Smith Yewell

Forging Connections: Welocalize & the past and future of language work

Interview by Cameron Rasmusson

Language is fundamentally about a desire to connect — with friends, family, business associates, or perhaps the person you want to share your life with. That fundamental desire and need is what drives the language industry. But for Welocalize, a company specializing in translation, localization, adaptation, and machine automation, that dynamic goes a little deeper. That’s because the company was born from the very personal story of two individuals’ need to create a connection of their own. 

Since then, the company has gone through quite the journey. It weathered the transition from a nascent internet to the technology- and AI-driven world we find ourselves today. That kind of journey doesn’t come without a few bumps in the road. And we asked Welocalize CEO Smith Yewell all about it.

Tell me about the founding of Welocalize. I understand there’s a very personal story and motivations for starting what has proven to be a long-lasting company.

Welocalize is a love story. I know that it may sound saccharine, but it is the common thread that has bound us together through our entire history. The very first weekend after I returned from the Gulf War, I met Julia in an Irish pub in Frankfurt, Germany. It was one of those moments when you see someone across the room — a light goes off, and an inexorable sequence of events starts to unfold. I was just swept away; despite the fact that we had no common language and our communication was based on meticulous work with a dictionary, we got married one year later, and that experience was part of our inspiration to start Welocalize. 

So you see, our love for each other, care for languages, and an insatiable curiosity about different cultures (which we both share) all became the seeds for Welocalize to grow and thrive. Now, here we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of Welocalize!

How did you take the notion of wanting better communication with a significant other and turn it into a resilient business model?

As the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention.” Not only did we have a challenge communicating, but I also realized during my time living in Germany that contrary to what many Americans believe growing up, the whole world does not speak English. When you are on the inside looking out, it is easy to make the wrong assumptions, and it was only when I lived outside the USA that I realized many of my assumptions were wrong. 

For example: Food and drink and all of the deep rituals surrounding them in any country — it is natural for all of us to think our customs are “normal” and others “strange.” But if you are curious and have an open mind, you come to understand through building relationships with people around the worldthat we have so much we can learn from each other. 

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How do you and Julia balance responsibilities into an effective executive team?

Building an effective executive team starts from deep commitment to make it work, not being afraid to make mistakes and the right combination of key ingredients. Julia and I always thought there were a few key ingredients to building a great team. From the start, we didn’t want to make our company in any way about ego. We wanted to make the company about “we” and not “me.” Thus, the name of our company is “Welocalize.” 

We also wanted to build a company whose brand has a reputation for trust, respect, and appreciation for people and their different languages, culture, beliefs, and customs. And this is where love and trust are inextricably linked. We love what we do and trust our people, and we do our best to create a working atmosphere where as many people as possible across Welocalize can also feel that and if not, be heard. It’s about building lasting relationships with each other, clients, and vendors. We believe a truly great team fundamentally trusts each other through both good times and bad, just as in a strong personal relationship. 

I would have to look up what our numbers were 10 years ago, but I can instantly tell you 10 great stories about the people in Welocalize at that time. We had a saying in the Army: “Who do you trust to cover your back in the foxhole once the bullets start flying?” I lived that in the Gulf War, and it stuck with me. Julia and I feel that about each other, about the company we have built and about the people with whom we are privileged to have built lasting relationships. 

What would say are some of the foundational philosophies that carry through in Welocalize today? 

Welocalize is built upon the foundation of our Four Pillars: customer service, quality, innovation, and global teamwork. Without global teamwork, delivering on the other three is much harder, so let’s talk about that. We think the best teams in any industry have a passion and devotion for what they are delivering for customers. It begins there, and when you are on that type of team, you feel it, and it is thrilling! We also think at the heart of a great team is a sense of humility, curiosity, and a desire to learn. 

Mistakes are a regular part of life, so the question becomes how fast can we learn from them. For example, we brought in our first Private Equity investor in the summer of 2000 and rapidly ramped-up hiring only to cut back dramatically when the dot-com bubble burst. We had to make some tough decisions and learn some tough lessons, but we persevered and began growing again.

Another example — we tried to get into life sciences for years with little success, so we made it part of our acquisition strategy. We acquired three companies, and the best part of those acquisitions has been the people who joined our team. Those people have accomplished some amazing things here at Welocalize.

While some things, like the concepts we just discussed, have stayed the same over the years, you’ve had to weather some major changes, too. In essence, you’ve made the transition into a technology company — is that fair to say? 

From a technology perspective, you have to stay ahead of the curve. Welocalize is barely recognizable compared to even five years ago. It has been a total digital transformation around some principles we have been talking about for years: interoperability; no “walled garden;” predictive quality and on-time delivery; frictionless workflow; industry collaboration; transparency; and best-of-breed systems all in the cloud. So it’s great to see these things coming to fruition, not just for Welocalize, but our industry on the whole. 

I would argue just about everything in life hinges upon the ability to communicate accurately and effectively. Communication is now almost fully digitized, and to a great extent our industry sits on top of that trove of data. Imagine where we can go from here with natural language processing technology to improve communication around the world.

