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Ask the CEO Translator Edition

Monday, May 2, 2016

Laura Pepitone, Global Account Manager at WriterAccess, interviews CEO Byron White about the company's expansion into translation. Byron answers questions from translators worldwide about everything related to translating via WriterAccess.

Laura:                                                    Hello, everybody. Thank you for listening in. I am Laura Pepitone. I am a global account manager at WriterAccess. I am here today talking with my boss, Byron White, CEO of WriterAccess, and we have just expanded into translation with the company and I’m heading up translation. And we have gathered a few questions from translators, and Byron is here today to answer some of the questions and talk about the brand new services at WriterAccess. So Byron, first question for you, translators who are new to WriterAccess, can you describe the company and how you started it and what WriterAccess stands for?

Byron:                                                   Indeed, but first a quick thank you to you, Laura. You’ve been fantastic to work with for three arduous months of us trying to work on the software platform and building this all out and making it all work. We were lucky that you had already moved to Boston from [0:01:08 a land afar] and had worked in the translation business for quite a few years, so you brought a lot of experience to the table. We probably wouldn’t be where we are now with translation services without you. So thanks for being with the team here and migrating. It’s been a lot of fun. But yeah, so WriterAccess in general was launched five years ago. And prior to launching WriterAccess we were a full service content marketing agency, which I think people might find kind of interesting. We worked with about a hundred customers per year, companies like Walmart, the company store Brookstone, FTD, brands that people would know around the world, and we helped them with content planning, creation, optimization, distribution and performance measurement. So bottomline, we got really good at content and content marketing and creating and optimizing content and making it work. But we were frustrated because we were only able to work with a few customers at a time. And because we were a full service agency, we had very steep prices and expensive fees because the work that we were doing required a tremendous amount of expertise and specialty, which meant staff members and all kinds of expenses that we incurred in building this agency, which were all great. And that was at the time the third company that I had started, but after about five years of running that business successfully, we saw a good opportunity to do something different, something unique, something that would connect writers with customers directly. So we built WriterAccess with a bunch of things in mind. The first was transparency, which we thought was very important for both customers and writers. Our customers could see who the writers are and they could see what rates we were paying them. We were actually on a 70/30 split with all the revenue coming in. 30% to WriterAccess, in case anybody is interested, and 70% to the creative writers that we were working with, so that became an important distinction for us. The other thing that was important was we really understood quality writing and what it takes to bring quality to the table, and that in itself was interesting, because a lot of platforms like WriterAccess that we competed against were trying to really charge very low fees to both customers and pay low rates therefore to writers, because of this sort of supply/demand where there were thousands of people that wanted jobs and only maybe a few hundred that would actually win those jobs. So this sort of mentality we thought was broken and was wrong. So instead we wanted to be the bold one to say, “You get what you pay for. So if you charge higher rates, you should expect quality work.” The first book I wrote was called the Content Marketing Roadmap, helping to really define where content marketing is going and offering some tips and advice. But the second book I wrote around the time we launched WriterAccess was called the Writing Skill and Price Guide, which answered that difficult question: what should you expect when you pay more? It’s a great book. You can download it for free on our website.

                                                                But to answer your question, that sort of brings you to philosophically some of the things that we really wanted to do differently and what we stand for. I think we stand for quality work, fair prices, and full transparency with what we do. We also like to wow customers with exceptional service, and we do that in strange and mysterious ways, and you can ask me about that later if you want. But customers come first in every business and we want to bring the best translators to our marketplace to be introduced to the best customers that we’re servicing and to come to us for the best quality of work. So that’s sort of our…

Laura:                                                    All right. No, that’s very interesting. And I believe the change to a platform happened around 2010. Is that right?

Byron:                                                   That’s correct, yes.

Laura:                                                    And how did your customers respond to that change?

Byron:                                                   Yeah. You know, I was a little freaked out when we first made that change. I was concerned that they would be too comfortable perpetually working through our service representatives that were doing a lot of the work to edit and to manage projects, and we weren’t really sure if the first take on our platform made sense or not. But at the end of the day, every customer that we transferred over to the platform stayed with us and loved it and fully executed their projects, and many of them are still working with us today, although it’s been interesting to go from 100 customers to now 20,000 customers.

