Winning Translation and Localization RFPs with memoQ RFP’s Mark Shriner

SlatorPod #182 - memoQ RFP’s Mark Shriner

Mark Shriner, Strategic Sales Director of memoQ, and now CEO of memoQ RFP, joins the podcast to discuss the challenges and opportunities of request for proposals (RFPs) in the language industry.

Mark explains that enterprise language services RFPs tend to focus on language pairs and pricing, while language technology RFPs delve deep into product features, integrations, and security.

Mark talks about the complexities when responding to RFPs as different departments within an organization may need to provide answers, making coordination challenging.

Mark highlights the advantage of size in the language industry, particularly as larger companies often have specialized RFP writers who craft polished responses, contributing to their success. 

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He shares some memorable experiences, including successfully handling a multilingual RFP from a Finnish government entity, which required linguistic proficiency and accuracy.

Mark unveils memoQ RFP, Inc., a new solution to streamline the RFP response process, initially targeting small to medium-sized businesses. It aims to leverage technology, including translation memory and AGT, to make RFP responses more efficient and plans to follow a startup trajectory for growth.

In the coming months, memoQ RFP will focus on finalizing its minimum viable product, recruiting beta customers, and gathering feedback. 

Transcript

Florian: Mark is the Strategic Sales Director of memoQ and now also the CEO of memoQ RFP, but we’ll get to that later, Mark. So memoQ probably doesn’t need much of an introduction. One of the leading TMS’, computer-aided translation tools out there, so hi, Mark, thanks for joining. So just to get started, what’s an RFP in the context of the language industry for those very few that are listening to this podcast that never had the pleasure to fill in an RFP? What is an RFP?

Mark: RFPs and RFIs, it’s a request for information and request for proposal and essentially these are questionnaire type documents that companies will use when they’re going to go out and buy a certain volume of services or a certain dollar amount of technology. And typically what will happen is they’ll say, okay, we want to go out and buy this software, this type of software, and one department will request it. They’ll go to the Procurement Department and they’ll say, hey, because this is over X number of dollars, we need to go through the RFP or RFI process. The procurement team will then put together a questionnaire document and they will research maybe the top ten companies or providers in that software space. Or maybe the requesters will have some companies that they’ll say, hey, please include these companies in there. They’ll send out that initial RFI oftentimes just to get some cursory information, bring it back, spreadsheet it all out and make a comparison and then they’ll create a shortlist. Then for the shortlist companies, maybe it’s three or four, they’ll send out an RFP, a request for proposal. This is a much more comprehensive document, and it’s going to ask you questions about your company in terms of when was it established, your revenues, how many people you have, CSR, diversity, equity and inclusion, those type of questions. But then it’s also going to ask you questions about your financial records and your performance, how stable is your company. Then it’s going to ask about, because of the software, it’s going to ask about your enterprise security, but also your platform security, so these are all different people. And then it’s going to get into the product and it’s going to do a deep dive on the features and functionality that you have and it’s probably going to ask about the integrations that you have. Now, each one of those topics is typically different people in an organization, okay, and so you can imagine these questionnaires can be very complex. They can be upwards of 50 to 60, 70 pages, and you need to involve many different people from your organization. Now, you had asked specifically in the context of localization. In localization, we see two types of RFPs essentially. One is coming from enterprises or organizations, from government organizations who are looking to procure some type of language service and those type of RFPs tend to be a little bit more simple because really what they’re doing is like, what language pairs can you provide? Of course, they’ll ask company information, but then they’re really just going to drill down on pricing. That’s what they oftentimes want to do and if you put yourself in the procurement team’s shoes for a second, that’s how they get judged of like, how much are we saving and so on? So if you’re on the service side and you’re participating in an RFP, it can be kind of scary because it a lot of times will come down to that pricing, even though the requesters may really love you because you have some value-added benefits. For example, maybe your security or you offer on-site resources or whatever it is. But the procurement people oftentimes will judge you with just the pricing.

Florian: Let’s go back and maybe just talk about a couple of memorable moments that you had personally in your 15 years now in the language industry. On-off, you did some other things, but anything that comes to mind? I mean, I have one anecdote that I remember, but do you have one or two?

