Interactio Co-founder and Chief Business Development Officer Simona Andrijauskaitė joins SlatorPod to discuss the Lithuanian startup’s journey — from streaming audio to phones and working with churches in the US, to becoming a key partner to some of the world’s biggest international organizations and facilitating interpreting for conferences with tens of thousands of participants.
Simona talks about how the pandemic boosted demand and changed their primary market, with institutions needing technology for multilingual communication. She relates how it was all hands on deck at the remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) platform, as years of development were compressed into weeks to scale the product as quickly as possible during the early months of the pandemic.
She also reflects back on their recent USD 30m round and how they managed to raise one of the biggest series As in the language industry. She closes with the company’s plans to improve quality on all levels, including hiring top talent.
First up, Florian and Esther discuss the language industry news of the week, kicking off with Straker Translations’ announcement of a USD 15.5m capital raise. The company plans for half of the placement to go to institutional investors only, and the remaining half to a mix of institutional and retail.
Esther talks about the Language Industry Job Index (LIJI) that, after a five-month growth streak, shrank for the first time since January 2021. Despite the four-point dip from May to June, the LIJI has climbed 26 points since the start of the year, confirming that the job market is still on an upward trajectory.
Esther also unpacks the controversial new RFP for translation services released by the Dutch Ministry of Justice (est. contract value, USD 40m), which has drawn criticism from translators and interpreters.
Meanwhile, Florian reviews the continuing evacuation from Afghanistan of the US Department of Defense, a story picked up by this week’s SlatorSweep. Plans are in the works to withdraw thousands of Afghan interpreters who worked in dangerous conditions alongside American troops.
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Florian: Tell us about your personal and professional background, and what got you into this business?
Simona: I have been in the industry for seven years. This is how long Interactio has been out already. Before that, I was actually in business development and in the fashion business. My other Co-founder Henrikas, who is CEO at the company, was also in the business background and we met at the university. We used to work on so many different projects trying to solve so many different problems and for us, it was always about solutions to particular big industry problems. We got into the industry, learned, and listened to the clients. We do that really well and this is how we came up with a solution. We also have another Co-founder and our CTO Domas Labokas. He is the Dev guy, the person who built the product that we have at the moment.
We gathered seven years ago and we started solving a different problem. It was also in the events industry, so we had an app that turns your phone into a microphone so if you have a question and you are sitting at the back of the audience, instead of raising a hand you click a button and then talk to your phone and everybody can hear through the audio system. This was a very fun and interesting thing and it brought us into many conversations with event organizers, and we were actually a pretty big hit in Asia. Apparently, they were using us for karaokes which helped us to realize that sometimes when you come up with some technological solution, people might find different ways to use it and since we were good listeners from the beginning, that was our job, in business that is what you do.
We started to see different opportunities and different problems to solve, so audio streaming was always our strongest, and then when we started to talk to clients. They asked if we could make the sound go the other way around, so not from the phone to the laptop and then to the audio system, but from a laptop to many phones. They had an issue with some of their interpretation equipment, it was very complicated to deliver, had many errors and not that good quality sometimes.
We listened to the market, made a switch and then in 2015 started to work heavily with churches in the US. They were our first clients because one particular church, an international multilingual church in Lithuania, was the first one to push us towards this because they wanted to buy more receivers for interpretation and that would have cost them a lot of money and it was quite a hassle for them. Churches brought this completely different view and different angle. That was a pivotal moment for us.
When we started we thought that we would potentially replace hardware equipment in conferences and live events with an app. We started to do that for the participants. In the beginning, we did not touch the interpreter side because we knew that we had to provide really good quality and test it way more in order to bring that into action so we started with attendees because that was something that we had already. We knew how to stream audio to phones and churches showed us that. When you read the messages of the people who actually received some content, a message that this is changing their lives, you do not have to be religious to understand that the message is the key.