Laura:                                                    I was going to say that. Exactly, in those years – six years it’s been – the growth has been very impressive. And so we have writers, editors, and now translators. What made you decide to go into translation as well?

Byron:                                                   Well, meeting you helped, but my own experience in Europe was probably a big part of that. I was a graduate of… I went to grad school at the London School of Economics and greatly enjoyed all of my experiences in Europe and thought that the WriterAccess platform would be a great model to launch to the world in the sense that recruiting talent around the world as far as translation is concerned. We are very US-based. Obviously, 99.9% of our customers right now are US-based. Our writer base will continue to be US-based until we find more customers in Europe that we might want to hire, or in the world, for that matter, not just Europe, that might want to hire writers to our platform in other places of the world. But right now our writing and our editing and our soon to launch contact strategy services are US-based, but our translation services very much are localized and we want professionals living in various countries around the world to be the catalysts for success and to be in tune with the latest and greatest language challenges and language opportunity for localization of content.

Laura:                                                    Yeah. I think we’ve talked about it before how a lot of US companies do have plans and ambitions to go global with their marketing messages and reach out to customers that speak different languages. And I think with this service we can make that happen and make it easier for companies to start reaching out to translators. So one of the questions that a translator sent me was: “Is there a direct relation via the platform with the client, or is there an intermediary in between?” Can you talk a little bit about that?

Byron:                                                   Yeah. So, the way that WriterAccess… so for starters, it’s interesting to explain that we want this direct connection between the translator and the customer buying the translation services. So when a customer comes in, we make it easy to find a translator that has skills, that has a profile that you can review, and place an order to them and then manage the workflow all in our software. So what happens is a customer places an order to a translator. They can also place it as either a solo order or they can ask for writers to compete against it in the sense that they say, “I would like to do this job. Can you please choose me to do this job?” But in every case only one translator will ever be the person performing the work, and the customer will make that selection even if a few people are interested in it after looking at the order itself. So we’ve created an environment where there’s a direct relationship with a customer working directly with the writer. But yes, to answer the question, the translator can absolutely see the work that they’re going to be challenged with translating before they accept the job and pick up the job.

Laura:                                                    Yeah, exactly. That was a main question as well, where it’s very important for translators to be able to see the text before they start, because the complexity of it is a great indicator of how much time it’s going to take them and if they’re able to do it, so our platform allows them to see the job and to see all the requirements and the deadline and the pricing and the text. And what’s even possible is when they reserve the order, pick it up, they have an hour to review it. And if they decide that it’s not a good match, they can unreserve it and the order will be put back on the platform. So I think that’s a great way to go about it, so we’ve… you know, because we’ve been around for so many years, we’ve been able to kind of perfect those technical things in the platform. So for translators who are just getting started on WriterAccess and are just joining the community, what would you love to see in their profiles? You’ve seen thousands of writers and you see what makes them successful. Maybe you can help translators by saying a little bit about what they should put in their profiles.

Byron:                                                   Sure. So here’s an interesting answer to that question. What I would love to see in writers’ profiles is lots of translators in our platform that have successfully completed projects, because that’s of course what our customers are looking for. Who has experience? Who has completed projects at WriterAccess? Show me the best translators. So sadly, we need everyone to be patient with that, because we’re just trying to roll this service out and are trying to figure out which of our US-based customers are in need of translation services and which new customers can we get started with quickly that we recruit and bring in through our marketing and advertising efforts. We’re organically growing over here, so we need people’s patience to understand that. We’re not venture capital-backed, which means we can do things like keeping our margins the way that they are. There’s no pressure on us to gorge rates or grow too quickly; we can really be methodical about our whole process and make it all work. But to answer your question after that long tangent, which I’m famous for going on, what would I love to see with translators’ profiles? We really need to get the confidence and the trust earned with the profiles that are created, and that means that they need to be written for probably US-based companies that are looking for proper spelling and syntax and good English. If you’re going to be given English to translate to your foreign language, I know that you’re thinking that your greatest skills, of course, should be the language that you’re native to, that you’re translating to. But if your English is poor and it’s reflected on your profile, then that reflects upon you and their confidence in you to understand proper English, and therefore potentially proper translation of that English into a foreign language. You know, it’s funny. I wouldn’t… I don’t think… I’m not suggesting that translators should use our editors at WriterAccess to edit their profiles, but that is an interesting concept and a service that I would love to offer translators someday, maybe for free, is to have somebody go through all of the profiles, recommend spelling changes and corrections that can localize content for the US marketplace as featured on your profile.

