Véronique Özkaya walks us through her extensive career in the language industry and taking up her new role as CEO at Argos amid the pandemic. She also shares insights into the acquisition of Venga merely three months after announcing the acquisition of linguistic quality assurance provider Chillistore.
The CEO discusses meeting Venga CEO Kåre Lindahl at SlatorCon Francisco in 2019 and plans for integrating the core team and sectors. As a result of growth post-acquisition, Véronique gives her thoughts on build versus buy in language tech, integrating a sales force, and the future direction of the company.
First up, Florian and Esther discuss the language industry news of the week, with a bizarre case in Sweden where a British parent was trying to apply for child care leave when several mistranslations were discovered on the social insurance agency’s website.
Florian talks about the US House Committee passing a bill called the TRANSLATE Act that would require multilingual signage in major American airports. Esther then gives an update on the Language Industry Job Index, which climbed 3.4 points in November, maintaining its five-month streak.
Esther also gives a quick financial update from Down Under, where Ai-Media generated revenues of USD 11.2m for Q1 FY22. A quarter ahead, Straker Translations reported unaudited Q2 FY22 revenues of USD 8.6m, with September being their best month ever.
Florian: Tell us about your personal background. You have an extensive career in the language industry, can you tell us about how you got started and some of the major milestones there?
Véronique: I actually started in international politics, so I studied to work in the diplomatic corps, which I did for less than a year. I worked in a French embassy in Dublin. I was assistant to the council and then I realized that I hated it because the pace was slow. It felt very old fashioned and I just could not project myself in that career, so I quit and at the time the localization industry was bubbling up in Dublin. It was a time where Microsoft, Novell, all of these companies were setting up in Dublin, so I applied for a job. I saw an ad and I started off as a translator and I did this for two, three months, but I was very lucky that I had a good manager at the time and she showed me the ropes of the business because I did not have a clue. I was being dropped in the pool with the lifeguard walking away, but that lifeguard was my manager and I did all the possible jobs at the time. I did translation, revision, DTP, some engineering, and testing. I ended up doing a chunk of my career in sales, so that was at Lionbridge, then Moravia, and then I moved to a smaller company called Xplanation. I started off in sales and marketing, but then ended up in general management, so I was CEO of that company. We sold the company to a Danish private equity firm and then I started in Argos last year in May 2020 and I am now the CEO.
Esther: Tell us a bit about your experience in terms of how the industry has changed, maybe some tidbits from the early days, but what do you do to make sure that you stay on top of any major shifts happening?
Véronique: What has changed in my opinion is mainly two things. The acceleration of tech, so when I started in the mid-nineties, the TMs came up and you started being more technical in doing the translation work. I have seen an acceleration of that, whether it is MT, it is text-to-speech, it is-speech-to-text. It is all of these things. The tech is there, but the speed at which it evolves has greatly increased. The second major trend in my opinion is this explosion of content and back in the day it was one size fits all. You had one process and that applied to anything you were doing more or less. There is much more granularity in how we treat content today, so that is the second thing. How do we keep on top of it? You have to look out for those trends, see how you can adapt from a technology perspective. Strong people will always focus on efficiencies, on what the customers are doing and what you can do to make sure you stay one step ahead. When it comes to that second big trend on content, it is again about the adaptation of your services. That for me has been an important thing. If I look at the business now, I think that Argos down the line will not have localization as its primary service. I see an evolution of that. That is dictated by the customers and if you want to stay in business, you need to listen to where they are headed, what they need, and see how you can supply that and be a little bit ahead of the curve when it comes to those services.
Florian: For explosion of content, do you think it is primarily a function of explosion of source content that then people think it will be great to localize, translate or do you think it is also because the localization, translation technology and the service offering have evolved so much that people can do it because it is possible. What do you think are the drivers for those two?
Véronique: I think that the two are driving that shift or that evolution. First of all, because you have way more content writers. When you think about it, this access to creating and publishing content is not just reserved for professional writers. In life science, you may have professional content writers, but you also see a lot of individuals who are contributing content and the organizations and companies want their audience to be able to access that, so the source content is definitely growing. Second, tech is making it possible. It is very good seeing trends that we have seen, especially in the past year when people had to stay at home. There has been an explosion of e-commerce even more and organizations know that the barrier to entry to other markets is probably a little lower because of the tech and the offering out there. Companies think beyond their domestic market much quicker than they would have 10 years ago.
