KUDO CEO Fardad Zabetian on Multilingual Meetings and Remote Interpreting

Fardad Zabetian joins SlatorPod to discuss Multilingual Conference Interpreting

Fardad Zabetian, Co-Founder and CEO of multilingual conferencing platform KUDO, joins the pod. Fardad is also the Founder of interpreting solution providers Media Vision and Conference Rental.

Fardad discusses the world of conferences and interpreting, his vision for KUDO from the get-go, and his company’s explosive growth during the pandemic. 

Fardad, who launched another of his businesses, Conference Rental, in the early 2000s, shares anecdotes from the early days of KUDO, talks about his commitment to removing the friction points in sourcing interpreters for the private sector, and tells us about his experience of securing USD 6m in funding during Covid-19. 

First up, Florian and Esther discuss language industry news from a week that saw virtual event platform Touchcast raise USD 55m in funding.

Esther talks about health tech startup Oura, a Finland-based company who hired its first Localization Program Manager, Tarja Karjalainen in 2020. Tarja oversaw localization into three languages in 2020 and told Slator about her company’s current localization model and plans for language expansion in this buyer feature.

The two discuss the latest Slator Language Industry Job Index (LIJI), which climbed more than four points in February 2021, having seen the usual seasonal dip in January. Florian highlights a story picked up in SlatorSweep this week, as the multilingual TEDx corpus for speech recognition and translation was made available in eight original languages and up to five target languages. 

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Florian: Tell us a bit more about your background in the language industry and the previous companies that you founded, including KUDO.

Fardad: I am originally Iranian, I moved to the US back in 2000. I did my grad school in San Francisco and could not find a job. Right after Dot-com burst in San Francisco in early 2000, I started with Media Vision. I am really passionate about language and technology. My dream at that time was providing solutions for diplomats, especially the security council. Growing up in Iran you can imagine how many times you hear during the war about the security council passing this resolution and the security council rejecting this resolution. This was the alternate goal for me. 

I started the company distributing conferencing and language interpretation equipment. First in the US, we grew from there, opened multiple cities in New York and in DC. Fast forward to 2011, I got a phone call that our company got awarded to renovate the entire UN, so that is what brought me from San Francisco to New York. What was a short one-year project management trip turned out to be 10 years. I am based in New York, married with two kids and loving it. 

Then on the side I started the rental company, Conference Rental. It grew fast and became one of the leaders for renting conferencing and language interpretation equipment for organizations, annual events and so on. I have been living and breathing in this space for two decades. Also, understand how fragmented this market is and how many friction points are out there accessing interpreting services for business users. The vision was how can we democratize language access and make it possible for non-traditional users of multilingual admittance, i.e. private sector. That kind of mission resonated with me and our co-founders, and we started working on KUDO, January of 2017. We spent about two years developing the platform, building a community and launching the product at the end of 2018. 

I have one story I want to share about the time at Conference Rental. It was 2009, we were just a three-person company in San Francisco in a very beautiful building called the Phelan building. I had an office, 10 by 20 foot, 200 square foot with three desks. We had the warehouse outside of the city with rental microphones and interpretation equipment. I invested about $850, looked through my contacts and asked an interpreter to come to our office. We were using Skype at that time and contacted all these property managers in Mexico. I just knew that the new Mexican government was going to invest in tourism and bring a lot of international events to Mexico. I invested about $850 for a 45-minute webinar to all these property managers and they wanted to attract tourism to different cities in Mexico. This is 2009, around September. We were using Skype, so I was speaking in English, showing the PowerPoint. The interpreter was sitting next to me, doing interpretation into Spanish and all these conference managers of the hotels were just following. They were so appreciative that somebody from the US reached out and explained their services. 

Fast forward to 2010, that $850 turned out to be about $2.3 million in opportunities for events in Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, Acapulco, with the Olympic committee and the ITU immigration forum. These are large events for a three-person company, this was a huge return on investment. When you think about the 10 years after that at KUDO, I want to bring this opportunity to more businesses, but of course, with a proper platform and proper planning. That is the vision behind KUDO.

Esther: Can you tell us a bit about some of your other key managers, key people, what backgrounds do they have and what kind of expertise do they bring to the business? 

