Vistatec CEO Thomas Murray on Agile Localization and Organic Over Acquisitive Growth

Vistatec CEO Thomas Murray joins Slatorpod to discuss the tech and business environment.

Vistatec CEO Thomas Murray joins SlatorPod to discuss the company’s international presence, the tech and business environment, and managing growing content volumes.

Thomas shares his insights on how geographic spread and the follow-the-sun model are important in serving clients. He explains why the language service provider (LSP) prefers organic growth over M&A, owing to the quality and longevity of customer relationships.

He also discusses how globalization has changed the way the LSP tackles “content explosion”; and how agility and speed of execution are crucial to scalability. The CEO also weighs in on ISO certification and how using it in the right way can lead to operational excellence.

Finally, Thomas reflects on the past year as Vistatec moved its operations online and kept staff safe through Covid.

First up, Florian and Esther share key takeaways from SlatorCon Remote, which drew in 250 attendees and facilitated 200–300 individual networking sessions. SlatorCon Remote May 2021 highlighted the message of growth with David Lee, CEO of Iyuno-SDI, pointing out how 2020 was a peak year for streaming services.

Esther talks about the Data-for-AI panel, where Casper Grathwohl, Kåre Lindahl, and Michel Lopez compared the differences between parsing data for AI customers versus traditional language customers. Meanwhile, on the E-commerce panel, Liat Karpel Gurwicz, Giulia Greco, and Yair Tal recalled the transformative year that saw shifting customer expectations and new opportunities for retail merchants.

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Next, Florian follows up on Valerie Petit’s presentation on the localization challenges that occurred in Korn Ferry’s transition from print to digital. Also, Dell’s Wayne Bourland and Welocalize’s Darin Goble on their partnership and tips on dealing with global customers; and ADP’s Mary Anne Henselmann on the different stages of their loc team’s journey. 

In UK news, Esther touches on two healthcare translation and interpreting framework contracts valued at a total north of USD 500m. And in US news, Florian runs through the top paying states and job prospects as presented in the Labor Bureau’s annual Occupational Outlook Handbook.

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Transcript

Florian: Thomas tell us a bit more about your personal background, career, and what made you land in the language industry? Usually, people get into this by happenstance or coincidence. 

Thomas: That is certainly true for me. My background was Finance and I worked in London and Australia just after I finished university and a friend of mine mentioned an opportunity in a localization company. I went out to have a look and it just seemed like a really exciting place to work. The place was full of like-minded people. It was a hive of activity and excitement, and there was just a buzz about it. It was a great place to work. That began over 25 years ago now and it has not changed for me, so I suppose it probably was happenstance, but it was the people in the environment that attracted me to it. I have absolutely no regrets. That was in Dublin and then we moved on from there. I spent a little bit of time in Asia and then came back to Vistatec and have no plans to leave the industry at the moment. 

Florian: You are the CEO of Vistatec, give us Vistatec in a nutshell, present size, staff, specializations?

Thomas: For me, Vistatec is a passion. As an organization, I believe it is staffed by some of the best people in the industry. It is a great place to work. That for me is absolutely critical. I feel very strongly that people need to be coming to work, looking forward to it and enjoying it because if you do not, it is just not worth it. This industry started in a very conventional sense of translation, certainly, we have transitioned to a point where I would say conventional or Orthodox translation is probably less than a third of our business. We would very much see ourselves as providing global content solutions for organizations that play on a global stage and that can cover anything from text to voice to video, you name it. 

One of the interesting things about our industry is how many times it reinvents itself and surprises you. Back in the day, it was all documents and content came from software publishers and that is just the way it was. Whereas now, the number of ways you can consume content, and that is before we even consider the volumes of content out there, is astronomical so we would see ourselves as providing global content solutions to anybody that wants to play on a global stage. It is critical for the global players to maintain that global presence and that is what we are there to facilitate and help. 

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Esther: What is it like servicing this global stage from Dublin, Ireland. Can you tell us a bit about what business life is like in Dublin? 

Thomas: Dublin has had a reputation for being quite a hotbed of technology and it has certainly attracted all of the major names. This has led to quite a hothouse environment here with all of the various tech companies, which is great but for us, the location was really born of the founders of the company. They are all Irish and were based in Dublin and that is where we have remained but as a business, we have locations and resources basically all over the world, wherever the clients or the services demand. 

For me, I basically set the tone and the tenor for the business, hire the right people and then make sure I stay out of the way and let them do what their expertise has trained them to do. Being based here in Dublin has no particular impact on the business. We have operations and people wherever we need them. It does remain the case that a large majority of the tech clients, which we perhaps deal with are based out in the US but we have more and more European and Asian based clients. From that point of view wherever we are based really does not matter a lot and the paradigm shift that Covid-19 has brought around certainly has made it very clear to all of us that geography from our side of the fence is not that important. 

Esther: You have got fairly large offices in Mountain View. Does that facilitate 24-hour service? How do you collaborate with them? 