Florian: Talk to me about Argos, the extended elevator pitch. Tell me more about size, core customers, and core tech.
Véronique: We are a provider of enterprise language solutions and we focus on four very specific services. Localization, content services – more marketing-driven services so content creation, international SEO – quality services driven by Chillistore, and the fourth, which has come in through Venga partly, is data so data collection, data annotation, and so on. In size, roughly combined this year, we are going to be around 55 million and we will be on track to pass the 60 million bar in 2022. Historically at Argos, the core sectors have been life science, manufacturing, and a little bit of tech. Then with Venga, we will add a big chunk of high-tech customers, also HR tech, a niche sector, with companies providing HR technology platforms for deployment of all of their HR processes and training. We are not closing ourselves off to other sectors, but we have only scratched the surface at 55 million, so I like the idea of being focused on that. We have core expertise, so we will continue in these sectors and go deeper.
Esther: What was it like for you personally? You joined Argos during the course of last year, taking up this new exciting role as CEO, but in the middle of a pandemic, how was that?
Véronique: I was in the West Indies when it happened, so I had not started yet at Argos. It was March 2020 and I traveled to the West Indies with my family for a two-week vacation before starting at Argos and three days into our stay that island got locked down and we ended up staying five months. It was crazy. I kicked off in May 2020 to the whole team at Argos, from my terrace over there. It was a little bit surreal to talk to all these individuals on a Zoom call. I had plenty of time on my hands to think through the strategy, where we wanted to head so when we kicked off, there were a lot of things already that were ready to go in motion. What was good with the pandemic is that I saw the adaptability of Argos. People were literally working from home on their laptops within a day. I was flabbergasted by the resilience of the people. Also, the speed of decision. I am always a relatively fast decision-maker, but in this environment, even faster. Also, the one thing we did, which was good, is that we took the funds we were not going to spend on travel and other things you could not do and we put this into the personal development of our people, so training, mentoring, coaching and we are continuing to do that.
The cons were the ability to build deeper relationships. It is harder digitally because we are social animals and you have to be careful of Zoom fatigue. With Zoom calls or whatever other technology, you have to have this constant attention. When you are on these calls and everybody is looking at one another, I find that it can be quite tough for people. One thing we did is that we said cameras are compulsory and initially people were a little bit uncomfortable with that in some regions, but then after a while it just became natural. Also, it became, from a con, a good thing in a way that people got more comfortable with this ability to work across regions. It broke in a way the office mentality and it got us into more agility and to more team-based work.
Esther: How did you find it being fully remote with customers? Even completing the M&A process as well?
Véronique: With customers, it was similar. I was only able to physically meet with customers last month. I was in Dublin and I met a couple of them and that was great. It is great to just sit down and have a coffee and have a conversation that is not also just focused on an agenda that you have. You find out a lot of interesting things from having a more casual, more social interaction. We did have a lot of calls with the customers. We had some fun things happen, even one of our customers came with a baby in his arms. That also gives you a nice angle on the personalities of people and people are more relaxed. That is something that I picked up, a moral relaxed approach, and it also showed me people like to do business with people they appreciate. When you have the fully remote set up, we try to be a little bit creative so we did internal Christmas drinks where we all came with hats on at 8am because we have teams in different locations. That aspect, we try to somehow not replace, but find some way of getting together. I was recently at an event and I do think we need a mix. We do need some balance between online and in-person. The reason I am saying that is that in person, you create your luck through encounters that you make at the coffee break or in the breakout room, which I find harder to make online because online you have to plan it, so you look at the list of people, you try and book the meetings. I find that with in-person events, you tend to gravitate towards people and conversations start. That is how we met Kåre from Venga. That was thanks to a SlatorCon Conference.
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Florian: Tell us more about that. Tell us how you met the company you just acquired at the SlaterCon conference.
Véronique: I traveled to San Francisco to an in-person event a few years back and Kimon, the founder of Argos, was there and he introduced me to Kåre. We were chatting and then Kåre invited us to this restaurant that is run by ex-convicts. We ended up with a group of eight to 10 people having dinner, as you do at these kinds of events and Kåre was sitting beside me and that was very memorable, not just the restaurant setting, but our conversation. I thought what a great guy, and we were chatting and Kimon said his dream was always to merge with Venga. Already, we were joking around, but the thing is that there was something in the air, we got along well. We are different, but the chemistry is very good, so that is how the whole idea started. I had not even started at Argos at that stage, but I thought it was interesting that Kimon and Kåre were entertaining this idea.