Laura:                                                    Yeah, no. I think it’s very important to keep in mind that the companies that are WriterAccess clients, customers are mostly US-based and really want to see some proof of experience, and I think another thing that could be very important is to really show your interest as a translator. It’s very important to have jobs match your experience and interest level, so I think people are more passionate to translate or write about content that really fits their personal interest as well. So if they can probably talk a little bit about the work that they’ve been doing outside of translation, I think that would be a really good idea as well.

Byron:                                                   Agree.

Laura:                                                    And that’s something that I’m seeing with writers as well, so that’s been working. So would you have any general tips for translators on how to use the platform to find jobs and how to get started in other departments?

Byron:                                                   Yeah. I think that WriterAccess is going to have a transition into finding more work for translators. And again, patience is probably the virtue that needs to be upon us all as we try to find more customers. You know, we’re going to… the good news is right now we have a couple of people in our talent management department that are looking over all the applicants and really… you, Laura, have also seen all the applicants coming in and get a good feel for who’s who. So right now as we get started, I think everyone should be very confident in both your ability and our talent management ability to point customers that we speak with, that we talk with, that are our bigger customers that come in on the plus service level. Those are going to be our biggest and best customers that we are going to be able to point at the right translators and give advice to them on who they should go to. But until then, and really throughout the journey with us, it’s all about your profile. You need to go in and actively come into the platform every few weeks to show that your last login date, which does appear on your profile. Customers need to see that you’re active. So please, go in and log in and see what’s in there, and there probably will be a job sitting there waiting for you that’s been sent directly to you every time you go in there. But our hope is that there will be some activity in there and you’ll be able to look at particularly the crowd orders that come through. One of the tips is that sometimes people just want something translated very quickly, and I think in general people need to understand how our algorithm works and how this technology behind the scene works. So if you can imagine, WriterAccess is managing 14,000 writers and 20,000 customers and tens of thousands of orders are going through the platform every month. So what we’ve had to do is to pioneer and develop some algorithms that are part of what we call our start rating system. So as a translator or a writer or anyone of our talent pool completes orders successfully, namely, did it meet or exceed or was it below a customer’s expectation, that information, those signals, if you will, help score our translators and our writers perpetually throughout their journey with us, so that we have what we call a rising star and a falling star list where some talent might be eligible for a star raise and be able to make more work because they’ve successfully exceeded a customer’s expectations. But there are a lot of other signals we look at as well, like how many revision requests go back and forth, was the work completed on time or before it was due? And so lots of data goes into this algorithmic scoring and star rating, if you will, of our talent pool. So the tips are simple: Do great work and communicate effectively, and when a customer sends you a question, please get a Kik email, an alert, saying you need to take action and please take action quickly and efficiently to not leave our customer hanging and wondering if you’re going to complete the project or what’s going on. So do great work and be responsive. Those are really the two things that you need to do on our platform. And of course stay active and stay fresh and communicate as you need to with getting help or solutions to problems along the way. Don’t task our help desk ticket area with questions that are frivolous. Try to get some self-help, obviously because we have to focus on servicing our customers and lots of different talent, but we want to be helpful; we want more information; we want ideas; we want recommendations, so all of that is great in building a relationship with us. But really we just need to wait until a customer loves your profile. We need you to do great work when called upon and delivering on time and exceeding their expectations, and the rest is history. A platform like this, you will seek and work wonderfully successful. Yes, we do have a lot of writers that the only place they work is WriterAccess, and we are making a full-time living and a great compensation throughout the year from us and we’re very proud of that. That’s one of the reasons we’re in business right now, is… matter of fact today, minutes ago, we got cupcakes delivered by one of our talent that just loves us and is exciting about what we’re doing and how we’re helping them with their career and it was just out of the blue. So we’ve got a great reputation out there and we want that to be around the world, not just in the United States.

