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Three Lessons From a Start-Up that Took Forever to Start

By: Jiri Stejskal, President & CEO - CETRA Language Solutions

21 February 2018

In this edition of the "If I knew then ..." blog series, Jiri Stejskal shares the most important lessons he learned from managing the start-up he founded in 1997.

When I founded CETRA in 1997 I was managing projects, developing business relationships, and even enrolled in an MBA program, so that I could avoid hiring a professional to take care of the financial aspects of the business. I was so concerned about delegating any of the responsibilities inherent in running a business that I waited seven (!) years to make my first hire. In 2004 I finally decided that enough was enough, moved the business from my house to an actual office, and launched a nationwide search for a project manager. I flew in candidates for interviews and ended up making an offer to a fresh graduate from the Master’s program in Language, Literature, and Translation at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who then moved from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania with husband and all to join my seven-year old start-up. Having freed myself from the production part of the business and focusing instead on business development, it did not take long for the work to start pouring in, and more hires followed in short order.

We continued recruiting graduates from translation programs around the country with some success, but soon realized that having a very young workforce with no real-life experience poses all kinds of challenges, from unrealistic expectations on the candidates’ side to lack of diversification for the company. The increasingly onerous requirements for hiring foreign nationals graduating from US translation and interpretation programs, which is something we had been doing from the beginning to broaden our linguistic and cultural base, also proved to be a formidable challenge. Still convinced that we should hire people with language industry experience we started bringing on staff – mostly project managers – who previously worked for other language services companies. This brought on a whole new set of issues ranging from non-compete agreements to incompatible processes brought from previous work experiences.

The company’s vision and position in the marketplace started to take clearer shape after we made a conscious decision to focus on a single vertical, namely market research. Accordingly, we started training project managers on the intricacies of working with market research companies. Then it finally hit us: why don’t we hire people from the market research industry and teach them how to manage translation projects? With the economy going into a tailspin and market research companies laying off staff left and right, we had quite a few candidates to choose from. And choose we did, balancing our production team not only in terms of age, but also with regard to experience in both, language and market research industry. By 2008 we were firmly established in the market research vertical and experienced a growth spurt which enabled us to expand from a single location to seven offices in five countries.

So here are the three lessons learned:

1. Delegate and hire early: Figure out what you are good at and hire others to do things that they can do better than you. Provide some coaching and watch the magic happen. And don’t wait seven years to make the first hire.

2. Strive for a diverse workforce: Hire candidates fresh out of school, as well as candidates with some experience under their belt. Team members with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds are a great asset to any language company.

3. Hire from your vertical(s): Language industry experience is a good thing, but having a balanced team with inside knowledge of your clients’ needs will give you a competitive advantage that few companies possess.

Jiri Stejskal

Dr. Jiri Stejskal is the President & CEO of CETRA Language Solutions. Headquartered in Pennsylvania and with offices in California, Ireland, Germany, and Korea, CETRA serves institutional and corporate clients around the world. Jiri is a past President of the American Translators Association and past Vice President of the International Federation of Translators. Follow Jiri @cetrainc.