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CEO Spotlight: John Watkins, ENLASO Corporation

By: GALA - ENLASO Corporation dba Argos Multilingual

03 September 2013

John Watkins, CEO of ENLASO Corporation, discusses his company from its inception in San Francisco through the challenging years of the Great Recession. 

Name: John Watkins
Company: ENLASO Corporation
Date Established: February, 2004
Location: Our corporate headquarters are in Boise, Idaho. Our production center is in Boulder, Colorado. We have employees in each time zone in the US, with about 35% of our company working from home offices.
Company Phone Number: (208) 672-8500 (x200 for me)
Company E-mail: [email protected]
Company Website: www.enlaso.com
Business Hours: Core hours are 9:00 am – 5:30 pm (GMT -7)

Number of employees (and breakdown by position): 35 Full time equivalents, broken down as follows:

Corporate Admin & Management: 3
R&D: 3
Production (Project Management, Project Services): 22
Sales & Account Management: 7

Description of Company Products / Services: ENLASO provides a full suite of language services to many industries, relying on our technological expertise to find the best solutions that meet or exceed their needs.

What prompted you to start your own business?

I did not start ENLASO – it has a long history that precedes my involvement. We began with Polyglot, a well-respected company in San Francisco that had a long history in translation. RWS Group, a successful localization company with a focus on services for intellectual property (specifically patents), purchased Polyglot in 1998. This created a US presence for RWS Group called RWS Group LLC. RWS Group LLC purchased Translingua, another respected localization company in Maryland. After six years, the management at RWS Group LLC orchestrated a management buyout of the RWS Group LLC assets to create ENLASO in early 2004. With a bumpy start to the company, the investor of ENLASO brought me in to take over the management of ENLASO in December 2004.

What is your educational and career background?

I came to the language services industry through a progression that seems almost fantastical – from a very technical career to one focused on helping communicate effectively with a wide variety of cultures. My academic degrees are in Chemistry. In graduate school, I created complex computer programs to analyze the structure of molecules and used those analyses to get a better understanding of how drug molecules interact with biological molecules. When I finished graduate school, I went to work as a consultant for the US Federal government, working mostly with the Environmental Protection Agency to create computer models that predict what happens in the environment after hazardous chemicals are leaked. Somehow, my work with computer programming gave me the opportunity to then help the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) create a simulator that optimizes the movement of aircraft through the airspace and airports.

My work with the FAA came to the attention of Eurocontrol, the organization responsible for air traffic control in Europe. I moved to France for 10 years, working at the Eurocontrol Experimental Center near Paris to create simulations for the European member states. Eurocontrol faced interesting challenges because the airspace in Europe is divided by the various sovereign nations in the European Union. The experience of working in Europe opened my eyes to the challenges of communicating effectively across a wide variety of cultures – my team had people from 14 different member countries! In 1998, I met somebody in the localization industry and decided it was time to try something completely new. I moved back to the US to work for the two owners of a localization company in Oregon. I worked there for six years, building a strong knowledge base in the needs for private-sector language services, before moving to ENLASO. My business partner, Yves Lang (who handles the sales side of ENLASO), and I share ownership of ENLASO with the original investor and majority stockholder, Dianne Pierce.

What were the most helpful resources?

I would not be able to run a professional services company without having had wonderful mentors and colleagues throughout the years. I have learned so much from people who took the time to share their knowledge – sometimes from higher up in the hierarchy and sometimes from my peers and the people who report to me.

A good leader needs skills beyond a particular area of expertise: beyond knowledge of the industry, the leader needs strong skills in business management, people management, HR (my goodness how complicated benefits are these days), and a whole host of other skills. I could never have gained the full breadth of knowledge that I have needed without the "help of my friends" over the years. Having a strong network of people with different skills is invaluable for gaining knowledge.

When were you the most discouraged?

The Great Recession changed the business landscape for everyone. After coming to ENLASO, I worked with our team from 2005 through 2007 to make changes, ensuring we have the employees, facilities, and vendors needed to succeed in the industry. We made great progress in growing our revenue and profitability with a record-breaking year in 2008. As the impact of the economic collapse worked its way through the industries of our customers, we saw a big drop in revenue for 2009 – about 35%, despite our best efforts. It felt like a bad magician tried to whip the tablecloth right from under our eyes, spilling our earnings on the floor. Short of a crystal ball, we were as clueless as the rest of the world as to the direction of the economy.