Laura:                                                    Yeah, no. That’s a really great answer, and I think that understanding how the algorithm works and how your statistics show up of completed orders and how happy the customers are and also providing good service and communication towards the customers, those are all very important things. And the WriterAccess account managers and talent managers are always there to help and answer questions as well. I think that another important question that came in is payments. You’ve set it up a certain way, and I think that for translators the platform way of working is relatively new. Writers in the US have been used to it a little bit. Can you talk about payments and how they are a little bit different from traditional agencies kind of working the old fashioned way? I believe our payments are automated and maybe you can talk a little bit about that.

Byron:                                                   Sure. So the first step when we began surveying this industry, we quickly realized, thanks to the full attention of Laura when we came on board, translators are kind of getting screwed out there, oftentimes not getting paid for 30 or 60 days, which just seems ridiculous and unfair. So we wanted to change that and to fall into suit with immediate payments of twice a month. Every two weeks we basically pay translators for anything that has been approved by your customers that they’re ordering from you. Now, what we also understand about the translation business is sometimes these projects drag on because of the way they’re simply set up. Maybe you’re given a book to translate or a very large project that might take 30 days just to complete, and you know you’re working for an agency and you’ve been successful with them in the past, so there’s a great likelihood that you’ll get paid by them and the customer will, in fact, pay them. So your risk is seemingly decreased by working through these traditional agencies. There’s a flaw, however, that we’ve really picked up on that we think we can fix, and that is that we think that you want to be paid faster and we think you want to be paid more fairly. So our way to do that is to pay you 70% of anything that’s transacted through the platform and to pay you every two weeks when something is approved. And we want our customers to work with you with what we call bite-size nuggets so they’re as comfortable as you are and they can place orders in smaller chunks. So if there’s a book, for example, you might see the whole book, but you might deliver the book in small pieces. Maybe once every two or three days you’re delivering back work and therefore you can get a number of pieces in in a two-week time period right before you can get everything approved. And the customer needs to work with you a little bit differently. We want the customer to approve work quickly, and I know that can take some time. With our biggest customers, they can have as much as two weeks to linger on a project, to look at it. Those are our bigger customers that are spending more than $10,000 with us a year. But our smaller customers don’t have that much time. I believe they only have like seven days to approve something, maybe even three days.

Laura:                                                    Yeah. I think it was less, yeah.

Byron:                                                   Yeah. So you’re going to find we tend to make customers approve work quickly, and that’s going to work in your favor, I think, at least as we’re coming initially out of the gates. We’re hoping that that’s something that our customers understand, so that’ll be quite interesting to see how customers respond to that. But the payment systems are in place and we’re excited about how we’re paying people. We’re also paying people through PayPal, which has been a reliable source for us for quite some time, but I’m sure we’re going to learn a lot more about the translation specialists listening in on this call and we appreciate any feedback you have with how we can make this service that we’re offering smarter, better, faster, and wiser.

Laura:                                                    Absolutely. So yeah, that answers that question about payments and clients will pay a little bit more in order to get more time to approve the orders, so that works really well in the technology on the platform automatically. You know your clients very well. There are a lot of them – 20,000 companies that WriterAccess is active for. Can you talk a little bit about what these companies are looking for and how we can potentially help them internationally with content and multi-lingual marketing?

Byron:                                                   Sure. Yeah. So here’s the good news: We have a lot of customers. The bad news is we don’t know all of our customers as well as we’d like to. So what we’re doing is we’re sort of ramping up our sales team a little bit, a lot of bit, actually, to learn more about our customers, particularly as they first arrive into our platform. We basically bring on like hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of new customers every week. And when they come at us so quickly, we don’t even have the time to necessarily look them all up and assess whether they have a globalization opportunity with their brands and whether they’re in other countries currently right now. But as we move forward, we’ll be able to reverse engineer that success and even use some outside technology to provide databases of information and to have us quickly learn whether those companies have offices or domain names operating in other countries, and if so, what are those other countries. We will learn more about our customers as they come to us, and therefore we’ll be able to market and promote different services that we offer to them depending upon what we learn in a research discovery mode, both as they discover our services and as we discover more about their businesses. So that’s why we’re making this massive investment we are in translation and globalization. We think this is the right place for us to be. We think we can really master this art and build a pool of talent all over the world and forge partnerships with some very big companies that we’re looking to work with now. And finally, even Laura, for example, can get here business amped up and acclimated with even people that are not only in our database, but are in other hotspots that we know about that we know hire global… need localization of content. It’s just beginning, bottom line. We really just built all of this. It took us about three months through Q1 of 2016 to build this technology and to get the pipelines in place and to build a base of writers first, and we had this chicken and egg problem. What comes first – the chicken or the egg? We now have over 1,000 translators in our database, so we’re ready to go. We’re all dressed up for the prom, as they say in the United States, to… which probably no one understands. I have to be careful about my analogies and metaphors, but therein lies the beauty of learning about the world and languages and that’s really our passion here and we’re looking forward to translators being part of that.