Fardad: The problem we are solving at KUDO, which is removing language barriers for businesses on a global scale, resonates with many people. We have been very fortunate to attract great talents. March 1st of last year, we were a team of 10, today we are about 120 people, so we have grown significantly. Out of this 120 people I have met about 12 of them in person, the rest of them I have not met yet. Just in the month of January, we had 11 new team members that joined us. If you want to ask who are the key people, then I would call all these 125, key people at the company. 

In our DNA at KUDO, we have three major elements. One is software development and product development, the other one is interpretation and the third piece is business and the whole GTM team. On our interpretation, we have a lot of key players in the industry as part of our executive team. We have Ewandro, our Co-Founder who I shared the vision about KUDO back in September 2016. By December, he put his resignation at the UN and moved with his five family members to New York. This is a big risk for anybody here, to move from Geneva to New York to join a startup. Barry, as well, moved, basically built our Client Success team, from a team of one in May of last year, to a team of 16 people, a global client success playbook team. Claudio joined us to lead our Innovation Team, so he is working on many exciting projects to assist interpreters with AI, to prepare for their meetings. 

We have a few other interpreters, people with the language background that are working at KUDO. We are onboarding, training, and also making our product more of a fit with their perspective. Our CTO, Parham has been in the software space for 20 years, enterprise software from the Bay area. He is very focused on our product team, they grew significantly and is about 55 people. There are great team members at the company.

Esther: You had a significant growth over quite a short space of time, which is exciting. Another thing that happened for you in 2020 was raising capital and that was during the pandemic. Do you have any anecdotes from how the process went? How was it raising funding during the pandemic? 

Fardad: It is always great to start raising money when you do not really need money. That makes the process quite interesting. Another fun fact, I met one of our six investors about two months after the round was closed. We raised $6 million without meeting any of our investors in person, so it is a whole new world. Prior to the pandemic, you had to go on the road and see everybody, have lunch and dinner and they come to your office and all that due diligence process but things changed significantly in many areas. 

We have got an amazing and very diverse group of investors in our seed round. From a very Silicon Valley base focus all the way to global funds that have a network of resources available to them. We meant to raise $2 million that was our target and we ended up raising 6 million and that was great. Interestingly enough, we have not touched that money yet. Our business has been operating cash flow positive and we have more in our bank today than the money that we raised. This is just showing how much we have a product-market fit and how the pandemic helped us to accelerate our business plans significantly. 

I looked back at our initial business plan that we put together in January of 2017, all the numbers, the number of customer acquisitions, hires, all the milestones that we have as entrepreneurs. Others are very optimistic and usually wrong on how long it takes to do the first thing, your first client, your first production, but the pandemic proved me to be wrong again. We are about 18 months ahead of our business plans in all areas, product development, customer acquisitions, revenues, hires and so on.

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Florian: The key component of multilingual web conferencing would be the RSI component, at least from the outside. Take us through what were some of the anecdotes from pre-pandemic, from the interpreters, from the clients, et cetera? Then how it transitioned when necessity became the mother of invention in the pandemic, how attitudes change, how people you interacted with changed? How was it before and how is it now and what was the transition like?

Fardad: There are two ways to look at this space. One is you come up with a solution that is more convenient to be used to replace an existing solution, whether it is more accessible, more convenient, less expensive. The other one is that you build a product from the ground up or a business model that opens new opportunities and grows the total addressable market significantly, by making the product easier to use for those who never used it before. We never started KUDO to replace that established market of language interpretation. Yes, many customers are using our product today instead of what they have been using before, but that is a market that I had been in for many years, for two decades to be specific. It is not that I started KUDO to replace exactly what we had prior. 

We built KUDO to unlock opportunities for those with a big smile on their faces for the first time they ever experience simultaneous interpreting. That is the private sector, to unlock the opportunities within the business segment. Listen to 20% of the world’s population, they speak English. 80% of the revenue of Fortune 500 companies are coming outside of the US. We have seen how video became the de facto form of communication, that you can easily speak with anybody anytime independent from where they are. Language remains the main constraint and the border when it comes to communication, and we are here to remove that. Our vision is independent from where you are. You would be able to have access to qualified interpreters easily and bring that interpreter into that conversation, whether it is an intelligence call, whether it is a board meeting, training, town hall meeting. Those who do not speak the main language do not feel that they are afterthoughts. Messages are being communicated live in the languages for those that need to receive those messages, so that is the market that we are after. 

