Boostlingo CEO Bryan Forrester on Fundraising, M&A, Scaling Interpreting Tech

SlatorPod - Boostlingo CEO Bryan Forrester on Interpreting

In this week’s SlatorPod, we are joined by Bryan Forrester, Co-founder and CEO of Boostlingo, a Texas-based interpreting software and technology provider.

Bryan begins with his journey to co-founding Boostlingo; from selling his first tech startup, Anchor Software, to entering the interpreting space with co-founders Brian D’Agostino and Dieter Runge. The CEO shares his experience partnering with growth equity firm Mainsail Partners in order to scale the business through hiring and M&A. 

He addresses the VoiceBoxer and Interpreter Intelligence acquisitions as part of a strategy to expand into remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) and on-demand scheduling. He talks about some of the technical challenges with VRI and OPI when it comes to bandwidth and firewall permission.

Bryan gives his take on the US interpreting market and how Covid-19 affected the structure of on-site, remote, and hybrid interpreting in healthcare. The pod rounds off with Boostlingo’s plans for 2022 with a build instead of buy approach when training software and integrating telehealth platforms.

First up, Florian and Esther discuss the language industry news of the week, with Microsoft giving early access for select users to their re-engineered multilingual machine translation system. 

Florian talks about the Japanese Government’s claim that their machine translation engine has reached the level of professional translators in the financial sector; a statement also heard from the likes of Google and Microsoft. In media localization, Esther shares Keywords Studios’ full-year 2021 results, which saw revenues grow by more than a third from 2020 thanks to the buoyant video games industry. 

Esther gives an update on the Slator Language Industry Job Index, which is up by six points since the beginning of 2022, only two points lower than the all-time high in December 2021

Transcript

Florian: Take us back to the origin story. How did you meet the co-founders and what was the original idea? 

Bryan: The two Co-Founders, Brian D’Agostino and Dieter, I had known prior. We were friends before Boostlingo started. Boostlingo was not the first tech startup that I co-founded. In fact, the last company that I sold was in the IT services space and the MSP channel. I was coming out of an earn-out period from that acquisition and getting the startup itch again when Dieter and Brian approached me with this idea in the interpreting space. Dieter had been working for language service companies for, at the time, over a decade, so he saw a real big opportunity in interpreting and it piqued my interest. We started looking at the competitive landscape as you would do when you start thinking about launching a company and we saw some big, impressive companies in a massive market with an opportunity to innovate in technology. We started doing industry surveys and luckily got a lot of validating responses to those surveys and all the checkboxes were getting checked that you would look for when you want to greenlight a project. We started the business in early 2016 and that is how the origins came to be. Like most startups, the first couple of years were developers in a dark room coding but we launched our first product in late 2017 or early 2018. 

Florian: Tell us more about the core technology offering and if you provide any services. What is the key USP that you give the salespeople when they go out there and do some business development? 

Bryan: We have pivoted 20 times in the early years on our go-to-market focus and learned a lot early on as you would when you start a startup. Boostlingo’s mission has always been pretty constant though, despite all those pivots. Boostlingo’s tech innovation re-imagines the way that language interpreting services are delivered and that increases language access and improves communication globally. That has always been the mission of our company. We are a tech platform first. We do a lot of different things, especially in light of these new acquisitions, but we are a comprehensive IMS system, an interpretation management system, mainly for LSPs and language agencies to scale their interpreting business. Interpreting has a lot of different use cases. There are a lot of different modalities and so our platform is aimed at covering scheduling for in-person interpreting and managing the workflow from beginning to end for scheduling in-person jobs. As you know a lot of language agencies do a high volume of in-person interpreting and we found back in 2016, 2017, that a lot of them were still doing it through spreadsheets. It was not scalable. They needed a better platform to manage that workflow, and then on top of that we are a prescheduled phone and video platform, so in certain use cases you are not using on-demand phone and video, you are prescheduling phone and video calls. It is a prescheduled event and sometimes there are reasons that you would have a prescheduled event versus an on-demand modality. 