Mark: I’ve got, especially just from this last couple of years with memoQ since we revamped the RFP process and I really had to do a deep dive into what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. One is we had an RFP from a Finnish government entity and the documents came to us in Finnish, so what do we do? Go out and run, get the English-Finnish dictionary real quick? No, and then we had to complete the RFP and then submit it back into Finnish, right? And there’s a lot of concerns there because are we understanding this correctly? And then again, are we responding correctly? Because if you make a mistake, that’s like a business potential liability right there, right? But no, we’ve had several of these multilingual RFPs in the last couple of years, done extremely well. I think we’ve done up to five different languages, so that’s pretty memorable. The second one, and then we’ll come to your antidote, but we won an RFP with one of the largest banks in Canada. And that was an amazing experience. Earlier, you talked about running around doing the high fives. Literally, that was a global win for the company.

Florian: That’s great. You get these emails and you’ve been selected because usually in these big ones, as you said, a lot of people are involved. Yeah, mine’s not that cool, but I just remember actually losing out a couple of times on these RFPs because specifically we didn’t have as many offices as TransPerfect. I don’t know why this one sticks in my head. It’s like, well, so what are your offices in South America? I’m like, well, we don’t have any. We had Canada, the US, Europe. Then we set up all the Asian offices. But we didn’t have anything in Australia. We didn’t have anything South America and that kind of like that would not even qualify to get to the next step. You need that presence, and if you don’t, you’re kind of obviously not meeting our specs. So that kind of taught me that, yes, there is a certain quality just in size in the language industry.

Mark: I think it’s a very good point. Size in the language industry helps you in a couple different areas. One is you can afford to have dedicated resources to respond to RFPs. So at CLS, for example, back in the Zurich headquarters, I don’t know if you remember, but we had an RFP writer. And that’s a huge help if you have a professional writer and they understand how to craft these answers in an accurate but kind of polished manner. So you put a bit of a marketing spin on the responses and it’s really an art, but having those resources are huge. The other thing with large companies and you’ve probably seen this is a lot of times they’ll be in there with the buyer helping them draft the RFP and then they’re like, oh yeah, ask them how many offices they have because they know they have more offices than anybody else or they have these key locations, right? So if you can get in with the buyer and help them and I’ve been in that situation a few times and it’s kind of this ethical dilemma like you don’t want to make it too obvious and you want to help them do their job. At the same time you want to position yourself in a strong way.

Florian: I think it’s called bid manager or maybe RFP writer, if it’s super specific and I think it’s almost like kind of part of the graduation from one kind of size bracket of LSP to another, when you start to be able to afford somebody who specifically focuses on RFPs because otherwise everybody gets specific, like the CEO, the salesperson, the project manager, everybody needs to chip in and the result is not great. But if you have somebody dedicated to that, then yeah, that’s great, and obviously still a cost, of course.

Mark: Can I tell you what we did at memoQ? I’ll get into the technology part in a bit later, but we hired a RFP Project Manager, in fact, ex-colleague of ours, Amy, because in a lot of organizations, the RFP will come in and maybe it’s from a BDM in… or maybe it’s a BDM in North America and they’re like, okay, I got this. Who do I go to? Who do I reach out to, right? But if there’s a centralized process where you can just go to the RFP project manager and then that person has a direct line of communication with all those subject matter experts and there’s a process in place for even that person to communicate with them, it’s hugely helpful.

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Florian: Who’s usually in charge of the RFP on the buyer side? Let’s talk about the big service kind of accounts and then also the big tech accounts, if you can split that out.

Mark: Typically, okay, there’s always exceptions, but typically you’ll have a team or department that wants to purchase something, whether it’s a service or some technology, and when it gets to a certain dollar amount and every organization is different, they’re required to go through this RFP process. Typically that’s run by the procurement team and it’ll be one subset of the procurement team. You know as well as I do that procurement teams are structured either along product verticals. So okay, you’re doing any kind of services then this is this part of the team. Oh, it’s technology and tools, it’s this part of the team. That’s oftentimes how it’s kind of organized and then that team will manage it with input from the requester. And having been on the selling side or the submitting side of RFPs, when you get it, oftentimes it’s like, gosh can we compete on this or not? Is it worth our time and effort, right? And sometimes it’s not so transparent. Are they just doing this to go through the motions because they’re required to and they already know who they’re going to buy from? Are they actually opening this up and looking for the best fit?

Florian: It’s very hard to find out.

Mark: Totally. You can’t just ask them. You got to get a probe around. Those guys, they’ll have their poker faces on and not try to give anything away but it’s really important as part of the process is trying to figure out where should we allocate our time and effort because if there’s no chance to win, forget about it.

Florian: Now, you’ve been on both sides on the services side with some of the biggest LSPs, but now also with memoQ on the kind of pure tech side. We spoke about it before a bit, but what are some of the absolute key differences? Maybe other than dollar amount? Because usually in the services side, obviously it’s maybe 5, 10 X bigger. But what are some of the other key differentiators there?

