Categorized | Shoestring Startup

You Won’t Grow if You Can’t Let Go

Co-owners of translation firm learn to shift from the day-to-day details to the big picture

You Won’t Grow if You Can’t Let GoInna Kassatkina and Olga Smirnova are the co-founders of translation and interpreting company Global Language Solutions (GLS). Using existing contacts from freelance projects and a fax machine in their apartment, these Russian-born women got off the ground in 1994 for $800, which they used to incorporate the business.

They turned their global finesse and knack for linguistics into a successful translation and interpreting firm. Today, their clients include Allergan, Hallmark, Kaiser Permanente, LifeWave, and many others. The firm is now a $10 million company, driven and operated by more than 35 employees and over 2000 contractors, and has offices in southern California, Budapest, Warsaw, and Buenos Aires. Talk about the ‘American Dream’!

But how did they grow from an $800 shoestring investment to $10 million in annual sales? Hard work, passion, efficiency, and, finally, letting go.

Starting a business is hard. You have to work hard, maximize your resources, and, though it may sound like a cliché, be passionate about your business. If you are passionate about what you do, you will tend to work harder and go that extra mile. And, let’s face it, you’ll need this extra drive in order to make up for the lack of capital.

“We were not only passionate about languages, but about starting a new life in the United States,” comments Olga, CEO and co-founder of GLS. “Not having a boss was also appealing.”

This drive to succeed paid off, with year-after-year profits. The firm, in fact, has always been in the black.

Eventually the pair had to move out of the apartment environment. But, going from two people to a four-person team did not require full-blown office space.

They recommend, as your shoe-string business grows, to explore alternatives to the traditional office lease, such as sharing space with other businesses, or, moving into an executive suite, where companies can share amenities such as a receptionist, conference room, or Internet service. This lets you avoid a long-term lease for more space than you need.

“All new business owners should scrutinize their fixed costs and try to turn everything they can into a variable cost,” says Olga. “Doing so reduces the need for upfront capital and the risk of bleeding money when things are slow.”

When business does pick up, new challenges can stop you cold in your “growth mode tracks.”

“Giving up control is difficult. We spent a few years, just the two of us, drumming up business, translating in only one language pair (English to Russian), and handling all of the accounting. Eventually, as more businesses entered the global arena through the Internet and new trade agreements, projects increased, as did the languages companies were requesting,” comments Inna, the president and co-founder of GLS.

You Won’t Grow if You Can’t Let Go

Inna Kassatkina and Olga Smirnova, co-founders, Global Language Solutions

“We just couldn’t do it on our own any longer if we wanted to continue to grow,” adds Olga. “And, obviously, we did want to continue to grow.”

But, she thinks, that Inna probably had to undergo the largest transition from entrepreneur to owner/manager, as she learned to hand over the sales and marketing to a team.

Comments Inna, “One of the biggest struggles for me was learning to trust others to take over day-to-day sales in order to give me more time to operate at a strategic level – and to finally be able to take a vacation.”

The best advice they ever got? Hire a sales team!

“Initially, we invested our personnel dollars in project managers and operations. These were necessary hires, but didn’t help us get new business,” comments Inna. “About 10 years into the business we started adding sales and account managers to take care of our existing clients and drum up new business.” She adds, “The best way to let go is to implement a team you can trust.”

You Won’t Grow if You Can’t Let Go

As for the future, Inna and Olga believe GLS, which has been profitable every year for 17 years, will continue to grow. Still considered a small business, it’s a big jump from the $800 they used to start the company. In fact, over the past three years they grew well over 100%, landing on the Inc. 5000 list for the first time and becoming the 18th largest translation firm in North America. Where do they see the firm’s bottom line in 2012? Inna and Olga are shooting for $15 million. To get there, they will continue to rely on their growing team of full-time employees and freelancers, as well as invest in more technology to streamline processes and increase project efficiencies.

Inna and Olga advise all shoestring entrepreneurs to persevere through the rough times and to learn sooner, rather than later, to stop micro-managing and delegate! As they have witnessed, letting go can, in fact, help you grow.

www.globallanguages.com

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