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Then, of course, on-demand interpreting which has been growing rapidly, even before the pandemic rolled on the scene, but on-demand OPI and VRI. We think of our platform as a management system first, so a lot of LSPs use us almost like a CRM platform. They can manage all their customers through a single interface. It is multitenant. They can manage all their customers in one UI. On top of that, we are what we call an IDP, which stands for a delivery platform, so our LSPs do not just use us to manage their interpreting business but to deliver the service to their customers and they can white label the platform and go to market. One other big key component to our value proposition is our BPIN. That is just short for Boostlingo Professional Interpreter Network or our crowd, and a lot of our LSPs leverage that crowd so that they can scale their on-demand services, as they may not be able to cover 200 languages 24/7 online because, with on-demand, it is all about supply and demand. You have got to have the interpreters on the line to take the calls that your customers need. The BPIN allows them to do that.

Florian: You announced recently that you acquired VoiceBoxer and Interpreter Intelligence, so tell us more about that.

Bryan: I am super excited about these acquisitions. The last three or four weeks have been very busy here at Boostlingo HQ. Each of these companies respectively bring a lot to the table for Boostlingo. With Interpreter Intelligence, we are acquiring a platform that has a lot of overlap with Boostlingo so in a way, there is a little bit of a competitive overlap with Interpreter Intelligence because they do scheduling for in-person in their platform, we do scheduling for in-person in our platform and we both have similar LSP customers, but what we learned early on from Interpreter Intelligence and their team is that they had gone deeper in terms of customization for in-person scheduling. They had robust reporting for in-person interpreting. They had better vendor management for managing the linguists themselves and those customizations were not a focus of our dev team because a lot of our customers are asking us to continue to innovate on the phone and video side so when we would get requests for continuing to enhance our in-person scheduling, as much as we wanted to work on that, it would always fall down the roadmap priority list. That did not mean we did not care about it, and we did not want to continue to improve on it, so Interpreter Intelligence brings a lot of valuable IP as it relates to managing linguists and managing in-person scheduling. Not to mention I have known Conor, the CEO of Interpreter Intelligence for a long time. He is a committed leader and a talented developer himself, but also a development leader. I think he was ready to focus more on the dev side and hang up the CEO hat and he shared my vision that one plus one equals three in this scenario, so we bought Interpreter Intelligence for the team and the IP. 

VoiceBoxer is a very different type of acquisition because VoiceBoxer’s focuses on RSI, remote simultaneous interpreting which is not something that Boostlingo does or did prior to the acquisition. The IP is truly a new module in Boostlingo, if you think about it and so that IP was very valuable to us because we looked at that market. If you have been paying attention to the private equity environment around RSI, there have been a lot of investments lately with VoiceBoxer’s competitors and there is a reason for that. More and more of these events are happening virtual or they are happening in a hybrid type of model and so we knew that was a market we wanted to get into and we did not have the focus to build it ourselves and we knew it would take a long time if we tried. Getting to know Sergio and his team has been awesome. We also know that the VoiceBoxer team being in Copenhagen will help us have a better presence in EMEA where RSI is very popular. I would argue it is even more prevalent than in any other region in the globe. Of course, we see RSI growing in the United States and in Asia-Pac. We have that team in Copenhagen with an amazing platform and they have some cool features that none of the RSI providers have built or maybe they are building, but they do not have them yet. Overall both of the acquisitions will round out this comprehensive unified platform that we are trying to build. 

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Florian: You received funding from an investment firm called Mainsail Partners, so what was first? The desire to do M&A or doing the raise and then having the opportunity to do M&A? Tell us more about how you partnered up with Mainsail and what is the story there. 