Mark: As I mentioned earlier, with the services side, typically they’re looking at company information and then it gets really quick into pricing and it’s just like a spreadsheet type of exercise. With the technology side, they really oftentimes will dig into the benefits or excuse me, the features of the platform and they’ll get really into the minutiae. So in my experience, the technology RFPs are much more complex. They’re also looking at integrations. I mean, I was involved with the conversation with one multinational and they started things off wanting to know, do you have integrations with these 23 other platforms? And if you do, it’s a go, if you don’t, it’s a discussion, and if you are massively short, it’s probably not going to work, right? So they all will have their key points, but I find that on the technology side, they really want to dig into the features of the platform. They want to understand how does the memory work and do you have integrations? Do you have business analytics and all that? The other thing they’re looking at is the pricing is more complex. When you start looking at a SaaS platform versus an on-prem platform and are you looking at SMA agreements? So pricing becomes more complex. It’s not always evident or clear what the… It might be clear that initially this package is more affordable up front, but what about three years down the road when you factor in all the SMA agreements? And then the third area that I would say is, increasingly complex is company security and then platform security and those are two different things. They’re related but different and how can you prove it and justify it? And a lot of companies are out there asking for things like SOC 2 compliance or just being in accordance with SOC 2 best practices.

Florian: Are switching costs ever an explicit criteria or kind of effort to switch from the current established vendor if they already have one for tech? Because, I mean, like, ripping out a TMS and putting in a new one is not an easy…

Mark: We have a super simple process for that. Sorry, I got to put my sales hat on for a second. Okay, so what I’ve seen is, yes, that’s part of the conversation. It’s hard to put into the RFP per se because the software provider can’t always tell you what the switching costs are because we would have to have transparency on what platforms you’re currently using, what are the integrations there, the APIs, et cetera. I have seen it, though, like, how much do you charge per hour for business services? How many hours for a typical deployment or for an integration? And so they’re looking at that hourly. The other thing they’re looking at is service level agreements to determine your uptime. A lot of companies want 99.9% uptime. Another hot button, and this is not just for RFPs, but is where are your data centers? Because they don’t want that data going out of the region and it could be US companies that don’t want the data in Europe, more often than not, it’s European companies and Canadian companies that don’t want the data over here with us americans, because who knows what would happen then, right?

Florian: I never quite understood that, but with all the regulations in Europe, maybe sometimes it’s even something you have to kind of tick a box. And the Swiss companies are even crazier, like they want to have everything here. So all right, so let’s talk about memoQ RFP. So just last week saw on LinkedIn that you’ll be taking on the role of CEO of memoQ RFP. So what is memoQ RFP? What’s the background? Why did you guys launch this?

Mark: memoQ RFP, Inc. is a Delaware-based corporation, and it’s going to go out and create a new type of RFP response tool, but before I talk too much about that, maybe I can give you a little bit of the background, all right?

Florian: Just to jump in there, so it’s a separate company? It’s a new company?