Esther: On the product, can you tell us a bit more about KUDO’s capabilities today, your current offering? Also, with the recent launch of KUDO Marketplace, it would be good to hear how that has been received and how that came about? 

Fardad: We have a few players within the space of cloud-based remote interpretation that provide access for languages within video meetings. There are a few players, but when you look closer to different solutions you see that the positioning is different, the product itself is different. KUDO is not a solution for events, we are not positioning KUDO for live events, for one event with thousands of people. We are a meeting platform. We build a product that is designed from the ground up as a self-service product. You can schedule your own meetings. You can invite your own interpreters, you can post your own voting, your participants, your operators. You would be able to do that on your own as a client, and we have the resources to onboard the client. It is a truly SaaS product with a client account, with reporting structure, with onboarding structure. Then we have an onboarding process for the clients to feel comfortable and support them to be able to do their own meetings on their own. That is how we positioned the product, building a meeting platform from ground up for multilingual meetings. 

Now, the other main challenge is how to access a qualified interpreter. I am not talking to those with an established market, that have their own agencies, network of freelance interpreters or staff interpreters. They already figured it out. They have the resources in place to bring interpreters to their meetings in person or online. If you ask one of these businesses that I need to have a Korean interpreter, I want to do a due diligence call. I really like this company in Korea, I need a Korean interpreter. This business could be in New York. Where do I start as a business? I go on Google and look for a Korean interpreter, I probably get a list of a few agencies. I call them, they need to check their database, their Rolodex of Korean interpreters, whether there is availability. At some point, this business user might rely on somebody who speaks some Korean in the company. This for us is a lost opportunity. 

The idea for marketplace is removing friction points of accessing qualified interpreters. Through a very vetting and very professional process that uses all the algorithms that we are building and also all the checkpoints that we have as reviewers during this process, we remove that friction. We build a delivery platform, now we have this network of amazing and qualified interpreters. With the marketplace, we want to make this accessible to business users. 

Now, the other side is our product on the platform itself. We are pretty much right on top because for us quality is the key. Again, I am the person behind the equipment at the security council so for me, I do not have any tolerance for poor quality. It is not that we positioned the product from the beginning as a quality solution. Now all of our conditions are all about quality when it comes to rates, we follow the highest standard of the rates. Interpreters who want to join our platform, first of all, they need to opt in to be part of the marketplace. Not everybody has a KUDO profile. It is part of the marketplace. They can also select if they want to work on an assignment on an hourly rate or half a day rate or a full day rate, it is their choice. What we have as part of a guideline, if somebody accepts to work on an hourly rate, they have an hourly rate for that entire day. Anything after one hour up to three hours is going to be a half a day rate. Anything after three hours is a full day rate. I have to admit that our rates, from the interpreter’s perspective, are more than some of the organizations. Our rates are very solid and this way, we make sure that we have high-quality interpreters on our platform, but also we are not creating a race to the bottom in the market. Again, quality is in the core of our focus. 

Florian: I understand that it is quite tricky to manage the supply-demand, the equation that is generally in the marketplace. What are some of the key technical challenges for multilingual web conferencing? You need a lot of people in the same room with the audio, video, is that a solved problem? Is it hard to still do proprietary, just tell us a bit more about that? 

Fardad: When it is about the logic of how to match and how the system selects an interpreter, a lot of logic has been built into that, but also we have this reviewer role within our marketplace. This reviewer mode you can see the number of meetings that are scheduled, you can see the number of interpreters that are on the platform at any given time, you also see what is the number of languages. You have all this data available. You can always balance this looking at the week ahead, two weeks ahead, even at the moment. We have this view that you can see all the balance of the number of meetings happening. We built this admin console that we have almost a control command center. You have all the meetings within all our servers, US servers, European servers, so we can have visibility to what is going on and plan accordingly.

There are technical challenges. Especially when you are looking at individuals, calendar availability, change of schedule, how you can have backup plans, how you can bring your interpreter, how you can prep your interpreter. Preparation for an assignment, it is a big thing. Interpreters, they need to have enough time and material prep for an assignment. Going back to our example, the Korean language due diligence, that is not an easy meeting to have, you have to prepare for that meeting, you need to have a pitch, you need to have some documentation ready. 