Bryan: Early on in startups, you are often worried about what you are going to do tomorrow. Everything is chaotic. It is like the Wild Wild West and then as you start to scale, you start to plan farther ahead, and even going into 2021, we did not have any intention of raising money. We were trending towards profitability where the business was growing rapidly. My early seed investors were asking, why would we even take money at this point? Things are going very well, but when I started to look at what investments we needed to make to scale the business to the next level and talked to our management team about it at the time, it became apparent that we could not scale as fast as we needed to scale without getting a partner on board. Boostlingo had many firms contact us and were interested in making an investment but Mainsail had a compelling case. They have a strong background in building sales and marketing machines and I got to know the Mainsail investors very well for the six months leading up to the deal and ultimately decided to go with them. What that has allowed us to do is hire a lot of executive leadership that we would not have been able to hire, so we added a lot of cash to our balance sheet, and then it also helped us acquire these two companies. When we took the investment with Mainsail, we knew we might want to do some M&A, but we did not have any specific targets in mind at the time. It was just to help the business scale to the next stage. 

Florian: Are they quite active? You mentioned sales and marketing, can you tap into their expertise and network when it is needed or is it a very proactive approach?

Bryan: I would say that they are very hands-on where we need them to be and hands-off where we do not and that is what you want in an investment partner. I joke with them internally because oftentimes I am amazed that they know more about some aspects of the market than I do. They have a lot of research prowess going on behind the scenes and that means they can help us do different studies to understand if we are making the right decision in terms of our go-to-market strategy or in terms of our product roadmap strategy, so they do help us and get involved where we ask them to.

Florian: What are some of the key drivers in the US market and some of the key drivers in the EMEA market for you guys?

Bryan: In the US market, remote interpreting, especially consecutive interpreting has been growing rapidly, even prior to Covid it was rolling up on the scene. The US is an interesting market. First of all, you have a privatized healthcare market, but there is this compliance overhead that requires healthcare organizations to provide interpreting services in most cases, so if they are taking government subsidies, for example. What that has done is driven a massive market in interpreting, especially remote interpreting because bandwidth, even in rural areas, has gotten better over time. It is much more economical to get a video interpreter than have an interpreter go on site. Of course, having an onsite interpreter is always going to be the best qualitative experience you are going to have but in a lot of cases, it does not make sense, especially if it is just a 15-minute or a 20-minute doctor consultation, so it depends on the use case. Due to this compliance overhead, there are hundreds of thousands of medical entities that our partners can sell to so that has been a huge driver in the US and it continues to be. We still view it as a Greenfield market. We also see huge opportunities in legal, education and the public sector in consecutive interpreting. As these events become more and more hybrid and remote because of the pandemic, we see RSI growing a lot in the US as well, but consecutive is still by far the largest in terms of the revenue pie in the United States. 

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It is very different in Europe. I was amazed when I went to a conference in Munich three years ago and I saw five booths for RSI technology vendors. I remember looking at my colleague at the time and saying, you would never see this in a US trade show, what is the difference here? It is because of how unique the European market is and you have all these countries with different languages jammed together on a continent. What it allows for is more and more event-based interaction where it is multilingual meetings. It is not just one language you need, but multiple languages that you need at these meetings. Of course, that has led to a proliferation of RSI technology on the European continent and now we see it growing in other regions. Whereas the dichotomy there is that the consecutive market in Europe is actually much younger, it is much more green. We view that as a huge opportunity because what happened in the US with healthcare, what happened in the US with these different vertical markets I talked about, is starting to happen in Europe and Asia-Pacific as well, including LATAM. We see it in all regions. We see the opportunity, so the difference is in the US. I view it as more consecutive with growing RSI, and in Europe, I view it as more RSI with growing consecutive, if that makes sense. 

Florian: How do language combos matter for you for the platform for the scheduling? Are you completely language-agnostic in a sense? If it is Spanish-English, English-Spanish, it is still a lot easier than if it is a low resource language? 