Then we realized that what we do here is allow people to speak different languages, converse in their preferred language and be closer to other people so we excluded separation. There are 60 million Spanish speakers and they live apart, and churches wanted to connect them and we just started reading comments. They were telling us how it changed their lives, the messages they were finally able to hear and that was insane. We realized we are here to solve a very big communication problem and make sure that people can converse in their preferred language. The second big thing the church has brought us is that we became an RSI solution that is able to support the biggest number of events since every Sunday around 100 churches would connect and we would be able to scale it really fast. We learned to work with big arenas of participants and it helped us to scale the technology.
Florian: You had this vision for one business, but then you were very quickly pulled into something else that worked and probably paid well but you had to rethink your strategy a bit. Was that a comfortable shift or was there a little bit of anxiety around moving the model?
Simona: It was an extremely uncomfortable shift because you have this one solution, one business model. We had the name here, Baltic Startup World named us as one of the top startups. We pitched an event, we got exposure and suddenly we had to change the product completely. Solving a different problem, similar market, but different budgets, different everything so we even had to shut down the app that we had for the mic, so it was very uncomfortable. It was a big risk, but we felt more comfortable after we started calling potential clients without even having a solution.
We heard from big organizers who are struggling with interpretation in live events. They are not able to support as many languages as they wanted to because it requires booths, which requires space. Delivering equipment to the participants was so complicated, people had to stand in the lines for hours in some cases to receive an interpretation receiver. We realized that we are here to solve a problem. We already knew of some potential clients before having the solution and that gave a little bit of strength and safety. We knew that this would be a solution to a big problem.
Esther: Is Interactio providing the technology only, or do you also have a large pool of qualified interpreters that you work with? Do your clients source interpreters from you or do they bring their own?
Simona: When we started we only replaced participants’ receivers with the mobile app. We did not want to go into interpreters tools before we got the right feedback and before we did the appropriate research. In 2018, when we were actually able to do that, we added remote interpretation when it was closer to the quality that we wanted. Then we added the remote interpreter side and at the beginning, we were still providing only technology. Later on, we started to see that the client wanted us to offer the full service because we can also control the quality since we needed to train some interpreters.
In order to be able to provide that service, we started cooperating with language solution companies and the agencies that provide interpreters because they would do the quality assurance for us. Especially in the last year, many interpreters started to apply directly to us because in some cases it is easier for everybody. Now we have a combination. In some cases, we have client’s interpreters that we train happily. In other cases, the client requires the full solution so in that case, we will either cooperate with language solution companies, or we have a database of our freelancers that apply directly.
Esther: Tell us a bit more about the wider addressable market for Interactio. What kinds of companies and organizations make up this addressable market and how do you view that?
Simona: We started with churches almost at the same time we started to work with conferences. Live on site events were our cup of tea. This is where we were scaling and up until Covid, we started to work with extremely large events so we supported the demand of up to 120,000 people. Some of them were in the US, Europe, or Asia. We reached the large events market because we were able to support the scale. Churches helped us to bring those numbers up and to provide technology that can support it. Then some online events started to happen. internal meetings and corporate as well. There is one client in Japan that is using this three times per day because they need interpretation that often, and there are just online meetings or on site meetings.
Once Covid hit, we got in touch with many institutions and that is now our primary market. Naturally, they had the biggest issue, conferences could be postponed and many event organizers did that but for European institutions or the UN, they were not able to communicate and their primary job was to solve global issues like this one. Multilingual communication suddenly became impossible because on site meetings cannot happen and all of their tools to provide multilingual communication were on site. They had to go fast in order to be able to work so we started to focus on this because we had talks with them already at the end of 2019. For many institutions, it was two-year projects to start with, then that turned into something that they had to deliver way faster.
Florian: Tell us about those initial first weeks and the thinking on your side. You mentioned the web summit, this type of business was basically wiped out and then all of a sudden you get interest from world-changing organizations like the UN and European Union. How was that from a business perspective? How did you go through this phase and how did you prioritize things?