Thomas: We have to have people basically follow the sun at this stage. If we are not in a position to provide 24-7-365 then you are not in a position to help your clients achieve their goals. Ultimately your client’s goals are what you are there to help achieve and they are driven by consumers and consumer demands are very strong and in some cases quite fickle. If you do not satisfy those demands your consumers will move, so we have to be in a position to service that. Be it, Argentina, Mountain View, God knows where. That is the nature of the game. The turnaround times that projects now demand are so tight, that any kind of distance between you and your customer or you and your supply chain is critical, so having that geo spread is critical.

Florian: You have been in the industry for quite some time. What changes have you seen? Generally what would be the top three things over the past one or two decades?

Thomas: The volume has got to be top of the list. The sheer volume of content that is out there is the biggest one. The industry is full of people who thought they were going to be able to forecast it but it just exceeds expectations every time. People thought that MT would eat our lunch and that would be the end, but actually, the growth of content has outstripped the pace you can deal with it. For me, content, growth, and the content explosion would certainly be in the top three. From my perspective or my generation’s perspective, the way in which data or content is consumed has changed utterly. It was largely the province of business and big large tech manuals and all that kind of stuff. That is all gone now. 

Now it is the consumer that drives it. The content is created by people walking down the streets outside my office on handheld devices, things that people thought were science fiction 20 years ago. That would probably be another massive change for us and also how important content actually is and how content can change things and drive things and impact people all over the world in ways that we would never have envisaged. That is probably another aspect that has hit me over the years in terms of globalization. I suppose the growth in content and its ability to change things and the way it is consumed are the things that really strike me.

Florian: Vistatec is also known for being very strong in the enterprise tech localization space so what is your approach to managing this balance between diversifying for growth, but also specializing in a particular niche? What is the overall strategy of Vistatec?

Thomas: When somebody says diversification, I always think that is the way of reducing your risk and that is certainly one way of looking at the technology point of view. Our view on technology is we do not develop it ourselves. It is not what we would consider as part of our strategy. We do not build, we buy. We will look at any particular problem that may require a technical solution and then we will try and figure out what is the best solution to that. We will not necessarily have a pre-packaged solution that we have developed ourselves so our attitude to technology is very agnostic. We will buy our competitors’ technology no problem if it is the best solution for the customer, I do not mind. 

What we try and do and have done very successfully is we will try to knit or bring together various pieces of technology so our attitude to technology is to look at the problem first. See what is the best way to solve it, what is the best piece of technology or kit to address that challenge and then go with that. We do not necessarily have a particular view. We will see it as very much a look at the problem first and what it is that you are trying to achieve and what is the best fit in terms of a solution thereafter. We will not be reinventing the wheel. 

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Esther: I noticed that Vistatec holds the ISO certification for post-editing of machine translation. What business benefits do you see in these kinds of standards? Do you have a particular strategy for ISO, obtaining things like medical devices, post-editing? What value does it add?

Thomas: The med-devices side of things are slightly different in that, if you want to play in that space you have got to comply with the regulatory requirements that are there and customers would insist on ISO, whether it is regulatory required or not. Regardless of the context, to me, ISO is part of an approach to operational excellence and it brings a level of discipline to your operational execution. We look at ISO and the various standards as not necessarily something that is good to have because it helps with RFPs and that. That is quite a narrow view and you do not get a lot out of it. 

We are actually looking for something from all of the standards. We want to come away with something positive from them, not just to tick the box. There are lots of industry experts out there that probably know an awful lot more than we do so it is in our interest to engage with them. I would look at all those things as what can we learn from them? The certifications themselves have requirements and that is helpful but the process and the discipline of adhering to them do bring a lot of benefits to an organization and particularly in scalable organizations like ours.

Esther: A follow on question regarding machine translation, you have a partnership with ADAPT Centre, which is pretty local to where you are. What does that involve exactly? 

Thomas: That basically involves the tech team here in Dublin cooperating with them on various projects. Our CTO Phil Ritchie has a very strong reputation within the industry and has been involved with various standard setting processes, both at the European level and at a local level. I suppose it is more about trying to bring our views in terms of where we would like to see things going and our experience and the experience that we have gained from our customers with those various organizations. Our approach to MT is not necessarily limited to one particular flavor. I would say we have probably got most flavors available within Vistatec. It very much depends on the outcomes that the clients are trying to achieve. 

Esther: We have heard a lot about clients in technology and software wanting to achieve agile translation, localization and get rid of things like minimum fees. When you are thinking about these clients, what do you think are their main pain points right now?

Thomas: One of the biggest challenges at the moment is the concept of agility and speed of execution. We work in an industry that never sleeps, that has extraordinarily demanding consumers at the end of the chain who are fickle. The idea of being able to service very quickly with a high quality product and to be switched on and off, literally, in the blink of an eye is critical and that is where we come in. That is the expertise and the experience that we bring to it. It is incumbent upon us to be agile because if you are not, then you are not going to be able to service your customers’ needs or objectives so that idea of agility also correlates to scalability, but speed being the key with quality underpinning it all.