Just for the benefit of our readers, could you describe the approach you take to Welocalize now and how you combine human and machine power? What are some of your specializations?

Our approach is built around our belief that the two are not mutually exclusive. We are fortunate to be working with our third private equity (PE) partner, and each time we met new PE partners over the years, the initial question was: “Will machine translation put you out of business?” The answer is no. If communication at scale were that easy, sure, but it just isn’t. Language is at the core of a rich and memorable customer experience, because we either hesitate or walk away when we don’t understand. 

What does our industry do? We enable understanding, cultural exchange, and building phenomenal customer experiences. There is a wide range in the level of understanding needed depending upon the circumstances, and machine translation is just another natural language processing tool (amongst many) in making linguistic exchanges as effective and efficient as possible. We are specialized in natural language processing (NLP), and that means we have come a long way from our start as a language service provider (LSP). At the start it was about project architecture, and now it’s increasingly about data architecture across a much broader range of content delivered across any device, at any time, in any language and anywhere in the world.

How did you come to the conclusion that you had to fundamentally transform the way the company operates? 

We would describe technological change as a wave: Either ride the edge to stay out in front or get crushed. We won our first big client 25 years ago because we met a very clever guy in Germany who developed some unique macros for Trados to make delivery faster and more efficient. We have been trying stay on the edge of the wave ever since. What that means today is the ever-growing use of AI in the delivery process and complete digital transformation from intake to invoice. If that is not easy, amazing, and consistent, we must fundamentally transform, and we are doing that.

What kind of steps did you take to realize that transition? What different kinds of employees did you have to seek out? How did you ensure you were hiring the right people?

The first step is to make the dedicated investment. Fortunately, we have a very supportive private equity investor who enables us to do that. The next step is to form a talented team. A couple of employees who had left Welocalize to join software companies actually returned to take on this challenge. Welocalize is not a software company, so attracting talent for this project required an exciting vision around the opportunity to lead change and grew to include a new way of thinking around career paths for developers. 

We have set this up through a pretty innovative career framework which among other things has retired most conventional position titles and replaced that title-based structure with a role-based structure.

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How long did it take, in your estimation, to fully complete that transition? 

Our digital transformation journey began six years ago. We are not complete yet, but we are getting close. We have the systems in place, we have our clients on the platform, so now we are in the optimization phase. But we are never “done” — it’s a constant evolution.

What was the reaction of your personnel during that time? Did most follow through with this new style of work? Or were there some who concluded that this wasn’t what they signed up for?

We have had attrition related to this change and the pace of change. We have lost some talent because at times the change has been slow and frustrating. In some instances, change requires more work and not less at the start. So it is a journey requiring patience, but we believe these changes have put us into position for an industry-leading future.

Given your own experience with seismic shifts in business, what do you envision for the future of the industry?

We are all in the natural language processing business. We started 25 years ago as a language service provider specialized in localization for tech companies. Now, both our company and the industry are so much more servicing the full range of content types, a strategic partner in user experience, a strategic partner in data management, and modeling and an innovation partner in using AI to drive better outcomes. 

Half of our revenue today is derived from services we didn’t even offer 10 years ago — talk about a seismic shift! The future will certainly hold more of this change. There are services we haven’t even begun which will be the leaders 10 years from now.

Let’s take a step back and talk about your personal lives. What do you and Julia like to do in your free time? I hear you’re in a band, for instance. 

Pre-Covid, I was having a lot of fun in a band called Fuzzy Match. Yes, the name came from our industry terminology through a “name the band” contest we had in the office. The band started at an office holiday party, so we thought it best if the office came up with our name. We played a lot of weddings, so it was really satisfying to be part of such a big day for couples. Outside of leisure reading and spending time with our daughter Katerina (who is our pride and joy) who happens to also be 25 years old (we started a family and a company at the same time); both Julia and I enjoy traveling and living in different places. We were living in London at the start of the pandemic and planned to stay for six months, but Covid cut that short. We also enjoy giving back and are active in a number of charitable support efforts.

Can you talk more about those philanthropic passions? What organizations are you involved in? 

We are proud to have been a part of the creation of the Rosetta Foundation. The Rosetta Foundation was one of our industry’s first collective charitable efforts and was ultimately merged into another great organization which we support, Translators Without Borders. We are also very involved with a charitable organization called Aslan. Aslan has been able to create the first pediatric oncology capability in the history of Ethiopia. I visited the hospital in Addis Ababa to see the impact first hand, and it was profound. Aslan is providing hope where there once was none, and we are so happy to be a part of that.

Is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t gone over yet? 

Vision, hard work, patience, and a commitment to building lasting relationships — these have been the key for us in achieving our dreams. We are very fortunate to have a supportive family, friends, and lasting relationships with so many special people whom we met through Welocalize. We would like to recognize all of the people who have contributed to the ongoing success of the Welocalize family. You are part of the “We” in Welocalize, thank you!

Cameron Rasmusson is Editor-in-Chief of MultiLingual

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