Mark: Yeah, it’s a separate company and memoQ from the translation management service provider in Budapest, Hungary, has invested a significant amount of cash into memoQ RFP, Inc. and also is licensing some of its technology. And I’ll come back to the technology side as well, because for me, what’s really cool about this is we found new applications for born in the loc industry translation, excuse me, technology. Okay, so there’s technology that is, you know when you talk to people who are not in the loc industry and you talk about translation memory, they’re like, what? But there’s technologies like that, like MT, and now we have the memoQ AGT, adaptive generated translation, that is patent pending right now. That will also be used or leveraged in the new entity here. But before I go too far down the road, let me back up. A couple of years ago, Peter and Balázs, our co-CEOs at memoQ, had asked me to look at our RFP response process because there was a lot of frustration from the sales side that we weren’t processing them effectively, we weren’t winning enough. The other thing was the people who were writing the responses were really frustrated. One of my colleagues described it as a soul-crushing experience because it was so repetitive, right? Imagine this, a BDM comes in and says, I need help from all these different subject matter experts. So it’s legal, finance, compliance, the product people, the business services people, and they’re like, I just responded to this similar question like a month ago. Why can’t you use that? And they’re like, well, I didn’t see that document. That was from another thing, right? So there was a lot of frustration there and I interviewed, I don’t know, maybe 10 colleagues at memoQ, trying to get their ideas and their feedbacks and understanding what was working, what wasn’t. One of the people I interviewed was Filip Klepacki, who now runs our business services and said, you know, Mark, I think there might be a way to leverage some of memoQ’s technology to kind of repurpose previously submitted responses. It’s the translation memory model, right, and so he went to work on that. I went to work on the process improvement side. We brought in Amy, who was a home run in terms of her ability to kind of put some structure on this, and then we developed a process, and then we started leveraging the tool. The tool combined with Amy’s efforts in the process, we saw something like a 60% to 70% productivity gain, which means that 60% to 70% of the questions that we were asked, we could prepopulate the answers, which is a huge gain, but I want to back up, we’ve been talking about RFPs and RFIs. It’s also security questionaires, ISO questionaires. We had memoQ Day here in Seattle and the CEO of a medium-sized LSP was talking about, god, I just spent six hours filling out a security questionnaire. Why would you do that? Just do it and store that information, right? Once we saw the productivity gains and then we started getting all this massively favorable feedback from the different subject matter experts in memoQ, we started talking about productizing this, right? And we went out and did a fair amount of market research, understand who the key players are in the market, what their niche areas are, what their target markets are, what the market size is. Right now is about 200 million, but it’s growing at about 15% to 20% per year. And we identified a certain niche that we think we can be super competitive in, which is going to be the small to medium sized business area initially, okay? And then we decide, well, how are we going to do this? Do we do it as part of memoQ? Or do we create a spin off company? Or do we just create a company and have memoQ invest into it? And we decide on the latter for a couple of reasons. One is this RFP response platform is something that can be used in the loc industry, but it can be used across all business to business businesses globally, okay? So it goes much broader than the loc industry. Also, the trajectory of RFP or memoQ RFP is different from memoQ, the translation management system provider, because our plan is to get our MVP together, go out and get some traction, and then go after that Series A funding. Okay, so this is a typical American SaaS startup trajectory. memoQ is on a different trajectory, right? In order for us to be on that SaaS startup going out for Series A trajectory, we need to be a completely separate entity, separate marketing tactics, development tactics, et cetera. I know you listen to some of the All-In podcast and things like that. One of the reasons they really like SaaS platforms is it’s almost like an algorithm. You build that MVP, you get X number of paying customers, then you go get your next round of funding. Then you take that, throw part of that half of it at dev, half of it sales and marketing, and you just keep that flywheel going, right? So in order for us to do that, we felt it’d be better with separate entities. Plus it allows for other people to invest in the organization.

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Florian: Now, you said that you guys did some market research and I just can’t believe that there’s not like 10 other off the shelf tools. I’m sure there are, but I’m also sure that you did your research. So what kind of edge would memoQ have in something like this? Is it really because the translation memory expertise, which obviously memoQ has tons of, decades of. Is that what’s giving you a competitive edge in this? Because it is about content reuse in a sense.

Mark: Yeah, so you’re exactly right and the number of companies in this space is really right about ten, okay. I mean, seriously, and there’s two or three of them that have about 80% of the market. We actually looked at those solutions before we decided to leverage our own tool. That was also part of the process. We were looking out there and we were like, this is going to cost us a lot of money, and can we just use our own tool or part of our own platform? And it was much more affordable for us to do it that way. Plus it gave us the chance to develop some of our technology. Those existing platforms tend to be like enterprise-level platforms. They’re expensive, they have a lot of features and functionalities that most SMBs don’t need, okay? And we’re calling it like right now, we’re calling it the Amy Test. If we have a platform or tool that Amy can help her to be more productive in responding to RFPs, it’s a win. And what we had right now is a very crude application of part of memoQ’s technology that allowed her to be 60 to 70% more productive. So we don’t need a big enterprise platform, okay? We need something light, easy to use, intuitive, and that shows an immediate productivity gain. The one thing is like, you don’t have to be the best in the market, you just have to be better at one thing. And if you can be 10 times better at that one thing, whether that’s multilingual RFP responses, whether that’s the ability to leverage AI, because let me back up a little bit. When we talk about memoQ’s technology, traditionally that’s a translation memory technology. So you’re looking at previously submitted responses and you’re going to get some kind of fuzzy matches to those. But we’re also going to build in the option to do this adaptive, generative response where we take some of your organization’s specific assets, whether that’s websites, confidential documents that you want to include, whatever it is. And then we allow the AGT part to write a response and then you can choose. Do I want to use the previously used response or do I want to use this new response from the AI side or do I want to modify one or the other?