Bryan: When you are talking about on-demand services and language support, there are economies of scale and more volume helps cover what you are describing as the longer tail languages. Certainly Spanish, at least in the US market, is over 40% of the volume that goes through our platform, so it is as you would expect. Intuitively the most common language. Boostlingo is servicing over 220 languages on-demand and 24/7, so that was hard to do early on. When you are doing a low volume of calls, it is hard to support the diffused languages because they are only getting called once a week. Of course, now they are getting called even though the rare languages are getting called a lot and at Boostlingo we do not hire interpreters ourselves. We do not view ourselves as a service provider in that way. We are a technology hub that is connecting LSP labor pools together and so we are routing calls to other language service providers. We call that our BPIN and so it has been easy for them to staff those languages as the volume through our platform has grown.

Florian: Apart from the availability component, is that the only language-related challenge on the platform other than that technically? There is nothing else? 

Bryan: There is when you start thinking about a couple of different things, so you get a couple of different language pairs that do not include English and you need an interpreter from Turkish to Russia or you need an interpreter from French to Spanish, English is not part of that language pair. That is a significant challenge because when we say we support 220 languages that are to and from English but when you start thinking about the number of language pairs you can have when you do not involve English, it is exponential. You could have literally hundreds of thousands of language pairs. That is the challenge and that is what we are trying to build, a global network that can support all these different regions that may not need English in the language pair so that is a long-term challenge for us. The other thing I would say is we do a lot of American Sign Language through our platform, and of course, spoken language and sign language are different in a lot of ways. They have different compliance regulations and overheads. They are managed by different organizations and the needs of our LSP partners that do a lot of ASL are very distinct from our spoken word LSPs. That is another challenge in language when you are trying to build a platform that can both help the language providers that are providing spoken language services versus helping the deaf community. Now a lot of LSPs are doing both, so it is an education on teaching them how to support both. 

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Florian: Walk us through some of the technical issues with VRI and RSI that you need to solve.

Bryan: Number one, the acquisitions are just a few weeks behind us, so we are learning more and more about some of the technical challenges in providing RSI. What is clear is that bandwidth has always been a challenge but it is getting better across the globe. There is no question about it. Bandwidth is getting better. Part of the challenge is latency, jitter, those types of QoS metrics you would want to keep track of, especially, in a high-profile event where you have got 20 interpreters logging in, you have got a thousand participants on the call, stakes are high. If it is a hybrid event, you have the challenge of potentially having a local area network, so what I mean by hybrid is a lot of people are at the event, but the interpreters are not and other people are logging in remotely. The challenge there is getting a good experience for the people that are onsite that need those interpreting resources. They might be in a land that has firewall permission issues or depending on where you are on the exhibitor floor, the internet may not be as good versus the attendees that are remote so making sure that everybody has an equal experience. 

One thing VoiceBoxer has done well is come up with innovative and creative solutions to solve that hybrid scenario. Our core business is phone and video. Video has always been a little bit of a challenge because it is much easier to do an audio call. The bandwidth requirements are much lower. You do not need to worry about what webcam somebody is using and on the interpreter side, you do not have to worry about them being in a private setting and being dressed professionally, so all those things are challenges with video. What we have seen even in the last four years is that video has just gotten so much better through our platform. A lot of that has to do with bandwidth naturally getting better over time. A lot of it has to do with the video SDKs we write over the Cloud, the Codex we use. It negotiates bandwidth better so you get a higher definition video feed with fewer bandwidth requirements. It is a login to the video world we live in. As I always tell people, our business was growing fast before the pandemic, but without question, the pandemic poured some fuel on the trend line of remote interpreting. Poured fuel on the fire there. It turns out it is good to have a remote platform when everybody is working remotely.

Florian: Are you following what is going on in speech-to-speech machine translation at all? Is that something that is on your radar? Big Tech companies like Meta and Google are all working on solutions or semi-automated solutions. What are your thoughts on that?