Laura:                                                    Yeah, that’s really cool. And I think that internationally it’s going to be really interesting. It’s also a big part of my job description as a global account manager here at WriterAccess to identify the clients who could be interested in translation and to hear their needs and to really take action if they need some help getting started. I think there was research recently that showed that a lot of American companies have the strategy in place to start translating, but they have trouble finding the right translation provider, so that’s why I think it’s great that WriterAccess makes it easy for not only existing customers, but also new customers to get started on whichever level. There’s no minimum deposit for companies, so they can even get started with low budgets, which kind of brings me to another question, which is, how did you come up with the star level system, which I think it’s pretty unique, and the rates that are attached to it? It works similar for writers and translators, but maybe you can talk a little bit about how that came to be and why it works.

Byron:                                                   Yes. The star system is kind of interesting and it allows people to quickly get pricing, which is really what they want in a platform like this. If you’re going to be the Über of writing, you need to make it simple and make it really, really easy to gauge quality with the price that you pay. And so that’s what the star system is trying to do. Now, having said that, you can read the book that describes the complexity of quality and star ratings and it goes into detail. In general, when you’re pricing a written project out, no matter whether it’s translation or content creation from the ground zero up or copywriting or medical writing, journalism, there’s a lot of things you need to think about when you’re determining what price it is. Obviously, the skill and proficiency of the writer or the translator needs to come into play, but also things outside of that, like the complexity of their project, how much research would be required, the visibility of the project. Is it something that’s going to be a story feature on the cover of the New York Times or… you get the idea. So that’s the challenge that needs to come into play with the star level. So when we say it’s a six-star project, which is our highest star, what we’re saying is this is going to require a high level of skill for the writer or translator completing the work and that there’s complexity with this project, namely there are things that the writer or the translator needs to understand about this project. Maybe there’s a lot of rule sets, so certain things need to be translated a certain way. A bonnet is not the same thing as a trunk in the United States, so the language variation needs to be worked on, and there’s a lot of phrases in this translation that we’ve highlighted that need to be checked to make sure that they’re translated the right way. These are the types of things that are going to make it easy for a customer to say, “I need a six-star translator,” or, “You know, this is pretty easy to translate. There’s not a lot of visibility for this; there’s not huge complexity; there are not unusual words that need to be looked up to understand what they are to then translated or to find a better word within the localization effort.” So those are the factors that need to go into play, and that’s what we’ve tried to do with the whole star level system, is to make it easy for people to understand those variations.

Laura:                                                    Exactly. And translators should know that it’s possible to go up and down in star level as time goes on. Obviously, if you have a lot of successful orders completed, this shows up in the algorithm eventually over time. It’s not a quick thing and our talent managers are on top of it, but it is something to keep in mind.

Byron:                                                   Hopefully, only up.

Laura:                                                    Yeah, exactly. Everyone wants to go up.

Byron:                                                   Rising star.

Laura:                                                    Yeah. But it’s possible and it’s something that works really well.