Simona: The interesting thing is that we did not really have this gap where there would be nothing happening because we had discussions with institutions already before the beginning of 2020 so we were working on many long-term projects. Then there were many corporate meetings that simply never stopped, but we started to see many cancellations for the conferences, and that was okay. Almost instantly institutions started to approach us or continue the conversations that we started. One important thing is that a few months back ISO standard for remote interpretation was launched and initiated. It meant that finally remote interpretation had standards, and had quality assurance in a way that up until then was not possible because there were no criteria. That was a big push that was also initiated by institutions and this is where we met all the key RSI platforms, institutions, interpreters, hardware manufacturers, and we all started to cooperate on so many things.
For us, the demand started to come right away in the first months of 2020 and when Covid hit. There was no gap or thinking of where to go. This demand came from different places and long-term projects started to become short-term. It was a very tough time because we knew what institutions wanted, they gave their instructions carefully to us and to deliver that we needed basically to redesign our product completely. This was the time when we were the most efficient ever. It used to be that in the evening we received feedback from institutions, then overnight our developers are providing the needed changes and the next day we meet again with institutions for further feedback, sharing what we did over the day. That happened for a few weeks until we had what they needed and in a way, the product that we have now is almost custom made from the feedback of institutions. The team worked like crazy, we put all of our hearts into it because we knew that this is the time to make things happen and to solve the barrier that appeared for multilingual communication.
Florian: From a linguistic perspective, are the lack of visual cues and latency issues still a problem? How do you approach and deal with them?
Simona: Delay is not a problem at all because we solved that problem years ago when we had live events because this is where you need to have an extremely low delay. Our clients, conference organizers, would try to create a solution like ours but would get a 22-second delay and we would have a 200-millisecond delay. We built the video quality, the audio quality that was needed and we historically focused on quality rather than features. We always were the ones a bit behind in terms of features because we can build them anytime when it is requested by the client but the audio and video quality was the number one priority for us.
One unexpected challenge once Covid hit was that we made video quality that was higher than usual and when everybody connected online the internet connection everywhere crashed a lot. That was the beginning of the Covid, so this was something that we had to fix. We lowered the quality of the video a little bit so that it matches the huge traffic that was happening on the internet. Then I would say now the biggest technical challenge that we have, is not on the interpreter side because we train them, we have hubs where they are located sometimes and they know what equipment they need to have, what internet speed they need to have. The biggest technical problem is the participants’ side of things. When we have remote participation happening, how to ensure that participants are using microphones, that they have a stable connection, that all of them are following the requirements.
This still remains the biggest challenge and we know this because we have talked to so many interpreters and we are running those researches now trying to see where the biggest problems are. Communication towards attendees and making sure that attendees comply with what is needed so that interpreters can do their job well. This is one of the biggest issues. We try to go around that, including things in a contract, the requirements and so on, but it is still not a full solution. Now we have the whole team working towards solving things like that. We see that we could add some incentive for the participants, probably multiple different solutions, but surprisingly, this is the biggest challenge at the moment.
Esther: Are there any other objections that you hear from interpreters at the moment that are big concerns and has that changed pre-pandemic to now?
Simona: When we just started this, we were trying to solve the problem for the end-users and the client, basically. Then once we realized that we are the bridge for the interpreters, participants, clients and the speakers, we started to talk to interpreters and there was a big resistance from their side. They were naturally afraid of the work conditions this will bring if remote interpretation will become the way of working, and how this will even look like. We did quite a lot of education, quite a lot of demos and training, and we would try to hear out their objections and try to see how we can solve them.