Bryan: First of all, we do keep an eye on it and the technology is incredible. What is interesting in the last five or six years, is the advancements made in speech-to-text, not just from the big guys. I have seen a lot of the smaller startups create some amazing products and so we view AI as a component of language interpreting, especially in certain use cases. Fundamentally Boostlingo believes that interpreting is a human experience. There is a reason video interpreting is growing so rapidly compared to audio interpreting. People want eye contact, they want visual cues, they want to see a human and there is such a deep, emotional component to interpreting. Think about all the nuances of language, slang, and sarcasm. All of those types of things that machines are going to have a hard time with, even five, 10 years down the road, and the need to connect with a human when you are having in-depth conversations about your chemotherapy or treatments you need for your kids with your doctor. It is a lot more than just being able to do speech-to-text when we think about interpreting as a whole. That being said, there are a lot of consumer use cases where AI plays a huge role. For example, if you travel to Japan and you want to order some sushi rolls at the restaurant from the waiter, it is a couple of sentences. You can bust out your Google Translate and it is going to be much better than it was six or seven years ago. We are even building some AI and machine learning components into our call workflows. Even though interpreting is happening with a human, we are building more of that AI technology into our platform and so yes, we keep an eye on it. It is cool tech to look at and we think it is going to be more and more prevalent for certain types of use cases, but I do joke with people that humans will still be used for interpreting long after every car on the road is driving itself because we think that it is such a hard profession to automate due to the complexities of the job. 

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Florian: You mentioned a few things that you are going to build into the platform. What is on the tech roadmap for the next two to three years? Of course, you have some integration work to do but is there anything specific you can already mention? 

Bryan: You hit the nail on the head with the integration work. A lot of work ahead of us in 2022, integrating VoiceBoxer and Interpreter Intelligence into the Boostlingo core platform. Integration in general is a big theme for us. We are pursuing large integration projects with EMR and EHR vendors. We have an open API and an SDK that developers can build on. We are also building integration projects with different telehealth platforms and not just in the US but abroad as well. We are also building training software so that LSPs that have training programs for their interpreters can leverage Boostlingo to facilitate those training jobs. We are working on all features that our LSP partners are asking for, to enhance their experience and give them the features that they need to support their customers and that could mean integration with the backend. We have already integrated with QuickBooks. We already integrate with Stripe, but what else do we need to integrate with that our partners use commonly? Those are all important themes that we are focused on in 2022 and frankly, into 2023. Some other big things are coming down the road that I cannot quite speak to yet, but I am excited to talk about our product roadmap as it evolves.

Florian: In terms of building the company and the next steps, where do you see this going? In the traditional LSP world, a lot would exit the private equity or sell to a bigger player, but you seem to be very much in a building mode. Is that a correct assumption? What is your timeframe there too, IPO or next round or something? 

Bryan: The short answer is YTD. At the moment we are focused on building the best-unified platform for language service providers and continuing to innovate to stay ahead of competitors and also understanding the market trends, expanding internationally. That is a huge focus of our business now because a lot of our revenues are concentrated in the US, so we are expanding internationally. We have already made a lot of progress there but we are excited about these emerging markets. Interpreting, in general, is going to continue to grow rapidly but technology is going to play a bigger role. There is the saying, I think from DS-Interpretation a long time ago, that interpreters are not going to be replaced by technology, interpreters that do not know how to use technology will be replaced. That rings true and remote interpreting is going to be a huge growth engine for the language industry in general. If you look across all the different services that are under the umbrella of the language industry, remote interpreting has got to be one of the fastest-growing. Especially, in the emerging markets where there is even better bandwidth and better infrastructure that is being built. There is just a huge opportunity in these markets and having the ability to provide all the different modalities of interpreting is huge. It is worth saying that big platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams are going to play a role in this too. They are too widespread, ubiquitous not too, and so a challenge for not just Boostlingo but other competitors of ours, is how do you work well with those different platforms? Otherwise, you are probably leaving some money on the table.