Florian: Tell us more about the strategic fit. Why did you like Venga?
Véronique: Absolutely, so the chemistry definitely, also the culture. I have been in so many deals where the culture did not fit and it was a real struggle from a financial perspective, from a people perspective so I put a lot of emphasis on that. I do not think any two companies have the same culture. I do not believe in that, but if you have enough similarities in your values that is a recipe for success. There was that element of values with Venga. The second thing is that I knew of Venga. The business had a very good reputation in the high-tech sector and a reputation for being very entrepreneurial and that is very similar to Argos. The entrepreneurial spirit was very attractive. Then when it came to the business, definitely the complementarity in the sector was a big thing because we do a bit of high-tech at Argos and we saw in 2020, the fastest growth for us was in high-tech, followed by life science, so they are definitely a very complementary portfolio. We had two customers with overlap and we talked to them and they said, you do not even do the same services so this is great because you compliment one another.
The services too, the whole aspect of data. That is something we started ourselves and I love the idea that if you do not have to build it yourself, partner with somebody better than you, buy a company that is better than you, and you can accelerate that. That is the data business and that is something we are looking at very closely to see how we scale that up. That is a sector where it is the present and the future, so that was also a very attractive aspect in the whole deal. Back to culture and people, we have got roughly 90 employees at Venga, I have met roughly 15 of them and I am going to keep on doing it. I do one to one, just to get to know people and I ask them what they like about the company because at least we should try to keep that and emphasize that. Then I ask them if they had a magic wand, what would they change? It is very interesting because, typically people say, I will do this and that, and what I found so far with our new colleagues is that there is this sense of team that started way before the pandemic, so it has nothing to do with the fact that we were forced to work from home. This has been a very decentralized model at Venga and I love it because it pushes this collaboration with people and the creative juices are quite unbelievable. I have seen some of the solutions and there is quite an amazing talent pool there.
Esther: Can you tell us a bit more about the data business? What is it exactly and how much scope do you think there is, or opportunity to expand further? Both for Argos and then also for LSPs that are considering building their own expertise in this segment.
Véronique: In data, we do a little bit of collection, but what we do is dataset translation, MT output evaluation, annotation, data scraping, and search evaluation, so the area of data we are in now is not about crowdsourcing and very big scale. These are big projects, but they are not these massive thousands of people on a crowdsource model, but it is using quality trained people on these. What we do is that we give our customers better training sets and output. We work mostly with high-tech customers and the drawback of this is the scale and cost because you cannot scale it massively. For that specific side of the business, we have a very good solution and that is the area we are going to go in further first. When it comes to data, there are a lot of opportunities on the market. I am not saying anything extraordinary here because looking at the whole area of data collection being in written data or sound and images, annotation and so on and so forth, there is a big scope. What we are doing now is figuring out our business plan there. I cannot tell you too much about that, maybe at some other point when we have it a little bit more baked. That is what we do when we bring in a business, we did the same with Chillistore. We bought it for a reason and then we put together a business plan and I would decide on the investment. Definitely, the data business is one where we are going to go further.
The key is the supply chain, because it is about finding these specific individuals that are going to be able to do that and tech, and that is why Venga has excelled. Even if they have used off the shelf or customer-driven technology, their ability to customize has been quite incredible. One example is for some specific customers, resources should not be using automatic translation because that would be completely against the purpose. Our colleagues at Venga put together a tool that could make sure that none of the resources would be able to use automatic translations. They would get found out. I thought that was very valuable for the customers because some of the super agencies send back content and the customer sees that the translators have used automatic translation. What makes the differentiation is this ability to be in tune with the customer needs and develop solutions, so there are quite a lot of solutions out there at Venga that were developed for specific clients, but I do think that is the name of the game for this business.
Esther: Talking about some of these mishaps, let us dig a bit deeper into Chillistore and the LQA business. Tell us how LQA compliments the core business generally, and why you decided to acquire in that space?
Véronique: When I kicked off in May 2020 at Argos from that terrace, that was part of the strategy. We already had LQA as a service and again, I believe in the diversification of services and I could see on the market a problem and that is from talking to customers. Part of my job that I enjoy is talking to customers and figuring out what problems they have. Very early on, we understood that quality is a problem and when I say quality, it is not just the number of errors you find, et cetera, but the ability for a piece of content to answer an audience’s need. When you are in life science, it is quite black and white, it is about the errors. You just do not want to have mistakes in your content because you are putting lives at risk. When you are more in marketing content, it is about if it resonates with the audience. That is different. We did LQA services for life science and we saw a big issue because the customers were literally finding hundreds of errors out of millions of words, but you cannot have that in life science. You need to have a quality level, so there is a problem in the industry because the customers are not getting the quality.
