Macro/micro: How LSPs can be David to Goliath-sized clients

Has business become more powerful than government? That’s the question David Rothkopf asks in his Foreign Policy article “Inside Power, Inc.” Here, he compares the annual sales revenues of the United States’ largest companies against the gross domestic products (GDP) of world nations. And the numbers he comes back with feel staggering.

I mean, we all know Walmart’s huge. That’s a no brainer. But did you know that at $421.9 billion a year, Walmart’s annual revenue is larger than the GDP of the entire country of Denmark ($349.1)? Later in the same article, Rothkopf shares that Exxon Mobil has operations in more than double the number of countries than Sweden has embassies. Not to discriminate against Scandinavia, Rothkopf compares the size of Pepsi to Lithuania, Microsoft to Luxembourg, Apple to Croatia. In each of these cases, the business is larger than the government.

International Paper owns more land than Panama is big, General Electric spends more money lobbying the US government than the country of Anguilla has in its annual budget, and there are more Walmart employees than there are citizens of either Macedonia or Slovenia. The point being, if money and size are power, then there are some very, very powerful companies out there.

In some ways, this type of statistic-twisting isn’t fair. It reminds me of the correlation between ice cream and murder where whenever US ice cream sales go up, US murder rates do as well. Of course, ice cream doesn’t cause murder — the comparison goes to prove that numbers aren’t always the whole picture. Take Yahoo!, which according to Rothkopf grosses $6.32 billion a year, outranking the GDP of Kyrgyzstan at $5.4. With no offense intended toward any Kyrgyzstani readers, the fight seems a little unfair. It’s like taking your best high school basketball player and pitting him against an NBA pro, then saying the boy doesn’t know how to play ball when he loses. The United States is bigger than most other countries. Putting things in perspective, it makes sense that some American companies would be as well.

But it has me thinking — as all things in this column must — about translation, and it makes me really sympathetic toward our clients that, well, are bigger than a country. I mean, how can you effectively centralize and oversee the translation purchasing of any entity that has more employees than there are speakers of the language you’re translating into?

But that’s the reality many of our clients face. When we as language service providers (LSPs) go in and tell a single contact that his or her company must centralize, it’s a bit Napoleonic. Granted, that short little man did manage to conquer a significant portion of the world before they chucked his butt to Elba. But we’re in an industry with total value estimated between $15 and $30 billion and our top 25 largest companies only make up 25% of that value. The largest company on Common Sense Advisory’s most recent LSP list, Lionbridge, reported a 2012 annual revenue of $457.1 million — less than a tenth of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP, in case you’re curious. So even when the biggest of us marches in, we’re underfinanced and outnumbered. And we’re going to tell companies larger than countries how to change their processes?

The sheer fact that even the biggest amongst us is comparatively tiny does manage to blast away a misconception some clients have — that only big companies understand the needs of big companies. Procurement often uses this argument during the vetting process as a way to weed out small businesses that want to bid. But this argument is faulty because compared to our clients, we’re all small companies! Follow this line of thinking and our clients would have nothing translated.

In a way, all this makes my company — which grosses less than $457.1 million a year — feel scrappy. We become the underdog, the David, the little company that could. If you’ve ever seen the movie Rudy and something in you didn’t rejoice when his scrawny self ran out on that field, then you simply have no soul. It is a cold, cold man who didn’t cheer when the Mighty Ducks beat the Hawks, or when Rocky pummeled Mr. T and the Russian.

Here’s the thing of it: our clients may be bigger than us. They may have more money and more political power than us. But they can’t grow internationally or improve communications without us. Rallying cries and jokes aside, how can even a single employee with vision turn the tide at a company that’s bigger and more powerful than the countries that company exports to?

Every business needs an internal champion. We can talk about the need for large enterprises to centralize translation purchasing, both for consistency and budget, but the reality is, at the end of the day we are most commonly distrusted as vendors out to make a buck. True change within the client must come from the client. All change begins with an internal champion — the working equivalent of the football captain who told the coach he wouldn’t play unless he put Rudy in the game.

It takes the first person to get everyone going. But the person who comes after that first champion, and what our industry often forgets about when we guide clients through this process, is what TED speaker Derek Sivers calls a “first follower.” This would be the first person who says, hey, I like this idea, and joins along. In Sivers’ 2010 presentation, he says “the first follower is what transforms a lone nut into a leader.” He goes on to explain that “leadership is overglorified.” He says this because this first follower makes it okay for others to join in; he identifies the internal champion and shows that it’s safe to follow. In other words, what makes the movie Rudy so influential isn’t just that the team captain tells the coach he won’t play unless the coach puts Rudy in. It’s all the other players who line up after the captain and say the same.

In our industry, we have become much more skilled than we used to be at finding point-people whom we can empower to change and to grow translation processes at their companies. But what are we doing to empower their first followers? Not to discount the ripple or butterfly effect, but in companies as big as countries, one employee can only make so much of a difference alone. When you help a client consolidate and centralize, do you sit down and help him map who else there works with translation? Do you help him find, identify and empower his first followers? Do you help him make his movement public so that it’s easy for fellow employees to find him and join?

The way the little take down the large is through finding what you’re good at and working with it. No way was David going to beat Goliath with his fists. So instead, he beat him with his faith and wits. 5’6” walk-on Rudy Ruettiger didn’t earn his Notre Dame football glory with physical prowess; he earned it with dedication, work ethic and heart. We may be a little industry trying to talk country-size clients into changes, but we still have the power to be mighty.

Determination gets us in the door. Wisdom shows us what to say when we get there. Change management puts our theory into action and makes it work. If our little industry is going to make a big impact, we must combine these factors for our clients’ sakes, as well as our own.