In the beginning, the major questions were around the working environment and how to make sure that when I work from home I will have the support needed. How do I communicate also with my booth partner, what happens if something happens to my connection or there is background noise? Some solutions were provided by the industry patrons themselves, there are now interpreter hubs in multiple cities where you can come and interpret, where they monitor you, help you out, have technicians and so on. There are also many testing environments for interpreters so we can control the interpreter environment. In a technical way we can see if they are connected to the ethernet cable, if the battery is connected to the laptop, we can let them know about the speed of their internet and so many things were developed in terms of tools. Those objections are less frequent now after Covid since it is more clear how their environment should look like, and they have done this many times so it is becoming easier.
I would say that right now we have very different concerns from different interpreters. In our case, we tend to work more with senior interpreters, the ones that work with institutions at the moment. Junior interpreters are just starting their journeys or do not have a lot of experience so for them it is probably different questions and different challenges. The institutional interpreters and senior interpreters still work a lot with hybrid events and we mostly do hybrid meetings in institutions. This is where we are integrating hardware on site to make sure that interpreters can be working in the institution, using the equipment that is there but other interpreters are in a hub, maybe some of them are at home. Those challenges for them are more about the quality of providing the hybrid meeting, so what to do if my partner is on site but I am online, how to overcome those types of things.
I imagine that the biggest concern that they have is what if every interpreter would go online. That would be a big problem for them because some of them do not want this. It is not comfortable for them in general or they work in Brussels anyway, so they could come on site. The solution that we are providing here is we partner with some manufacturers of equipment and we provide direct integrations so that they have tools, they have flexibility. Even being in the same booth, providing interpretation to the same language, one interpreter could be online and the other could be on site. That was not even possible before, so our goal now is to provide flexibility and not compromise the quality. I would say that still a lot of objections or concerns are still about the quality coming from the participant side. This is not something that we control fully, but we see this as our responsibility anyway.
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Florian: Who sets up these interpreter hubs? Is it the interpreter driven community or is it you?
Simona: In the past, we used to do this for specific clients. Let us say we had a medical client that had a huge conference in Singapore and the interpreter agency that they work with are in Germany so they needed a secure environment, they needed the best quality, they wanted tech support to be next to them and so on. What we did there is we set up the recording studio in Germany where our technicians came and we rented it. We provided laptops so that the interpreters just come and interpret, they do not have to worry about anything and there is some physical support if needed. In those cases, we support this.
It is like going to an on site event. We usually send our technicians but in many other cases when the client needs this on a frequent basis, institutions now are needing it, they are the ones owning the hubs. We are just here to support them any way possible, so I would say when the more frequent usage is needed, the client wants to own a place like this or have it in their own environment and then we are supporting them, so it is a mix.
Esther: Do you work with other tech companies or Big Tech at all? What is the relationship like, if there is any?
Simona: Interesting fact is that last year our platform worked together with 43 different video streaming platforms, which is a very high number and we were even surprised when we got those stats. We realized that we have our own full solution, we have our own Zoom with interpretation. We have a multilingual video meeting platform, but in some cases, clients have only a few meetings that need interpretation, but the other online meetings are happening on their own preferred platform. In that case for them to switch between platforms is just not really convenient so we restream the event to our platforms so that interpreters can use professional tools and participants can use the platform of their choice. We do those workaround integrations with multiple different platforms.
Talking about the direct partnerships, there is a time when those video platforms are receiving a request so they send us their clients sometimes. It is more like informal recommendations that are happening since they are not providing anything, but they know that we are compatible with their platform. In our case, I would say that since our primary target is the institutional space and professional events, we comply or integrate mostly with the platforms that institutions use, so this is our priority at the moment. Later on, we will definitely expand further in the corporate space because we have quite many corporate clients already. We make sure that the platform institutions use can comply with what we have because we are building security compliance quite heavily now.
Florian: Would you put all these fast emerging video conferencing platforms in the same kind of Big Tech bucket? Or would you think about them differently?
