with changes across a sector that Arno seems ideally suited for.

He was born in Nottinghamshire to an English mother and Norwegian father whose job in the oil industry took the family to Aberdeen when Arno was just four years old. He studied Italian and French at Oxford and spent a year at Italy’s University of Pavia before returning to Aberdeen to set up Lingo24. Since then he has lived in both London and Romania, and though now based in Edinburgh, he continues to travel extensively.

Arno still owns about two-thirds of the business, with most of the remainder in the hands of Gregory and his investment consortium. A small number of shares are also owned by Lingo24’s staff following the launch of a scheme inspired by Gregory’s experience with employee share ownership at Wood Mackenzie.

That’s not the only way in which Gregory has sparked the current overhaul of Lingo24. Arno says his chairman has changed his view of where the business can get to now that the foundations have been “re-built” to focus on e-commerce.

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“There are many people who are Jacks of all trades and masters of none, and because of our history in the dotcom period, we were probably one of those, but we are fixing it now.”

30-second CV

Born: Mansfield, 1978

Raised: Aberdeen

Education: Cults Primary; Robert Gordon’s College, Aberdeen; St John’s College, Oxford

First job: Paper boy

Ambition at school: I would have loved to have been a professional footballer, but I simply wasn’t good enough

Can’t live without: Grass court tennis

Kindle or book: Book – getting any time away from electronic screens is a good thing

Favourite city: Tokyo. The food is phenomenal, and, for such a global city, the people are so civilised

Favourite mode of transport: Bike

What car do you drive: A Prius

What makes you angry: Injustice or unfairness

What inspires you: Passion

Best thing about your job: The breadth of people I get to meet