Building this from the ground up, we have a bit of unfair advantage because of our domain expertise in this space. We considered that. Now we are building tools such as AI Assist to also help them to get real-time feedback for during the meeting, but also shorten that prep time, by having that glossary, by having that AI available to help them to prep for that meeting in a shorter time. That is another thing that we are working on and it is going to be released in February. 

Florian: The video audio component, that is a solved problem? Dialing in multiple people, people dropping off, connections being cut, things like that? 

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Fardad: Video and audio are a commodity today. We are not a video company, never wanted to be a video company. We built KUDO as a language as a service platform. We can move from one video platform to another video platform, independent from the video we are using 12 cloud services on our platform and one of them is video API. We can easily move from different video platforms. Again, it is about the logic you build. Right now we have great audio and video, but we do not know how it is going to be prioritized when we have some connectivity issues. That is how we built KUDO, to prioritize audio over video as well. We want to make sure that we have the frequency range that we need, the latency that we need to have for language interpretation. 

Esther: You mentioned about expanding the market or even creating a new market for this. Who do you think currently are the heaviest users or the main user groups of multilingual web conferencing in general? Do you think that is evolving, is that going to change in the future? 

Fardad: When we started KUDO, signing up clients such as organizations, it was for us the cherry on the cake. It was not the main focus. The main focus was on non-traditional users. Of course, the pandemic accelerated that process. I can tell you in 2020, all the NATO multilingual meetings hosted on KUDO, a lot of intergovernmental agencies, a lot of organizations, a lot of large enterprises. They hosted their meetings on KUDO, many CEOs of tech companies, Fortune 500 tech companies, they address their communities on KUDO either on seven live languages or 15 live languages, depending on the number of languages that their community have. There are a lot of SMBs, small, medium-sized businesses that can benefit from a frictionless experience of having multilingual meetings or bilingual meetings. 

After 20 years from my first exposure to simultaneous interpreting, I am amazed at how talented simultaneous interpreters are. Think about how many interpreters with these talents are out there and how we, amongst other technology companies, make it possible for them to offer this amazing talent that they have to a larger audience. That excites me a lot, bringing them in front of the new users that actually need the language. Some of these organizations, they have to have those languages. Maybe somebody is not even listening to those languages during the meeting but we want to bring those languages into those business settings that people need that interpretation to be able to communicate. 

Florian:  Around AI and speech-to-speech, what is your take? What do you think is the potential for disruption of the human elements, which we so admire, in short, medium, long-term? We are seeing a lot of research going into speech-to-speech but it is nowhere near these fantastic human cognitive abilities we have. 

Fardad: There is a lot of great PR on AI out there, but when you look closer to them, it is just way behind from interactive real-time conversation. That is the focus of KUDO. We are not a subtitling company, we are not a post-production company, we are not a platform for the prescriptive. We are into an interactive conversation, where people can exchange ideas, they can respond, they can debate and nothing is prescriptive. We are not naive. We know that AI is being developed, there is a lot of money being pulled into AI. Even those large companies that have been putting a lot of money into AI, mainly in translation, Google, Facebook, Microsoft. They are still using professional agencies for their own technical documentation and business documentation. That tells you that the technology, even for translation, has come a long way, but still they need a more reliable part there for business settings. I do not see this as a big threat in the near future. 

Esther: You mentioned that you were 18 months ahead of your growth plan in a number of different areas. How are you now refocusing? What are your growth plans in the short term?

Fardad: We have a chance to put a bit of outbound motion for us. We have built our sales team and that is great for us because we have not had a sales team, we have not had any outbound activities. We now have a great sales team with a great leader, he is coming from a previous successful SaaS company and Noel is putting a standard SaaS sales team of account executive SDRs in different regions. We built our APAC region. Duy came in as our first GTM person in Singapore, and we already have five people in the APAC region as our sales team. We are growing really fast and we are investing in our sales and marketing. As far as the dynamics and the mechanics of our team, we are about 58 developers today. While we are investing in sales and marketing, we are heavily investing in our number of products that we are shipping and also, growing our infrastructure. We have grown significantly in usage in the last 12 months. Within three weeks we went from about three million minutes usage per month to three million minutes usage per day. Being able to scale quickly and also have the load in different servers that we have, that is a lot of investment that we are doing in our infrastructure.