Florian: Now, you mentioned multilingual. You did mention the Finnish example. Now I remember that one of our bigger clients about, I mean, back in my LSP days was actually an asset manager and one of the bigger projects they had was submit a like, I don’t know, must have been 2000 page RFP to, what was it, the Korean post offices pension fund or something. So that must have been a big pot of money that this asset manager wanted to start managing. But there was no, I don’t think they had a lot of Korean speakers at that asset manager, so there was a lot of basically translation involved where we got the translation to translate the responses and then they submitted it and it was a back and forth exercise. So I guess my point is how big of a pain point is language generally in RFPs? Have you done some research on that and then how would you guys help solve that?

Mark: Yes, so automation whenever possible. And it’s a pain point, especially if you are a multinational company, okay, so for example, the example that you just raised of, I don’t know if it was a Swiss asset management company, but it was an asset management company that was trying to do something in Korea, okay? If you’re a multinational company, I mean, right now in memoQ we’re not a very big company, but I think in the last year we’ve probably done seven or eight non-English RFPs or we’ve participating in them and so automate whenever possible, but also you need that human-in-the-loop because these are critical business responses and you do not want to have that liability of getting something wrong and then six months later, they came back and said, yeah, you won. But remember in the RFP you said you could do this and we’re like oh. Yeah, automate the translation, but then you do need that post-editing.

Florian: Now, we did speak a bit about the market potential, but let’s delve a bit more into this kind of SME segment and is there a market? I mean, there is a market that exists, but do you think you could also create a market with the solution maybe just by making it a lot easier, a lot more accessible?

Mark: Yeah. I think a lot of SMEs are in similar situations to what memoQ was two years ago, where they’re burdened with these RFPs, but they need to participate in them because you go out and make money this way. But they’re not always aware of these tools. In fact, most of the companies that we’ve queried aren’t aware that these type of tools are available. And then when they become aware, they start looking at the price points and the current platforms out there are, for an SME maybe cost prohibitive. We’re targeting something that’s going to be much more affordable, easier to use, lightweight. And then in terms of the market size, I mean, just to give you an idea, if you look at companies between a million annual revenues up to say, 50 million in revenues, in the US there are over 550,000 companies, okay, just in the US. Now do the math. If you can get 10% of that, if you can get 5% of that, that’s a business, right, and that’s just in the US. And you have Europe, similar numbers, right? And again, you said creating a market. It’s probably more about creating awareness that there’s a tool because the problem is there. So can we help them solve that problem? And that’s at the core of any business, what’s the problem that people are facing, whether they know it or not? In the case of RFPs, everybody knows it, but then creating awareness that, hey, we have a solution.

Florian: Now creating awareness. Now you’re on the pod. You were on Nimdzi a couple of days ago, so what’s next beyond maybe on the marketing side, but also on the product side? Like what in the next couple of months?

Mark: Next couple of months are getting that MVP nice, shiny, and polished and getting it out there and our goal is by the end of this year to have the MVP ready. We’re recruiting beta customers. I think our CTO Andras would like to have 10 beta customers that can use the tool for free, but then provide feedback to us. The last I checked, I think we have five beta customers who have already signed up and said, hey, we want to participate. Of course, in parallel with that, we are doing some foundational sales and marketing activities, building our list and putting the plans together, so on and so forth. I’ll be going to a couple of industry events over the next couple of months, but the plan is from early next year at the latest to get this out there, start getting feedback and then just sell it, get it going.

Florian: ALC is going to be good because, yeah, a lot of also smaller companies that will be struggling with responding efficiently to RFPs. And I like it because from the memoQ side, also, it’s kind of rare that language tech company spins out something… It’s a totally different use case, but kind of like if you think about it, it’s not that big of a stretch that it would work. Like, yes, you reuse content that’s already there and you kind of train it on content that you already have, right, so it’s not that much of a stretch conceptually so it’s a good example. Maybe some other companies should look at that.

Mark: It’s super exciting. I mean, I think you’ve been on the service side and you also have dealt with technology. Whenever you’re in a business, a lot of times you’re looking for a supplementary sale or what else can we do? So if you’re selling translation, maybe we can do transcreation, maybe we can do SEO-optimized translation. You’re looking for these different opportunities. At CLS, remember, we even had people doing copywriting, English language copywriting on-site for some banks, right? So you’re looking for those. With technology you’re looking, how could we repurpose this technology? How else could we apply it? And it’s pretty exciting when you find something that, hey, we built this and now we can apply it beyond us. And then speaking of which, memoQ’s CTO Ágnes will be, she’s participating in the Process Innovation Challenge at LocWorld in Silicon Valley, which I believe is middle of October and we’re pretty excited because she’s already been named as a finalist. And that’s specifically to present the memoQ AGT or adaptive generative translation. Patent pending.