Byron:                                                   If we do our job on that topic, we’re going… first of all, when you bring in thousands of writers that are unproven and haven’t done one bit of translation for you with one customer, it’s very hard to randomly assign a translation star level. So that’s a super hard job, and we’re trying to make that happen by doing some testing that [0:33:41 Lauren] has tried to help head up to say, “Look, let’s at least have you create one sample for us so we can look at that.” Now, the problem with that approach with that one sample, you could spend eight hours on this one sample, and we don’t know that you spent eight hours. But when we give you a project that you would need to spend about four minutes on that or one minute on that, then hopefully, you’ll do as good of a job as you spent doing eight hours of time. So this is the welcome to our nightmare, frankly, of screening and recruiting talent and making sure we’re putting the best foot forward with a customer that has chosen to work with us. Now, the consequences of failure are remarkable in our business. If you can imagine customers come to us, we’ve paid a lot of money with marketing expense to get these new customers to us, and they try one writer and one translator with one order, and our entire fate, our reputation, is in the hands of that one translator and that one order we’re doing with this one new customer we’ve brought in. It’s remarkable that we’re even in business right now with this kind of pressure put on us and put on you, the translator. But you want to know something? On the writing side of the business, we have more than a 99% chance that we will successfully deliver the content that at least meets or exceeds the customer’s expectation. It’s a miracle that that happens, nothing short of a miracle, but I attribute our success with an incredible talent management team, a smart platform, a fair and honest way and a transparent way we pay our talent, and the opportunity to recruit the best talent that want to work for us versus the competition that are often faced with venture capital-backed dictators that are wanting higher margins or more gorging CEOs and owners that are not transparent, or an inability to screen and recruit and build a good culture both within the company and within the marketplace. These are things that... talk about the stars needing to align. The star system is one thing and how much you can earn, but the starts really need to align if you think about this business model and the complexities. But with translation, it’s up to you guys listening, the fate of translation, in even some of the first orders within the first six months that we complete. We’re going to build our reputation one order at a time, just like we did every other service we’ve ever launched. So we’re going to look at it; we’re going to make hard decisions on who’s in and who’s out. We believe that we have an opportunity here to change the translation world a little bit. I think that it’s a challenging world out there, for sure. Machine learning is with us, but massaging and content transcreation, as we like to call it, I think it’s a step in the future. Localization will always need human beings to be part of it. Language is something that’s critical for us to all deeply understand that the storytelling… you know, content marketing, the center of storytelling is language and content and the words we choose, the words we use with the stories that we tell. So those words need to be chosen really carefully, and particularly with translation, because if we screw that story up, we distort the idea that we’re trying to transfer from one person to another. And that’s a really big part of content marketing, and that’s why we wanted to launch translation services. We want stories to be told around the world, and our customers want that as well. They’re demanding that. They just are very frustrated now because they need to go to these traditional agencies that have a lot of middlemen like our former content marketing agency. It’s quite ironic. We used to be that agency business that we’re now disrupting. We’re saying, “You know what? There’s a better way to work.”

Laura:                                                    That’s great. Yeah, that’s how it is. We’re running out of time a little bit, but I have one last question about how you see the future of WriterAccess, and I heard that we are going to Las Vegas soon, so maybe you can talk a little bit about that.

Byron:                                                   Yeah. Our short term future, in a couple of weeks, we’re headed to a content marketing conference, which is our second year now, where we gather with customers and writers and translators, potentially, and editors and lots of different people in the content marketing space to really learn what’s new and what’s next. We’ve assembled over 30 speakers and 40 keynotes and have packed three days of courses and workshops that will surely educate and entertain. And so we’re excited about that and it’s a great part of our future, and we’re going to really enjoy that in the short term. But the future as it’s more known to the world, I think the future with translation is going to be really exciting and we’re excited to be part of that and to dip our toe in the swimming pool and feel the temperature of the water and get a place hold here so we can stand on a ledge and then dive in fully with a great, robust service that our customers love. But that will depend upon the quality of the translation that we’re able to do and the customers that we’re able to find for you, and the two need to come together and we’ll be working tirelessly to make that happen. So that’s the future of translation with WriterAccess.

Laura:                                                    Absolutely. All right. Well, I think we’ve gone through a lot of information and it’s all very exciting. We will definitely continue to keep all translators up to date and send them tips and tricks to be successful on WriterAccess, but thank you very much, Byron, for taking the time to answer these questions.

Byron:                                                   I’m very open and would love to hear from anybody that’s listening to this. I can be reached at Byron, B-Y-R-O-N, at writeraccess.com. I love hearing from anybody in our talent pool, and specially anybody in the translation pool here of great translators that we’re trying to assemble all over the world. Love to hear from you and really appreciate your support. Thanks for bearing with us while we get this moving and get this started and learn how to transform and advance your careers with great new customers and projects.

Laura:                                                    All right. Well, thank you everyone for listening and we hope to be back soon with a new podcast.