Florian: Localization of SaaS must have been a massive growth area over the past 10 years. An organization like Vistatec would have had to adapt to that. What is your take? Any particular challenges?

Thomas: Not particularly because the structures around how localization works, fits most business models. The fact that it is SaaS versus non-SaaS does not necessarily impact how we would go about the business of the projects. There was never a situation, certainly not one that I can recall with agreements where clients would have things like minimum volumes. It was to one extent or another a SaaS model, you had an agreement with the client and you either did it, or you did not. If you did not do it, you did not get paid so it was to some extent always a SaaS environment for us. 

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Esther: You have got a number of other business lines, I think one of those is localization staffing. Is that an important part of the business and what challenges and opportunities are there?

Thomas: I would have to be very upfront about this and say for Vistatec localization staffing solutions are seen in the context of a wider client relationship. It would not be our core business and that is not necessarily one that we want to be in either but as part of a wider business relationship with the client we do it all the time but we would not go and offer it as a standalone. It is part of the wider relationship because that is what it is about, long and trusting relationships with the customers are absolutely vital to us. That is how we survive and thrive. We do not grow in terms of an M&A path, that is not our gig. 

We grow by the quality of our service and the quality of the relationships and the longevity of the relationships we have with our clients so as part of that. There are staffing solutions put in place, but it would not necessarily be one that we would offer separately. If you are trying to serve somebody with a global presence and they come to you with a problem, what is it that we do? We provide global content solutions and part of that could be somebody says, we have got this problem, what can you do for us? We are there to help.

Esther: What is your attitude generally towards M&A? Seems to be more organically driven growth.

Thomas: I think we are probably the last independent localization company that has not bought somebody. For an organization to be successful, it has to have certain beliefs and values, and one of the beliefs that Vistatec and the founders have is that we will grow on the basis of our service. M&A is not our gig and that is the choice that we have made and we are pretty happy with it. I have absolutely nothing bad to say about the competition, about the way they go about their business. They are very successful but it is just not the approach we are going to take.

Florian: How has it been for you transitioning through this unprecedented situation in 2020 with staff, office, and clients?

Thomas: Let us start with one of the more important ones, staff. It is a huge concern for us to try and keep staff safe and well, physically, and let us be frank about it, mentally. I would certainly have to say that working from home over the last year has not been the highlight of my career. From a business perspective, some clients have done very well, some clients have not done well but overall we have more than held our own. We had a very good year and we were growing, which is always a good thing. 

It is definitely been challenging, moving your entire operation offsite in the space of two days but it went very successfully for us. 99% of it is down to the people that work for us. They were fantastic, totally cooperative and totally accepting of the situation that we found ourselves in and just got on with it so all credit to the team. From the client-side, some clients had it very tough, some businesses saw the taps just turn off, we all know who they are. Some of the retail businesses did not do so well, those with a strong online presence boomed, those without an online presence got online very quickly so we came in on the back of that. Overall I have to say we did well. We are very happy with how the team performed. 

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Esther: Vistatec seems to be quite active in marketing, generally with blogs, thought leadership, the Think Global Forum. Has Covid-19 changed any of that at all and what kind of marketing are you involved in at the moment?

Thomas: The first thing I have to say is I am from a finance background so I am not involved in marketing. What I can say is we have a very active marketing department and they are out there and doing some great stuff for us. My take on marketing is we want people to understand what we stand for, what our values are, what we are trying to achieve and the type of people and type of organization that we want to be. To me, all of the marketing that we do is all about positioning ourselves where we want to be and getting people to understand the type of organization that we are and what it is that we are trying to achieve and how we can help them. Simon and the team do a huge amount of excellent stuff there and they are very active on it.

Florian: What is your outlook for the language industry and what are some of the bigger exciting initiatives, projects for Vistatec in the next 12 to 18 months?

Thomas: General outlook for the industry is continued growth, I would be a fool to say otherwise. Every year, Forrester or somebody does a survey and says, it is X billion and then the following year it is blown out of the water so continued growth would certainly be one. I think content like video is huge and that is going to continue so that is going to be crucial. One of the things I am actually looking forward to is seeing the clients we have worked with over many years that took a serious hit in Covid. We have worked with guys for 10, 15 years and they took a serious hammering and hopefully, in the next month or two, we will see them get back on their feet. I am really looking forward to that because it has been tough for them. 

A little bit closer to home, I will be very curious to see what the office of the future for Vistatec looks like. I think we have all enjoyed some aspects of working from home but we would not mind going back to the office too. I do not know how that is going to play out, but we have to be open to all the variants that are out there that perhaps before we thought we could not do. We have certainly learned it is amazing what you can do when you put your mind to it and somebody puts a gun to your head.