We have been providing LQA and I thought, this is not going to stop, so we decided to look for a company instead of asking ourselves whether to build it ourselves and how long it would take. There are people out there way better than we are at doing that and we met Anna Woodward Kennedy and she is way better. The people we have know what they are doing, but in terms of building that business specifically and growing it and going deep, she is exceptional. We approached her and we closed the deal in December 2020 and we announced it internally in January 2021 but we had some considerations around marketing, the website, so that is why we kept it under wraps. It was much easier to keep it under wraps than Venga, I will tell you that much, because it was a smaller company and less known, but that is changing for sure. The business is very healthy and what we found very attractive with Venga is that they have a piece of technology that I believe we will be able to apply to Chillistore in terms of automation and again, bringing scale. It is going to be quite an interesting mix there.
Florian: For language technology, you like best of breed, you license these things, you maybe acquire certain capabilities. Is that a correct assumption? What size of the company would you say, we should probably start building core technology internally? Is that a consideration or do you think you can grow and “still” license things and run on third party tech?
Véronique: I wish, is my short answer because the nature of the work we are in is enterprise, so already there what you see is that you have a number of customers who dictate how you work because they are big guys. They have big budgets, so they define their processes because they do not want to work with five companies in five different systems. Our philosophy is to adapt and see how we can add value to that, so as part of our portfolio we are working on the technologies that our customers want us to work on. The rest of the business, so Venga used commercial tools and developed a lot of things around it. We have our own TMS. Now, this is always a headache, the tech, because I have never been in a company where everybody was happy about the tech. Never happens. Due to the nature of the business, we are going to go more towards building, but I hope we can build around some core things that we can buy because we do not need to invent Excel. You have to go there and find the best pieces and then add your secret sauce around it because that is what the customers value. At the end of the day it is about time, money and quality, so where we have put a lot of investment internally has been in the quality model because we do a lot of life science, et cetera, and this is very transportable to whatever other platform we want to go to.
Esther: Why did you decide to do the rebrand earlier this year? As a follow-up, can you offer any specific dos or don’ts for LSP’s marketing teams?
Véronique: The rebrand was very basic. We thought, we have not touched this website and done anything for so long, it is time to refresh and also align it to our strategy, so that was the impetus there. We did not go straight into the design, we had a very nice partner, a very nice agency and we did sessions about what are the brand qualities? What do we think about differentiation? Quote hard questions where you are scratching your head. They push you to the bone, but it is a very useful exercise because that also helped us with other aspects of the business. We had a good two weeks of that process and the agency gave us briefs based on all the discussions we had, to say, that is our understanding. It was not like, these are the designs you can have and pick one, not at all, so that was a nice company. We will probably change it again in the next few months. That is the one thing that never stops. We have got tons of ideas. You got to focus as well. You cannot bite more than you can chew, so we have some ideas.
The big thing is going to be about bringing the Venga brand into Argos, that was an important decision. With Chillistore, we took a different path because it is a very different business. Chillistore does zero translation. No localization. It does not touch it whatsoever. It is a business within the business. If you look at the Chillistore website, the colors are different, it is not the same at all. With Venga, there is quite a good overlap on services. We felt that it makes more sense to have it under Argos, so this is going to be our project in the next few months, bringing the content of Venga into the Argos brand. We have this cool in-between logo. Also, I am very conscious that it is not easy. If I am an original Venga employee, I love my brand. I love the name of the company and I am very sensitive to that. We were very clear from the beginning and very transparent in the communication, so we are going to share with the whole team what the marketing team will do. We brought the Venga marketing manager, Stephanie, into the team. She is going to work with the rest of the team on bringing Venga into the Argos brand.
Florian: Let us talk about sales. What are some of the metrics that you are using? Strategies, hires, territories versus verticals? There are so many things to look at when you run sales in this hyper-competitive industry.