Simona: For us, I would say that we do not think about them too much because our side of things is to provide professional interpretation to the end client. Whenever our big clients are requesting certain integrations, we make sure to do it because they know that the platform is compliant already, it is secure, it went through all the checkmarks for them. We know that we just need to work with them and that is it. We are not in a strategy right now to integrate or be compliant with any platform out there so we do not need to segment them. This is not our priority at this moment, but that market itself is definitely very interesting. We have a more niche segment because we work with multilingual needs. We are here to be an add on when needed to certain platforms but at the moment we do not aim to be integrated into any video platform.
Esther: In terms of operations, how do you handle things like interpreter scheduling, managing or sourcing different language combinations, for example?
Simona: For that reason, we still work with agencies quite a lot and that was our strategy from the beginning since they do the quality assurance. At the moment we are working with our own 1000 interpreters that are on our database, which is not a big number at all. For us, the biggest challenge is and always has been to provide quality and whatever add ons we have in our services. In this case, the biggest challenge is definitely to provide the right segmentation of interpreters, do the quality assurance, and that is a very complicated topic in general. Out of the pool of interpreters that come in, how do you segment them?
Currently, we have multiple criteria, so some of it is simply their education and their certificates that they hold already, that is very often the needed quality. There are also different topics that they are experienced working with and now we are also receiving the feedback from participants and this is something we will be integrating. In general, there are two big topics for us now to cover, so one is qualification, how to do that correctly and even better than we do now and make sure that client gets what they are expecting. Also because our platform is associated with the quality that interpreters are providing. The other is the training so how compliant they are with our platform and that comes to client’s interpreters as well, but also the ones that we are booking. Training and qualification are definitely two big areas that we are now exploring further and investing in.
Florian: From the highly professional interpreter to all this language technology, do you follow this? Is it a distraction because there is no automated machine interpreting component to your business, or is it something you are closely monitoring?
Simona: We are more or less in this industry so we are monitoring and seeing what is happening, what is new but at the same time, we strongly believe in having one focus at a time. At the moment, having client lists, providing quality, we cannot fail at that. It must be error-free. In our case, the focus is to provide compliant technology, the best audio and video quality possible, and to have a quality assurance that matches with industry standards for interpreters. When we talk about other add-ons, and there are many, like AI automated translation, this is something that we implement on demand when we see that our big clients are requesting something like that.
At the moment we do not have plans to work with artificial intelligence or with automated translations. It is definitely something to explore and our research is looking into things like that because there may be some tools to support interpreters for starters and who knows where this will end up 20 years from now. At the moment this is not our key focus. We are just keeping our eyes open, talking about further tools for interpreter expansion.
Florian: Let us close on a question around your recent series A round. Storm Ventures, Eight Roads, Change Ventures, Notion Capital and Skype’s Founder, Jaan Tallinn, how did this come about? Did they reach out, did you reach out? What is the plan now? Where do you want to grow? What are some of the strategic priorities for the next few years now?
Simona: It was quite a big series A round. Probably the largest in the RSI industry so far, but that is because we did not raise huge funds before. We were definitely playing around with this idea for a while. We said, series A is the next step definitely to scale things up and we started conversations with investors a while ago. When you are a startup or scale-up company, you always have a network of investors that you talk to from the beginning because that is a relationship that you are building. We knew some of those investors a while ago, they knew us so it is never just overnight. Venture capitals have unicorns in their portfolios, it is angel investors that have done something similar in the audio space and this is something that we needed as a value add on, not only money-wise.
We were playing with this idea of fundraising for a while, but then we came to the point where the demand that we had was so big our hands were full. The last year and a half were full of events. We are now supporting 2000 events per month and that is crazy. We started those conversations a while ago but never proceeded and now the time has come to really accelerate. We know exactly what we are doing now. We have the top industry events happening through us. We aim to improve the quality on all levels and that includes industry top people in our team. I would say we became a very hot topic. Covid hit and there were a number of problems to invest in, and RSI was one of them. We got interest from the different venture capitalists, and we chose the best ones, the ones that are able to support this.