Lior Libman

President, One Hour Translation

Product: One Hour Translation
Human translation of 75+ languages and 2500+ language pairs
Vertical: Translation
Tags: Communication, Transcription, Proofreading, Marketing, Web Services
Co-founder: Ofer Shoshan, Oren Yagev, Yaron Kaufman
Stage: Launched in 2013
Investment: Raised $10m series A in 2013 led by Fortissimo Capital
Based: Tel Aviv & Mountain View, CA

Born in Haifa. Went to Hebrew University and studied PhD in Neuroscience. Then decided to move on to business with an MBA at Tel Aviv University while working on a financial blog startup. Started One Hour Translation in 2009 with same team. Moved to Silicon Valley to open U.S. office in 2014.
I learned that the most important thing when you start your startup is of course to first off have the right team. You have to define the role of each and every one of the team members, it’s a startup so everyone does everything but everyone should have his own thing he does better.
The translation industry has been stagnant for decades and clients are looking for something else. When we talk to them, they say [One Hour Translation] is exactly what they need. A salesperson going from New York City to Europe can get a contract or an invitation and know what it’s about right away. He goes to his company’s portal on our site and uploads the email. We route it to the pool of translators and within an hour or two he gets it back directly to his mobile phone.
My PhD mentor at the Hebrew University, Mike Gutnik, was really good at describing in written form what he wanted to say. He’s super smart and really knows how to refine ideas and text. He was always getting mad at me for writing too much.

My CEO and partner Ofer Shoshan came to the project with a lot of experience in entrepreneurship and business. I met him through a partner who was at an entrepreneurship workshop at university. He heard about the idea in the very early stages and said he liked it a lot because it’s very simple, and it works!

It’s very important to meet and work together. Even if you don’t have an office, set a place, meet at someone’s home and work together. People are more creative and I think they are more effective when they work together. You sit, you throw around ideas, people can respond. Once we decided we were doing [One Hour Translation] full time, we met each and every day.

Have faith and work hard. You should not change the direction of the company every second day. Be aware that what you think is exciting might be a stupid idea so you have to listen to the feedback, you have to talk to your customers and listen to them. What many companies do is think this is the best product ever, this is what is going to succeed, but when you go to customers, they prefer something completely different. I’m not saying you have to align exactly with them because you have the vision and might see further down the road, but if everyone else prefers something else, you should think about it!

The most important thing is focus. You have to be focussed on something and it doesn’t matter what. If you do two things, either one or both won’t work. So you have to work very hard for a lot of time before you see something. Even if you want to raise money, you have to come with something — better a working product, generating income, than a presentation.

MY STORY

At the beginning it was that kind of classic entrepreneurship story. We were working from our homes, eating bread and water. We had four founders and totally bootstrapped the company for four years. People who go to university, start working somewhere, have a job and security — they think you’re stupid or crazy or both.

Grassroots

I was always working, from middle school age, I was working in the family store, selling and talking to people. I’m not such a good salesperson but I think it’s important not to be lazy, to be comfortable outside of your comfort zone. You never know where your startup starts and fortunately you don’t know where it ends.

Initially we started a financial blog, covering ETF (Exchange Traded Funds), investment funds you can invest in a pool of stocks. It turned out to have no future, but it was useful because we also understood better how to think about a company and not to pursue each and every idea. I’m not saying you shouldn’t go after strange ideas, but wait a day, think about them again and then decide. Equally, don’t wait too long or someone else will do it.

Shaking up an old-school industry

The financial blog was in Hebrew, but most of the content was international in nature, so we thought we should translate it into English — but there were no native speakers on our team. So we started contacting translation companies in Israel who said, “we can do it but the minimum is four days for a normal blog post of 300-400 words.” We would have had to pay rush fees for a faster service, and the same amount for shorter posts. We realized there’s a need for news you want translated now, not in a week, or for a service that can translate one sentence, not a page.

We investigated the translation market and saw it was a very traditional business, one of the last around. If you look at a traditional translation agency, they have their own secretaries, account managers, translators. We said we’d do it online, more efficiently, by pouring technology into it. So we developed a system called OneHourTranslation. There’s a lot of tech behind it — you upload your document, post it, the machine knows how to allocate it to the most appropriate translator who is available now to do your task.

We currently have 17,000 pro translators; we do 75 different languages and 3000 language pairs. It’s not the same translating English to Spanish as it is Spanish to English. We always use native speakers of the target language. We start by screening them, going through CVs and certificates, and then they take an exam in every language pair and skill they want to work in. We certify them and allocate them with a test and initial projects, which they are paid for. We then ask a veteran translator to check the work.

The challenges of translation

You can’t run this kind of business without 100% quality. Whether it’s business, Law, marketing, it has to be bulletproof. One of the issues with translations is that customers cannot always evaluate the outcome. You need your presentation in Japanese, but how can you know it’s right if you don’t speak the language? If it’s bad, you look bad. We use a peer review mechanism for quality control.

IBM, Microsoft and the other companies in the database space dominate 80-90% of the market. But translation is completely fragmented. The 20 biggest companies have about 25% of the market and it’s very hard for them to scale. We work mainly with enterprise customers, Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 customers. But there are also self-service portals where you can literally translate something as small as one word. Some people translate their tattoos before they get them!

With very common languages, we need to control supply because we want the translators who work with us to get enough work to be good at what they do. With rarer languages — which have fewer people speaking them or in places where the internet connection is not very good — we invest more in recruiting or find people who have emigrated to those places. Our brand is well known enough that we have dozens of applications for new translators every day, but in the early days we were scouring job boards and directories, and placing adverts.

“We add technology to everything”

We give translators an online workbench, integrated with translation memory and glossary, to help them perform their work more efficiently and quickly. In the past, they had to buy these tools themselves, and they’re all freelancers, at a cost of about $1000. They get an email that tells them, here’s a job that fits you, feel free to take it. And we pay them in a week. We add technology to everything — the only thing that’s human is the professional translator. A traditional agency is more like a black box. You throw stuff in and get stuff back but there’s no direct interaction with the translator. We have found enterprise customers like being able to have a relationship with their translators – almost like an in-house team.

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