I think it was very important for us to realize we cannot know what is going to happen so we learned to foster an environment of flexibility, from the way we do our work to the type of work that we do. To best prepare for whatever the economy had in store, we worked to keep the expertise we built, focusing on cross training so people had the skills needed for whatever task we had under the economic gloom. We were fortunate to keep everyone working through that period using a flexible work plan with furloughs to "spread the pain" and avoid layoffs. We kept our revenue relatively stable, landed some new customers, and squeezed out a bit of profit each year. The economy is still difficult in many ways, but we work together at ENLASO, literally, to identify new areas of business, new types of customers, and more efficient production processes to grow profitably.

What makes your business stand out from competitors?

Our success at ENLASO hinges on three things: ensuring customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, and the successful integration of innovative technology. ENLASO's quality management system actively monitors both customer and employee satisfaction, looking for opportunities for improvement so that ENLASO remains a great company for both our customers and our employees. At the same time, everyone at ENLASO is involved in our ISO 9001 quality management system. Each employee participates in at least one cross-functional quality team, empowering them with a voice for change, ensuring our processes continually improve for the evolving needs of our customers. On the technology side, we are agnostic in our use of technology, and, with a strong focus on the development of the open source Okapi Framework, we can tackle complex needs very cost effectively.

Who is your target client/customer base?

ENLASO works with many different industries, from medical device manufacturers and consumer medical content providers through to manufacturing, software systems, e-learning, social networking, and non-profit organizations. Regardless of the industry involved, if a customer generates content, we can help them with it. Most of our customers pick ENLASO because of the partnership approach we take with them. We approach them as partners, helping them with their language services needs in a way that lightens their burden so they can focus on what they do best.

What kind of career opportunities does your company offer?

ENLASO employees provide the professional services for successful localization projects: they are solutions strategists, account managers, project managers, and project services experts (people with expertise in publishing, engineering, and quality assurance). For translation, editing, and proofreading, we have many excellent linguistic services vendors in the target markets we support. Our employees come to ENLASO with a love for the cultural diversity our industry provides and a passion for delivering great work to our customers. We are fortunate to have very little turnover at ENLASO, with employees making long-term careers with us.

What makes your company more than "just another" localization service provider?

Our focus on the customer experience distinguishes us from our competitors. Everybody in our industry talks about "quality translations." For us, the needs of our customers drive everything. We offer flexibility in our services that spans a variety of language services, from human translation to MT, transcription, voiceovers, OPI, and in-person interpretation – whatever the customer needs, when the customer needs it. We accomplish this with great employees with wide ranging experience, excellent partners, and a very robust quality management system that focuses on customer satisfaction as the primary metric.

What trends are you seeing now in the world of localization, and how is your company responding?

There are two big trends that are changing the landscape of localization: machine translation and robust standardization. Machine translation has grown from a disparaged blight on our industry to an effective means for streamlining the linguistic workflow in localization. It will continue to improve translation timelines and costs for our customers. ENLASO has invested in integrating machine translation into appropriate projects using various machine translation engine technologies and the Okapi Framework (open source software we have worked on since its inception) for integrating the MT process with the localization process. At the same time, standards for the language industry are making the processes more robust. With the more widespread use of maturing localization standards (for example, TMX, XLIFF, ITS, and SRX), tools communicate better with each other – creating a more fertile environment where we are better able to use the right tool to do each job. ENLASO invests in the standards area, actively participating in ITS and XLIFF while staying involved with a host of other standards. We also are thankful for GALA's support of localization standards and we work closely with GALA to help pass the message of standards and their usefulness to the GALA members.

What has been your greatest achievement so far?

Working through the economic downturn, I am very proud of our company for keeping ENLASO together, evolving our business to meet the rapidly changing needs of our customers.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of being an entrepreneur?

When I finished graduate school, I wanted to solve complex issues. Being an entrepreneur has given me a direct hand in addressing issues I never even knew I would face. It is a great reward in and of itself.

Is there anything you wish you'd done differently?

In my youth, the world seemed more black and white. I do not think the world changed, but my eyes opened. Life is full of events we do not foresee. Rather than focusing on one thing early on (with eight years tackling a very small domain in hard science), I wish I had been more open. I had to learn how to see the forest and not just a tree.

Do you have any advice for future entrepreneurs?

The best advice I can give to a new entrepreneur is to look to those around you for ideas. Having a great idea yourself is great but true success comes from opening your mind to the great ideas of others and letting them help you grow.