Véronique: I feel that we are constantly evolving and it is the first thing I looked at when I became CEO at Argos. It is not just because I have a background in commercial, but if you get the customer’s side, everything else flows. You can have tech CEOs, financial CEOs, different profiles. I am more like a gross leader. I believe that gross gives you freedom so if you get that right, you can do a lot of things. You can hire people. You can give them raises. You can start new services. It is having a plan behind that, so that is probably the first thing. When it comes to the sales team, we are reorganizing it and it is going to keep on evolving. We have a team of experienced people. When we hire, we tend to privilege this industry experience. We will not say no to people who come from different industries, that is not the point.
The second characteristic is versatility, so I would say we are in a hybrid model today. The model we have is a regional model. The reason for that being even though we are one of the biggest European players, 80% of our business is in America, so we have a larger team and a larger focus on the US. There is a regional set-up with co-operative teams, so they keep on exchanging leads and working on accounts together. That is a very important ingredient, so we do not see silly internal fights. When it comes to the sectors, we have a couple of people who are more experienced or focused on life science and we have people who do more high-tech. We found out if you are in life science, it is a bit harder to sell than high-tech, so we do have some sector focus.
The things we have changed are existing versus new business. A lot of companies at the size where we are are similar. We are going to have people focused on strategic account management, and then we have a couple of people in this enterprise new business and now they are also going to be supported by our recent new hire, our rock star, Libor Safar. He just joined us on Monday and that is part of the plan. How do you get this scale and this depth? Libor has been in the business for 25 years. I knew him from my Moravia days. I said, if we can bring a rockstar marketeer that would be great because he is going to focus on product management, so we have these new services and we want to productize and sell those much wider. Then the second thing, account-based marketing, and because we are in the enterprise business it is a great fit there.
Florian: Give us a brief outlook. What is the time span you want to take? One year, five years? What is next? Industry broadly and then for the company specifically.
Véronique: I will tell you a little story, so when I started in this business, my husband said, you need to get out of there, this is going to be decimated with the tech, everything will be machine-translated and you will not have a job. Recently, he said, I eat my hat because you guys are rocking it and you keep on growing. I think in five years time, this business is still going to keep growing. I always watch your predictions, Florian. You said 10% plus in 2021, so let us see where it goes, even if last year some companies had a tough time. It is a very resilient sector. I do not see that changing. However, what I see changing is that the mix of services will change. As a solution provider, the barrier to entry to localization is so low. Get a piece of software out there, hire a couple of people, and that is it, you are in business. We are going to see a shift in services and we are going to see some services taking off. One of the shifts I am seeing for a few years now is again, the right content for the right audience. I call this the carwash model. You can have big volumes of only content MT all the way up to content design or content writing that you do in-country for specific markets. I see that definitely. I am very optimistic.
I also think that the role of the linguist will change. Standard translators are not where the business is going to be. We see today. It is a challenge to find really good translators and linguists and we are going to see more and more linguists going into very specific verticals and very specific content. We are going to see more and more writers creating marketing content. We are going to see more and more people doing data annotation, curation, and honing their skills. As a sector, it is going to be a good one and I do believe that linguists are going to be better off over time. They are going to make more money. We had this race for the lowest price per word and that is changing and will keep on changing. I hope we attract a lot of young graduates to this industry, so that is the big picture in my humble opinion. When it comes to Argos, we have a vision. We want to be the most reputable enterprise solutions company, and when I say reputable, this is for a reason. It is about quality, not just the quality of your output but the quality of your people, of your service, of your ability to listen to customers and I want the Argos name to be associated with that. A lot of companies have grown super fast, but on the way, they have lost a bit of their spirit. I hope we can keep that.
When it comes to the shorter plans, we have a system, we have a structure, so in a couple of weeks time, we will all be in strategic discussions. It is not very long meetings. It is a strategy on a page, so I start with what is the strategy in the next 12 months? What are the different functions we can bolt on and how are we going to do it? What is the strategy? For example, HR will have two, three specific initiatives. This is how we are going to measure and it is great because it aligns everybody and we measure on a regular basis. I find that it also helps people synthesize. When you have to put it on a page, you have to think before it gets onto that page and I find that a very nice method. Recently I was at a conference where I showed this to smaller companies saying that it is one of the ways to prepare for the year ahead and synthesize your strategy. What is your strategy? What are your drivers? What are the initiatives? What do you need to make that happen? What you need to make it happen is interesting, because that is where my CFO comes into play and he goes, how much is that going to cost? A lot of businesses struggle with that and it is to divest. What to let go of? You cannot do it all, so you also have to say that maybe it is not something we should pursue. Last year we started something off, it was reasonably successful and I am like, this is not where we are going to have the next nugget, so we let it go.