It all started so well. Two super nice and super enthusiastic founders asked if they could Skype call me to get my opinion on their latest project. As someone who has been known to gripe about people starting companies in the interpreting world without actually having a clue, I was pleasantly surprised and was happy to arrange a time to suit. And then, it all changed.
We got the idea from travelling around the world together.
We went to lots of countries where we didn’t know the language and thought “hey, what if you could instantly get an interpreter on your phone at the touch of a button? Then you could chat to literally anyone and get medicine and find directions and lots of stuff like that.”
“So, our idea, and you might need to take a minute to take it in, is to build an app where people can get right to an interpreter in any language. It’ll be amazing for travellers and would help interpreters as we are sure there would be lots of work for them. (Cue winning smile). So, what do you think, as an industry expert?”
Those who know interpreting would have seen hundreds of similar ideas. Very few have any real profile left. In the next twenty minutes or so, I would explain to those nodding start-up founders how the interpreting market works and the reason why so many companies trying to do the same thing have failed.
Here it is in a nutshell:
- The interpreters who are offering excellent interpreting are becoming good businesspeople in their own right. Knowing the true value of their skills has led to them wanting more control over their work. This desire is pushing them to build their own client list consisting of good direct clients and/or established agencies who know the industry well and know how to work with interpreters.
- This change is prompting a trickle-down effect, where younger and less confident interpreters are beginning to follow the same logic. This is leading in many places to a shortage of qualified/certified/experienced interpreters who are willing and interested in joining platforms for bulk selling their work.
- There are still many people who are interested in such platforms but they will tend not to have any credentials or serious training. They might be good; they might be poor. The likelihood is that they have never been tested so you can’t know either way.
- Machine interpreting is almost good enough to take away the need for human interpreters to do the phrasebook “is this the train for Salzburg?” “I have a sore throat” stuff anyway. Basically, if the phrase used to be in those small books you would buy from the airport newsagents before your flight, Google Translate has it sorted.
- Put this together and you have a perfect storm of massive supply issues and dwindling demand for “on-demand instant human interpreting” for the needs of your typical tourist.
By about three-quarters of the way through the call, the smiles had become noticeably more fixed. I really did like these founders. They asked intelligent questions and seemed truly interested in what I had to say.
I just wish that they hadn’t chosen the world’s most oversaturated idea for their big business.
Before you think that this post is about arrogant self-congratulation, it actually made me realise my own business frailties. At the beginning of my career, I had my sights set on one market and one market alone. I realised that I might not crack it right away so in the meantime, I sold my service through precisely the kind of bulk selling platforms that most green founders think will work for interpreting by app.
It’s hard to learn that your marketing and entire business model is flawed. It’s even harder to pick up the pieces and start again. For me, it took a burnout episode and a PhD for the clouds to break. Even now, I am still finessing how I work and how I market.
The real lesson of this story is not that start-up founders in interpreting are likely to fail badly unless they ask interpreters first. It isn’t even that the days of finding excellent interpreters on bulk selling platforms of one kind or another are ending. It’s that we all need help and honest feedback, even though it might make us sad. Being sad today is much more beneficial than losing your house tomorrow.